Careers in biotech and pharma—Where's the heat?

This Advertising Feature has been commissioned, edited, and produced by the Science/AAAS Custom Publishing Office

Rapid advances in biotechnology and pharmaceutical sciences generate some of the hottest careers in science. The industry experts interviewed here describe lifelong opportunities in new fields—such as pharmacogenetics—and more traditional pursuits—such as basic pharmacology. In addition, these experts lay out some softer and harder skills that can make the difference in getting the best job.

AstraZeneca (
KAI Pharmaceuticals (
Merck (
Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (
Roche (
Serono (

The general press often reports ups and downs for both the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. Despite all of that, the experts interviewed here expect continuing growth and hiring. Dan Guaglianone, executive director of corporate staffing for research labs at Merck, says, "We’re hiring—drug discovery through development and everywhere in between." Many other companies concur.

For example, Ginger Gregory, global head of human resources for Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, the research arm of Novartis AG, says, "We work on different therapeutics at different sites, but we are growing at most of those locations." Overall, Novartis sites cover 140 countries and include more than 81,000 employees.

The pharmaceutical industry, in general, requires a wide range of expertise. Steve Arkinstall, vice president of Serono’s U.S. research, says, "In the drug industry, we often look for scientists with skills that may be seen as distinct from directly supporting the development of new drugs." For example, people with skills in basic biological research can play fundamental roles in the pharmaceutical industry. Also, Arkinstall says that it’s challenging to hire people with some areas of expertise, especially protein engineering, production, and purification. He explains, "Someone who can take cDNA and make large quantities of a protein is fundamental to the success of early stage, biotherapeutic drug discovery programs."

The current needs in biotech and pharma, however, go beyond entirely modern approaches. Many of the experts interviewed here express needs for people trained in traditional pharmacology. The key to future successes in biotech and pharma, however, will surely combine techniques of the past and present.

Skills in Demand

Today’s biotech and pharma industries need people with various skills. For example, Aileen Allsop, vice president of science policy at AstraZeneca, immediately mentions the value of understanding chemistry. She also notes the value of experience in whole animal biology and toxicology, and then adds, "In Europe, we are finding that the numbers of people studying these subjects are decreasing, and the number of academic departments teaching these areas is also declining."

Experts from other companies also see rather specific skills in demand. Jim Tomlinson, senior scientist II, cell biology, at KAI Pharmaceuticals, sees a lack of highly qualified people in bioanalytical areas associated with pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics, often known simply as PK and PD, respectively. From Roche, Jeanne Lyon, senior vice president of human resources, provides an even longer list of needs: biomarker knowledge, genetics, genomics, medicinal chemistry, drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics, and neuroscience. She adds, "Increases in regulatory stringency also drive needs for people skilled in safety areas."

Lyon’s mention of biomarkers reflects the beliefs of other experts, as well. "As personalized medicine comes closer to reality," says Guaglianone, "there will be more emphasis on the use of biomarkers in the drug development process. There is already lots of energy around identifying biomarkers for potential drug candidates."

Gregory of Novartis says, "We have needs across many disease areas and technologies." For example, she mentions that for all therapeutic areas there is ongoing research in small molecules and increasingly in proteins as well. In thinking of the large molecules, she says, "Experience in biologics is very valuable."

Some of the skills in demand, however, go beyond science. As Corinna Patmore, lead recruitment partner for research and development at AstraZeneca, explains: "We are broadening our portfolio of companies, so we are always looking for people with good commercial skills, such as in-licensing or managing collaborations." Such broadening often increases the global features of a company, too. "People at senior levels," says Patmore, "often need the ability to work in different countries and understand different cultures."

Is Anybody Hiring?

Jobs do exist. Lyon says, "We’ve hired more than 70 researchers in the last year." Many of those people were hired in therapeutic areas: autoimmunity, transplantation, neurosciences, and virology.

In the near future, some of these experts expect even more jobs in biotech and pharma. Guaglianone of Merck says, "Our industry is looking at a limited, high skilled, highly educated talent pool, and the jobs outstrip the pool." He adds, "The U.S. educational system is not graduating enough scientists, engineers, and mathematicians." (For more on opportunities for physical scientists, see the accompanying "The Harder Side of Biotech & Pharma.") Guaglianone draws a simple conclusion: "We need a bigger talent pool."

For current job hunters, though, an inadequate talent pool is good news. Tomlinson says, "KAI is in a major growth phase, increasing in size by greater than 30 percent." With so many positions coming up, Tomlinson says, "it’s a seller’s market right now."

Getting a Seller’s Edge

How does an aspiring scientist become someone with the right skills for sale? Despite the common advice to gain breadth, it’s not always the best approach, according to Allsop of AstraZeneca. "We’re seeing a dilution of skills happening in university degree systems," she says. "We often find youngsters from their first degree to have little experience in practical science, and that makes it hard to engage them in industry." To solve that issue of dilution, students should take every opportunity to get more experience in a lab or even find an internship in industry. Also, Allsop recommends a focused first degree over some combination of majors. For example, instead of combining chemistry and finance in a first degree, Allsop says, "a degree in pure chemistry will make the world your oyster. If you want finance too, you can add that later."

For those who do want to mix science and business, many universities offer special M.B.A. programs for scientists who already have a Ph.D. "There is a huge return on investment for companies when employees can bring business concepts and principles to bear on science," says Guaglianone. Someone can bring that perspective to a company by getting a solid background in a specific science and then adding business skills. Guaglianone points out that most Ph.D./M.B.A. students go to the marketing and sales side of industry. "In the future," he says, "I think there will be lots of demand for those people on the science side, primarily in project management"


When it comes to getting hired at Novartis, Gregory says, "We want people who are engaged in cutting-edge science. We seek scientists who are doing extremely high quality work yet also innovating to find novel treatments for patients." Being part of a company that covers so many therapeutic areas and regions of the world, she adds, "our scientists must collaborate well with each other and actively seek opportunities to innovate. We all need to work together to create the best medicine for our patients as quickly as possible."

Arkinstall of Serono looks beyond bench skills. "One thing that is really important across the board is personal leadership skills," he says. "These cannot be underestimated." He adds, "So many times great scientists are unable to communicate to nonscientists outside of their area of expertise. This is an essential skill because drug development teams are multidisciplinary." That ability to communicate can determine which projects survive. As Arkinstall explains: "Lots of projects that start within companies are very good but can die because they do not have internal champions." Consequently, some projects do not get sold convincingly.

The best career preparation, however, might come from a young scientist’s heart. "You’ve got to be on fire for your subject," says Arkinstall. Virtually any area of biology can be applied to drug discovery and development. "So look at where you are on fire," Arkinstall says, "and then find out how that fits into the biotech or pharma business."

Tomorrow’s Transitions

Anyone looking toward a career in biotech or pharma should also consider the futures of these fields. Making predictions about future directions, though, proves extremely difficult for anyone outside these industries. Even different experts predict various futures.

From a perspective at Roche, Lyon sees lots of work on biomarkers in the years ahead. But as she looks for people prepared to do that kind of work, she says, "We’re not seeing huge numbers of people graduating with the right background to work on biomarkers. It is our challenge to get more young people to pursue those areas."

Many of the experts do point in the same general direction: research that leads to medical advances. "Translational medicine is moving very fast, leading to the demand for new skills and techniques, such as pathway analysis, imaging, and biomarker specialists," says Patmore of AstraZeneca. "However, there will always be an underlying demand for core skills, like synthetic chemistry and biologists with in vivo skills."

Many of those future medical advances will involve pharmacogenetics. Arkinstall thinks this will become a hot topic for many companies. "This will take a good understanding of the theory behind human genetics," he says. "In 10 to 20 years, targeted therapies will demand matching therapeutics with specific patients. Drugs will require such matching as an integral part of development, even starting early in discovery." He adds that his company already delivers lead molecules with a biomarker package. "That way," he says, "we already have endpoints that could be developed for the clinic." Tomlinson of KAI Pharmaceuticals agrees that the future will include an increasing use of targeted therapy. He says, "Scientists will focus on trying to design better clinical studies and trying to understand which compounds can be used more effectively in smaller populations of patients."

The Harder Side of Biotech & Pharma

Today’s world of biotech and pharma opens opportunities for many scientists from the physical side. That means that people with backgrounds in computer science, engineering, mathematics, physics, and so on could build productive careers in biotech or pharma. Moreover, the needs for such specialists appear to be growing.

All biotech and pharma companies need experts in the physical sciences for a variety of tasks. "The formulation and delivery of drugs and the development of new devices for distribution are big areas now and will be even bigger in the next five years," says Tomlinson of KAI Pharmaceuticals. "And those areas require engineers." At AstraZeneca, Aileen Allsop and Corinna Patmore both point to the growing value of imaging in pharma. "There has been fantastic progress in using imaging to understand disease and the impact of treatment," says Allsop. "Most big pharmas have imaging groups." Those groups depend on computational scientists, engineers, and physicists.

Several of the experts interviewed for this article also see a growing need for mathematicians. For instance, Allsop says mathematicians prove invaluable in projects related to systems biology. Also, Dan Guaglianone says that Merck "hires a lot of math majors with an emphasis in statistics to analyze clinical trial data."

At the later stages of drug development, biotech and pharma turn to engineers once more. "When we go from clinical trials to full-scale manufacturing," says Guaglianone, "the engineering talent required is crucial." In thinking of the overall needs for engineers, mathematicians, and physicists, Guaglianone says, "There are tremendous opportunities."

Also, biologics—pharmaceuticals made from biological building blocks—will play an increasing role in the future of pharma. "Many big pharmas now have new portfolios of biological molecules," says Allsop. "Some of the skills we require for this are the same as for small molecules, and others are not the same." She adds, "Biologics will be a growth area as an increasing number of them get in development and toward the marketplace."

Some very specialized areas also promise lots of opportunities just ahead. Two such areas are M.D.s who specialize in cardiology or oncology. These areas—already called "the hottest out there" by Guaglianone—could get even hotter. "It’s the hardest space that we recruit in," he says. "Lots of pharmas are focusing on it. That makes it difficult to find people who can manage clinical trials."

With so many opportunities in biotech and pharma, anyone interested in this field will do best by following Arkinstall’s advice: "Listen to your heart and then match that against skills needed in the industry. Only then can you be a leader in it."

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