If you want push scientific boundaries or think you're capable of making the next big breakthrough the science and pharmaceuticals sector has a lot to offer, but first you'll need the right qualifications and skills
What areas of science and pharmaceuticals can I work in?
Areas of employment include:
- academic research
- food science
- forensic science
- healthcare science
- life sciences
- marine biology
- materials science
- oil and gas
There are also opportunities in commercial areas such as IT, finance and human resources (HR). You could also consider science-related careers in healthcare, engineering and manufacturing, energy and utilities, environment and agriculture or media and internet. Discover 10 alternative science careers.
Who are the main graduate employers?
There are hundreds of science and pharmaceutical companies operating in the UK and many regularly feature in top graduate employer rankings. These include:
- Associated British Foods
- Cancer Research UK
- Charles River Laboratories
- Croda Europe Ltd
- Met Office
- Procter & Gamble (P&G)
- Reckitt Benckiser (RB)
- Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
- The Technology Partnership (TTP)
Jobs within science and pharmaceuticals also exist in public sector bodies such as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Ministry of Defence (MOD), local government and the National Health Service (NHS). Universities, research organisations and environmental consultancies also provide opportunities
What's it like working in the sector?
You can expect:
- some jobs, such as crime scene investigator and astronomy positions, to be highly competitive
- a demanding working environment
- to occasionally find the work stressful and time consuming. You'll need to meet tight deadlines and solve problems quickly
- to work in multidisciplinary teams
- an average starting salary of between £18,000 and £25,000, progressing to beyond £100,000 in certain roles if you have plenty of experience. For example, senior roles in clinical psychology and principle or consultant clinical scientist roles in audiology, biochemistry, genomics and immunology can all demand salaries in excess of £100,000. Senior toxicologist can also earn in excess of £90,000.
- the opportunity to complete academic research or undertake an industrial R&D role
- a varied working environment including laboratories, clinics, hospitals, offices and factories
- self-employment and freelance work to be possible in some roles
- the opportunity to travel locally. Some jobs such as clinical research associate and medical science liaison can involve a significant amount of travelling.
- the work to carry a high level of responsibility.
To find out more about typical salaries and working conditions in your chosen career, see job profiles.
Do I need a related degree?
This depends on the job that you'd like to do. However, for most jobs you'll need a Bachelors degree. Many employers look for graduates with an undergraduate qualification in a science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) subject.
Some roles demand particular qualifications. For example, an analytical chemist will need a degree in chemistry, food technologists require an undergraduate degree in a food-related subject such as nutrition, food safety or food science, and those working in drug development or research will need a degree in chemistry, biology or pharmacology. If you have ambitions to become a forensic scientist, see forensic science degrees for more information on qualifications and courses.
Postgraduate qualifications such as Masters degrees and PhDs are highly valued in the sector and are often a prerequisite for certain jobs. For example; you'll need an accredited Masters in pharmacy to become a community pharmacist. Most oceanographers also have a Masters or PhD, as do the majority of neuroscientists. Areas of work such as biotechnology and astrophysics also often demand a research Masters or Doctorate.
What skills do science and pharmaceutical employers want?
You'll need to show:
- analytical, methodological problem-solving skills and logical, objective thinking
- excellent observational skills and attention to detail
- commercial awareness
- an enquiring mind
- communication and interpersonal skills
- strong IT and numeracy skills
- good time management
- an open-minded approach to new ideas and concepts
- planning, organisation and project management skills
- presentation skills
- scientific, technical or research skills
- the ability to work well in multidisciplinary teams.
Where can I get work experience?
Competition for science and pharmaceutical jobs is fierce and in all roles work experience is useful, not only for giving you a taste of what the work involves, but also in helping you to stand out to employers.
Four-year, science-based sandwich degrees are available at UK universities, offering a year in industry where you can gain valuable knowledge and technical skills. However, if your course does not provide a compulsory placement, consider applying directly to companies for schemes.
Some of the largest employers in the sector, such as AstraZeneca, GSK, the Met Office, Reckitt Benckiser (RB), P&G and the STFC all offer internship opportunities. Work experience schemes range from three-month summer internships to a year in industry. In many cases, internships are used as talent spotting exercises for a company's graduate scheme.
The Wellcome Trust also offers science-based internships.
If you're struggling to gain a place on a formal internship programme try applying speculatively to local laboratories, hospital and university departments and research and development centres.
Can I do a science and pharmaceutical graduate scheme?
Graduate schemes last between one and three years and are provided by organisations such as AstraZeneca, GSK, Reckitt Benckiser (RB), Novartis, Pfizer, the NHS and the STFC.
AstraZeneca offer 12 graduate pathways including schemes in data science and AI, research and development (R&D), precision medicine, technology graduate leadership, pharmaceutical technology and development and biopharmaceuticals.
You can search for graduate science and pharmaceutical jobs in trade magazines and the specialist press, such as New Scientist, or through sector-specific recruitment agencies. Professional bodies such as the British Pharmacological Society (BPS) advertise graduate roles too and also provide advice to job hunters.
Can I do an apprenticeship?
Lasting between one and four years, apprenticeships are an excellent alternative to university. By taking this route you could become a laboratory technician, science manufacturing technician or pharmacy assistant.
- Pfizer offer a range of apprenticeships spanning from Levels 2 to 7 and lasting anywhere between 12 months to five years. Schemes cover all areas of the business with science pathways including technician scientist, laboratory scientist and science manufacturing technician.
- GSK runs a range of advanced, higher and degree apprenticeships, including their pharmaceutical technical programme, laboratory science programme and research and development manufacturing science scheme.
- At AstraZeneca you can take part in a number of science apprenticeships including clinical trials specialist, medical device engineer, healthcare science practitioner, bioinformatician, technician scientist and laboratory scientist.
- Alternatively you could choose the research and development degree apprenticeship at Unilever.
A number of apprenticeships are also available to those interested in a career in pharmacy. You can train to be a pharmacy assistant or technician. To find out more about the schemes on offer see pharmacy courses.
How are women in science represented?
If you're joining the ranks as a female scientist, you'll be in good company. Famous women scientists who paved the way include:
- Mary Somerville (astronomer)
- Mary Anning (palaeontologist)
- Rosalind Franklin (chemist)
- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the UK)
- Marie Curie (physicist and chemist)
- Jocelyn Bell Burnell (astrophysicist)
- Helen Sharman (chemist).
However, the road that female scientists walk is often challenging and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) are still underrepresented and often come up against barriers such as a lack of role models, gender bias and a pay gap.
That said huge strides have been made to help address this imbalance and according to WISE Campaign workforce statistics (June 2022) the percentage of women making up the Core-STEM workforce currently stands at 26.9%, an increase from 26.6% in December 2021.
The proportion of women working as science professionals (51.5%) has also grown.
Increasingly women are now recognised and rewarded for the part they play in the industry and a number of initiatives are in place to help champion women in STEM.
For example, the Athena Swan charter recognises the commitment of institutions that promote and advance careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM), in academia. For a list of charter members see Advance HE.
The WISE Campaign aims to inspire women into STEM careers and provides help and support to those working in these industries.
UNESCO and L'Oreal Foundation run the UK and Ireland Rising Talent Award, a national programme offering five post-doctoral women scientists a grant of £15,000 each. The grants can be spent on whatever the winners need to further their research.
Find out more
- Gain an insight into the science and pharmaceuticals sector.