Case Studies: Working in Pharmaceutical Companies

Guest post by Tom Davies, Careers Information Officer, King’s Careers & Employability

In this post we’ll aim to summarise some of the main points and advice given by each of the four speakers, all of whom are King’s alumni, at the recent event.

Dr Sarah Collington, Novartis

First up was Sarah, who works as a Medical Science Liaison for Novartis. Sarah’s first experience of working in the pharmaceutical industry came during her studies at King’s, where she spent her extramural year conducting research at GSK. While studying for her PhD Sarah realised that while still interested in science, she wanted a role that didn’t focus purely on this. In anticipation of this, and wanting to improve her commercial acumen, she also got involved in a couple of business related societies, an experience that was recommended to anyone potentially interested in a career path in this area. After some research and a couple of years working in different roles, she started working as a Medical Science Liaison, a role she’s been in for around two years.

A Medical Science Liaison sits between the research and commercial branches of a pharma company, and Sarah’s main tasks include assisting sales reps with medical or technical questions, and helping to resolve operational matters relating to medical trials, although she was keen to stress the flexible nature of the work she does. In summarising, Sarah said that she was really enjoying her role; she will always feel like a scientist in her heart, and while the role isn’t lab-based, it still allows her to think and feel like one.

Dr Steve Ludbrook, GSK

Steve decided he wanted to work at GSK as a result of doing an industrial placement year there during his BSc Biochemistry degree. Though he enjoyed his year working at GSK, it also reaffirmed the value of doing a PhD, after seeing that almost everyone working in the areas he was interested in possessed one. After returning to King’s to complete his PhD, Steve’s now worked at GSK for 20 years, with 15 of those spent in his current role as Group Leader in Technology Platforms and & Capability Screening. His main responsibilities are to manage lab-based projects, as well as line managing other members of staff working on these. It’s this collaborative working that Steve cited as one of the main positive elements of the role – working on projects with other talented people who have similar goals an aims in mind is something that he finds very rewarding.

There’s definite challenges though. This area of work is not particularly stable, with Steve citing the fact that the Research and Development arm of GSK has been cut to a third of the size it was when he started as evidence of this. Your everyday work can also be quite turbulent, with projects you’ve been working on for years not safe from being cut at a moment’s notice. Great amounts of resilience are necessary to deal with these testing situations. New starters, particularly those coming in from PhD or postdoc level, can also find the move from working individually to an insistence upon collaborative management of projects challenging.

Dr Fatos Bejta, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals

Fatos’ association with the pharmaceutical industry goes back to his days as a student, when he completed an industrial placement with GSK, who also part-funded his PhD. Despite this link, and unlike the first two panellists, Fatos’ career didn’t begin in the industry, but with the MHRA, a branch of the Civil Service who act as the regulator for new medicines, devices and more.

He moved over to an industry role after he was headhunted and offered a substantial pay rise. His time at this organisation ended when he lost his job after massive cuts were made, and this was also how his second role in industry ended. As Fatos said, this is an unfortunate reality of working in pharma, and you should be aware of it before you begin. He now works as a Senior Clinical Quality Management Specialist for Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, which largely consists of auditing the firm’s sites across the world for things such as drug safety and clinical data amongst other things.

Dr Parastoo Karoon, Amgen

Parastoo completed a BSc in Pharmacology and a PhD in Neuroscience, but realised during her studies that she found lab work repetitive and unfulfilling, so started looking for alternatives. Like Fatos she begun in the MHRA, where she worked on attempting to influence policy surrounding the issuing of child dosages, an issue she felt passionately about. She then moved to an even more policy-focused role, which led to her being part of a team who successfully lobbied the EU parliament for a change in regulations.

Typical roles in this line of work include assessors and pharmaceutical advisors, but Parastoo was keen to advise students not to get too hung up on applying only for their perfect role. Competition for vacancies is strong, but once you’ve got your foot in the door you’ll find that new positions will tend to favour internal applicants, giving you the opportunity to move into a role or policy area more matched to your interests.

Parastoo now works on the other side of the regulation floor, overseeing the research and evidence for new products for Amgen and advising them of any changes that need to be made before they go to regulation committee. Amgen has 8-10 internships/placements a year which are advertised here.

General advice from the Q&A

  • When writing your CV and cover letter for positions in industry, take care not to talk in too much detail about academia and specific technical skills unless they can clearly be tied into an aspect of the job/person specification. Unlike academic positions, where academics might have time to wade through pages and pages of information, recruiters in industry are likely to be very busy, so try to catch their eye and not make them work too hard to understand why you can be an asset. Your CV should be no more than two pages.
  • If you’re invited to interview, you will normally be expected to deliver a presentation as part of it. Be prepared for this, and if you’re not confident in your presentation skills, start thinking about ways you can practice!
  • Make sure that you do your research on the companies that you’re applying to, and again when you’re invited to interview. Their Pipelines are a good place to start, and should be easily locatable on their website.
  • Linked to the last point, Parastoo also advised students to try and identify companies to apply to who are innovative and pushing the boundaries of research, as working for such organisations can often be more fulfilling and interesting.