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Getting started in the pharmaceutical industry

This article will help you to decide whether industry might be for you and gives some top tips for getting started.

Young female scientist working in a laboratory

Source: anyaivanova / Shutterstock.com

Having a PhD is essential if you want to go into research, because you have to prove your credentials

Are you thinking about working in the pharmaceutical industry? Do you know where to start and do you have the skill sets to enter the sector?

Newly registered pharmacist Hiran Prag completed six months of his preregistration year in an industry placement at Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) and six months in a hospital. “I enjoy the science behind things and don’t like just learning things at face value,” he explains. “I also like the attraction of being at the forefront of medicines technology and being able to affect people’s lives positively on a global scale.”

Commercial director at GlaxoSmithKline Nick Lowen says that working in the industry may not provide the day-to-day patient contact of other sectors but “if you’re working on a medicine it has the potential to bring benefits to a whole population of patients, so it’s a different way of thinking”.

Prag adds: “Pharmacists have a broad knowledge which is helpful within the development of medicines … . Obviously the patient is key in the industry. However, pharmacists may have greater insight into the needs of the patients and how practical the medicine would be from a patient’s perspective.”

He says that the first half of his preregistration year at MSD was completely different to the second half, which he spent in a hospital. “My first six months were very flexible; managing my own workload, having the responsibility and autonomy of directing my own project … and generally feeling very knowledgeable in my specialist area. The hospital part is a lot more structured, with set times and rotations in some of the different areas of pharmacy.”

What might put you off?

Now that he has qualified, Prag is hoping to complete a PhD before he joins the industry. However, he stresses that it is not necessary to have a higher level degree to be able to join the sector, despite what many of his colleagues believe. Janet Halliday, director of research and development at Ferring, explains that having a PhD is only essential if applicants want to work in research, because “you have to prove your credentials from a research point of view”.

Halliday adds that starting salary can also put students off working in the sector. “People get a bit frightened because they come out [of university] with massive debt and, when you start in the industry, you do not come out with the same starting salary as somebody starting in hospital or community.” She explains that a pharmacy graduate entering industry can command a slight premium over a biochemist who has just graduated, for example, but it will not make up the difference with starting salaries in other pharmacy sectors. It took five years for her salary to catch up with the salaries of those who graduated at the same time as her, she says.

Once pharmacists have begun work in another sector, they often believe that that means they will never be able to join the industry, says Halliday. However, many pharmacists do enter the sector once they have some experience, and are often more valued because of it. Lowen worked as a community pharmacist and a pharmaceutical adviser in the NHS before he joined GSK (then SmithKline Beecham) as commercial development manager.

What skills do you need?

Good communication skills are vital in the industry sector, Prag emphasises. Lowen agrees: “Often in the industry you are working in cross-functional teams so you need to be a good communicator — you need to be able to work well with others.” Prag adds: “Learning how to prepare effective presentations that deliver the right messages, giving those presentations and adapting to feedback given is essential.” Other relevant skills include managing time effectively, meeting deadlines, appraising literature, being creative and solving problems.

Getting started

Prag explains that he tried hard to get experience in the industry in his earlier years at university by sending his CV and covering letter to smaller companies and specials manufacturers. “I did … a two-week placement at BCM Specials in Nottingham and a 10-week summer placement in my third year of study with AstraZeneca, which … confirmed that industry was the place for me,” he says.

Halliday advises that those interested in the sector seek out summer placements or shadowing opportunities as early as possible. “All pharmaceutical companies, big and small, offer some sort of summer job experiences,” she says. “They are not necessarily for pharmacists — they might go to biochemists or chemists or biologists — but there are summer placements.” However, she adds that, unlike for placements in hospitals or the community, there is not one online platform to submit a CV to. Instead, students should apply to each individual company. Larger companies tend to start looking for applications around Christmas time; smaller companies, including Ferring, start to look around Easter, according to Halliday.

Nowadays students could create a template and attach their CV, address it accordingly, and send it to as many companies as they can think of, Halliday says, adding: “But they do have to go and look for the companies’ email addresses.”

Halliday advises that those sending emails mark them for the human resources department and any pharmacists in the organisation, by adding a line such as “please forward this to pharmacist members of staff”. She explains that a lot of pharmacists in the industry see it as a responsibility to encourage others in the profession to join the sector.

Lowen also suggests that students and preregistration pharmacists take the time to appreciate the sector and the roles available, and recommends that they attend information events such as the annual preregistration visit to GSK’s Stockley Park, which took place in April this year.  “It’s worth using opportunities like that to really understand what a career can be like in the industry.”

Industrial Pharmacy Forum

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has a forum for pharmacists who work in the industrial sector and those who are interested in doing so. Ferring’s director of research and development Janet Halliday is in the steering group for the forum. The forum aims “to support pharmacists working in the industry from a professional perspective and to make sure that their needs as a pharmacist in the industry are looked after,” she says. Additionally, it monitors the undergraduate curricula and competencies for postgraduates to ensure that pharmacists are able to think about a career in industry. RPS members can access the resources from the forum at http://www.rpharms.com/sector-groups/industrial-pharmacy-forum.asp

Citation: Tomorrow's Pharmacist URI: 20066290

Readers' comments (1)

  • Thanks for shaping my skills and knowledge in the pharmaceutical industry, even though i dont reside in UK, am comfortable here in Kenya. Thanks

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