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Pharma industry — where innovation impacts lives

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Dr Rebecca Leyland, Lecturer and Scientific Researcher in Immunology, Sheffield Hallam University, UK, enumerates the various opportunities and benefits for candidates opting for a career in the pharma industry

Dr Rebecca Leyland

Breakthroughs in the pharma industry have the potential to make a positive impact on the lives of millions of people all over the world. Major breakthroughs and advances don’t happen every day but every trial brings us a step closer to understanding something which could eventually lead to a cure or a vaccine. These are changes which we can expect to see in our lifetimes. My research field, immuno-oncology, is a form of cancer research which investigates the mechanisms of how cancer cells can be killed by harnessing the power of the body’s own immune system. This research field is currently at the forefront of science and there is a significant amount of academic and translational research ongoing worldwide to enable the successful development of immunotherapy drugs. Unlike chemotherapy which kills both healthy cells and cancer cells, immunotherapy aims to train the body’s own defence system to attack cancer cells. Advances in this field could make a genuine difference to a cancer sufferer’s quality of life or life expectancy.

Working in the pharma industry offers many opportunities for a varied and challenging career in companies and organisations across the world. Far from a tired industry, it is one where successes are closely related with drive and innovation. It is generally an industry which provides one with a wide range of options for career progression and positive staff incentives, often including healthcare insurance, pension plans and training opportunities.

Innovation in research and development

Behind every drug and vaccine which comes to market are thousands of hours of trials and tests to understand its potential. Scientists are at the heart of this process to evaluate the success of a drug. Strong team work and motivation are required to deliver this work. There continues to be a strong appetite to invest in research and development (R&D) in pharma globally. For example, according to the Make In India campaign, the Indian pharma industry is expected to become the third largest in the world by 2020, worth an estimated $45 billion.

The UK is considered to be one of the world’s leading centres of pharma R&D. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry states that of the 73,000 people who work in the industry, an estimated 23,000 work in R&D. The Association also quotes the latest figures released by the UK’s Office of National Statistics, which show that the Gross Value Added generated per employee within the pharma industry in 2013 was approximately £128,000. This is significantly higher than income per head in other comparable high-tech manufacturing industries including chemicals, motor vehicle and electrical equipment.

Though many of the graduate roles offered are for research scientists, there are also career opportunities in the industry for scientific and non-scientific roles including chemists, biologists, bioinformaticians, software engineers, marketers, regulators, quality control engineers, senior managers and technical writers.

Best practices in pharma research

As in any scientific-based role, one of the key skills is knowing how to accurately document your data. This is especially important in the case of publication in scientific journals, regulatory documents and patents, which are required to protect the rights to a potentially successful new invention. Other key skills crucial for the progression of the drug development process include good communication and organisation skills which are invaluable while working in multidisciplinary teams to ensure efficient and effective teamwork and meet deadlines.

Qualifications required in industry

20170515ep47As with any career, one is likely to need qualifications and training in a relevant area. Candidates looking for a career in the pharma industry could consider masters level study to demonstrate their commitment to the field. It’s important to choose the educational institution carefully and be sure that they offer opportunities and laboratory facilities where theories learnt can be put into practice. Many major pharma companies also offer graduate programmes where one will have the chance to gain experience across different teams and business sectors.

It isn’t essential to have a PhD but, as always, this can give more options in terms of career progression. It’s generally common practice that those leading research teams do have doctorates. Unlike other businesses, there are many similarities between a career in industry and academia. In both, the candidates are required to represent their institution or organisation at conferences and publish their research. Collaboration is also an important skill. Many research projects are collaborations between a number of organisations or funding bodies.

How to start a career in the pharma industry?

Working in the pharma industry is a global career choice. If one works for any of the major companies then it’s likely that he/she will be working with people from all over the world. The industry benefits greatly by recruiting people from different backgrounds and viewpoints, particularly when it comes to techniques and approaches to research. Having experience of working or studying overseas can help prepare for working in culturally diverse workplaces.

Bringing a drug to market requires input from many different teams. It is important to be able to communicate with people who do not share your level of expertise on a subject. Gaining experience of working on complex, multi-faceted projects is a good way of demonstrating your ability to work well with others to future employers. You’ll also benefit from experience in all professional skills. You’ll need to represent the company externally so it’s important to have strong presentation and networking skills.

Pharma companies are often large business operations which bring a wide range of opportunities. You’ll be exposed to many different stages and aspects of drug development. You’ll often be working on multiple projects so there is always something new to learn. If you enjoy the challenge of managing your time effectively then it’s likely that you’ll find many positives in a career in the pharma industry.

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