So you want to get into Pharma ?

It’s always useful to hear personal stories from people who have left research to work in other career sectors. John is employed as the Scientific Team Leader in Drug Metabolism and Phamacokinetics (DMPK) at a Global Contract Research Organisation:

Job Description
Contract research organisations (CROs) conduct research work outsourced by pharmaceutical and medical companies. This includes screening, non-clinical testing, toxicology studies, safety pharmacology and metabolism, right through to clinical studies in man with supporting regulatory affairs and final approval.
As the scientific team leader, I work in a ‘matrix environment’. That is, we operate in pools of expertise from which we source people internally who will fulfil roles along the drug pipeline. Amongst other roles, I act as the Project Manager on early development Metabolism and Clinical studies, and lead the matrix pool of other Study Directors within the company. For my own DMPK study group, I design and manage the non-clinical and clinical studies associated with the metabolism aspects of the drug development pipeline. I will meet with the client to agree the work required, after which the study is designed including an outline budget and time-frame. The Study Director then drafts the protocol which is carried through by the operational staff (usually graduate bioscientists). We trace the radio-labelled form of the compound of interest (e.g. potential anti-HIV, anti-cancer, diabetes drugs, etc.) in animal and human subjects, following its fate. Excreta samples are analysed to determine routes and rates of excretion, as well as blood and plasma samples for pharmacokinetic studies. The structural identities of metabolites are elucidated through metabolite profiling including mass spectrometry.
As well as running my own research study group, my role is focussed on business development with my primary responsibility being to look after our clients (new, old, current, lapsed, etc.). I need to generate new business and identify new clients primarily in Europe but also further afield in the US and Japan. This involves visiting and hosting clients, liaising with heads of department and commercial groups. In addition, we organise scientific symposia and make presentations at conferences, and are at the forefront of driving new regulatory guidance for the work we conduct.
Following my PhD in Cell Biology I progressed to a three-year postdoctoral position at the same university looking at the effect of statins on cholesterol homeostasis which led me into the field of drug metabolism. However, looking ahead I could see that the metabolism department was moving in a different direction so that within 5 – 8 years I would need to move on. Therefore, I decided it would be better to move sooner rather than later so that I could secure more stable employment early in my career. I was not relishing the prospect of having to move on every three years in academia and I knew that tenured positions were few and far between. I applied for quite a lot of jobs in the first instance. Big pharma was booming at this time, but I was more interested in working for a CRO as I considered them to be more flexible and adaptable to changes.
I was offered my first job in a large CRO where I worked as a senior scientist for 5 years. During the last 18 months of this job I learned the responsibilities of a Study Director which enabled me to apply for a Senior Study Director post at a small CRO, where I ended up as Head of the Laboratory and Study Director Group. From there I moved into my current employment within a large global company which, although a lower position than my previous one, I considered it would place me in a more secure position. I have since moved through grades at my current company and now head the Study Director group responsible for all in vivo pre-clinical and clinical Metabolism studies.
Advice to researchers considering a career in industry
Match up your personal preferences
My decision to move into industry was not easy at the beginning. I knew that the working environment would be very different to that of a university; I would be more accountable and be working in a bigger group, I would probably have to start at a lower level and would not know anyone. However, my desire for stability and a more secure employment structure prompted me to move out of academia after my first postdoc, as I envisaged this would probably be inevitable in the long-run anyway.
Skills and attitude
The interview process for getting into industry is quite different than for postdoctoral posts so you need to be well prepared. Don’t be concerned about ‘commercial awareness’ as employers will be more interested in your laboratory and personal skills. Every pharma company operates Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) adhering to legal codes of practice. Therefore you will need to demonstrate accurate recording of data and excellent chain of custody practices (the chronological documentation of information). In addition, your ability to work in a team and to be flexible will be tested. Most pharma and other large companies operate a ‘targeted selection’ process which means they will be looking for your ability to apply your skills and knowledge into particular situations. They don’t want people who are rigid and wedded to one specific aspect of research. They need senior scientists who have a positive can-do attitude who can adapt and have the potential for leadership. Interview questions will test applicants’ initiative and positive outlook.

This blog was extracted from ‘Career planning for Research Bioscientists – for more career stories see Career Narratives (Appendix 1 of the book).
To look for job advertisements use my career resources page


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