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Pharmaceuticals: industry sector overview

Pharmaceuticals: industry sector overview

As a graduate engineer in the pharmaceuticals industry, your job will involve working alongside chemists and pharmacists in research and development, manufacturing or commercial roles.

The pharmaceutical sector offers huge scope for engineers to work in the development and manufacture of drugs. This includes classic pharmaceuticals (prescribed medicines), biopharmaceuticals (such as vaccines) and consumer business (over-the-counter medicines). Engineers work alongside chemists and pharmacists to research and develop the active pharmaceutical ingredient, and then formulate it into the product that a patient takes. The other key area for engineers is manufacturing, but there are also commercial roles. There are some very large companies and most cover all areas of the industry, although some organisations are very specialist. Biopharmaceuticals are a developing part of healthcare. Manufacturers of generic drugs are growing; these organisations tend to have small research departments but large manufacturing arms.

Trends and developments in the pharmaceuticals industry

The industry has always been driven by research and development, and the manufacturing technology has lagged behind. One of the big challenges we are now working on is to update the manufacturing process to become more automated, with potentially ‘lights-out’ capability. There is increasing cost pressure: profit margins have been cut to keep the costs to the patient low and to make life-saving drugs available in poor countries. Engineers will need to use technology to improve efficiency and yields, as in the consumer industry. Regulatory drivers are also affecting the industry, with a challenge to manufacture to higher levels of robustness. Applying in-depth knowledge of science and engineering and using in-line monitoring and measurement means products should be made to the highest standard possible at all stages.

What it’s like working in pharmaceuticals

Projects have long timescales: it can take seven to ten years to develop a product, run clinical trials and then launch it – and less than ten per cent of products that are trialled make it to market. The industry is heavily regulated, which slows down the rate of change, but it’s also demanding and fast paced. Most large pharmaceuticals companies are global; you can work anywhere or stay in one place. Engineers work in project teams made up of different disciplines: research involves mainly scientists and chemical engineers; industrialisation and commercialisation require various engineers alongside more corporate roles.

Getting a graduate engineering job in pharmaceuticals

Most organisations run graduate schemes that allow you to work across a range of departments. It’s important to apply and adapt your particular background to the situation. Engineers should be comfortable with responsibility and accountability, and prepared to take risks using the right level of judgement. Engineers can progress to senior technical roles and often hold senior positions.

The highlights of a career in pharmaceuticals

  • Making drugs that save lives, improve the quality of people’s lives and make a difference to society.
  • It’s a dynamic industry that’s making radical changes to the ways in which we develop and manufacture our products.
  • Developing state-of-the-art technology that the industry has not exploited before.

The pharmaceuticals industry seeks graduates in...

  • Chemical
  • Control
  • Electrical
  • Electronics
  • Environmental
  • Instruments
  • Manufacturing
  • Materials
  • Mathematics
  • Mechanics
  • Physics
  • Power systems
  • Software

Always check individual employers’ requirements.

Thanks to Richard Pamenter for his help with this article. Richard is head of environmental sustainability at GSK. He has an MSc in chemical engineering from the University of Nottingham and an MSc in manufacturing leadership from the University of Cambridge.