Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Industry Focused: Pharmaceutical Consultancy


When I completed my doctoral studies at the University of Birmingham, I planned to pursue a career in industrial research. I didn't really know what an industry consultant was, let alone intend to become one. So, according to plan, I spent 10 years in research in the pharmaceutical industry (first with Wellcome and then Glaxo Wellcome), but as my career progressed I found myself becoming more and more interested in the strategic challenges facing the industry. The pharmaceutical industry has undergone radical changes in the last 15 years. It has trimmed the fat and become more efficient, but in the next 2 to 5 years the way it operates is going to alter fundamentally. Change is being driven from all sides, particularly through the impact of new technologies across the whole discovery and development process and from changes in the way that health care is funded and delivered.

My fascination with this changing environment was the catalyst for a career change. Now attitudes have changed, but at the time it was difficult for a bench scientist to move into a more strategic role, so I decided to enroll in a distance learning MBA course at Henley Management College. There are many ways of doing an MBA, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, but the great advantage of the distance learning format for me was that it is entirely focused on your own industry. Consequently, in addition to the business training, I got a very broad awareness of the strategic aspects of the pharmaceutical industry coupled with an appreciation of many of the activities downstream of research such as clinical trials, manufacturing, and marketing. When I left Glaxo Wellcome, many people asked me about the MBA and my one piece of advice was, don't do it unless it is going to make a significant change in your career--it really is hard work! Having said that, at the start of my MBA, I didn't really know exactly what I wanted to do at the end of it. I came across the consultancy path in the course of my studies.

In the past, general consultants have been used by the pharmaceutical industry in cost reduction exercises or mergers and acquisitions. But now the pervading beliefs about consultants ("They don't know anything about our industry or the science--they talk of rationalisation and process reengineering when they mean redundancies") are being overtaken by a recognition that using outsiders with specialist knowledge can have its advantages when dealing with the massive changes the industry is facing. Whilst there is still a need for what might be termed generalists in consultancy, more and more consulting organisations are arranging themselves into industry-specialised groups. In the course of my MBA reading I had seen articles from Steve Arlington's group at what was then Coopers and Lybrand, and I became interested in the way they were trying to push thinking in the industry.

I wrote to Steve to discuss some work for my MBA, and it was then that I decided I would like to join the group once I had completed my studies. Fortunately for me, Steve thought the same! It was my broad understanding of the strategic issues gained through my MBA, together with my basic scientific training in molecular biology and genomics, that equipped me for a role in specialist consultancy in the drug discovery area and I joined the team in 1998. But what exactly do industry-focused consultants do?

Our work is broadly split between client work and in-house strategic development work. For me these are both equally enjoyable. The strategic thinking is based on trying to understand the forces shaping the industry, the impact this is likely to have, and developing services with our clients to be prepared for them and to remain competitive. For example, how can companies manage the challenges and opportunities posed by the new genome technologies and increase productivity to sustain the historic levels of return to shareholders? We have published a number of forward-looking reports over the last 2 years known as the PricewaterhouseCoopers "Pharma 2005" series, which have generated a lot of debate and interest. In fact, we know we are achieving one of our aims when people start quoting our work without attributing it!

However, the bulk of the work is based with clients. This is moving away from the short-duration "fee for service" type work to long-term service-based relationships, often with other service or technology providers. The reason for this is that no one company can supply all the skills required for the complex projects that are now being undertaken in the industry, so pharmaceutical companies will work with consultancies, specialist software houses, and technology providers. Typical of this is a piece of work that I have been driving, looking at how the industry can start to deliver the required levels of productivity from high-throughput screening (HTS). To survive, companies have to set high targets for the launch of new products. Working back down the R&D chain, this translates into high targets for the HTS department. To achieve those targets, improving existing process is not enough; rather, a completely new model is needed. This is the basis of the Drug Discovery Factory, a concept based on industrial level automation, production, and operational engineering approaches; sophisticated supply chain and logistics strategies; and new organisational models. As a consequence, it requires a broad palette of skills not found within the industry, which PwC and its partners (e.g., The Automation Partnership) can bring together as part of a multidisciplinary, long-term project that works very closely with the clients. Personally, aside from interest in the project, I am exposed to leading-edge thinking in a wide variety of disciplines that I have never encountered before.

In general terms, this is one of the great appeals of the job. I work with very high-calibre people on very interesting jobs with senior members of client organisations. The work is very challenging and I am still close to the science that I enjoyed so much at Glaxo Wellcome. Of course the job is well paid, but it is also genuinely meritocratic and you have the potential to manage your own career. But of course, nothing is perfect. Consultancy is a demanding job with long hours and it will take you away from home and family. It can be frustrating and is not a job for someone who likes their diary confirmed for the next 3 months and tackles one project at a time.

So, if after reading this you think that consultancy is for you, what sort of people are we looking for? It is assumed that you will have a pharmaceutical functional expertise gained from at least 4 years in the industry and an understanding of the strategic issues affecting the industry. This is required for credibility in front of clients. You must be a person who will deliver on time and push things through to completion, sometimes against significant resistance. You will be able to handle ambiguity and change and be ready to challenge colleagues and clients alike in an objective and logical way. But you must be able to read situations in client organisations and know when to act openly and when to take an issue offline. Above all, you must be a robust character who can work independently or as part of a team and will deliver high-quality results to your clients.

And if you choose to pursue your career in the pharmaceutical industry itself, remember what you have read--in the changing way consultancy is delivered, more often than not when the consultants are brought in they represent an opportunity, rather than a threat.

The opinions expressed here reflect a purely personal perspective and do not necessarily reflect the views of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers