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Go your own way: 17 surprising careers in pharmaceutical science

The number of directions a career in pharmaceutical science can take is nearly limitless. Developing new medicines or improving the way they are delivered. Investigating crimes and providing regulatory guidance. Enhancing the durability of paint. All these roads begin in the same place. The range of careers open to pharmaceutical science graduates is growing ever more diverse. And not all of them involve working in a lab.

Why are the options so broad? Maybe it’s because pharmaceutical science graduates love challenges. They have exceptional theoretical knowledge, but they also possess the sort of practical skills that mean they can tackle the challenges of industry straight away.

Right here, right now

It’s a good time to be studying in this field. Globally, pharmaceuticals is a growth sector and future-proofed for graduates – your skills will still be relevant in 20 years’ time. Victoria is considered a global centre of excellence in biomedical research, medical technology and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The sector has strong support from the state government too, which sees significant benefits in creating the right conditions for it to flourish. With global health care spending projected to grow by over four per cent per year, there is an urgent need for new technologies, goods and services. There is strong demand for graduates in Victoria, which will only increase as the sector grows.

What will your path be?

The skills that pharmaceutical scientists acquire aren’t only relevant in the pharmaceutical and medical sectors. They are just as useful the food, agriculture, chemical, or cosmetics industries.

Some of these career paths require a PhD, but not all of them. Many can be pursued with a Bachelor’s degree only. Regardless of the qualifications required, all present unique and exciting challenges for graduates.

1. Forensic scientist

Forensic science is the application of scientific research to help investigate crimes, accidents and other incidents. It’s not always like what you see on your favourite crime investigation TV shows, but for graduates who love to untangle mysteries, it can be an extremely rewarding field to work in.

Amy VanDerPoel, a drug analyst for the Victoria Police Forensic Services Centre, loves the variety her job brings.

“My job is never dull,” says Amy. “I analyse all sorts of illicit substances and drugs. I also do a lot of analytical chemistry – every day is different.”

She also works as a fire and explosives investigator, attending scenes where there's suspected arson or a fatality due to fire. “My role is to determine the cause of the fire and if accelerants were used, and to search for other evidence that may assist the investigation.”

2. Pharmaceutical companies

Working for a pharmaceutical company is one of the more obvious options open to pharmaceutical science graduates, but it is also one that offers a huge variety of career paths. Particularly within global companies there are opportunities to explore new areas of expertise, develop strong business skills, and travel and work globally.

Monash PhD graduate Lauren Boak has built an impressive and varied career within Roche, working in both Switzerland and the UK. Initially working as a Clinical Science Specialist in neuroscience, she is now develops products as a Business Manager, and scopes external innovation initiatives to bring into the company.

Lauren’s work gives her opportunities to work on potentially transformative medicines and develop experience across multiple fields.

Pharmaceuticals is a major growth sector globally, and a graduate-level role within a pharmaceutical company can be the first step to a successful and varied career.

3. Regulatory affairs

For graduates seeking a rewarding career outside the lab, Regulatory Affairs can be a fulfilling option. The work involves ensuring a company and its products meet government regulations. For companies producing new pharmaceutically-based products, it is a crucial discipline. A skilled Regulatory Affairs Officer can be the difference between an effective product reaching the market or not.

Regulatory professionals are expected to know the ins and outs of the medical marketplace, and to understand how changing regulations will impact their industry. There is a growing need for qualified professionals who see regulatory oversight not as something that blocks progress but rather an opportunity to help bring more safe, affordable and efficient innovations to market.

Regulatory professionals can accelerate their career in regulatory affairs by expanding their knowledge in the areas of marketing, project management, negotiation, finance and other business disciplines.

4. Sales and marketing

The best people for selling the benefits of a product are often those with the deepest understanding of how it works. For complex products developed and manufactured using pharmaceutical or chemical science, there is often a need for Sales and Marketing representatives able to talk with authority about the science behind the product.

This is a skill many graduates have and for some, sales and marketing can be their next step beyond the lab after working in research and development.

After graduating from Monash, Reshma Prakash worked as an R&D chemist in the cosmetics and mining explosives sectors. However she soon discovered that her degree could open up many doors. Reshma now works in Marketing as a Product Support Manager for a mining company, Orica Mining Services. “I never imagined working in the mining industry,” she says. “My job involves product support for packaged explosives and initiating systems in the mining industry throughout Australia and Asia.

She enjoys the challenge of combining commercialisation with technical knowledge while developing her marketing skills. She particularly enjoys the customer focus aspect of her job.

Sales and Marketing can be a great path for graduates who enjoy people-focused work helping customers and clients find useful solutions to their needs.

5. Product developer/formulator

Product development scientists work in a variety of industries, including food, biotechnology, pharmaceutical science, and medical device manufacturing. They are typically based in the lab, developing new foods, drugs, and medical technologies or researching and developing ways to enhance existing products. They typically possess a bachelor's degree, but a graduate degree may be required for advancement.

Monash graduate Anthony Agnew is a Formulation Scientist for Hospira, a leading provider of infusion technologies. His role involves researching, developing and testing sample formulations to achieve optimum efficacy, stability and quality.

Anthony’s skills and qualifications have allowed him to work on an incredibly broad range of products during his career. “I've developed aircraft cleaners, touch-free automotive wash, coal-dust suppressants, carpet sanitisers, spot-stain removers, waterless hand cleansers and an entire line of home and hardware products.”

He now works on the research and development of injectable drug formulations for the treatment of cancer and infectious diseases.

Product development is a challenging but rewarding career path for graduates who enjoy teamwork, exploration, innovation and problem solving. Job satisfaction comes from being part of the team behind a successful product that solves a real problem in the world.

6. Medicinal Chemist

Medicinal chemistry is an interdisciplinary science, drawing graduates from a range of different fields. A career in this area usually involves working on the development and testing of potentially therapeutic compounds. This might be within a company that is developing new products, for a research facility exploring new compounds, or at a regulatory agency testing pharmaceuticals for compliance.

Jeremy Shonberg works for the Therapeutic Goods Administration as a Pharmaceutical Evaluator. He was originally drawn to medicinal chemistry because it involves a lot of problem solving and can deliver interesting results and great benefits in terms of drug design.  

A PhD graduate from Monash, his current role involves evaluating the chemistry, manufacture, quality controls and bioavailability data supplied by pharmaceutical companies to support the products they submit for government approval.

Medicinal Chemists can often find themselves working closely with Regulatory Affairs, both in the private and public sectors.

7. Patent Attorney

Pharmaceuticals are big business. It’s not all about research; to be successfully taken to market, new discoveries need to be commercialised and a company’s intellectual property protected. That’s where a patent attorney comes in. In the pharmaceutical sector, they will often come from a pharmaceutical sciences background.

A patent attorney will typically work for a specialist consultancy, advising a range of clients within their field of specialisation.

Brittany Howard is a patent attorney in the Melbourne Chemistry team at FB Rice, with a keen interest in commercialisation strategy and intellectual asset management. She utilises her knowledge in these areas to help manage clients’ intellectual property portfolios. Prior to her career in intellectual property, Brittany completed her PhD at Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS).

Being a patent attorney is a complex but rewarding career, requiring a deep understanding of relevant legislation, potentially across a number of different countries and regions. It is particularly appealing to graduates with an interest in commercial law and intellectual property.

8. Paints and Protective Coatings

Not all pharmaceutical science careers involve working with products for human consumption. Graduates can find a role working on the development of many of the products humans come into daily contact with, such as paints, pigments and protective coatings.

These compounds are present in our living and working spaces, our clothing, our food packaging and many, many other products and environments. We are exposed to them on a regular basis, so manufacturers must study the way they disperse and be sure that they are safe.

Rachma Saputra completed a Bachelor’s degree with honours at Monash University. She now works for BASF as a Market Development Chemist.

“After working with polymer dispersions and applications,” says Rachma, “I’ll never look at products such as architectural coatings, carpets, adhesives and labels in the same light.”

In her role, she investigates how dispersion and potential applications can be engineered to achieve improved performance and expand a product's use.

As different technologies converge, other disciplines such as solar energy generation, nanotechnology, and bioluminesce will intersect more and more with the field of paints and protective coatings. It’s a great potential path for innovative thinkers with an interest in developing technologies.

9. Quality Assurance

A company’s reputation is largely built on the quality of its products, especially when they are for human consumption, where there are important safety issues involved. So, as with any manufacturing industry, producers of pharmaceutically-based products run rigorous quality assurance programs.

It is a systems-based career, often focused on designing, implementing and managing new systems for the manufacturing process. And it can be an extremely satisfying; by ensuring the quality of the products being produced, you are making an important contribution to your employer’s reputation and commercial success.

James Schulz first encountered Quality Assurance during industrial placements during his pharmaceutical science studies. He quickly realised it was an area he enjoyed, and is now Quality Assurance Manager at Musashi, who produce sports supplements.

James says “I really enjoy working in the performance nutrition field. Constant changes in requirements and expectations from consumers and from regulators in the area mean that no two days are ever the same.”

With the continual development of superfoods, non-animal protein alternatives, dietary supplements and new therapeutic remedies, and the rise of new regulatory systems to cope, Quality Assurance is a growth area. There is increasing demand for graduates who can take on roles in this increasingly complex sector.

10. Quality Control Chemist

Quality Control and Quality Assurance are two closely related areas in manufacturing, but they have important differences. Where QA is about ensuring that development and maintenance processes are adequate in order for a system to meet its objectives, QC is a set of activities designed to evaluate the developed products.

What does that mean in simple terms? Essentially, a Quality Control Chemist is responsible for testing products to make sure that the QA processes worked. Quality control chemists prepare and test samples from all phases of a manufacturing or other handling process, with the goal of determining if the substance meets the standards or requirements of the project.

It is a role that requires focus and attention to detail, and the confidence to make decisions. If a Quality Control Chemist identifies an issue, it can require a production line to stop working or a product to be recalled - so it’s not a role for someone who isn’t ready to back themselves!

11. Medical Science Liaison

The Medical Science Liaison (MSL) is a specific role within the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, medical device and other health-care industries. An MSL typically has advanced scientific and academic credentials, including a doctorate degree in the life sciences.

A medical science liaison usually concentrates on a specific therapeutic area, such as Oncology or Hematology, and works for a company developing pharmaceutical products for that therapeutic area.

Their primary purpose is to establish and maintain peer-to-peer relationships with leading physicians and opinion leaders at major academic institutions and clinics. They help ensure that products are utilised effectively and serve as resources for both the medical community and their internal colleagues.

The MSL role is evolving and has seen exponential growth of the role in recent years. For PhD graduates who are strong communicators, it can be interesting and varied role, well worth pursuing.

12. Medicines Adviser

For graduates with a desire to work in the social advancement field, one career path is to work with an International Non-Governmental Organisation (“INGO”), like the World Health Organisation (“WHO”).

With a goal to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world, WHO staff work side by side with governments and other partners to ensure the highest attainable level of health for all people.

WHO National Pharmaceutical Advisers are based in WHO Country Offices, and are a valuable source of specialist pharmaceutical expertise to over 40 countries. They ensure countries have consistent, intensive and long-term support in relation to medicines and health products, and work with Ministries of Health to assess and monitor country pharmaceutical sectors, identify policy priorities and coordinate WHO technical work in the pharmaceutical sector.

Much of the World Health Organisation’s work takes place in developing countries. As a Medicines Adviser, a pharmaceutical science graduate is able to be part of an important humanitarian mission and play a part in improving lives around the world.

13. Skin Care and Cosmetics

Youthful, clear skin is big business, with skin care and cosmetic companies around the world spending millions on researching and developing new products. For pharmaceutical science graduates interested in this field, there are plenty of opportunities.

It is a fast moving industry, with competing companies striving for the next breakthrough that will give them the edge. At the top end of the industry, it can be one of the more glamorous areas a science graduate can find themselves in.

It’s not just big name international cosmetic brands with celebrity endorsement deals and expensive ad campaigns that offer employment though. Many smaller companies exist in the field and it is ripe for entrepreneurs. Singapore business The Skin Company formulates bespoke skincare products to meet the needs of specific skin types, and was founded by Monash graduates Mah Mei Hui and Lau Min-tsek.

During her career Mei Hui has worked as a retail and hospital pharmacist, in Regulatory Affairs, in Sales and Marketing, and as a Product Manager with an international pharmaceutical company - proof of how diverse a career you can have in this sector.

14. Science Writer

Completing any science-based degree requires you to learn how to write well about different scientific concepts and communicate your ideas and observations clearly. For some graduates, these skills can be the foundation of a career as a science writer.

Science writers research, write and edit scientific news, articles and features. If they work in the media, they can write for business, trade and professional publications, specialist scientific and technical journals, and the general media.

If they work for non-media organisations, it is usually in a communications or marketing role, explaining scientific research to a professional or lay audience through articles, press releases and other written content.

The key skill for a science writer is to be able to understand complex scientific information, theories and practices, then translate that into concise and accurate language that can be understood by the general public.

As the number of media channels available increases exponentially, and more and more and more inaccurate or misinformed content makes it out into the public sphere, the need for clear and persuasive science communication is growing.

15. Biomedical researcher (university)

Biomedical researchers investigate how the human body works with the aim of finding new ways to improve health. Usually based in a laboratory, you will conduct experiments and clinical tests and record and report on the findings.

In general, biomedical researchers within a university will tend to focus on improving tools and techniques, studying healthy biological processes and the causes and progress of diseases.

It can be an extremely rewarding career path to follow, as the discoveries that you contribute can have a measurable and lasting impact on society. For the intellectually curious, it can be an extremely interesting and satisfying option where you will work in a highly autonomous environment alongside intelligent, interesting peers.

Biomedical research within a university is often seen as a natural career progression for high achievers within a range of academic disciplines, including pharmaceutical science. It is a long path to follow, as you will almost certainly require a PhD, but skilled researchers are in demand and once established within a University have good prospects for global collaboration and furthering their specialism.

16. Biomedical researcher (private sector)

In addition to research labs within universities, a pharmaceutical science qualification can also lead to a career in biochemical research within the private sector. This path would often take a graduate into the pharmaceutical industry, where their research focus would be on generating and evaluating possible treatments for diseases and medical conditions.

One of the biggest advantages to a private sector research role is the resources available. Private sector labs are usually developing high value products that generate considerable income for the company. This means they can invest in state of the art facilities and equipment for their employees.

Due to the commercial nature of the job, private sector biomedical researchers don’t always enjoy the same autonomy as their academic counterparts. However the role can present the opportunity to work in close a partnership with university researchers, as well as developing new career paths within other areas within a company.

17. Clinical Research Associate

Any new pharmaceutical-based product developed needs to go through clinical trials to ensure its safety and efficacy. As a Clinical Research Associate, you will use your experience in running experiments, gathering data and documenting the results during clinical trials. The typical employers for this role include Clinical Research Organisations (“CROs”), pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies or, less frequently, hospitals and universities.

In simple terms, the role involves coordinating the collection, distribution and storage of data obtained during clinical trials. However there are many more responsibilities. For example, every trial is overseen by an ethics committee who ensure it is conducted in an ethical manner. A clinical research associate will need to liaise with this committee and keep them informed of how the trial is progressing. Depending on the trial, there can also be a high level of contact with trial participants, so good interpersonal communication skills can be valuable.

This role is ideal for people with attention to detail and a passion for data collection and documentation, who like to work methodically towards a specific goal.

These are just and hadful of the possible career paths available with a pharmaceutical sciences qualification. There are many more. Wherever your interests lie, if you make the most of the opportunities available to you there will be an engaging, fulfilling career waiting.