Career opportunities in the life sciences industry

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The pharma, biotech and medtech industries offer a wealth of job and career opportunities, but recent graduates and early-career professionals are often unaware of the many options available to them in the life sciences. This article briefly overviews the many job possibilities in the industry, including a link to a recently published book for those wanting an insider’s guide to further employment prospects.

By Josse R. Thomas

The life sciences industry is vast and varied – it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the many different branches. At its core, the industry includes the (bio-)pharmaceutical, biotechnological, and medical technology fields, as well as healthy food, food supplements, and personal care. Combined, this sector employs millions of people in Europe alone, attracting a wide variety of life sciences professionals from many different levels of education and backgrounds. This list includes (but certainly isn’t limited to): Bachelor, Master, or PhD students and post-doctorate researchers, with experience in the pharmaceutical sciences, medicine, biomedical sciences, biotechnology, bioengineering, bioinformatics, data science, biostatistics, veterinary medicine, and many more.

The companies employing workers are equally numerous and diverse. Some are large, multinational businesses operating globally (e.g. ‘big pharma’), while others are smaller companies focused on discovery research and early clinical development (e.g. biotech companies). Others operate as service providers to the first two (e.g. contract research organizations and contract manufacturing organizations). The sector is also very attractive for independent consultants, freelancers, and entrepreneurs looking to start their own company.

A multitude of job opportunities

Clearly, the broad scope of the industry calls for a wide variety and large number of employees, meaning that the potential for a good position and attractive career prospects is high for any talented graduate or early-career professional. These include opportunities throughout the drug/product life cycle, in overarching supportive functions, and in other essential business roles.

Jobs in different stages of the drug/product life cycle

A wide variety of functions are needed all along the drug/product life cycle, including discovery research, development, and commercialization:

  • Discovery research requires biologists, chemists, pharmacologists, biotechnologists, biomedical scientists, (bio-)engineers, and patent specialists.
  • Non-clinical development requires (pharmaceutical) technologists, toxicologists, pharmacokineticists, veterinary surgeons, bio-analytical chemists, and (industrial) pharmacists.
  • Clinical development requires (pharmaceutical) physicians, (clinical/hospital) pharmacists, clinical pharmacologists, and modeling and simulation specialists.
  • Commercialization requires professionals in market access (e.g. health economists, reimbursement experts), medical affairs (e.g. medical advisors, pharmacovigilance experts), and marketing and sales.

Jobs in overarching supportive functions

Throughout the entire drug/product life cycle, the industry also requires professionals in supporting roles, in disciplines such as regulatory affairs, quality management, drug/product safety, manufacturing and distribution, scientific/medical writing, and (bio-)statistics. Companies will also always need people in project and general management, including lower, middle, senior, and top management.

Jobs in other essential business roles

Life sciences companies, just like other businesses or organizations, also rely on general business departments. These include activities such as business intelligence, portfolio management, business development, human resources, training and personal development, information technology, finance and accounting, marketing communications, and legal affairs. Because of the specific nature of the pharmaceutical and biomedical industry, life sciences graduates may find that they have an edge over competitors for positions in some of these more general functions thanks to their science background.

Qualifications and skills in high demand

The sector primarily offers employment opportunities to people qualified in the basic sciences (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and their sub-disciplines), applied sciences (e.g. engineering and biotechnology), or disease management (e.g. medicine, pharmaceutical or biomedical sciences). However, other disciplines are also in high demand, including graduates in (health or pharmaco-) economics, business administration, data science, bioinformatics, statistics, artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, pharmacokinetics and pharmacometrics, and information technology.

Additionally, people with all levels of higher education can find their way in this sector, whether they hold a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degree, or have post-graduate experience. A PhD or post-doc is certainly an asset to jobs in discovery research and non-clinical development. Additional degrees may also be appreciated for positions in clinical development, drug/product commercialization, and general management, including further specialization (e.g. in industrial or hospital pharmacy, specialist or pharmaceutical medicine, or quality management), or a second diploma in a complementary discipline (e.g. a master’s in business administration, health economics, or patent law).

“Talented, motivated life sciences professionals are in high demand. Any new position involves some level of ‘learning on the job’, so don’t let yourself be held back from applying for vacancies by a perceived lack of experience or expertise.”

It’s good to be aware that the life sciences sector is currently experiencing a shortage of talent and needs more capable employees. As such, you can view your educational qualifications simply as a basic entry requirement; prospective employers will likely be more interested in your personal and interpersonal skills. These ‘soft’ skills include things like enthusiasm, motivation, and ambition; a creative mindset; commercial awareness; willingness to travel or relocate abroad; excellent communication skills (both oral and written); ability to work in multidisciplinary teams; digital literacy, or specific software capabilities; as well as networking and leadership skills.

Some highly specialized or senior functions may require specific professional qualifications, but initial lack of experience can often successfully be compensated for with alternatives such as an internship in your (post)graduate education, student jobs, volunteer engagement or leadership in charities, social activities, or even hobby clubs. Remember that talented, motivated life sciences professionals are in high demand. Any new position involves some level of ‘learning on the job’, so don’t let yourself be held back from applying for vacancies by a perceived lack of experience or expertise.

Positive career prospects

The changes for career progression in the life sciences industry are many and include a lot of options for changing your trajectory. You may choose to stay specialized in a particular area, but you can also broaden your competences and become a generalist, eventually working your way up to the executive level. Potential career moves are numerous and include: moving to another type of company; switching from industry into regulations, academia, or venture capitalism; starting an international career; and launching your own company.

Interested in entrepreneurship? Read this article to find out how to build the right team for start-up success!

Participating in the discovery, development, or commercialization of life-changing innovations can be extremely motivating and rewarding. No matter where your journey eventually takes you, we wish you all the best on your first few steps as you embark on a career in the life sciences sector.

More detailed information on these employment prospects can be found in the recently published book Career Options in the Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Industry: An Insider’s Guide, edited by Josse R. Thomas et al., written by over 30 authors with long-term experience in the field, and published by Springer Nature Switzerland AG (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-14911-5).