Want to Industry? What it’s like to be a Research Assistant or Scientist in Pharma
Updated: Apr 28
Becoming A Scientist In Pharma: First steps Research Assistant
Guest Post: Alison Deyett, Ph.D.
There are many routes to becoming a scientist, some traditional and others less so. Here I discuss the avenue I took to becoming a scientist. In academia, the pharmaceutical industry is often portrayed as a boring and non-creative way to do science. Many people believe that pharma companies work solely towards money and scientists just have to work on whatever is most profitable. This is what I was told in academia; however, this couldn’t be further from my experience. In fact, there is more freedom in research than I would have thought.
In my experience, as a scientist at a pharmaceutical company, you might get hired to work on a specific disease or project. It is up to the team to think about the disease of interest, the best way to to treat the disease, what assays to set up to test the viability of the treatment, and even how to model it; this isn't much different than being in an academic lab that works on a human disease. In pharma, there is plenty of funding, the research is very applied and the broader impact and overall purpose of your work are clear to see.
In the company I worked at, they empowered employees to conduct research on what they were passionate about. Once a year, any employee (regardless of the time at the company, experience, job title, or education) could put together a research proposal on a new focus area or a new disease management strategy. This was always an exciting time of year. as over lunch one could hear several teams talking amongst themselves and collaborating with each other about new and interesting ways to tackle problems. Sometimes the ideas would sound absurd while others would be very practical, but the conversations were engaging and had the added bonus that a conversation you participated in could, in a year, turn into a whole department! It was then even more exciting to see one of these proposals go to the research stage and into clinical settings.
This is the major difference between staying in academia and going into industry; in industry you get to see your research directly affect the world and it’s always applied. In academia, applied research is rarer, and the broader impacts can seem forced or stretched. In academia, there is generally more space between your research and the aid it can provide.
What Does A Research Assistant in Pharma Actually Do?
There are several levels and career trajectories within the pharma research umbrella. Those with a Bachelors or Masters degree would enter as Research Assistants. A research assistant will often work underneath a Research Scientist, assisting in the main experiments that the scientist is in charge of. This could mean that a lot of the job is doing things like running experiments that have already been set up or optimizing assay development, but they mostly work in the wet lab. Also included here is analyzing results and preparing slide decks or presentations for either you or your Research Scientist to present in meetings. This is the perfect job for those that really enjoy working in the laboratory as a team and don’t want to manage a whole project or team of researchers. Your role in the group is not always relegated as an assistant either.
As you gain experience at whatever lab work is being done, you become knowledgeable about the process, figuring out what works and what doesn't. Eventually, you are able to give input in the direction of the project; making suggestions in troubleshooting, how to better streamline the process and even suggest possible other experiments or procedures that can benefit the research.
Like any career path, being a research assistant has its downsides. For example, career advancement can be hard in research without Ph.D. or another graduate-level degree, but this this thought process is changing. In several companies, you can reach the scientist level with a Bachelors or Masters degree without having to get a Ph.D. With supportive supervisors and an ability to advocate for yourself, you can see great personal growth and career development.
As a research assistant, you will learn vital techniques to enhance your skills and understand what it’s like to be an industry researcher. I found this position to be a great stepping stone in my career. I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. but felt I would learn new techniques and skills to help in my career path while also giving myself some time to pay off my student loan debt.
The Career of a Research Scientist
Those with a doctorate would start as Research Scientists in the industry. One can expect to start by being trained quite similarly to a Research Assistant, but quickly take on more responsibilities such as project and team management. You are expected to come up with creative ways to complete all aspects of your project. This includes: performing laboratory experiments, supervising and mentoring research assistants, analyzing and visualizing data, presenting in meetings, contributing meaningful insights and questions to meetings, and of course taking responsibility for when things go awry.
From research scientist positions there are two main routes of advancement:
Director/Department Head/Upper Management
The first path is for those who would like to say in research and development and have the ultimate career trajectory of becoming a senior research fellow. The other track is for those more interested in management. If the thought of being in charge and leading small research groups excites you, then perhaps you would be interested in becoming a department head or project leader.
Who Hires Research Assistants/Scientists in Industry And What Are the Expected Salaries?
There are many jobs for researchers in the industry. You could work for a large to a medium-sized pharmaceutical company or biotech, a small biotech start-up, or institutions like National Laboratories. They each have their own advantages and disadvantages, which is a whole separate blog post. Salary is 100% negotiable and it’s encouraged to negotiate once you receive an offer. The simple phrase “Is there anything more we can do in terms of salary?” got one of my colleagues a $5k increase before he was even in the door! Salary will, of course, depend on your experience, education, location, and type/size of the company.
Salaries according to Glassdoor
Research Assistants: salaries range from 32K-49K with an average of 39K
Research Scientists: 96K-162K with an average 124K
Senior Research Scientist: 123-203K with an average 157K
What Skills and Traits Does a Research Assistant/Scientist Need For Success?
Ability to work alone and as part of a team
Lab Experience and Skills
Did we miss any?
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