How pharmacists can start a career in the pharmaceutical industry

Have you ever thought about going into the pharmaceutical industry but don’t know where to start? Emma Page finds out what you need to know.

The pharmaceutical industry offers pharmacists many opportunities to use their specialist skills in a variety of roles, from drug research and development through to sales and marketing.

The pharmaceutical industry offers pharmacists many opportunities to use their specialist skills in a variety of roles, from drug research and development through to sales and marketing. However, some pharmacists believe that they will be unable to secure a position in a pharmaceutical company without prior industry or research experience. Additionally, industry experts, such as Nick Lowen, commercial director for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), say that pharmacists are not always aware of the range of different jobs available in the industry.

Roles available

Lowen advises that those considering entering the sector “think broadly about the kind of role where pharmacists can actually make a difference… because that broad science base and real understanding of medicines actually can be important in a whole range of roles”.

Julie Williams, executive director (chemistry, manufacturing and control) at Pfizer, suggests that some areas in which pharmacists could pursue roles include pharmaceutical formulation development, clinical manufacture and supply, quality assurance, regulatory affairs, medical information, pharmacokinetics and drug metabolism, project management, commercial business development, and marketing and sales.

Benefits and drawbacks

Before pharmacists move into the industry, they should consider the changes to their salaries, says Janet Halliday, director of research and development at Ferring. Pre-registration trainees are sometimes put off entering the sector because of the lower starting salary for pharmacists (around £25,000–30,000 per year) compared with an equivalent role in community pharmacy (around £30,000–33,000 per year), she explains. Additionally, “if somebody is working in band 8a [on the NHS pay scale, earning £39,239–47,088 per year] in hospital, they might have to take a slight moderation of salary moving into the industry, but they would expect to catch up quickly”, she says, suggesting that a pharmacist with three to eight years of experience and a PhD may earn around £33,000–40,000 per year. However, she explains that it does depend on the role. Qualified Persons, who have undergone training to allow them to fulfil specific responsibilities, including ensuring that each batch of medicinal products produced in the UK has been manufactured and checked in accordance with regulations, are paid well (in the region of £54,000­–60,000 per year). And, although the basic salary for sales and marketing roles is not high, there are extra bonuses and commissions available.

“One of the benefits of working in the industry compared with working in community is that your colleagues and your peers are as skilled as you are, if not more skilled in their areas,” Halliday says. She compares the experience to working in a hospital, where pharmacists are used to working with colleagues who are at the same level or higher. “You have got the opportunity to share best practice and learn from each other,” she adds. In contrast, community pharmacists are often working alone on a day-to-day basis with less opportunity for interaction with similarly qualified people.

Those keen to work for a pharmaceutical company should also be aware that their role may involve overseas travel, adds Williams. “As the pharmaceutical industry operates on a global scale, my role does involve a lot of business travel and working outside core hours to enable connections with colleagues in Asia and Latin America,” she says. “So being flexible and happy to travel is also important.”

The lack of patient contact may be considered a drawback for some pharmacists. “I think the main thing is that you do not have that day-to-day contact with patients that you would have, say, if you were working in a community pharmacy. You do miss that opportunity to have a conversation with an individual patient,” Lowen says. However, he adds that if you are working on a medicine in the industry, it has the potential to bring benefits to a whole population of patients. “There’s a lot of alignment between what a company like GSK is trying to do — developing, manufacturing and marketing innovative medicines that bring real benefits to patients — and what pharmacy is fundamentally about, which is bringing benefits to patients from medicines,” he explains.

Williams warns that swapping back into community or hospital practice may prove challenging. “From my perspective, the main drawback is that I have not maintained my clinical knowledge sufficiently to enable me to switch to a community or hospital role without going back to practice training,” she says.

Routes into industry

Pharmacists are valued in the industry because of their understanding of patients and how they use their medicines, Lowen explains. He was working as a pharmaceutical adviser in an NHS health authority when he saw an opportunity to move to SmithKline Beecham, as it was then. “[The company] was looking for further insight into the way in which pharmaceutical advisers worked and for that reason I was in a good position to apply for the role of commercial development manager,” he says.

Williams adds that a “first step would be to consider what type of role you would like to do within the industry, what it involves and the knowledge required. You should consider what transferable skills can be applied from your current role into a new role, and think about the different insights you could offer”. She thinks that pharmacists commonly rule out the option of an industrial role, believing there are limited vacancies or that they lack direct experience. “Find ways to stand out,” she says, “what have you done that could be of great value in an industry role?”

Job advertisements will not necessarily list a pharmacy qualification as a requirement so it is important not to be narrow-minded when looking for roles in the industry, says Halliday. She suggests getting in touch with pharmacists who already work in the industry because they are “usually a great help in suggesting roles in their individual companies”.

Additionally, Williams suggests that pharmacists “seek opportunities to engage with colleagues working in the industry to learn more and potentially collaborate with them, for example, through a Royal Pharmaceutical Society local practice forum. Is there an opportunity to partner on a small research project? Is there an opportunity to network via conferences or a symposium?”

For pharmacists who work in larger hospitals, Halliday recommends seeking out a clinical trials group to speak to the people involved and find out which trials are currently in progress. “You might be able to shadow them to gain some understanding. It might then put you in a better position if you do… apply for a job [in the industry],” she says.

Those with a background in community pharmacy may be suited to a medical information role because of their ability to communicate medical messages, Halliday says. She also highlights a novel route into the industrial sector from community or hospital via home care supply. “A pharmacist currently working in the community or hospital might not find it so difficult to move into a company that is actually supplying sophisticated therapeutics for home use,” she explains.

Career progression

Once pharmacists have joined the industrial sector, there is a lot of scope for moving “up or sideways”, says Halliday, who herself entered the industry as a bench scientist directly after completing her PhD at the University of Strathclyde. She adds that many individuals start in laboratory-based roles and then quickly progress into other departments, including quality assurance.

If you want to work in research, further qualifications are essential to prove your credentials but, for most roles, it is not necessary to have an advanced research degree, Halliday points out. However, other roles will provide opportunities to study while you work and appropriate professional development is expected. “If somebody moves into regulatory affairs, which is great for pharmacists… they will then be expected to study for a relevant qualification,” she explains.

Pharmaceutical companies tend to have well defined career ladders and paths that show the performance, skills and experience required for each role and level, says Williams. “It is possible to progress to positions of increasing responsibility and accountability in each role. In addition, it is common for colleagues to change roles and work in different departments — as I have done — to develop and broaden their knowledge and experience further.”

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 21/28 March 2015, Vol 294, No 7854/5;294(7854/5):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20068025

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