Skip to content

Careers Centre

Pharmaceutical or biotechnology industries

Sector Overview

Discovering, developing, producing and marketing products that improve and save lives are all part of working in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Research is not just confined to products that benefit the human race but also new technologies that could increase crop yields or improve livestock production also play a large part. In addition, the chance to work with cutting edge technology in companies leading global research and be well remunerated too, makes these industries appealing.

The pharmaceutical industry offers a variety of roles practiced by graduates with very different backgrounds, including positions in experimental science, roles that demand a working educated knowledge of science, and commercial and marketing roles that are largely open to graduates of any degree discipline. In order to progress in experimental science, a PhD will likely be necessary.

Pharmaceutical (Pharma)

Pharmaceutical – 8 new trends have been identified which will shape this industry in 2015:

1 – Personalised smart health for the smartphone society – healthcare apps offering a way for patients to manage their own lifestyle – seeing an explosion of apps in 2015.

2 – Pharmerging markets increase contributions to innovation – the growing importance of emerging markets in terms of where the pharma industry is turning for growth and profitability. The increased spending power of these so-called pharmerging markets has meant that new pharma products need to be launched on a more global scale than ever before. In 2015 we expect pharmerging markets to increasingly influence the global strategy for pharma. For example, as many as six Middle Eastern countries are among the top 10 globally in terms of type 2 diabetes prevalence: Kuwait (24%), Qatar (23%), Saudi Arabia (23%), Bahrain (22%), UAE (19%) and Lebanon (17%). As a result, local pharmaceutical companies are focusing their R&D effort towards treatments for T2D.

3 - Rising healthcare costs drive innovation - According to an IMS Health study, the annual growth in global healthcare spending was around $70 billion in 2014 up from $26 billion in 2012. This dramatic increase in spending is forcing governments to reassess healthcare costs and apply pressure to bring these costs down.

4 - Growing conflict between access to medicines and affordability In terms of market access, the rising cost of healthcare is being met by increasing demands for new evidence and definitions of positive health outcomes. As PwC comment in their report: “The growing conflict between drug access and affordability will create fresh pressure for data that show these expensive medications work better than others and are worth the premium.

5 - Transparency becomes a key driver of innovation - In October 2014, 520 organisations – including physician groups, patient advocates, government regulatory bodies and one large pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline – signed the AllTrials petition, calling for the results of all clinical trials to be published. The European Medical Association (EMA) has also made the decision to begin publishing clinical trial data used to support the approval and authorisation of new drugs in Europe in the coming year. Their hope, much like the AllTrials initiative, is that by making clinical trial data publicly available they will be helping to avoid duplication of trials, foster innovation, and encourage development of new medicines by the pharma industry.

6 - Collaborate to innovate -Innovation will also be driven by an increase in collaboration across the pharma sector. To thrive in the increasingly competitive modern pharma market, companies will have to work together to develop innovative new products, services, and solutions, as well as share skills and expertise.

7 - More mergers and acquisitions as the recalibration of the industry continues- Global M&A deals in the healthcare/life sciences sector hit an unprecedented $317.4 billion in the first half of 2014, and the second half saw some absolutely huge deals, such as Allergan’s $66 billion acquisition of Actavis.

8 - The era of smaller and more frequent product launches continues - According to IMS Health, nearly 200 new drugs are forecast to be launched in the next five years, with a high number of new molecular entities (NMEs) expected to be launched annually, continuing a second wave of innovation similar to levels seen in the mid-2000s. (Taken from Tribeca Knowledge for Pharma and Healthcare, Jan 9 2015)

As well as employing people to carry out cutting-edge research to produce unique innovative products companies also employ large teams of sales and marketing people. Therefore the industry recruits graduates for a wide range of functions, not just research and development. Whilst the costs of healthcare are being critically examined everywhere, the industry is one whose products are always going to be in demand, especially with the increasing ageing population.

An important feature of the industry is the need to develop unique products capable of being protected by patents and then rapidly to carry out the increasingly elaborate and extensive testing procedures, so as to be able to exploit the new product as early as possible. Thus, hopefully, the horrendously expensive development costs can be recovered before the patents run out and competitors can produce generic copies without themselves incurring all these costs.

The pharmaceutical industry employs large numbers of graduates and postgraduates with a wide range of qualifications. Many have studied science subjects, but there are opportunities for graduates who have studied other subjects - for roles in human resources, finance, marketing and other areas.


The Biotechnology Industry is a newer but rapidly growing sector. Biotechnology is the application of biological systems to solve problems, improve processes and develop and manufacture products, and biotechnology companies exist in a number of industrial sectors, which include biomedical, food and agriculture, and environmental. During the past decade there has been rapid and sustained growth in the number of specialist biotechnology R&D based companies and there is Interdisciplinary Research with a focus on mathematical biology, biophysics, computer science and informatics. Genomics, making drugs personalised to a person’s genetic code (right patient, right drug) has also seen significant growth as a discipline. This is increasingly important with spiralling drug costs and with current drugs only having an average of a one in three chance of working.

Many of the UK's biotech firms form 'clusters' and are located around Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh (bioQuarter) and Dundee; a significant number of biotechnology companies originate from universities as 'spin-outs'. Depending on their size, biotechnology companies may use support companies, to whom they can contract out some aspects of their work, such as the development or marketing of their products. There are hundreds of these companies whose primary focus is in biotechnology - they tend to be quite small organisations, employing fewer than 50 staff members. Through the work of these firms the UK has remained Europe's leader in biotechnology services. (There are around 450 biotech companies in the UK, employing approximately 21,000 people in total. These UK companies are responsible for around 35% of products in Europe and 41% of new drug development in the later stages of clinical trials.)

Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industries attributes/skills profile

Key attributes/skills needed for the roleWhere you could develop these skills or attributes while at university
Interest in Science and Technology combined with the relevant technical skills

Through academic studies and laboratory time. Volunteering for extra research experience or taken part in research internships such as the Laidlaw internship.

Demonstrable interest in Pharma or Biotechnology and commercial awareness Keep up-to-date with business and sector news, especially through publications such as New Scientist and websites such as the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).
Delivering results – working to agreed goals and deadlines Achieving academic deadlines and taking roles of responsibility for university societies
Strong communication & interpersonal skills

Many of these skills you will develop through your academic studies and extra-curricular activities.

CEED offers courses on these kinds of skills regularly within its Professional Skills Curriculum
Ability to organise time and work methodically whilst paying attention to detail
Leadership qualities and effective team working skills
IT skills Using  the University’s subscription to the Microsoft IT Academy can help to develop your skills with programmes such as Excel, the latter is particularly valued in the finance industry.

Nature of sector or roles

Outlined below is the range of both scientific and non-scientific jobs within the pharmaceutical industry. Within the biotechnology industry the majority of vacancies for graduates and postgraduates will be in scientific research, working for small/medium sized employers (SMEs), perhaps on science parks.

The largest demand for graduates is in R&D. The organic chemist synthesises molecules which might just possibly have the desired properties (they usually don't, or if they do, the side effects prevent the discovery from being taken further), 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 still well, the pharmacist decides on formulation, while the medical people are arranging hospital tests and the statisticians are looking for possible irregularities.

Britain is still regarded as a good place in which to site pharmaceutical research and development laboratories, and many American-based companies have established highly-regarded research laboratories here (e.g. Pfizer, Novartis) where specialised research into particular disease areas is carried out for the world market.

For an example of what biotechnologists do on a daily basis, see the Public Understanding of Biotechnology website.

Read the case study of St Andrews alumni Andrew Rudhall who recently became a patent attorney.

Research and Development roles

Undergraduates are usually employed as technicians, supporting research, there are a few pharmaceutical companies who claim that in R&D those without a postgraduate degree can progress to the highest R&D management positions on merit but this can be a long and hard route. The specialists, group leaders and future managers of research more often have a PhD. The rewards can be high in terms of salary and status. Increasingly it is useful for applicants to have gained relevant industry based work experience during their studies so as to be able to demonstrate to potential employers that they have practical insights into the differences between academic and industrial research in terms of culture and focus.

Those interested in a career in research and development, and are intent on obtaining a doctorate, are advised by many pharmaceutical companies to make contact towards the end of their first degree and maintain that through their PhD (perhaps including some work experience or work shadowing) so as to develop a knowledge of what employers are looking for. In this area more than any other, a PhD 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 an R&D group will be looking not only for specialist skills but for signs of leadership skills and the ability to motivate a team of staff reporting to you.


Marketing is a demanding function. 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 material written, symposia arranged for doctors, formulation and distribution arranged for different areas, pricing policies settled and an outline of manufacturing details fixed. An interesting job and not just for those with a scientific background; 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 an intelligent graduate.


Sales are encouraged and supported by medical reps, who are often pharmacists or life scientists but, increasingly, bright graduates from any degree discipline, and whose business it is to call on doctors, hospital pharmacists and proprietors of chemist 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 seek to persuade professionals to prescribe their products and to develop relationships for repeat business.

Patenting and Registration and Regulatory Affairs

Patenting and 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.

Clinical Research Associates

Clinical Research Associates (CRAs) co-ordinate clinical trials carried out on new drug substances or currently marketed drugs. 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.

Other Roles

Personnel, Finance & 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.

Research and Development Skills

Relevant skills for a job in the pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries include:

Networks - why and how to use them

Networking is particularly important and can help you succeed with your applications. If you have been in contact with someone working for the organisation then you have extra information to back up your case for why they should employ you. Use social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook (many organisations have their own page) to connect with organisations. Recent St Andrews graduates have gone on to work for Johnson & Johnson, Norbrook Laboratories Limited, Renishaw Diagnostics, Genzyme and Charles River. You will find St Andrews alumni working at organisations all over the world ranging from graduate trainees to CEOs. These alumni can make extremely useful contacts, giving you an "edge" with your applications and interviews. There are several ways to make contact with alumni.

How to gain experience/internships

For both jobs in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, prior work experience is useful. Not only will it help in skills development but also in heightening 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 PhDs (and indeed post-doctoral researchers), often lack commercial awareness. Work collaborations, placements or work shadowing while studying or during a post-doc can be ways of overcoming this. As well as helping develop practical skills, relevant work experience can also help you gather professional contacts in the sector. The fact that you have also made a proactive effort to engage in the industry during your vacation alerts employers to the fact that you have a genuine interest and commitment to your career in the sector.

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.

The following companies are just some of the organisations that students from the University have held an internship at: Astrazeneca, Avecia, GlaxosmithKline, Reckitt Benckiser, Redx Pharma, and Roche, among others.

How to get a (graduate) job

A number of larger companies do recruit graduate trainees for all roles through the standard recruitment schemes, but for most R&D vacancies requiring specialist postgraduate skills the relevant scientific magazines and web sites such as New Scientist are the place to look. Some University Departments and Societies may also have strong links to these companies, so keep your eye out for other specific recruitment activities. If you have a postgraduate degree, target specific companies most appropriate to your discipline. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry produces an A-Z of British Medicines Research which identifies research area by company. Local science parks may be a good source of small companies: the UK Science Parks Association website will help you locate these.

To research the biotechnology industry in Scotland, especially when making speculative applications, Life Sciences Scotland publish a Source Book listing all companies working in the biotechnology sector in Scotland. Many companies advertise posts 'locally' when they have them, so for Dundee the first port of call would the The Courier newspaper, and the companies' own websites. Many will accept speculative applications - though make sure you do your homework first and understand what the company does.

Turnover in Sales functions is high; there are usually many vacancies and much recruiting is done through specialist agencies, who frequently advertise in New Scientist. However, many major drug firms recruit directly into sales and use agencies in the autumn to top up the vacancies they had 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.

Occasional vacancies occur for patent agents, but graduates interested in this field may either have to move into it from an initial start in R&D, or qualify within an independent patent agency and then move into industry.

A job in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology sector does not always require a relevant degree, though such is undeniably useful during the job search. An alternative is to complete an apprenticeship in the industry, such as the Developing Science Professional programme, though these apprenticeships do tend to be aimed at people with previous science experience.

For larger employers, such as major pharmaceutical companies, vacancies will be advertised on their website and they will begin their selection process through formal online applications, but many smaller organisations may recruit extensively through received speculative applications and CVs.

The NHS offers Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) which is a five-year, work-based training programme.

Jobs online

The following websites advertise vacancies in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and scientific-related areas:


Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology Recruitment Links

Applications, Interviews and Assessment Centres

Large pharma companies such as the GSK Future Leaders Programme have an application timeline and usually start taking applications in autumn for the following year. Smaller companies recruit on a more ad hoc basis in a process that can continue through the whole year, taking in new staff as and when they need them.

Relevant Postgraduate Study

Postgraduate courses in pharmaceuticals or biotechnology will require a relevant undergraduate degree in a related discipline – postgraduate courses tend to build on existing knowledge of the sector to help students concentrate and tailor their experience to specify in a certain field. However, commercial roles in the sector can often be open to graduates of any discipline, regardless of education in sciences, with relevant instruction being given whilst on the job. Bear in mind that different graduate programmes and vacancies are likely to have their own specific requirements.

Doctoral research will be required for a research career.

Getting a postgraduate degree can also command a higher salary.

It should be noted that a postgraduate qualification such as an MSc in pharmacology or a relevant PhD can be required by major pharmaceutical companies. This is due to the fact that successful completion of a PhD demonstrates valuable skills desired by employers, including advanced laboratory experience, as well as scientific and analytical development above the level of an undergraduate.

Prospects Pharmaceutical courses

Some of the postgraduate qualifications that St Andrews graduates have gone on to complete include:

Key UK links and resources

Careers Centre resources


Use CareerConnect, your central careers hub, to:



Related Careers A-Z pages

General science-related information

Professional Bodies, Trade Organisations & Journals/Magazines



USA resources


The USA job market and recruitment timetables, for both internships and graduate jobs, for sectors of employment often differ from the UK.

The Careers Centre subscribes to the reputable independent USA careers information and vacancy provider Vault. The links below will take you directly to Vault subscription resources which cover this sector. You may find further useful and relevant resources linked from there as well.


Internships in the US - healthcare

This list is by no means exhaustive. It is simply designed to serve as a starting point.