Serving Our Military and Veteran Students

What is the Pharmaceutical and Medical Device Industry? – A Guide for Veterans


We know that one of the biggest challenges when you’re looking to choose a civilian career, is that it’s actually really difficult to figure out what people do on a daily basis.

What does working in this industry actually look like? If you’re about to commit to retraining into a new industry and you plan to spend the next few years there, you’ve got to be sure you know.

We’ve done our best to lay out this information for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.

Of course, details change and there may be slight variations between specific companies, but this should give you a useful insight into a day-in-the-life of different industry employees.

The Different Industries

Let’s start with some basic definitions (don’t worry if they sound a little complicated – you don’t have to understand all the science and research behind products to be a successful manufacturing employee):

  • Pharmaceuticals – are made using chemical processes and is generally what comes to mind when people think of “making medicines”. Pharmaceutical products make up some of the most common pills, tablets, and capsules. The painkillers Aspirin and Tylenol are a great example.
  • Biopharmaceuticals – Where pharmaceutical products are made using chemical processes, biopharmaceutical products are made using a fermentation process called biotechnology. To explain further, think about how beer is made. The brewer mixes hops, barley, yeast, and sugar and lets it ferment to make the beer. So at its simplest, biopharmaceuticals mean capturing things produced during fermentation and using them to make a medicine. The processes here are producing larger naturally occurring molecules such as proteins, genes and cells, and (again) ‘packaging’ them in a way that the body can make use of.
  • Nutritional Manufacturing – this is a segment of the pharmaceutical industry that involves the research, development, and manufacturing of nutritional products such as milk powder for babies and vitamins for everyone.
  • Medical Device Manufacturing – this is a broadly used term for any product, instrument or item which is used to diagnose, prevent, treat or cure health conditions without any chemical or pharmacological action on or within the body. It’s probably easier to explain with examples – artificial hips, artificial heart valves, stents (used to widen blocked arteries), machines to measure blood glucose, surgical equipment, hospital monitors and contact lenses are all examples of medical devices (and there are many more!).

Despite their differences, all of these industries all work with the aim of saving or improving people’s lives. Similarly, they’re all highly regulated.

This is one of their key distinguishing features, and what makes them different from many other career choices.

Their manufacturing facilities operate within strict guidelines to make sure that medicines and devices are made safely and correctly, every single time for every single patient.

That requires staff that are diligent, committed and able to commit to working within a strict structure.

So What Does That Look Like?

We’ve tracked down a couple of videos to give you an idea of what working in pharmaceutical manufacturing might actually look like.

Check out this video from the ‘Naked Scientists’ (no actual nudity involved!) that talks through what kind of ingredients actually go into making tablets.

Or check out this “How it’s Made” episode, it’s also focused on manufacturing pills, which shows a bit more of the machinery involved.

For a closer look at manufacturing biologics specifically, check out the video below, from Amgen (one of the major pharmaceutical manufacturing companies). It’s a little science-heavy at the very start but gives a great overview of the manufacturing process as it progresses.

And finally, no matter which specific industry you’re interested in, you might like to check out this video from NC BioNetwork on “Aseptic Gowning for a Cleanroom”.

This will give you an idea of some of the procedures that need to be followed when working in these highly controlled manufacturing environments. Working in a cleanroom is extremely common within these industries.

Different Company Departments – Which One Is Right For You?

Production (Manufacturing)

Typical % of total company employment: 50%

Overview: If you work in production you deal with all stages of pharmaceutical product manufacture – from producing active ingredients, through to completion of finished products and even packaging. Due to this diversity, work in this area can take many forms and involve the use of specialist machinery. These production processes are all carried out in strict adherence to both internal and external protocols.


Typical % of total company employment: 30%

Overview: If you work in quality, your job is to monitor and document activities, processes, and products of manufacturing to ensure they meet strict quality standards and predefined expectations. Ultimately, you have to ensure the safety of the drugs that go out for distribution – – managing quality is essential within highly regulated industries like pharmaceutical manufacturing.


Typical % of total company employment: 10%

Overview: Ensures the continuous functioning of the manufacturing plant and its equipment. Roles such as IT, automation and technical services would be included here.

Other (Supply Chain, Logistics, Warehouse, etc)

Typical % of total company employment: 5%

Overview: Includes areas such as Supply Chain, Logistics, Marketing, HR, Warehouse, Finance, etc. May be located within the facility or at a centralized company location. The specific skills needed varies depending on the role.

Research & Development

Typical % of total company employment: 5%

Overview: Where staff are engaged in making improvements and modifications to existing production processes and identifying possible new production technologies and applications.

May be located within the facility or at a centralized company location. The specific skills needed vary depending on products and areas targeted for product improvement.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is just a guide. The size of these departments ultimately depend upon the size of the pharmaceutical company (smaller companies may outsource some of these roles altogether), but they are all ultimately critical parts of the pharmaceutical manufacturing process.

Next Steps

I hope this article has helped to explain some of the basic questions you might have had about working in a pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing facility.

But maybe all we’ve done is opened up a whole new line of questions!

Feel free to contact us to discuss your specific circumstances or to chat about what opportunities might be available to you within these industries.