Finding a job in the pharmaceutical industry: An overview

Even as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, a plethora of illnesses remain which simply cannot be cured by existing medicine and surgical practice. While there are treatments on the market for the vast majority of diseases, they typically involve complex combinations of drugs – or the medicines available have side effects discouraging people from taking them.

These are the factors which make the discovery and development of new drugs so important – and around 65 per cent of all such medical research in the UK is conducted by the pharmaceutical industry.

At last count, pharma companies in Britain employed more than 68,000 people, from laboratory scientists, pharmacists and engineers to marketing managers and medical representatives.

With so many of the skills lending themselves to work in pharmaceuticals being transferable across most sectors of the industry, graduates exploring their options may find themselves spoilt for choice.

In addition, job requirements do not usually differ too much overseas, making international employment a realistic possibility. As English is the common language spoken throughout the global industry, British job hunters have a specific advantage.

Further to formal qualifications, employers favour candidates with an aptitude for critical and strategic thinking, as explained by a spokesperson for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

"The skills that continue to be important for young people seeking a career as a scientist or engineer in a research-based pharmaceutical company are an ability to use their scientific knowledge in problem solving situations, good practical skills and mathematical competence," he said.

In addition to these favourable attributes, successful applicants generally have "a good first degree, usually including an industrial placement, or a postgraduate qualification", the ABPI representative added.

To provide a detailed overview of the entire industry and discuss all of the job options in depth would make for an extremely lengthy evaluation. That said, it may be useful to examine a couple of key areas likely to be of interest to graduates seeking their first pharmaceutical opportunity.

Perhaps the first sector that immediately springs to mind for most people when thinking about the drug making industry is clinical research – the longest and usually the most expensive stage in the process of developing new medicines. It has the potential, however, to be one of the most exciting and rewarding areas with which to be involved.

All new treatments are thoroughly tested before reaching the market, to ensure that they are both safe and effective for all patients. Extensive clinical testing is carried out to determine the efficacy of medicines and - very importantly – to identify any side effects so that their impact can be weighed against the drug's potential benefit.

Clinical trials are generally conducted in three clear phases, which all need to be completed before an application can be made to market a new medicine. At each stage of the process, there is a variety of different roles available for doctors and scientists.

The ABPI suggests that successful applicants are usually "outgoing and enjoy working on their own initiative with lots of different people". Physicians, clinical research associates, clinical scientists, statisticians and medical writers all have important roles to play in the clinical research sector.

One of the fastest-growing work sectors in the pharmaceutical industry is that of health economics. The main role of a health economist is to ensure that trials collect economic and quality of life data that can be used to profile the value of new medicines.

Health economics jobs in the drug making industry can be easily divided into two main types: health economists working in a research and development environment – and those who work alongside sales and marketing teams, with a more commercial focus.

But as in any line of work, there are always sectors in greater need of new blood than others. So what areas are currently opening up in terms of pharmaceutical employment?

"Whilst the traditional areas of work are still important, the growth of biologics and biopharmaceuticals has led to the need for skilled people with a knowledge of biologics across a number of disciplines including pharmaceutical science, pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic modelling, molecular and translational toxicology, clinical pharmacology and translational medicine and in vivo pharmacology," a spokesperson for the ABPI said.

There is also a specific need for biologists with strong mathematical skills to work across many areas of research.

In addition, the growth of Health Technology Assessments by industry bodies such as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) is driving considerable growth in the health economics job market.