Life sciences and pharma

A wide range of roles for scientists, both inside and outside the lab.

Are there any geographic centres? 

Life science organisations are located across the UK, often within science parks or close to research-based universities; examples include the Edinburgh BioQuarter and the Roslin Innovation Centre.  

In England, many life science organisations are located in a triangle around Oxford, Cambridge and London, however there is also a strong presence in the north.  

In Scotland, approximately 40,000 people work in life sciences. Companies range in size from global players to small ‘start-ups’ and ‘spin-outs’ from academic research. This includes a number of contract research organisations (undertaking preclinical research or clinical trials on behalf of pharma companies) (CROs), e.g. Charles River and IQVIA, who conduct research on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. This important growth sector in the Scottish economy is supported by government agencies and specialist innovation centres, including the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBiolC) and Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC).  

The industry body Life Sciences in Scotland, provides a valuable sector overview:   

Life Sciences in Scotland 

Innovation centres (Life Sciences in Scotland)  

Is it a growing sector? 

It’s an industry where there is a high level of collaboration and partnership, and not just between firms. The three-way collaboration between life science companies, academia and the NHS – known as the triple-helix approach – is central to sector growth. Academic research supports companies to develop new products; the NHS provides the clinical experience and data to allow products to be taken to market.

In May 2023, the UK government announced the “Life Sci for Growth” package. This totals over £650 million to drive innovation and economic growth in the Life Sciences sector through a range of policies across skills, infrastructure and manufacturing:

GOV.UK news story - Chancellor reveals life sciences growth package to fire up economy

What can I do with my degree in this sector? 

Opportunities for life science or chemistry graduates are wide ranging. In addition to lab science and R&D roles, there are plenty of options ‘outside the lab’ where scientific knowledge and skills can be applied. Roles include regulatory affairs, quality assurance, clinical trials administration, medical liaison, medical writing, bio-manufacturing, sales and marketing, patents, business development, data science, IT, and more …   

Opportunities also exist for graduates with maths, physics, engineering and IT qualifications, and for those seeking commercial career routes. 

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has an excellent careers website providing resources including guides to ‘working in the industry’ : 

ABPI – Careers in the Pharmaceutical Industry  

There are different routes into the industry. Entry level roles are offered for first degree, MSc and PhD graduates.  

Graduate programmes are offered across different business areas by larger companies. These programmes are aimed to develop future leaders and are competitive. Application closing dates are typically set around nine months ahead.   

Many graduates enter the sector by applying to entry level roles, which are advertised throughout the year. These include technician and trainee roles as well as those with ‘graduate’ in the jobs title.  

Apprenticeships have been growing in recent years, and some graduates now enter through this route. About 30% of apprenticeships are estimated to be in R&D. Higher apprenticeships, which include study at Masters level, have recently been introduced. These are more common in skill shortage areas, for example data roles. 

Is postgraduate study expected?  

Postgraduate qualifications are required, or may be advantageous, for certain roles in this sector. This is most common within the R&D space, but there are still opportunities for first degree graduates within R&D teams.     

The industry values higher level education. Over 500 PhD students are supported by the UK pharma industry each year. Most are jointly funded with UK research councils, but approximately 25% are fully funded by industry.     

Postdoctoral recruitment programmes are offered by several pharma companies, for example AstraZeneca, Roche, GSK.   

What’s it like working in this sector?

Concept to Consumer: Life Sciences Industry Masterclasses, led by industry experts, provide an understanding of the commercial pathway that a product takes from the initial idea to the marketplace and potential career opportunities. These are held in Semester 2 and open to Biomedical/Biological Sciences students. A parallel course is offered to Chemistry students.   

SULSA - graduate employability masterclasses

Alumni Insights events, held by academic schools, offer a chance to hear from recent graduates. Check updates from your school and book your place via MyCareerHub. You can access recordings of talks from an Alumni Insights event for the Deanery of Biomedical Sciences and School of Biological Sciences, which took place in February 2023:

Life sciences – Media Hopper playlist (University of Edinburgh login required)

Visit our Life Sciences – Graduate Profiles webpage for inspiration on where your Life Sciences career can take you. Read our varied alumni careers case studies:

Life Sciences - Graduate Profiles

Gain insights from Life sciences posts on our careers blog, Inform.ed. Browse using the tag #EdLifeSciences:  

#EdLifeSciences – Inform.ed 

An extensive range of career case studies is available on the ABPI’s careers website:   

ABPI  - Careers in the Pharmaceutical Industry – Case studies 

Check out these post-PhD insightful case studies of careers in life sciences on the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA) website: 

SULSA - post-academic careers case studies

“Dr. What Now? Podcast" is developed by a University of Edinburgh alumna and gives life science postgraduate research students and PhD students an insight into careers outside academia. In each episode a different PhD graduate is interviewed and they discuss their experience, their day-to-day job, what they like/dislike about it and what advice they have for students:

Dr. What Now? Podcast

Building experience and getting started 

Any type of work experience can be valuable and will help you to develop skills, which are transferable to other workplaces and career areas.   

Industry internships and other work experience can offer valuable insights and related skills development. Internship programmes with big pharma companies are competitive and closing dates can be set as early as September for the following summer. Many life science companies will take summer students but do not advertise widely (if at all). 

Summer research projects (or internships), based in university or research institute laboratories, provide valuable insights and experience for students who are considering a research-based career and study for a PhD.  

Further information on how to find internships/work experience, and funding advice to enable you to complete a project, can be found in our work experience guides: 

Work experience for Biological and Biomedical Sciences students (University of Edinburgh login required)

Work experience for Chemistry students (University of Edinburgh login required)  

Working for a science festival is a great opportunity to gain experience and meet people in the industry. UK Science Festivals Network gives details of festivals throughout the UK: 

UK Science Festivals Network - List all members

Interested in learning more about careers in healthcare communications? To help with your future career preparation, you can access a selection of free e-learning content from Curriculum, AMICULUM’s learning and development initiative with courses such as an “Introduction to pharma and healthcare communications” and “Industry skills”. For more information, and how to register, visit:

AMICULUM - Curriculum

How can I develop my skills?  

As a result of the pandemic, you may have had less opportunity to develop your practical skills than would normally be the case. This situation is widely recognised by employers and many have indicated that they will provide additional ‘on-boarding’ and ‘up-skilling’ for students and graduates due to this. It is however important that you can ‘sell’ your current experience and skills - this includes the transferable skills and qualities you have gained from your wider life experience - and show a genuine desire to work in the sector. 

The general qualities that industry will look for may include an awareness of quality control, regulation, health & safety, efficiency, and customer needs; as well as skills in project management, effective communication, problem solving, collaboration, data handling, and an ability to work well in cross-disciplinary teams. You may have already gained relevant experience through volunteering, part-time jobs, society roles, projects etc...      

The technical skills required will depend on the type of role which interests you. You may need to be able to demonstrate an understanding of the basics of your subjects and an ability to communicate that to a non-technical audience. For some roles, an awareness of GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) or GLP (Good Laboratory Practice) may also be expected – this does not necessarily require having worked to those industry standards.  

It can help to speak to people in industry, as well as looking at job descriptions, to identify what may be looked for and any potential gaps. For example, Platform One is an online network of Edinburgh alumni and others, so it’s a great place to start: 

Platform One 

Where can I find job vacancies?  

Check MyCareerHub for vacancies: 

MyCareerHub - Opportunities 

Check other graduate vacancy sites:  

Find jobs for after you graduate 

The pharmaceutical recruiters section of the ABPI careers website, provides links to recruitment pages of around 80 member companies. 

Pharmaceutical recruiters | ABPI 

Specialist journals advertising science jobs include:    

New Scientist  

Nature   

Talent Scotland, in partnership with Scottish Development International, helps individuals around the world find jobs in Scotland’s thriving life sciences sector:

Talent Scotland    

You can search for recruitment agencies who work with life science companies on the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) website. 

Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) 

Recruitment agencies specialising in STEM recruitment, and life sciences, include:  

STEM Graduates  

STEM Recruitment Solutions  

SRG     

As many companies do not advertise widely, it is worth visiting individual company websites to check for vacancy listings. This is particularly important if you are looking for jobs in specific geographic locations. Industry directories and membership lists are valuable when exploring potential employers.  These include:    

  • The Life and Chemical Sciences Scottish Industry directory - search by category (eg. Pharmaceutical Services, Industrial biotechnology, medical devices and diagnostics), location or by company name.    

Scottish Industry Directories 

  • BioNow, a life science sector membership body for organisations located in the North of England, provides a database of members and location map.  

BioNow - members 

Owain Walsh, Membership Manager at Bionow tells us about his career journey and how membership organisations can help students to explore their career options:

Inform.ed blog post - Membership organisations what are they and how can they help?

  • The UK Science Parks Association (UKSPSA) lists science parks across the UK. The individual website of each science parks will list member companies.

  UK Science Parks Association (UKSPA) - members 

Many organisations in this sector are small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs), or start-up companies, where a proactive, speculative approach may be required, if you do not find suitable jobs listings on their websites. Our webpage on creating your own opportunity gives advice on speculative applications.  

Speculative approaches - creating your own opportunity