Pharmaceuticals is a sub-sector of the life sciences sector, which in the UK is one of the strongest and most productive in the world. The UK Government’s Office for Life Sciences has produced an infographic on the scale of the biopharmaceuticals sector.
Other related sectors you may wish to explore further are:
Cogent, the UK's strategic body for skills in the science industries, has worked with employers to develop the Career Navigator to help you explore the huge range of roles available.
Explore the sector
The British pharmaceutical industry has a strong global reputation and is one of the country's leading manufacturing sectors. Approximately a third of individuals employed in this sector work in research and development (R&D).
One of the key differences between the medical and pharmaceutical sectors is the basis of their drug development processes, i.e. the biotech industry uses living organisms or their products, and the pharmaceutical industry uses chemical-based materials and processes. Many of the larger pharma companies are increasingly involved in both.
According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) report, the industry has undergone significant change in the last 10 years, involving the mergers of large companies, downsizing of UK R&D and the growing trend for collaboration with academics or small-to-medium sized companies (SMEs).
The Life Sciences Skills Strategy 2030 report, it is predicted that the sector has the potential to create approximately 133,000 jobs over the next 10 years. It also suggests that skills such as: digital and computational skills; statistical literacy; leadership and inter-disciplinary working will be key.
An increasing proportion of new medicines are 'biologics' rather than chemically processed medicines and might only be intended for a small subgroup of patients after a diagnostic test has confirmed that the medicine is likely to be effective. This has significantly changed the skills requirements of the industry and will continue to do so.
The ABPI website provides news and industry information alongside a range of publications and information about events.
Pharmaceutical careers guide
Employers and roles
We tend to think of pharmaceutical companies as huge global corporate organisations, often referred to in the press as 'big pharma'. While they do account for the majority of UK pharma employment, a growing number of SMEs (companies employing less than 250 people) are becoming involved in drug development, too.
The ABPI has developed a comprehensive list of pharmaceutical companies, their contact details and some of the areas they regularly recruit into.
ABPI searchable list of companies
UK - List of Biotech, Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences Companies
The pharmaceutical industry employs people in a huge range of different roles, and the ABPI has an excellent careers website that takes you through each of them in detail.
ABPI careers website
It is possible to progress from sales roles into other non-scientific roles, e.g. marketing or managerial, but it will be difficult to move into a scientific position following this entry route into the industry.
- Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) is a scheme where graduates work with an academic or research organisation to support a UK business on a specific project focused on innovation for 12 – 36 months
- Innovate UK list vacancies and have a ‘ landscape map’ showing funders, innovation centres, networks and research & training programmes.
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Finding a job
As entry into this sector is competitive, relevant industry experience will be valuable. Find a summer internship, join an undergraduate taster day/course, or look for opportunities to work shadow someone in the industry for a few days. See our work experience section for more details of these.
Large pharmaceutical companies often advise those who are aiming for R&D roles to contact them towards the end of their undergraduate degrees and maintain links throughout their further studies so they can stay informed about what employers are looking for.
For R&D roles, it is highly likely that you will need a PhD and relevant experience, but the more operations-focused roles, e.g. regulatory affairs, medical information, etc, often recruit at BSc level.
A recent survey of ABPI members highlights a major skills gap in mathematical and computational areas following the rapid development of new fields such as health informatics.
It also focuses on more long-standing skills shortages in translational medicine or clinical pharmacology, which relate to bridging the gap between bench and bedside.
Areas that are anticipated to become more difficult to recruit to in the future include device technology, materials science, physiological modelling and physical chemistry.
Regarding the broader, transferable skills, an increasing number of respondents were concerned about candidates with poorly-developed communication and teamwork skills.
Key skills will vary depending on the role, but typical skill requirements for the scientific side of the industry include:
- a methodological approach and attention to detail
- analytical skills and logical thinking
- excellent numeracy skills
- problem-solving skills
- scientific, technical or research skills
Large pharmaceutical companies, for example, Novartis, GSK, Lonza, AstraZeneca & Medimmun, Pfizer, usually operate their own formal graduate recruitment, placement and internship programmes.
Companies don't always recruit into technical roles via that route, though, so keep an eye on relevant job boards as well.
The growing number of small companies involved in this sector often have less formal processes, so networking and the use of relevant social media can play an important role in your job search. Visit our pages on how to network effectively for more information.
Many commercial companies use recruitment consultancies to advertise their vacancies.
Vacancies from companies targeting Nottingham students and graduates
As well as viewing companies directly to look for graduate recruitment schemes or vacancies, there are numerous recruitment websites available, including:
Wiley Pharmaceutical Labs
Jobs in Pharma
Finding work experience
Internship programmes are offered by many of the larger employers, but a speculative approach will be more effective with smaller companies.
Networking is key as this will allow you to find out more about the industry and make contacts that could help you to secure work experience.
There are a number of places where you might start your search for internships and placements, including:
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