Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology

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. Indeed, since 2016 there has been a 65% increase in the number of UK biotechs (Pharmafocus, April 2019), which has been fuelled by record investment levels. Currently there are just over 3,400 UK biotechs and London hosts the highest number (nearly a quarter), followed by Cambridge and then Oxford. 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.

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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 100 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.

Science Roles Outside the Lab

There are plenty of roles/functions for scientists who are keen to use their scientific background outside the lab. These include Patents, Registration, Regulatory Affairs, Clinical Trials/Research, Medical Writing and Bioinformatics to name a few. See the ABPI case studies for more information. The Careers Service regularly hosts a panel talk on Careers Outside the Lab (most commonly during Michaelmas Term) which gives you the opportunity to hear first hand from scientists working in these sorts of roles. 

Clinical Studies/Research

Clinical research is an essential part of the R&D process and all new medicines are thoroughly tested through a series of clinical trials to ensure they are safe and effective for patients.  Clinical trials are carried out in three phases which must all be completed before an application can be made to market a new medicine, and there are a variety of different roles for both scientists and clinicians.

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.

See our information on Marketing.

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 retail pharmacies 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.

Other roles

Personnel, Finance and Management Services (especially IT/data science) 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.

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.

Insight into Pharma/Biotech is an online webinar run by the Careers Service in which a panel of scientists from a local pharma/biotech company talk about their work in both in R&D and science roles outside the lab. For the academic year 2022/23 it is taking place in Michaelmas Term: check the Events calendar on CareerConnect in advance.

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.

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.

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.

A number of larger companies do recruit graduate trainees for all roles through the graduate recruitment cycle, 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 – see our events on CareerConnect for more details. If you are interested in working in Oxfordshire then see our webpage on Finding Work in Oxford which has information on local science parks. Some University departments and societies may also have strong links to local companies, so keep your eye out for other specific recruitment activities.

Also look at the ABPI’s directory of pharmaceutical recruiters 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. Oxford Sciences Innovation supports local companies as they grow, including a job board used by growing firms with science and technology based businesses.

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, along with other relevant life science organisations.

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.

Journals

  • New Scientist

Sector vacancies and occupation information

Societies, organisations and news

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce, and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and insight events that are aimed at specific groups and many are being recognised for their approach to being inclusive employers.

Try the following to discover more about the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in:

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex 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 Equality and Human Rights Commission’s webpage on the Equality Act and the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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