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Find Your Future


Opportunities for researchers in the Life Science or Health sector outside of academia

By uczjvwa, on 3 June 2014

Figure 1: Royal Society, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, 2010.

Figure 1: Royal Society, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, 2010.

Where do Science PhDs end up?

The rather weird and wonderful graph in Figure 1 is something I think all PhD students and early career researchers should see, as well as anyone considering starting a PhD. Created by the Royal Society in 2010, it outlines career destinations of science PhDs, and shows that staying in academia is the exception rather than the rule. Whatever your career intentions following a PhD, this is valuable information. The graph indicates that anyone aiming to stay in academia needs to keep their eyes on the prize; publish as much as possible, network, get involved in funding applications, find teaching opportunities etc. But the graph also tells those considering other options that they are not alone. Not by a long shot.

This blog will focus on careers possibilities for PhDs within the life science or health sector.

The Pharmaceutical and Biotech Industries

The pharmaceutical industry is dominated by the US, UK and the rest of Europe. The largest firms have research and development sites in several countries and operate within a global market for medicines. Biotechnology is a global industry at the cutting edge of medical, renewable energy and agricultural developments. Many biotechnology companies are small, often starting out as university research projects which attract funding to become ‘spin out’ companies.

Unsurprisingly many industry R&D roles are filled by people with PhDs, however, ex-researchers are also found in more commercial aspects of the industry, such as project management, marketing, sales, regulatory affairs, or investment and finance, where their research experience and scientific understanding is valued highly.

Contract Research Organisations

Independent contract research organisations (CROs) sell research services to clients including pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and sometimes the NHS. Services can involve conducting laboratory research, data analysis, literature reviews or clinical trials. The skills developed during a PhD are obviously useful, and client-handling skills are very important.

Medical Communications

Medical communications organisations also take pharma and biotech companies as clients, however, their services involve the communication of science. This might take the form of writing journal articles or conference presentations to disseminate research to a medical audience, but it can also involve creating communications for the general public. PhDs are valued for their understanding of the research process, and experience deciphering scientific literature. Clear, concise communication skills, and good client-handling and teamworking skills, are paramount.

Patent Attorneys

Patent attorneys assess whether inventions are innovative and therefore eligible to be patented. The pharmaceutical and biotech industries often deal with intellectual property issues, and companies may employ in-house patent attorneys, or enlist the services of private firms. Being comfortable with science is essential, so a PhD is often a prerequisite for entry into the profession. Attention-to-detail, client-handling, and clear communication skills are required. Training involves a combination of exams and on-the-job learning, and it usually takes 4-5 years to qualify as a patent attorney.

The NHS Healthcare Scientist Training Program

The NHS is a huge UK employer, boasting numerous administrative and management roles which may appeal to PhDs. The Healthcare Scientist Training Program (STP) prepares future healthcare scientists to work within the NHS. Roles are largely diagnostic, although there is scope for conducting research, especially if it feeds into service improvements. Although a PhD is not required, as the STP is the only clear route to working within NHS science, many applicants have PhDs.

How to get in

Research the sector you’re interested in to identify all possible opportunities, and to decide which environment might suit you best. Recruitment into research roles is often through word of mouth, so consider who you already know with industry colleagues. Roles in the private sector are not always advertised, so you should be prepared to contact companies speculatively. You can identify companies to target, and find out more about different sectors, using the links below. Advertised positions appear in scientific publications such as New Scientist and Nature. Some of the larger pharma companies will post vacancies or careers information on their own websites. Some specific roles are recruited for by specialist recruitment agencies, so it’s worthwhile finding out who recruits in your field/for the company for which you hope to work.

Further Resources

Careers Tagged: www.careerstagged.co.uk

UK Bioindustry Association: http://www.bioindustry.org/home/

Biotechnology Industry Organization: http://www.bio.org/

One Nucleus: www.onenucleus.com.

Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry: www.abpi.org.uk

Clinical Contract Research Association: http://www.ccra.org.uk

Association of Clinical Research Organisations: http://www.acrohealth.org/

MedComms Networking: http://www.medcommsnetworking.co.uk/index.html

Healthcare Communications Association: http://www.hca-uk.org/members.html

Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys: http://www.cipa.org.uk/pages/contact


– Hilary Moor, Careers Consultant, Careers Group, University of London



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