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Is Industry Right For YOU? What it’s REALLY like to be a Researcher in Pharma

In this career corner, we discuss life as an industry researcher in Pharma (aka Pharmaceuticals). The below blog is written from the perspective of Alison Deyett who worked in Pharma during her "gap" year after receiving her Bachelor's degree. For an additional perspective on what it's like working in Pharma check our podcast interviewing Dr. Geoff Hannigan.

Author Credit: Alison Deyett, Ph.D. Candidate

Why Consider Becoming A Research Assistant In Pharma?

In academia, Pharma is often portrayed as a boring and non-creative way to do science. Many people believe that pharma companies work solely towards the money and scientists just have to do work wherever the money is; at least this is what I was told in academia. Despite the negativity around Pharma, I was receiving from my academic colleagues, I decided to give it a shot. That's when I realized the stereotype around research in Pharma and industry was far from the whole picture.

Although there are some truths to the stereotype you might hear, it is good to remember stereotypes are often used for propaganda than to paint a clear picture. The biggest fallacy I found was that there is a lot more freedom in industry research than I was told.

In my experience, as a scientist at a pharmaceutical company, you would get a specific disease or project to work on and from there it is really up to the scientists to think about the disease of interest, how to model it, what assays to set up to test the viability of the treatment, and even what the best way to treat the disease is. This probably doesn't sound that much different than an academic lab, and in some instances, it really isn't.

The biggest difference between academia and industry from a research perspective is motive, and we aren't just talking money. In industry and pharma projects are driven by applied science. A scientist's job in the industry is really to create a product that solves a problem for society. In academia, researchers are driven by a "publish or perish" mentality. Here, researchers, are really after basic science, mechanisms, and understanding of why something happens. A basic research question could go on for years, decades even but in industry, it's more results/application-driven. There are deadlines and if the project doesn't meet certain criteria then it is killed then time to move on to a new product, a new direction. This usually means there is far more funding in the industry as research will directly impact consumers and produce products.

To many, it may seem these two avenues are completely separated, it's an either-or decision, and they can't be connected but this is not true either. Academia and industry both need each other and they are two parts of a great whole of science. While their drive and motivations may differ, industry often pulls from academic work and extend the basic science into the applied world. Likewise, academics will work with industry to see the full potential of their science and have a broader reach to society.

In the company I worked in, they empowered employees to research 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 or a new disease management strategy. This was always an exciting part of the year as over lunch one could hear several teams talking amongst themselves and collaborating with each other about new interesting ways to tackle problems.

I will admit these lunchtime conversations sometimes enter more into the realm of science fiction solutions than any real-world application. But time and time again we see even the most absurd ideas in the present become our reality in the future. As these conversations matured and absurd ideas became more grounded in concepts that could push projects to the next level you could feel the heightened energy. What started as just a lunchtime discussion could become a whole new department in a year!

I even got to see one of these proposals go directly from conception to helping patients. This is the major difference between staying in academia and going into industry; in the industry, you get to see your research directly affect the world, it’s always applied. In academia, applied research is rare and the broader impacts can seem forced or stretched.

What Does A Researcher Assistant In Pharma Actually do?

There are several levels and career trajectories within the pharma research umbrella. Those with a Bachelor's or Master’s degree would enter as Research assistants, sometimes just referred to as RA. A research assistant will often work underneath a research scientist and assist in the main experiments that they are in charge of. This could mean that their job is running assays that have already been set up or optimizing assay development, but mostly working in the wet lab. Also included here is analyzing results and preparing slide decks (aka 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 would rather not have the responsibility of managing a whole project or team.

Careers within industry Research from entry level positions like Lab tech and research assistant which typically have a Master's level of education or lower to mid-tier positions like Scientist which typically have PhD or a Master's with experience to upper level positions like directors and chief scientific officers which typically have a considerable amount of experience.

Like any career path, being a research assistant has its downsides. For example, career advancement can be hard in research without Ph.D. or other graduate-level degrees but not impossible. With supportive supervisors and an ability to advocate for yourself, you can see great personal growth and career development. While ten years ago it was necessary to have a Ph.D. to be a research scientist, many companies of today are shifting and allowing for experience and innovation to drive your way up as opposed to a degree being the only criteria.

As a RA, 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 path while also giving myself some time to pay off my student loan debt.

What Is A Research Scientist In Pharma?

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 a few directions you can continue to grow. The first path is for those who would like to stay in research and development and have the ultimate career trajectory of becoming a senior research fellow or senior scientist.

The other track is for those more interested in the management and the development of projects. Someone with a Ph.D. or several years of experience could progress into a project/product manager even eventually becoming a director or head of a department.

It should be mentioned that there are no standard job roles within the industry. Each company has its own hierarchy of career trajectories with its own requirements on how to move up. A researcher in an industry could be labeled as an engineer, could become a chief scientific officer (CSO), the head of research, or even a CEO. It all depends on your unique drive and where you'd like to see yourself grow!

Who Hires Research Assistants/Researchers in Industry And What Are the Expected Salaries?

There are many jobs for researchers in the industry. You could work for a large to 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 of “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. But as we all know, it will always be better than the academic base salary. Just make sure when they throw out the first offer, to keep your jaw from dropping to the floor.

Salaries According to Glassdoor

  1. Research assistant : $20K-153K avg: $49,118/yr

  2. Research scientist : $48K-194K avg: $94,262/yr

  3. Senior Scientist : $61K-178K avg: $102,319/yr

  4. Research Directors : $65K-309K avg: $137,941/yr

  5. Chief Scientific Officers : $86K-300K avg: $158,785/yr

What Are The Top Skills For A Research Scientist?

Top skills for industry researchers really depend on your lab and your expertise. At the lab technician level aseptic technique, basic microbiology, and media preparation can be really useful. If you are in a molecular lab then experience with PCR and DNA extraction might be valuable. In pharmaceutical product development, experience with lyophilization and media formation is highly sought after. But it takes more then just good lab skills to make you a competitive candidate.

Transferable Skills

  • Detailed oriented

  • General science knowledge

  • Organization

  • Time management

  • Decision making and problem-solving

  • Oral and written communication

  • Quick and adaptive learning

Hard Skills

  • Aseptic Technique

  • Molecular biology (DNA extraction, PCR, qPCR)

  • Microbiological assay

  • Biochemical assays

  • HPLC experience

  • Lyophilization experience

  • Culturing (cell lines, fungi, bacteria, anaerobic, aerobic)

  • Data analysis

More Resources for Careers in Industry

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