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Employment Outlook

February 4, 2008
Volume 86, Number 05
pp. 38-41

Getting A Pharma Job

Potential employees are advised to target high-growth areas and hone specific skills

Susan J. Ainsworth

AT FIRST GLANCE, the employment landscape in the pharmaceutical industry looks rather grim. Most big drug companies have recently slashed their ranks in response to intensifying pressures including regulatory scrutiny, generic drug competition, and industry consolidation.

HELP WANTED Roche continues to hire innovative scientists to help develop new medicines.

And more cutbacks may be on the way. An estimated 50,000 or more upper middle- and senior-level executives alone will be displaced over the next decade, according to a recent study, "The Continuing Evolution of the Pharmaceutical Industry: Career Challenges and Opportunities," coauthored by RegentAtlantic Capital, a Chatham, N.J.-based financial advisory firm, and Fiduciary Network, a Dallas-based advisory firm.

Despite the gloom, there still are pockets of great job opportunity within the pharmaceutical industry, especially for those with the most-coveted skills and experience. In fact, many companies involved in drug development report that they are actively hiring a variety of professionals, including chemists.

"We need bright, innovative people at all levels of the company," says Lawrence Fisher, director for Roche's Palo Alto, Calif., chemical synthesis group. "This industry is under severe pressure to provide new medicines. The unmet medical needs are there, and we need to be innovative in our approaches in the future. We are always looking for employees who will help us achieve our goals," he says.

"There are a lot of opportunities in the industry, it's just a matter of finding them," adds Holly Butler, Genentech's principal staffing consultant for research. Her company is hiring scientists, including process and medicinal chemists and research associates as well as computational chemists, and chemistry informatics experts. In the wake of its "extraordinary hiring push" over the past three years, Genentech is now creating pockets of expertise where needed, Butler says. "All those mid-level scientists who think there are no opportunities for them need to know that there certainly are opportunities here."

OVERALL, the broad area of biopharmaceuticals is a segment of the industry that will continue to offer job prospects. Nigel Broom, director of U.K. R&D recruitment at GlaxoSmithKline, expects that biopharma compounds will make up 20% of the company's pipeline by 2015.

The company is banking on the potential of these compounds to become part of treatments for many diseases for which there are no treatments today. In addition, biopharmaceuticals are likely to contribute to treatments that will supersede current small-molecule therapies. These generally complex compounds are also attractive in that they are more difficult to copy, which will make generic competition less likely, Broom says.

GOING GLOBAL GlaxoSmithKline is establishing research collaborations worldwide to access the most innovative technologies.

Although the development and manufacture of biosimilar, or generic, versions of biologics is difficult and expensive right now, the market for these compounds remains compelling, says Michael Steiner, head of RegentAtlantic Capital's Pharmaceutical Executive Services group. He believes the eventual expiration of patents on some of the highest revenue biologics such as the rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel and the renal and cancer anemia drug Procrit, the potential size of the market, and the emergence of regulations that support its growth, will attract an increasing number of players. As a result, the biosimilar market will eventually become a reliable source of jobs, he says.

Personalized medicine—the practice of using genetics to tailor therapies to particular patients—is another area that offers tremendous growth potential and employment opportunity in the future. In a step toward the goal of personalized medicine, pharmaceutical companies are now working to find ways "to slightly alter the composition of different medications to make them more effective for subsegments of the patient population," the RegentAtlantic Capital study says.

For example, care providers are turning to diagnostic tools to determine the effectiveness or toxicity of treatments and identify which patients will most benefit from particular treatment variations. Demand for these novel personalized diagnostic tools is expected to grow very quickly due to their potential to help control rising health care costs, the study says.

Although the popularity of these personalized diagnostic tools is on the rise, some companies are working hard to bring them more quickly to the forefront. Genentech, for example, has "a diagnostics organization that works hand-in-hand with research to continue to provide data that will make our drugs smarter and better," Butler says.

The entire fast-growing field of oncology drugs is one that will offer good employment potential. Age is the predominant risk factor for many cancers, so as the life expectancy of the U.S. population continues to increase, cancer will become an even bigger medical theme. Likewise, larger portions of the population will be afflicted with central nervous system (CNS) disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia. As the number of people with CNS disorders and cancer increases, so too will demand for new treatments, according to RegentAtlantic Capital's Steiner.

As part of its goal to "discover and develop differentiated new drugs in a competitive way," AstraZeneca is hiring people into its oncology translational science group at its new innovation center in Shanghai. The company also is searching for a new research director devoted to the areas of CNS and pain management at its site in Södertälje, Sweden, says Jan Lundberg, the company's executive vice president and head of global discovery research.

AstraZeneca is also expanding the staff devoted to small-molecule antibacterial research in Boston as well as hiring specialists in diabetes and obesity research in Mölndal, Sweden. Following its 2007 acquisition of Gaithersburg, Md.-based MedImmune, AstraZeneca has been recruiting to build its biologicals capability, Lundberg notes.

Sriram Naganathan, associate director in process development at South San Francisco-based cancer therapeutics company Exelixis, notes that consolidation within the pharma industry is driving a push toward efficiency. He says small pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms like Exelixis have fewer resources and personnel than big pharma firms, yet they must accomplish the same body of work and follow the same steps as a larger company for submitting an Investigational New Drug Application, for example.

"So individuals in small pharma and biotech firms have to take on significantly greater responsibility than their counterparts in big pharma, and generally be very versatile," Naganathan says. "There's a greater need to do more with less."

As part of its push toward efficiency, Roche is looking to hire people who can support efforts to better integrate research with development functions. "We cannot afford protracted discovery and development times" because they don't allow the company to make the best use of the limited period of patent exclusivity, Fisher says. "The clock on patents starts to run when you file for a new chemical entity."

Companies also are seeking those exceptional individuals who understand both the science behind R&D efforts and the technologies involved in further automating the process, says Carl Decicco, vice president of chemistry at Bristol-Myers Squibb. For example, he says people with a pharmacology background who can run a variety of assays under the right conditions and set them up to be carried out robotically are in great demand.

SPECIALIZED SKILLS are also of interest to service companies that cater to drug discovery and development organizations, says Toby Freedman, author of the book "Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development" and president of life sciences recruiting firm Synapsis Search. In particular, many contract research organizations (CROs) and contract manufacturing organizations "are hungry for scientists and bright, motivated individuals." By initially taking positions in these kinds of firms, scientists can gain invaluable experience and establish contacts that can open the door to a lateral move into a drug company, she notes.

The jobs are there but so are the suitors. As a result of industry-wide cutbacks, there's a robust supply of talent on the market and, consequently, companies have the luxury of being highly selective. Those aspiring to enter the pharmaceutical industry need to do all they can to boost their marketability. The most successful candidates and employees will be those who have the skills, expertise, experience, and attitude that drug companies most covet.

Within Wyeth, for example, candidates are screened for four key attributes-an intense knowledge of a scientific area, more than a few years of research experience, expertise demonstrated via publications and presentations, and evidence of accomplishment, says Jerauld Skotnicki, the company's senior director of chemical interfaces and alliance management. "Regardless of their background, we like to see that candidates have built on their expertise, have the ability to differentiate great ideas from good ones, and have an innovative vision for their work."

For Wyeth's Chemical & Screening Sciences Group, Skotnicki says it's essential that the company continue to bring in strong scientists, including synthetic organic chemists, medicinal chemists, analytical chemists, natural products chemists, pharmaceutical and computational scientists, and those with structural biology backgrounds. The group also hires people with backgrounds in chemistry informatics, bioorganic and biophysical chemistry, and enzymology. Although Skotnicki recruits some freshly minted scientists, candidates with a Ph.D. and industrial experience "are highly desirable" as they are more likely to demonstrate the four key attributes important to Wyeth.

In addition to looking for candidates with exceptional skills and experience, companies also seek those who can operate within the confines of industry. "It is very important to find people who understand the need to balance the risk and rewards of everything that we do," explains Bristol-Myers Squibb's Decicco. In the company's approach to research, "we can't be too blue-sky and end up with nothing of value, and at the same time, we can't be too conservative and risk bringing out drugs that are not sufficiently differentiated."

Currently, Bristol-Myers Squibb is looking for candidates to fill positions in all areas of drug discovery and clinical discovery. It also has a "need for people to work on the development side in safety and process chemistry, as well as people who can run clinical trials," Decicco says. The goal is to find candidates who "can lean on strong scientific backgrounds to guide them in contributing" to productive research programs that balance risk and reward.

Companies also favor candidates who have a familiarity with disciplines beyond their primary field of expertise. "In addition to demonstrating significant horsepower in one area, it's important to be able to see the bigger picture and understand how you mesh with other areas of the company," Wyeth's Skotnicki says.

AstraZeneca's Lundberg makes the same observation. "Good drug hunters should be able to relate to disease areas outside their own expertise, recognizing that there are common problems that need to be solved," including those related to safety, structure activity chemistry, formulation, and biomarkers. The most valuable scientists are those who have broad experience from a number of projects, regardless of whether those projects have failed or moved into the clinic, he notes.

lab opps AstraZeneca is expanding its staff devoted to small-molecule research at its facilities in Boston.

People who can demonstrate cross-functional capability stand out in a crowd, Genetech's Butler says. A medicinal chemist with a focus on oncology, immunology, or neurology, for example, will have an edge in today's job market, she says. Likewise, says Leigh Morgan, Genentech's human resources director for research and product development, "chemists who have been a significant part of a project team that has taken an idea into the clinic are very valuable for us."

Knowledge of multiple areas of the industry may be increasingly important to pharma employees interested in moving into management. As pharmaceutical companies shift to decentralized business models, "they will look outside their walls for much of the intellectual capital needed to develop new drugs," RegentAtlantic Capital's Steiner points out. CROs, independent contractors, research consortiums, universities, and foreign laboratories will play increasingly integral roles in solving complex problems more cost-effectively, he continues. "Individuals able to simultaneously and effectively manage all of these internal and external intellectual capital resources will be in great demand across the industry."

Given these changing industry dynamics, it's likely that "you may be called upon to manage efforts outside your immediate area of expertise," Naganathan says. For example, a process chemist may be asked to manage a CRO doing formulation development, he says.

Pharma employees, too, may need a multidisciplinary perspective to be able to manage across company's lines as more firms form alliances and joint ventures. Today, it seems that most of the innovation and early development of drugs will happen in small pharma or biotech companies, who will hand it off to big pharma for late-stage development and marketing, Naganathan says. "Therefore, someone adept at shepherding a project through this new paradigm will be extremely valuable."

At GlaxoSmithKline, "the ability to work in joint ventures and across cultures is essential for many of its employees, given its strategy of globalizing R&D," Broom says. In addition to "growing organically in countries such as China, we are also establishing collaborations with academic centers and smaller companies worldwide so that we have access to the best science and most innovative technologies." The study adds that these industry changes will open up opportunities for people who have experience with different languages, regulatory environments, and attitudes about life and work.

The area of regulatory affairs is rich with job opportunity. "One of the industry's most urgent needs is to reduce the time involved in developing and bringing new drugs to market," the study notes. And because regulatory agencies create some of the more time-consuming obstacles to commercialization, there is likely to be great demand for regulatory specialists who can help accelerate the approval process.

To fill regulatory affairs positions, companies favor people with many years of related industrial experience, Freedman notes. "The whole drug development process is so very complicated and vast and deep that, frankly, it takes a really long time to fully understand the processes involved." In particular, project management experience can be a boon to people seeking these types of positions, she adds. A regulatory affairs specialist's role in managing the process of writing documents and liaising with agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration is not unlike the work done in project management.

In nearly all positions within the pharmaceutical industry, good communication skills are essential. Although difficult to fully assess in an interview or by evaluating a résumé, Wyeth's Skotnicki says he screens candidates for "the ability to both communicate their ideas and hear other people's ideas." In addition, he says they have to be able "to make judgments and assessments and contributions to those ideas; this collaborative communication style is really essential for our success."

STRONG COMMUNICATION skills may help pharma employees to be more open to change, too, AstraZeneca's Lundberg observes. In the past, the pharmaceutical industry has been labeled as "being quite static and bureaucratic," but it must now demonstrate "greater flexibility to meet the increasing demands for differentiated and valuable medicines," he adds.

The most successful employees will be those who are most restless and responsive. Within large pharma, there's a constant need for entrepreneurs, "who pioneer and spearhead novel ideas and concepts" with support from top management, Lundberg says. They are vital to remaining "ahead of the pack," capturing the benefits of advancements in science and technology before competitors, he adds.

At Bristol-Myers Squibb, the stellar employees are the ones who "come in the door eager to expand on their skills and continue the learning process," Decicco observes. That attitude is critical, considering that we are "taking advantage of technologies now that were only ideas three to five years ago. For an individual to really excel and become a leader, they have to have an open mind and really enjoy learning new things."

Above all, to carve out a successful career in today's turbulent pharmaceutical industry, "you need to be passionate about the work you do," Roche's Fisher advises. That means "truly believing that you can use your expertise to help people, improve their quality of life, or, even save lives."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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