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Graduates Entering the Pharmaceutical Industry

Graduates Entering the Pharmaceutical Industry


You may not exactly be breaking into the gold vaults at Fort Knox, scaling the heights of MI5 à la James Bond or hacking into The Pentagon security system, but you want to enter the pharmaceutical industry, which can be nearly as difficult.
Last Updated: 27-Aug-2010

You may not exactly be breaking into the gold vaults at , scaling the heights of MI5 à la James Bond or hacking into The Pentagon security system, but you want to enter the pharmaceutical industry, which can be nearly as difficult.  However, the industry is currently undergoing rapid growth and development providing interest and opportunity for the feisty new graduate.  Despite this, available positions are limited and competition is fierce so you have to demonstrate that enthusiasm, drive and ability you know you have.  Read up and be knowledgeable about the industry and your particular area of interest. Show recruiters you have the initiative and skills to get ahead.  Being able to sell yourself is of utmost importance when it comes to getting a job, you are your own PR and you have to market yourself to the right people in the right way.   So here we have pooled our resources in an attempt to provide you with tips from the experts and ways to develop your skills.

Only apply for jobs you know you are suited to and will be happy working in.  Be honest with yourself about your abilities, strengths and weaknesses and whether or not you are trainable for a particular role.  Being able to tightrope walk, juggle three balls and breathe fire all at once, whilst very impressive, doesn’t qualify you to drive a bus.  Make sure you know what positions suit you. As well as helping you avoid too much disappointment and rejection, this will hopefully help you find a more fulfilling career path.

Once a job has caught your eye make enquiries about the details of the position. Ask the employer for a detailed job description and take note of the skills required, as before, be honest with yourself and whether or not you really are a good candidate for the role.  Research the company, its aims, values and strategies.  Knowing your stuff will impress the interviewer and express your enthusiasm to work with the company.  By conducting your own research into the background of the company you will also exemplify good initiative and resourcefulness.

When writing your CV remember to keep it concise and interesting to read, usually a maximum of two pages.  If you do not hold the recruiter’s attention, but bore them with unnecessary detail, they will disregard you.  Keep it relevant to the position you are applying for, listing transferable experience and skills.  Presentation is very important, your CV must be appealing to the eye, well laid out and easy to read.  Do not allow spelling or grammar mistakes to go unchecked.  Communication is vital in this industry and a badly written CV indicates poor communication as well as a lazy attitude and lack of care.  If you have joined an agency they should be able to help you with your CV if you are unsure.

Make sure you prepare well for an interview.  Do not be late as this gives a bad first impression.  Make sure you dress appropriately, it is better to be too smart than too casual.  Try to relax and listen to the questions properly as the interviewer is not trying to catch you out, but only wants to learn more about you and the way you work.   Show them how much research you have done, be friendly and open but try not to let nerves get the better of you as this can lead to waffling and irrelevant conversation.  Remember this is an interview – not a date, don’t be over friendly or ramble on about your personal life.  No one wants to know about your ex’s sister’s girlfriend’s dog Fluffy.  It is a good idea to compile a list of probable questions before the interview so that you have an idea of how you might answer them, but don’t prepare your answers too strictly as you may appear rigid and end up sounding like a politician delivering a rehearsed line – unbelievable.  The interview is as much for you to establish if this is the right company for you as for them to establish if you are the right person for the company so do have some questions ready as it shows your interest.  Ask about the company environment, their ways of working and so on as well as terms and conditions specific to the role. 

- Good Luck!

Linda Eden-Ellis, the Associate Director for PDR Partners, a well established Pharmaceutical recruitment company and Linda Powell an expert on the sales and marketing side of the industry, answer some questions about how graduates can infiltrate the industry and land their first job:

Q: What first steps do you advise?

A: I would advise them to become members of the . Also, do some homework into clinical drug development; there is a wealth of information out there on the internet and a learning centre at the Institute that can be visited in person or remotely.  Further reading is also a good idea; this will get them ahead of the game as the competition for entry level roles is fierce.

The has a website ( ) with useful information and details on how to become a member. Members receive copies of the Institute's journal called Clinical Research Focus. This journal is published 8 times a year and keeps its members up to date with articles on best practice and career development as well as advertising current CRA positions.

Corporate websites are very helpful to provide an insight into the culture of the company and many list job vacancies. The Pharmafile directory can provide you with a list of companies within the . Speaking to someone who is currently working for a pharma company will provide valuable background into current demands and challenges within the industry.

Q: What kind of roles should graduates look for?

A: Outlining the type of entry level roles that graduates should aim for is hard because certain roles are sometimes entry level, but not always.  A client may ask for a Drug Safety Associate with 1 year's experience processing Serious Adverse Event data - that obviously means that it is not appropriate for a new graduate to apply.  However, traditionally the Drug Safety Associate, Data Entry Associate, Clinical Trial Administrator or Medical Information Officer are the ways in.

To move into a marketing role most pharmaceutical companies would expect an individual to have worked in sales as a medical representative. Sales is an excellent foundation for a career within the commercial side of a pharmaceutical company but it’s not an easy option. There is comprehensive training in both therapeutic areas and selling skills.


Q: Where can graduates go to find jobs? 

A: Look at the PharmiWeb web site for entry level jobs in either: Drug Safety, Data Management, or, Clinical Trial Assistant/Administrator, or perhaps in Medical Information.

I would advise new graduates not to apply directly to the pharmaceutical companies for jobs, it is unusual for this to be successful or to hear back.  Do pick some agencies from the ICR's website or from PharmiWeb and call them up and ask to speak to a recruitment consultant.  See if you like the company, how do they treat you on the phone, e.g. do you feel they will work to find you a job?  When you have found 2 or 3 that you like, and you feel have taken time to advise you, then email your CV to them and get them to do the work for you, that's what a good agency should do.

Q: What kind of salary can a graduate expect?

A: Salaries are very broad, if it is a junior Clinical Research Associate role where training is being given it is really more of an apprenticeship and the salary will be quite low, however, most of the new graduates we place will be earning between £17-22 k depending on their qualification and the role they are going into.

Q: What makes an applicant attractive to a recruitment agency or company?


A: Have a clearly laid out, straight forward CV of max 2.5 pages, using a conservative font, starting with personal details, small profile of skills obtained and strengths, qualifications, followed by any work experience at all, ending with a paragraph about hobbies and interests.


Check for spelling and grammatical errors.  Attach a short covering letter setting out why they are looking for a role in clinical research.  Note: very basic point, but if applying for a role in clinical research one of the core requirements will be 'attention to detail' this must be demonstrated by a perfect CV.  It may also be a good idea to attach a passport photo of yourself.

At interview be well informed on the company and their products. Your knowledge will reflect on how interested you really are in working for them.

Q: What kinds of qualifications are most sought after in the Industry?

A: Regarding degrees, some of our clients are more picky, they want to see A level results as well as degrees, a first or a 2:1 is sought after by some clients (not all though), for some people a degree in pharmacology and qualifications to be a pharmacist are seen as a bonus, for a couple of my clients they want PhDs - again though - not all. 

A good Life Science degree is ideal but other degrees have been acceptable to some pharmaceutical companies.


A medical qualification or PhD can be seen as a negative in some entry level teams, the candidate will obviously be more mature and used to working at a certain level on their own projects - it can be hard to go into a team as the dogsbody and stand in front of the photocopier and make coffee.  That is where agencies like us come into their own, we know which clients want a particular kind of profile, for instance for a Clinical Trial Assistant (a super secretary who will administrate the clinical trials in-house) I know that some of my clients will prefer a new life science graduate who has done part-time work in an office and has proven administrations and word processing skills plus their science degree.  I know that they don't want a really ambitious high flyer who will be pressing them every few weeks for additional training and more responsibilities.  I'm not saying that they won't want to develop the CTA, they will, but in due course, in the interim they want someone focused who will support the study team for 18/24 months before thinking about moving on up.

Q: What skills are most desirable in a new graduate?

Good skills to have are a life science degree, a pleasant personality, ability to pay attention to detail, a real interest in clinical drug development, time management, a cool head and lots of energy. 

As well as technical ability graduates would need good interpersonal skills and a mature outlook.  To be successful as a medical representative will require good organisational skills, the ability to work independently, a high level of flexibility and emotional robustness.

Q: How can graduates gain the experience needed to progress to higher level roles?

A: From a career point of view, for sales and marketing, pharmaceutical companies tend to invest significantly in training and personal development for their staff. This provides an individual with their own programme to fit their aspirations. That is not necessarily the case in CROs. CROs tend to expect a broad foundation of knowledge and experience for their sales/business development teams.

Q: How open to recruiting graduates is your company?

A: Pharma companies occasionally have graduate recruitment programmes and many visit universities and colleges specifically to bring in new graduates.

CROs  will also take in new graduates into the roles listed above, sometimes into Junior Clinical Research Associate roles and train them, this is not as frequent as we’d like, the reasons are understandable.  Pharmaceutical companies come to the CROs to contract in experienced staff to populate their clinical trial teams, they would perceive too many inexperienced staff as a risk, although one or two junior members of an experienced team is more acceptable if enough support is given to them.

Q: Are there further qualifications and training which may be helpful?

A: The MSc in Clinical Research run by  in conjunction with the is a useful qualification. Alternatively they can look at one of the shorter courses run by the of or .  This is an independent academy specialising in clinical research and Good Clinical Practice training and certification (where I did my training!) visit their website for more information: