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The Pharmaceutical Industry needs Pharmacists – How can we move them from behind the counter?

The Pharmaceutical Industry needs Pharmacists – How can we move them from behind the counter?


There are certainly a variety of challenges available in industry but it often means moving to different parts of the company and uprooting to get that variety.
Last Updated: 27-Aug-2010

In our discussions with QA Directors, Heads of Development, Regulatory Affairs Managers and other decision makers in the industry giants, the mid-sized and small companies, a topic that always seems to raise their blood pressure is the lack of Pharmacists entering the industry.  It is an issue that people feel passionately about, especially the Pharmacists who have made their careers in industry.  They trained with their peers so why do they get to work alongside so few of them?

The industry needs more pharmacists to join.  Anyone familiar with the issues behind the current and continuing demand for QP’s knows this, so why do so few explore the industrial option?  Is it just an industry myth that in the great outside world there are opportunities for better pay, challenging work, wide variety and career prospects or can we sell this as the reality?


Pay unfortunately doesn’t automatically increase or become a bonanza just because you’re a pharmacist.  Much as it may seem that the hours and years of study deserve a commensurate reward, the status of being a pharmacist does not merit any greater recognition for dedication than any other scientific degree in industry.

However, compared to the reputation of being lowly paid in the public sector, the gap is narrowing and there are added advantages of, for instance, greater job security.

There is no doubt that in the short term the newly qualified pharmacist who takes the community locum route can earn more than the newly qualified pharmacist walking through the gates of industry on his or her first day.  This can be countered, however, by a virtually guaranteed increase in income every year in industry.   Alternatively, should industry place a premium on pharmacist’s qualifications with a “bounty” or similar to encourage them to take jobs in industry?

Leadership skills and potential.

Those entering industry are judged against wider criteria than general community or hospital pharmacists with employers looking for skills such as potential leadership and people management skills.  The type, size and location of company will also play a factor in the attraction, with a small contract manufacturer in the Northwest offering different conditions etc than a global pharma company in the Southeast.  There is also the sheer variety of roles and disciplines open to the newly qualified pharmacist with, for instance, a manufacturing based role and R&D positions.

As careers develop, the disparity between the community and industry starts to emerge, but this is of course dependent on climbing the career ladder.  There is no doubt that the industry pays well at a senior level with benefits such as cars, shares, pensions and healthcare.  This reflects well against those who reach a senior level in the community although private pharmacists can use the tax breaks in place for self employed and have the ability to decide their own salary and benefits according to how hard they work.

Technical ladder

The greatest difference is that pharmacists at a senior level in industry will probably have become people and department managers whilst those outside will have remained more “hands on” with less experience of high level, remote management. 

At least, this used to be the case as, interestingly, industry has become more inclined in recent years to encourage people to climb the technical ladder rather than force them down the people management route.  This has led to the technical guru developing the earning power of the manager or director, allowing them to gain the benefits that are on offer to the high achievers.

Job Security

Funnily enough, being a pharmacist does not bestow some magical powers of invincibility when it comes to the redundancy cycle.  It does not guarantee precedence over other qualified staff that have knowledge and experience in other directions and disciplines.

What with the mergers of the larger pharmaceutical companies and takeovers of the “minnows” there is a standard acceptance of staff shedding, this is definitely not an attraction in industry at the moment. It can feel like walking on a knife edge of and those not of a steely disposition or made jittery by each new rumour may be better off out of it!

In contrast there is always a demand for pharmacists in the private sector and not enough to go around. In fact we know quite a few QPs who keep their hand in at the weekend, just in case. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t really work the other way around.

Career Prospects

This is where industry scores heavily.  Career prospects in industry are huge for the right people with the right interests and willingness to move forward and develop both themselves and the company.
This could be the encouragement for a large number of pharmacists – the ability to be able to move into an unknown area and develop by moving onwards and upwards. 

Dusty Boxes

In industry,  pharmacists can be seen as boring professionals who enjoy nothing better than sitting behind dusty boxes of Christmas gifts and shelves of limited life stock?  A career with variety in industry can take them out of mainstream pharmaceuticals and makes them use their minds in a different way.

There are of course career prospects outside of industry but mainly around expanding a business under ones control – sort of a career but within quite tight boundaries of expertise.  In the public sector there is a very tight pyramid of career progression with a definite ceiling on heights to rise.

Challenges and politics

People often cite ‘challenges’ as the reason they chose a particular career path. Challenges are present in all roles and jobs and maybe those posed by industry are not the right ones, or challenging enough, for everyone as a challenge has to be exciting and interesting to the individual to make it worth pursuing.

It is hard to believe that in a large pharma company with its myriad of such challenges for the pharmacist - from developing the next blockbuster to solving a manufacturing issue to liasing with the regulatory bodies….the list is endless - that someone could not find a suitable challenge. Meeting those challenges with forward thinking, hard work and producing the result that was aimed for is incredibly satisfying.

A global career choice

There are certainly a variety of challenges available in industry but it often means moving to different parts of the company and uprooting to get that variety. The option or career choice that the pharmacist wishes to pursue may not be attainable in the local pharmaceutical company, so the only option may be to relocate. This can be within the UK. Europe or further afield and is the reason why most companies have an excellent relocation policy and package. The exposure to new companies, cultures, processes, procedures and people can be highly stimulating and challenging. It is rare, to be honest, that the community pharmacist is asked to move to Switzerland or the USA or to a new plant in China.

It should also be noted that in a multi-national company there are also the challenges of internal politics, changes in company direction and working in teams frequently pulling in different directions. Some might comment that they find this in the average branch of Boots as well.

But, the challenges of running a pharmacy either privately or in the public sector are also there in abundance.  In the making of stock and staff decisions or responding rapidly to requests and demands 24hrs a day in situations that only you can handle without recourse to colleagues or committees to make the decisions for you. Decisions that directly affect the patient in front of you.  We should use the skills needed to cope with those challenges in the industrial forum.  There is strength in independent decision making and rapid response which industry could benefit from.
In a private pharmacy variety comes with everyday operations, the people contact, different products and activities involved in the running of a business.  In the public sector pharmacies the variety is present, again, in the everyday working of new products, daily changes and constant review of the working environment.  This is not dissimilar to running a department or section within industry in companies where “empowerment” is a strong cultural ethos.

The Future

How can industry make the prospect of work for pharmacists more attractive and how do pharmacists need to change their attitude to encourage both themselves and their peers to move into different lives?
Many pharmacists seem blissfully unaware of the careers and experience that industry can offer them. This is why the Chemists and Biologist outnumber them, as they are encouraged from the outset to be focusing on industrial careers.

Industry also needs to do its bit in making the workplace and environment a much more welcoming place for a well-structured and dedicated profession. Many pharmacists site the flexibility of locum work as a driver in taking this route, unaware that many pharmaceutical companies offer flexible working arrangements and indeed have done so for years.

Unfortunately pharmacists are seen by some unenlightened HR managers in the pharmaceutical industry as employees with a “different” degree to all the other scientific employees and not as specialists in the same category as medics.  Maybe this is an attitude that has to change. Many roles would benefit from the pharmacists expertise and the qualification is often on the ‘wish-list’ of attributes for roles such as tech transfer or auditing. Many times the role is filled by someone from a different discipline simply because there are not any pharmacist applicants

We recognise that not every pharmacist wants to join the industry and that some will always be more comfortable behind the counter or dispensing and advising in hospitals. Not all will want to face the demands and stresses that can come with working in an industry that is constantly focused on cost saving and time to market. But we should be making people more aware of the choices available to them and help them to weigh up the risks and the benefits.

We need to see an expansion of the industrial placement concept by making industry more responsible for encouraging industrial careers and the
Pharmaceutical Society challenging the concept of pharmacist use in industry. 

This will place greater emphasis on the skills that pharmacists can offer rather than the current stereotype of shop/pharmacy workers.

All those involved need to ensure that the budding young pharmacist is made aware of the challenges and career choices , so they can make an informed decision before setting off down a career path that may well shape their entire future.

Schools of Pharmacy need to extend their industrial curriculum to give better and more positive illustrations of what the pharmaceutical industry has to offer.  There appears to be a fixed attitude that the schools are only there to turn out pharmacists who have all the basic knowledge but whose principal role in life is to dispense drugs.  This has to change.  Maybe the course material is old hat and dictated by the powers that be in the RPS – if so,  it needs to be challenged and brought up to date with modern thinking, more flexible attitudes and encouragement to learn the new opportunities available.  Don’t just teach knowledge – look to the future and how to use it.

Mike Breese and Jeff Webb

Mike Breese; Mike is an Interim Manager with over 25 years experience in the Pharmaceutical and Biotech industries.  He has worked in all areas of Pharmaceutical Quality and Production from R&D to finished product and at sites and facilities throughout the world and is a registered QP. As a consultant to the industry he offers a range of services including QP release, Quality System and organisational review and process improvement. Mike can be contacted at and on 01279 506382

Jeffrey Webb; Jeff is Head of Practice – Operations for BarrettWebb, a specialist pharmaceutical Executive Search consultancy. Jeff has ten years production management experience and has operated as a consultant within the pharmaceutical sector for the last seven years. He has delivered search assignments across Europe, specialising in QA at a senior level, Regulatory Affairs, Manufacturing, Development and Tech Transfer and is known for writing and presenting on QP issues. Jeff can be contacted at and on 01727 857755