What are the career options for a PhD in the pharmaceutical industry?

Pharma Industry - Square [square]Having recently completed a Masters or a PhD., in the life sciences, pharmaceutical sciences or chemistry, you may be considering a career in the pharmaceutical (Pharma) industry. There are diverse roles available, including those in clinical research, clinical trials, regulatory affairs, drug safety, business development and medical affairs, to name a few. Attractions include the opportunity for permanent positions and an involvement in tangible research outcomes in drug development. In this article, we explore the skills sought, and the pros and cons of working in the sector.

The environment

Most people are familiar with the traditional R&D model in Pharma for drug discovery. The process often begins with chemists synthesising drugs, aimed at predefined molecular targets. There may, of course be an alternative to a chemical compound, for example the development of a gene therapy, antibody or vaccine. These candidate therapies go through in vitro screening to test for factors like target affinity, and then a preclinical phase in vivo to gauge elements like pharmacokinetics, dosage and toxicity. The latter are the responsibility of research teams in drug discovery and development. Drugs or treatments that show promise are often patented at an early stage of this R&D process, typically gaining a 20 year patent.

Successful candidate drugs, which have passed through the rigorous tests up to this point, can enter clinical trial testing in people. Formulation scientists will also be involved before the trials start, where the active drug is combined with other inactive ingredients to produce an optimal dosage and delivery system.

Human clinical trials require approval by the appropriate regulatory authority, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in Europe, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US.

There are 4 clinical trial phases that require management and coordination by a dedicated clinical trial team. The first three phases test for bioavailability, pharmacokinetics, dosage, toxicity, efficacy, side effects and therapeutic effects, with increasing numbers of trial participants. Candidate drugs may fail at any of these stages but those that make it through the last phase (Phase III), will need to gain marketing authorisation approval from the appropriate regulatory authority. Liaising with these authorities, gathering and submitting all of the relevant data, including showing compliance during the R&D process itself, is the role of regulatory affairs department. If the submission is successful, the company is allowed to market the drug for therapeutic use.

The company must have a clear strategy to market and promoting the benefits of the drug to physicians, hospitals and end-users. Phase IV is also known as post-marketing surveillance and is a phase of pharmacovigilance. During this period, the drug is prescribed by physicians to the public, and any long term side-effects and observations are reported.


"The company must have a clear strategy to market and promoting the benefits of the drug to physicians, hospitals and end-users."


The traditional R&D model, started to change radically in the early 2000’s. Before then, companies invested astoundingly large sums of money, over a decade in time or more, and staff resources for drug candidates that showed positive potential, only to fail at clinical trials. Around 70-75% of drug candidates that make it to this final stage fail.


"The traditional model still exists but most companies now have an increased emphasis on collaborations with the biotechnology (Biotech) industry and academia, as a source for finding new drug targets to supplement their pipeline."


The traditional model still exists but most companies now have an increased emphasis on collaborations with the biotechnology (Biotech) industry and academia, as a source for finding new drug targets to supplement their pipeline. This has given rise to a need for more business development and licensing roles in Pharma. There have also been several mergers and acquisitions over the same period. The high costs of R&D, expiring patents and lack of a pipeline has contributed to decisions for companies to acquire or be acquired.

When to make the transition

The consensus from those we’ve interviewed in the Pharma industry, is to make the move early in your career, preferably after a PhD., qualification or as an upper limit, a single post-doctoral position. This allows for training in a commercial research career before you’ve become too specialised in your field in an academic environment. You’ll likely command a higher salary if you’ve specialised too much in academia, without having gained the skills valued in Industry.


"The consensus from those we’ve interviewed in the Pharma industry, is to make the move early in your career..."


Skills required

Recruiters in Industry will be looking for an excellent grasp of your core discipline and technical expertise. Your experience of laboratory techniques and methodologies are particularly important if you are working at the bench in a research group. Looking beyond your core research area, you’ll be required to work in cross-functional teams, so exceptional communication and people engagement skills are sought after. Working well as part of a team for a common goal, is an additional prerequisite. You may need to change projects frequently across many different disease areas, so adaptability is seen as a key quality. Recruiters are also looking for some sort of Industry experience and understanding. This can be seen to be a Catch 22, if you are looking for your first role. However, aside from direct work experience in the form of an internship, be sure to emphasise it on your CV and cover letter if you have been funded by the Pharma industry, or part of a collaboration in the sector previously. Additionally, speak to any contacts you have working in Pharma to gain insights into their roles, company approach and set up.

Types of job openings

There are a plethora of roles that fit into the different stages of the entire R&D process that a postgraduate qualified researcher could apply for. Most of those individuals we spoke too had transitioned into a scientific role in R&D, as a first entry point into industry. Some individuals then went on to move to adjacent departments, including regulatory affairs. We’ve included a few examples below of roles you could work in, in different departments. Note this is not a comprehensive list and there will be variations from company to company on the exact title.

  • Research and Development: Scientists, Senior Scientists, Principal Scientist. (It’s likely a specialism will be mentioned in the title — e.g pharmacology, neuroscience, oncology etc.)
  • Regulatory Affairs: Regulatory Affairs Specialist, Regulatory Affairs Officer, Regulatory affairs Associate
  • Clinical Trials: Clinical Scientists, Clinical Research Associate
  • Business Development: Business Development Manager
  • Sales and Marketing: Medical Sales Representative, Account Manager, Product Manager, Brand Manager

We summarised the advantages and disadvantages that were stated by those who we interviewed, that chose to transition to a career in the pharmaceutical industry, below:

Pros over academia:

  • Positions are permanent, rather than on a short-term contractual basis
  • Better remuneration
  • More personal benefits
  • Fewer funding restrictions on the research that can be carried out
  • Involvement in applied rather than blue-sky research
  • Shorter working hours
  • Clearer career progression path
  • Working as part of a team
  • More room to be promoted and make career transitions

Cons over academia:

  • A pressurized environment
  • Less chance to innovate
  • Less opportunity to publish, due to confidential projects
  • Mergers and acquisitions mean posts are not always secure
  • Smaller companies often rely on investors, if they fail to make money, they can fold


If you’re considering a career in the pharmaceutical industry, there are several openings available for postgraduates in the life sciences and associated disciplines. It’s advisable to transition early, after your PhD., or a single post-doctoral position, to allow time for commercial training, before you become too specialised in your field. Many postgraduates or early stage career researchers make their first move into a lab based role in research and development. There are diverse roles to consider that are available as part of the drug development process. Any prior industry experience, including collaborations and funding, will be valued.

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