Demystifying the Pharmaceuticals Sector

Alison Parkinson, Employer Engagement Adviser, and Carol Macdonald, Link Careers Consultant for the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences, recently attended a webinar hosted by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) on Demystifying the Pharmaceuticals Sector.

Representatives from AstraZeneca, Roche and GSK provided an insight into student and graduate opportunities within the pharmaceuticals sector… read on for a summary of the key messages:

Not surprisingly… recruitment is buoyant

  • All three companies have recruited similar numbers to previous years; recruitment has not tailed off as a result of the pandemic.

The Pharmaceutical industry in the UK is wider than the ‘big pharma’ companies covering the end-to-end process of producing medicines, from early-stage research to product launch and post marketing approvals.

  • The pharmaceutical supply chain within the UK includes a wide range of contract research organisations (CROs – providing pre-clinical or clinical research services), contract manufacturing organisations, medical communications agencies and various other specialist outsourcing suppliers. There are many opportunities for graduates within this wider supply chain.

It’s not just research and development (R&D) roles

  • Opportunities for graduates include finance, technology, supply chain and engineering roles which may not be the first thing that springs to mind for students.
  • Many of the roles on offer are the same as you would find in any industry, however being able to work within a sector which helps to improve patients’ lives is often a strong attraction.
  • At AstraZeneca more graduates are hired into non-science graduate roles than are hired into graduate science programmes.
  • GSK highlighted that graduate hires include engineering, technology and data analytics; manufacturing sites and technology behind creating medicines is a growing area of this industry.
  • Roche commented on the value that people with technology and data science skills can bring.

Data and tech skills are in huge demand

  • Data and technology skills are becoming increasing important for employees in all areas of this industry, from the research space to commercial functions.
  • GSK highlighted commercial roles such as sales and marketing involve sharing knowledge with medical professionals to understand the benefits of a particular drug. They now have a greater reliance on data and a need to be comfortable with using data.
  • Roche emphasised the growing importance of big data, data mining, AI, machine learning and block chain. Genomics was also highlighted as a massive area.
  • AstraZeneca commented on the challenge of attracting candidates who are highly numerate and with strong programming skills; these skills are in demand in all industries. However, the pharma sector allows these skills to impact on the development of new drugs which will help people world-wide.

The value of postgraduate study

  • Many people in this sector have higher level qualifications, both masters degrees and PhDs. But… is a postgraduate degree really necessary to get in and get on?
  • The short answer to this question is, unsurprisingly, that it depends on the role being applied for…and mainly applies to roles within R&D. All three speakers were keen to point out that there are roles within R&D which are open to first degree graduates.
  • GSK explained that some R&D roles will require further study, and some will not. In general, a postgraduate degree will be looked for in more specialist roles for example in oncology recruitment, or within vaccines where mRNA experience may be required. There are a number of specialist research roles where a PhD is required.
  • GSK also highlighted that most of the time a masters degree would be seen as advantageous – depending on the modules studied and experience gained – but not essential. A masters degree can help you to stand out in the selection process and may help you to progress onto interesting placements and projects earlier, but this does not mean that you can’t get ahead without one. It is not always essential to do a postgraduate qualification immediately; it is possible to do this later in your career. Many big pharma companies sponsor PhD programmes each year. In some companies, internal employees may also be able to undertake a PhD.
  • Roche mentioned that masters degrees are also required for some data roles. A masters level apprenticeship has been introduced which can offer a route to gaining a masters degree alongside industry experience.
  • AstraZeneca commented that once you are in the industry – apart from some specialist roles – you do not need further qualifications to succeed. Your ability, commitment and passion are what will drive your career success.

Recruitment insights

Roche focus on 3 main areas when recruiting:

  • Motivations and passions – why you want to work at the company, why in this industry and what it means to you. Show what drives you.
  • Technical ability – your degree, background and how you meet the technical requirements – but you can learn technical skills.
  • Behaviours and mindsets – this is an important area in assessment, and what will enable individuals to bring skills and perspectives into teams to help solve problems.

GSK’s recruitment process has been designed to assess motivation, alignment to GSK values and behaviours, and technical requirements for certain roles. They use strengths-based interviews. Practical exercises – micro 10 minute task-based exercises – are used for some roles, for example where candidates have to follow instructions and show attention to detail. Candidates should ensure that they research the organisation, but the most important thing is to be able to show a clear understanding of the role and that what you do can affect peoples’ lives.

AstraZeneca’s recruitment process addresses five organisational values which are looked for. Values are seen as crucial, as although you can fill knowledge gaps it’s very hard to change the values of an individual. Use is made of gamified values assessment to test for the values looked for. These values are also looked for at interviews. There has been a move towards strengths-based assessment and away from competency interviews. Technical interviews are also used for some areas. Online group exercises are also in place.

Diversity and inclusion challenges

Attracting and recruiting a diverse workforce is important to all companies represented. This includes a desire to recruit from diverse socio-economic and ethnic groups.  Although women are generally well represented within the sector, this is not always the case within engineering and technology. Neurodiversity was also highlighted.

  • Roche mentioned being keen to engage and understand the reasons for low numbers of applicants from certain groups. They have introduced programmes to address under-representation including:
    • Providing mentors to help students transition into their first job.
    • Introducing virtual part-time student jobs to help students gain related experience.
  • GSK are keen to attract more women into engineering and technology roles, and to address socio-economic diversity, particularly within roles that require a PhD. To address this, they encourage students to look for employer sponsored PhDs and have supported internal staff to complete PhDs.
  • AstraZeneca spoke of similar concerns and mentioned that apprenticeships are becoming increasingly valued in the industry and that sometimes those with degrees could use apprenticeships as a route to reskill. Neurodiverse applicants are welcome to share any concerns before interviews to ensure that recruiters are aware.

Job Opportunities

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) have a searchable Pharmaceutical Recruiters’ section on their Careers in the Pharmaceutical Industry website: Pharmaceutical Recruiters – ABPI

As part of Careers Week 2021, we are delighted to be welcoming representatives from the Life Sciences sector during Careers Fair Online Live Chat days on Tuesday 12th and Thursday 14th October. You will be able to interact on a 1:1 basis via text and video chat with employers including AstraZeneca, RoslinCT, McCann Health Medical Communications, Ashfield Health, Charles River Laboratories, Fios Genomics, Novo Nordisk, Cambrex and AMICULUM.

To find out more about Careers Week and how to book, visit:


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