If you have the right qualifications and experience you could make a real difference working in the science and pharmaceutical industry by pushing boundaries, making discoveries and effecting change. Take a look at what the sector has to offer
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, or environment and agriculture. Alternatively, you can work within the media and internet sector as a science writer. 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
- 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 and fast-paced 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
- 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. 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, Novartis, Reckitt Benckiser (RB), the Biomedical Society, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (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.
Bear in mind that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic many internship opportunities have been temporarily postponed or cancelled. While some organisations are able to run their programmes virtually or in part from home, this is not possible for all employers.
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 lots of graduate pathways including schemes in data science and AI, research and development (R&D), 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.
The Novartis Apprenticeship Programme offers two to three year apprenticeships and three to five year higher apprenticeships, while GSK offers 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 their science, IT and data, business or operations apprenticeships. Or, 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.
What are the key issues in science and pharmaceuticals?
The UK science and pharmaceuticals sector has played a huge part in the fight against COVID-19. The industry has worked on research and vaccine development, leading to the release of the Pfizer and Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines thereby contributing to the biggest vaccination programme in British history.
Andrew Croydon, skills and education policy director at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) says 'Of late, the sector has an unprecedentedly high public profile and the need for a skilled workforce across industry, academia and the NHS has never been greater.'
Andrew explains that while the pandemic has made people more aware of the pharmaceutical industry it has also impacted the learning and lab experience of many students. 'Demand for traditional university education has increased during the pandemic, with 4% more accepted applicants from the UK in 2020 than 2019, despite three years of decreases beforehand.
Undergraduates are concerned that the lack of available hands-on laboratory experience will negatively impact on job applications. The key point however, is that all students pursuing science-based studies are experiencing the same issue, and companies recruiting will be aware the lack of laboratory experience is not the fault of the individual.'
Aside from COVID-19, Andrew also highlights another challenge the sector is facing - a lack of knowledge about career possibilities in life sciences.
'Some students look at the prospect of a fulfilling career in life sciences but don't open up all the possibilities due to lack of an informed choice. Students must research vocational as well as traditional academic routes, alongside delving into labour market research if a career choice is to be truly informed.
To date, the sector has been incredibly enthusiastic about the apprenticeship pathway at higher levels, enabling apprenticeships to play a key part in closing the skills gap, and producing high-quality jobs for industry-ready employees who have skills and practical experience tailored to businesses' needs.'
Find out more
- Gain an insight into the science and pharmaceuticals sector.