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Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology | The Careers Service Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

Discovering, developing, producing and marketing products that improve and save lives are all parts of working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. The chance to work with cutting edge technology in companies leading global research, and be well remunerated too, makes these industries appealing.

Pharma

The pharmaceuticals (pharma) industry is reliant on multi-disciplinary, cutting-edge research to produce unique, innovative products, and on large teams of sales people backed up by sophisticated marketing skills. The British pharma industry has a strong reputation for research and development (R&D) of the very highest quality and there are major clusters of pharmaceutical companies in the north-east, north-west, south-east and east of England, and a significant number in Scotland. The industry recruits graduates for a wide range of functions (both science and non-science areas) and employs just under 70,000 people in the UK, of whom around 27,000 are directly involved in R&D. The industry is one of Britain’s leading manufacturing sectors and many international companies have established highly-regarded research laboratories here. However, there are huge pressures on the industry and developing new drugs is particularly difficult as any obvious ones have already been made. Furthermore, patents usually last 20 years, after which any company can produce a far cheaper generic version of a drug. The cost of producing new medicines is so colossal that one failure can have devastating consequences for a company.

Biotech

The biotechnology (biotech) industry is a newer sector. Biotechnology is the application of biological systems to solve problems, improve processes and develop and manufacture products. Biotech companies exist in a number of industrial sectors, which include: biomedical, food and agriculture, and environmental. The UK leads Europe in the industrial development of biotechnology and during the past decade there has been rapid and sustained growth in the number of specialist biotechnology R&D-based companies. There are over 900 pharmaceutically related biotech companies in the UK which employ nearly 26,000 people, although the majority of them have fewer than 50 employees. Many of the UK’s biotech companies originate from universities as ‘spin-outs’ and are located around Oxford, Cambridge and in Scotland. Internationally the USA has more than four times the number of biotech companies than the UK. Depending on their size, biotech companies may use support companies, to whom they contract out some aspects of their work, such as the development or marketing of their products.

Types of job

Within the pharma industry there are a range of scientific and non-scientific jobs available, while in the biotech industry the majority of vacancies for graduates are in scientific research, working for small/medium-sized employers (SMEs), perhaps at science parks. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry careers website has over 80 case studies of different roles within this sector.

R&D

R&D roles overall have the largest demand for graduates. The organic chemist synthesises molecules which may have the desired properties; the physical chemist establishes the shape of the molecule; the biochemist investigates the metabolism of the compound; the pharmacologist examines its effect in vivo; and, if all is well, the pharmacist decides on formulation, while the medical staff are arranging hospital trials and the statisticians are looking for possible irregularities.

Well-qualified scientists, often with a DPhil, are hired as specialists and initiators to become leaders of groups or managers of research in the future. Increasingly it is useful for applicants to have gained relevant, industry-based work experience during their studies.  This enables them to demonstrate to potential employers that they have practical insights into the differences between academic and industrial research in terms of culture and focus. In this area more than any other, a DPhil scientist will be recruited for his or her specific scientific skills rather than as a well-trained scientific generalist. Those recruiting you as the potential leader of a R&D group will be looking not only for specialist skills but also for signs of leadership skills and the ability to motivate a team of staff reporting to you.

The first-degree scientist, however, should be sure that they are in R&D for one of two reasons: either because work in a laboratory is overwhelmingly attractive, and likely to remain so; or because research, and more particularly development, constitutes a good entry point to the industry in which they want to work and within the company there are good prospects of moving on or moving to another function. Graduates can in theory progress in R&D, but they will need to show exceptional talent for research and a strong willingness to develop.

See also our information on Scientific Research & Development.

Marketing

Marketing is a demanding role. Preparations for the launch of a new product can begin at least three or four years beforehand. A good deal of market research is needed, marketing and promotional strategies have to be worked out, sales training materials written, symposia arranged for doctors, formulation and distribution arranged for different areas, pricing policies settled, and an outline of manufacturing details fixed. Many eminent companies in the field deliberately seek out Arts graduates for marketing positions, looking for creative flair and believing that the basic science can readily be picked up by a graduate with good intellectual ability.

Sales

Sales are encouraged and supported by medical reps, who are often pharmacists or life scientists, but, increasingly, graduates from any degree discipline. They call on doctors, hospital pharmacists and proprietors of chemist’s shops to explain the advantages and method of use of their drugs, and to leave literature or some other reminder of their visit. Their role is to persuade professionals to prescribe their products, and to develop relationships for repeat business.

See our information on Marketing and Sales.

Other roles

Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) co-ordinate clinical trials carried out on new drug substances or currently marketed drugs. A life sciences background is required and the roles may vary depending on the employer, from being involved in the whole process to just being involved in collecting data once the trial has been set up. The Institute of Clinical Research (ICR) runs part-time administrative internships which can give you an opportunity to also network with people in the industry; apply in the spring for their summer internships and in the summer for their Autumn internships.

Patenting, Registration and Regulatory Affairs roles require both a strong background in science and an understanding of legal matters. They might suit those who enjoy their subject, but are keen to get out of the laboratory. See our information on Patents.

Personnel, Finance and Management Services (especially IT) roles are also options within these industries as they have a broad range of management functions. These are often open to graduates from a wide range of disciplines. See our relevant sector webpages for information.

Getting experience

For jobs in the pharma and biotech industries prior work experience is useful, not only for developing skills but also for raising your commercial/industrial awareness. Industrial employers are keen to employ people who understand the business, and certainly a criticism from some employers has been that DPhils (and indeed postdoctoral researchers) often lack commercial awareness. Work collaborations, placements, or work-shadowing whilst studying or during a postdoc can be ways of overcoming this lack of awareness. Some of the larger firms may offer internships, but it will often be necessary to make speculative applications and network to find relevant contacts to approach in smaller firms.

Those who envisage a career in R&D and are intent on obtaining a doctorate are advised by many pharma companies to make contact towards the end of their first degree, and maintain contact throughout their DPhil, so as to develop knowledge of what employers are looking for.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, ABPI, has a careers section on their website which provides a list of pharma recruiters with work experience opportunities.

If you do arrange work experience, there is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Insight into Pharma/Biotech is run by the Careers Service, and includes a visit a local pharma/biotech company to find out more about the industry. It takes place in 9th week in certain terms: check the Events calendar on CareerConnect in advance. Likewise, Catenion usually run an interactive workshop – A Risky Business: Careers in the Pharmaceutical Business – during Michaelmas Term, which is an opportunity to understand how the pharma business operates. Again, check the Events calendar on CareerConnect.

Also look out for events run by the Oxford University Biotech Society and the Oxford University Biochemical Society where there may be opportunities to meet people working in the industry.

Getting a job

A number of larger companies do recruit graduate trainees for all roles through the annual milkround, but for most R&D vacancies requiring specialist postgraduate skills the relevant scientific magazines and websites, such as New Scientist, are the places to look. Attend the annual Science, Engineering and Technology Fair in Michaelmas Term where there will be a range of scientific companies as well as a talk on Spin-Outs and Start-Ups – see our events on CareerConnect for more details. If you are interested in working in Oxfordshire then come along to our OX Postcode Fair and Start-Ups Fair as local pharma/biotech companies often attend; also see our webpage on Finding Work in Oxford. Some University departments and societies may also have strong links to these companies, so keep your eye out for other specific recruitment activities.

Also look at the ABPI website which lists pharma companies with job vacancies, and refer to the UK Life Sciences Membership Associations, some of which publicise vacancies and / or list details of life science companies which you could approach speculatively about job vacancies.

If you have a postgraduate degree, target specific companies most appropriate to your discipline. The ABPI produces an A-Z of British Medicines Research which identifies research area by company and is available online. Local science parks may be a good source of small companies: the UK Science Parks Association will help you locate these. The Royal Society of Chemistry has a job search section on its website which may also be helpful. Some companies may also make use of the services of specialist scientific recruitment agencies – details of some of these are given in the Useful Websites section below.

Turnover in sales functions is high; there are usually many vacancies and much recruiting is done through specialist agencies which frequently advertise in relevant magazines and websites, such as New Scientist. However, many major drugs firms recruit directly into sales and use agencies in the autumn to top up the vacancies they have not been able to fill directly. Sales could be the way into marketing and other non-scientific managerial functions and you can expect intensive, frequent, high-quality training.

Our resources

 Journals

We subscribe to the following journals in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • New Scientist, weekly

Podcasts of past events

Science, Engineering & Technology Fair – Working in Pharmaceutical/Biotech Industry, Michaelmas Term 2017

Do you struggle to understand the full range of graduate jobs which are available in the pharma/biotech industry? This podcast will give you insights from scientists working in medical writing, pharma consultancy, research and value communications.

Speaker presentations can be found below:

Science R&D – Biotechnology, Careers Conference for Researchers, Trinity Term 2017

  • Lisa Cooper, Senior Scientist, Oxford Biomedica

Working in the Pharmaceutical/Biotechnology Sector, Michaelmas Term 2016

Do you struggle to understand the full range of graduate jobs which are available in the pharma/biotech industry? There are certainly far more different roles available than are fully appreciated, and this podcast will allow you to listen to three Oxford alumni working in research, medical writing and healthcare analysis:

  • Lexi Smith, Analyst, Quintiles IMS (information and technology-led healthcare service provider). Time: 1.29 – 15.10
  • Ben Oestringer, Scientist, Immunocore (biotechnology company). Time: 15.15 – 31.39
  • Sophie Haynes, Medical Writer/Editorial Team Leader, Seven Point Four (medical communications). Time: 31.40 – 50.45

Working in Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology, Michaelmas Term 2013

If you are interested in a career in the pharma/biotech industry then listen to our three speakers who will give you an insight into three different roles, namely R&D, Clinical Research and Medical Writing. An edited podcast is below, the full version is, at the speakers’ request, password-protected: Oxford students can use their SSO details to log-in and listen to it.

External resources

Sector vacancies & occupation information

Societies, organisations & news

Equality, diversity & positive action

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they are a Disability Confident employer or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s website on discrimination.

This information was last updated on 30 August 2018.
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