Exploring the Pharmaceutical Industry

Carol Macdonald, Link Careers Consultant for the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences, shares some useful updates from a recent UK Pharmaceutical Industry information session which was led by Andrew Croydon (Skills, Education Policy and Examinations Director), Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).           

Medicines are transforming lives as never before. The UK Biopharmaceutical and MedTech sectors are thriving, with predictions of strong growth up to 2030. There is a wide range of companies from global players to start-up enterprises, offering a range of different career opportunities for graduates, including laboratory work and much more. Approximately one third of all staff work in research and development.

This is a collaborative industry where the discovery, development, manufacture and promotion of new medicines (medical devices and diagnostics) is a team effort which combines talent across the sector and supply chain.

As well as supporting member companies who are developing medicines of the future, the ABPI has developed some great resources to help students and graduates with career choice.

Online resources

A great place to start exploring your options is the ABPI’s Careers in the Pharmaceutical Industry website.

This site covers lot of ground, so let’s take a brief look at a few sections:

Working in industry

You can gain an overview of the following broad business sectors and consider where you interests lie:

  • Research and Development (R&D)
  • Manufacturing and Supply
  • Commercial
  • Support Functions

Case studies

You’ll find over 100 case studies where people working within this sector share details of their roles and working life, how their careers have developed and offer advice and insights for new entrants. This is a great way to gain insights into the wide variety of roles, from Analytical Chemist to Clinical Scientist, to Patent Attorney, to Regulatory Affairs Executive…

Getting into the industry

If you are not sure what might be possible with your degree, have a look at the degree chart.

You can search Pharmaceutical recruiters to gain information on 80 companies in this sector with links to their recruitment pages. This includes pharma and biotechnology companies, contract research organisations (CROs) and some professional services companies.

Additional industry facts and figures can also be found on the main ABPI website.


There are different routes into the industry, with entry level roles offered for first degree graduates, MSc graduates and PhD graduates. The opportunities for people with a good life science or chemistry degree within the pharmaceutical industry are wide ranging. There are also opportunities for those with maths, physics, engineering and IT qualifications.

Several larger companies offer competitive graduate training schemes with rotational placements. Graduate schemes are advertised early in Semester 1 for roles commencing the following summer, so it helps to plan ahead. Larger numbers of graduates enter a range of different entry level roles which are advertised for graduates throughout the year.

Recruitment into Apprenticeship roles has been growing in recent years. These include higher apprenticeships (level 7) which include study at master’s level. R&D apprenticeships account for approximately 30% of those offered. Other roles offered include Supply chain, Manufacturing, IT, Finance, HR and Engineering. A new level 7 Clinical Pharmacology apprenticeship has recently been introduced. Information on apprenticeships can be found at the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education website.

Within the UK Pharma Industry over 500 PhD students are supported each year. Approximately 25% are fully funded by industry and 75% are jointly funded by the UK research councils. This underlines the importance placed on R&D within this sector.

Summer internships are offered by many companies, but some have preference for one year placements. While most degrees at Edinburgh do not routinely offer this ‘sandwich’ element, it may be possible to take time out from your degree to do this.

Skills Gaps

With a strong focus on research and innovation, it’s unsurprising that the skills needed within this sector are evolving. Like many other industry sectors, digital disruption is also having an impact and there is a need to support people with the right skills.

Skills shortage areas highlighted include digital and data science. This is a main growth area for the industry and although it includes informatics, computational mathematics and statistical areas, the most acute concern has been around areas of interdisciplinary overlap such as computational chemistry or bioinformatics, where people combine scientific and data experience.

Other shortage areas include:

  • Bioinformatics (high priority area)
  • Genomics
  • Immunology
  • Regulatory science
  • Clinical pharmacology
  • Toxicology
  • Proteomics
  • Metabonomics

If you would like to find out more about the skill areas in demand, the ABPI’s publication Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry can be found on their website. This is published every two years and a new report is due later in 2021.

Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on students’ lab experience

There is a real understanding of the impact of the last year on students and companies recognise that they need to provide more ‘on-boarding’ and ‘up-skilling’ for students and graduates who may not have the normal level of experience for lab-based roles. So don’t be put off applying for opportunities of interest.

When making applications, it is important however to highlight and ‘sell’ the skills you do have. This includes transferable skills such as problem solving, communications and team working which are important within the industry and may have been developed through activities including volunteering and part-time jobs. Numeracy and technical skills should also be highlighted.

Finding out more about the sector in Scotland

Two great resources are the Life Sciences in Scotland website and the Life and Chemical Sciences Scottish Industry Directory.

I hope you discover an area which interests you!

(Image credit: Adobe Spark)



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