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March 31, 2009


To lab or not to lab?

Given the breadth of choices in the pharmaceutical industry, you might wonder how to focus your own career aspirations. You may love science while in university and earn a major in a scientific discipline, but not be sure you want to make research your life-long career. That's fine, as long as you have a sense of how to manage the critical early years of professional experience. To help you get a wide-angle view of the major career paths available, we have found it helpful to think in terms of two fundamental paths: laboratory research-oriented and non-laboratory research-oriented paths. Within each path are several different career tracks. Laboratory research-oriented career paths are found in the R&D department. This area is also called "discovery research" because the work involves discovering new processes, drugs and technologies. These careers involve "bench work," referring to a laboratory bench, where scientists set up experiments to generate data.

Non-research oriented career paths include everything else. Several functions -- operations, manufacturing and quality -- have an engineering focus and are primarily honed in on the applications of science. Others, like clinical research, include all the jobs needed to set up and manage clinical trials and oversee submissions to regulatory agencies. Note that the "clinical research" function includes all the jobs needed to set up and manage clinical trials. They are put here rather than in the research-oriented path since they require knowledge of medicine and occur in clinical settings, such as hospitals or clinics. Still others are business-oriented and include support functions, such as finance, administration, legal, IT, business development and sales/marketing. Finally many companies have a project management function that helps coordinate projects that overlap among several internal functions.

The common denominator is that careers in most of these functions require at least an undergraduate foundation in a life science. This includes the more generic business functions. Many careers require advanced training in science in addition to education in a functional area. For example, attorneys specializing in intellectual property often also have advanced degrees in the sciences. Business development people typically have either a bachelor's or a master's degree in a scientific area in addition to an MBA. The industry sets these educational prerequisites for employment outside the lab because business people need a thorough grounding in the vocabulary of genetics, an orientation to the basic concepts behind the products and a familiarity with the issues and challenges facing the industry. The bottom line is this: if you are up-and-coming in the educational system, you are joining a limited pool of qualified talent competing for the available jobs. That's good news if most of your career is still ahead of you.

Discovery research in the lab

At smaller companies, many jobs are in discovery research. Discovery researchers can range from protein chemists to geneticists, to biochemists, to many other disciplines in the life sciences. There are jobs at all levels. With a bachelor's degree, you can get an entry-level job as a research associate and work for several years, though you will need an advanced degree for more senior jobs. Most responsible positions, however, require a PhD. You can definitely break into the industry after undergraduate studies.

Entry-level research positions will get your feet wet and give you a chance to experience the culture of research first-hand before committing yourself to advanced studies. Increasingly, pharmaceutical companies have also been outsourcing drug research and development. As a result, contract research organisations (or CROs) have been on the rise, and this is another possible option for researchers.


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