Making the transition to an R&D role in the Pharmaceutical Industry

Pharma Researcher - Square [square]As an early career researcher, you may be passionate about working in a research environment. After all, this is precisely what your training has geared you towards to date. If you are looking beyond academia — to transition to research in Industry, there are diverse and rewarding opportunities available. In this article, we’ll cover what to expect in a research and development role in the pharmaceutical sector, including practical job application advice.

What to expect: Research and Development roles in Industry

The research and development (R&D) process is a critical stage in drug development in the pharmaceutical (Pharma) industry. The process starts after an initial candidate drug is identified and encompasses the rigorous research tests that determine its therapeutic suitability. This includes factors like its affinity for the biological target and interaction with biological systems. Alternative private sector employers, for example biotechnology companies and contract research organisations (CRO’s), also use an identical approach on a smaller scale.

There are many disciplines, the majority of which are biological sciences related, that work in collaboration through the R&D process in a Pharma industry setting. Common fields for research positions that are involved in the in vitro and in vivo testing of drug candidates include, pharmacology, immunology, molecular biology, virology, microbiology, cell biology and neuroscience. Compounds are also tested for toxicity by researchers working in the drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics (DMPK) teams.

Most entry level research jobs, after completing a PhD. or postgraduate course, have a title of ‘Scientist’ or ‘Senior Scientist.’ Promotional paths include moving on to a Lab Head or Team Lead role, then the Head of a particular department or research area and subsequently, Director.

As an entry level researcher, your core day-to-day work will focus on conducting research at the bench as part of the drug screening and characterisation process. You’ll most likely be part of a multi-disciplinary team and need to communicate results at regular meetings.


"As an entry level researcher, your core day-to-day work will focus on conducting research at the bench as part of the drug screening and characterisation process."


Researchers who we spoke to that currently work in R&D in the Pharma industry cite several reasons for making the move away from academia. One commonly quoted motivation is that positions are permanent, rather than on a short term contractual basis. They don’t have to apply for grant funding and feel there are less funding restrictions on their research.

Many researchers state they enjoy working in multidisciplinary teams, where they have to communicate with individuals from other disciplines and business backgrounds. With larger global companies, team members may be located in different countries, providing an international element. Researchers in Industry often refer to this set-up as a ‘matrix team’ and state that it provides a broader experience at work, than in academia. They find this structure expedient for sharing knowledge and experiences quickly.

The individuals who work successfully in commercial research enjoy their involvement in applied research projects, which can be correlated to a commercial end-point and therapeutic intervention. Some express that they found this preferential to the constant pressure to produce publications in academia. They frequently stated they received better renumeration and benefits for their work than at an equivalent level in academia.


"The individuals who work successfully in commercial research enjoy their involvement in applied research projects..."


It’s important to consider that researchers indicate that projects in the Pharma industry can change swiftly, in response to changes in commercial direction. Therefore, a key quality to possess in the commercial research sector is adaptability. Although jobs are usually permanent, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) between firms have become commonplace and come with associated redundancies. A few individuals we spoke to had faced redundancy at least once, although, they had all successfully moved company subsequently. Equally, others had experienced being part of a team where the therapeutic product that had been invested in heavily for R&D failed to make it to market. An example of the latter would be a drug failing in late stage clinical trials. Financial losses were recouped by a division closing down and they were moved into alternate roles. The commercial aspect of projects can sometimes result in a pressurised environment with researchers having to observe tighter deadlines than those in academia. Consequently, the opportunity to innovate and run parallel experiments to further knowledge aren't given priority to the same extent they would be in academia.

Product development often has a confidential nature, so some researchers identify that they had less opportunity to publish in the industry sector. Although, employers do have hugely varying stances on the latter, so it’s worth checking the publication output for a department, before you join.

Application Tips

If this is your first transitional role to Industry, tailoring your application, including your CV to highlight the specific skills valued by the sector is advised. Be aware that these can contrast significantly to academia.


"If this is your first transitional role to Industry, tailoring your application, including your CV to highlight the specific skills valued by the sector is advised."


The recruitment process varies between Pharma industry employers, but the initial filter is usually your CV. Note that in some cases you are required to fill out a standardised application form, instead of the latter. A cover letter is usually required and can be a valuable way to emphasise your suitability for the role. We’ve summarised some key application advice, with input from an active recruiter for researchers in Pharma below. As with all job applications preparation is the key:

  1. It’s essential to educate yourself about the sector. Learn how research processes work in industry. Reading relevant pharmaceutical journals can help fill you in on recent trends and developments. Additionally, talking to any contacts you have working in the field about their experiences, can provide valuable insider knowledge. If possible it’s particularly useful to talk to someone who is a few years ahead of you in their career. They’ll still be able to relate to your position, as well as advising you about the career path to expect and the recruitment process.
  2. Tailor your CV for an industry role. Your CV usually acts as an primary screen for an Industry employer. It’s best to limit it to two pages, and make sure the most relevant information is included on the first page. Highlight any previous industry work experience, however minor. If you lack any direct work experience, emphasise industry funding, collaborations and internships.
  3. Emphasise specialist knowledge of your core discipline and technical expertise stated as essential in the job advert. Recruiters will be expecting sound knowledge of your core discipline. You may have acquired a broad range of technical expertise but space is at a premium on a resumé, so state those that are relevant to the role.
  4. Adaptability and excellent communication are seen as key skills in Industry. You will need to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team and may change projects frequently. Be sure to provide examples in your CV and application that demonstrate flexibility at work. Sociability and excellent communication are also viewed as key assets. As such, include examples of where you have given successful presentations and communicated well with peers.
  5. Find out what your goals and objectives may be in your industry role. They will differ greatly to those in academia. Think of how you might approach them to help pre-empt interview questions. Speaking to an existing contact working in the Pharma Industry can be of significant help here.
  6. Do your background work for interview. Industry interviews can differ significantly from what you’ve come to expect in academia, so asking HR about the format is advised. Employers may include a screening interview over the phone and a personality test sent to you in electronic format. Additionally, as part of the interview, you are often asked to give a presentation, either on your current research, or on a specific topic or question that your recruiter provides you with. Preparation with plenty of practice thrown in to help pre-empt potential discussions and questions, should stand you in good stead for a successful outcome. Some companies invite you to attend a dinner or lunch with colleagues as part of the interview, to ascertain how you interact with peers. It is important to keep in mind that this is part of the recruitment process and to treat it accordingly.
  7. Gain specific company knowledge. Aside from preparing for the scheduled parts of the interview, taking time to gain company knowledge is crucial. Examples include: looking at the company website; knowing who is interviewing you and their background; reading about the company structure and staff; looking in depth at their current drug portfolio or products and future directions.

Good luck with your application.

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