By: Claire Wilson BSc and Donagh Fitzgerald B.Prod Eng. Last Updated: February 2024

A Career in Pharma

Image: Körber

What are some of the biggest myths about trying to find a new job within the pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing industry?

And what are some of the things we think everyone should know if they’re considering a career change into this industry? 

In this post, we share 26 myths, misconceptions and observations that we at GetReskilled have gathered over the last thirteen years…

BTW, if you are interested in reskilling into this industry, check out our list of pharmaceutical industry courses.

#1 – “You don’t need a science or engineering qualification to get an entry-level job within the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector”

Yes, this is absolutely true although it does come with the major caveat that this applies to entry-level jobs. Making medicines and medical device products at this level is all about following systems, processes, and standard operating procedures (SOPs). 

Jobs such as process operator, manufacturing operator, cleanroom operator, product assembler, product team member, packaging, warehousing are typical roles available to those without a science or engineering or any university qualification for that matter. You should note that there are often a wide variety of titles and names used to describe the same kind of roles.

In most cases though, you are going to need some external training in the rules and regulations that govern the manufacture of medicines such as Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) in order to get your foot in the door of these companies.

And once you start work, you can expect to be undergo detailed on the job training (6 months is not uncommon) before being left to work unsupervised on the factory floor.

More recently, we have come across some people with zero training and zero manufacturing experience getting hired directly by pharmaceutical manufacturers who’ll then put those new employees on an internal training program.

For those who have already worked in nutritional, beverage, food, or dairy manufacturing, you might well have enough experience of working in a regulated manufacturing environment to apply directly for an entry-level position in the pharmaceutical and medical device sector.

However, see the next point…

#2 – “You will almost certainly need some kind of 3rd level qualification to go beyond an entry-level role (and sometimes, just to stay in your current position!)”

If you want to go beyond an entry-level position, you are probably going to need some kind of university or college accredited qualification.

We have seen this trend more and more over the last ten years. And when you think about it, it does make sense. Once you move beyond entry-level roles, the work becomes much more complex, sophisticated, and subtle. You’ll need to expand your knowledge to handle the increased complexity – gaining certification is the easiest way of signalling that you are up to the task. 

More recently, we’ve also noticed a trend of some people having to get certification just to stay in their current position. For example, machine operators who have been working in the same role for more than 10 years being instructed to turn their experience into some kind of recognised qualification.

Greater competition for roles, more emphasis being placed on certification, and “education inflation” seem to be driving this trend.

#3 – “Your biggest obstacle isn’t a missing science or engineering qualification”

Now, we are not saying that technical qualifications aren’t important. Of course they are. But they are not the only factor. Your job-hunting skills, attitude, networking skills and resilience all play a crucial role that far too many people don’t give enough attention to.

#4 – “The vast majority of people who work in a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant are not laboratory scientists”

There is an incredibly persistent myth that only laboratory scientists make medicines. This is simply not the case. 

Now just to be clear on this, we are not referring to those who work in research and development, clinical trials, regulatory affairs (the people dealing with the applications and ongoing paperwork surrounding regulations that have to be done before/when a medicine is sold to the public), or pharmacovigilance (monitoring the drug for safety after it has been released to the public). Many of them ARE scientists.

We are talking about within the four walls of the pharmaceutical manufacturing plant itself – those responsible for combining ingredients into finished medicines. The vast majority of them are NOT scientists.

Check out his article for a breakdown of the structure and departments in a pharmaceutical manufacturing company.

#5 – “Most people have terrible job hunting skills… and just don’t know it”

Job hunting is a bit like managing your finances or dating – it’s one of those skills that everything thinks they just know how to do… but that no one actually ever teaches you.

After over a decade of experience retraining and upskilling people from all backgrounds, education, and cultures, here are a couple of observations:

  1. Most people are really bad at job hunting. We see three main reasons…
    1. Lack of practice – most people do it so infrequently (perhaps only every 5 to 10 years) they never get the chance to get good at it. 
    2. Lack of awareness their job-hunting skills are so bad – unlike people in HR or recruiting managers, the majority of people never get to review and grade thousands of CVs or cover letters or conduct hundreds of interviews. They have no way to benchmark their own performance against what is “good” or “bad”.
    3. Overconfidence – you know the old joke about 95% of people thinking that they have above-average driving skills… that! 
  2. Most people go into denial when it’s pointed out – job hunting is often a stressful and draining experience and a lot of people find themselves in an emotionally delicate state. Not surprisingly, they often find it difficult to avoid taking negative judgment of their job-hunting skills personally. This blocks them from making changes. 

If we were to grade people by their job-hunting skills and then group their levels into 10 different buckets from “Excellent” to “Awful”, the majority (~80%) would fall in the bottom 3 buckets. 

That’s the bad news. 

The Good News…

It doesn’t actually take a huge amount of effort to turn things around. There are usually a few simple things each person is doing wrong and you can dramatically improve your success rate without too much effort. 

And if you want to get a sense of your own job-hunting skills level, take this short test. 

#6 – “Most people waste months applying for jobs before they realise they need to improve their job-hunting skills. Some never do”

Following on from the point above, we see this again and again. People spend months applying for jobs with little to no success.

Some people (assuming they don’t quit!) start to get better bit by bit. They get feedback on their CV or interviewing and, with that, their job-hunting skills begin to gradually improve.

Regrettably, there are lots of people who never realise they’re doing something wrong and they often end up facing huge frustration with their job hunt. 

#7 – “Get help”

If there is only one piece of advice you take away from this article, it should be this…

“Take a job-hunting course or get professional career coaching advice if it’s been a few years since you last changed jobs.”

We offer our own program but there are plenty of other options out there. Just Google “job hunting courses” or “career coaching”. You can probably find lots of excellent low-cost or even free programs at your local adult education centre as well.

We simply can not overstate how big a difference this can make.

In response to most people’s poor job-hunting skills, we built our own extensive 5-week job hunting programme focused on the pharmaceutical and MedTech sector and offered it at no extra cost to our reskilling students. Then we spent upwards of two years trying every behavioural science and motivational technique in the book trying to cajole, persuade, and encourage our students to take the program.

But uptake and interest varied mostly from lukewarm to none. In a few cases, it was downright hostile!

So in the end, we built career coaching into our standard course curriculum. The resistance to taking it mostly evaporated and within months we saw a 3 to 4 fold increase in people’s success rate when it came to finding a job.

#8 – “Thoroughly and carefully read the job adverts”

If there is a second piece of advice you take away from this article, it should be this…

“You need to thoroughly read the job adverts and never discount a job based on the title alone.”

Until you really get to grips with industry opportunities, don’t discount jobs based on their title alone. Even jobs that sound kind of niche often have some flexibility around degree subject and experience level.

#9 – “You can retrain or upskill while holding down a full-time job”

Let’s be honest. It’s not going to be pleasant, but continuing to work while you retrain or upskill is definitely doable.

Trying to find an extra 10 hours a week can be tough – especially if you have family or caring commitments. You can probably forget about binge watching Netflix for the foreseeable future. But even if you can even manage to block off 5 hours a week, it is possible. With 10 or 15 hours per week, you’d be in a great position.

#10 – “Persistence, preparation and networking often beats qualifications”

Yes, this sounds like the most appalling kind of cliche…

But nevertheless, most people drastically underestimate the number of job applications and interviews required to get a new job (along with the waiting time and persistence needed). This is especially true if you are coming from the service or construction sector where you can often get hired very quickly or even on the spot.

#11 – “If your current job makes heavy use of systems, procedures, you’ll be a fine fit for pharma”

Chefs, fast food restaurant employees, nurses, semiconductor manufacturing operators, or people who work in any sector that makes heavy use of systems, procedures, and standardisation make an excellent fit for the pharmaceutical manufacturing and medical device manufacturing industry.

For example, chefs have to learn mise en place which places a huge emphasis on a tidy workspace and economy of motion (it’s remarkably similar to 5s used in Lean Manufacturing) and the fast-food industry makes extensive use of quality assurance to maintain standards and deliver a consistent and hygienic food experience across all restaurants. These are all great transferable skills!

#12 – “The recruitment process can take months”

The recruitment processes for many companies in this sector are generally multistep, rigorous, and really slow. It can often take months, a fact that can be a huge cause of frustration to people new to the sector. In addition, pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing jobs are stable, secure, and well-paid so there can be a lot of competition for them which can slow down the process even more. We generally tell our students to allow anywhere from 2 to 5 months to find a job.

#13 – “Using your LinkedIn profile to apply for a job is almost always a terrible idea”

While having a well-maintained and polished LinkedIn profile is an excellent idea, you really should avoid applying for any open vacancies using it within the pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing industry – despite how easy it might seem. 

What most people don’t intuitively understand, is that significantly customising your job application for each advert is one of the simplest and most effective ways to increase your chances of getting noticed by an employer. The one-size-fits-all approach of using a LinkedIn application is wholly unsuited to that.

So if you see a job advertised on LinkedIn, always take the time to find direct contact details and apply using a tailored CV and cover letter.

#14 – “You may need to move to find work”

While it might seem obvious in retrospect, pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing companies tend to be found in clusters – where many companies grow within a small geographic location. If you don’t live in an area where there are a large number of pharmaceutical or medical device factories within commuting distance, you may need to move to find work.

Some of the biggest pharmaceutical industry clusters include:

And in the United States:

  • Puerto Rico
  • Chicago
  • Pennsylvania
  • Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
  • Seattle
  • San Diego, California
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland / Virginia / DC Metro
  • LA/Orange County, California
  • San Francisco Bay Area, California
  • Massachusetts

Check out the top pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing hubs in the US.

#15 – “If you’ve worked in an ISO 9001 regulated sector, you’re a good fit for pharma or medical device manufacturing”

If you’ve worked in an industry that makes use of ISO 9001:2015, you’re probably well suited to working in the pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing sector. The standard makes extensive use of standardised systems and procedures and aligns very closely with how the pharma and med-tech sectors think when it comes to making safe medicines at an affordable cost.

#16 – “Quality control in pharmaceutical manufacturing is populated by scientists, not engineers”

In light or heavy manufacturing industries, most people who work in quality control have an engineering background. However, in pharmaceutical manufacturing, sample testing is done in a laboratory and people who work in Quality Control usually have a science/laboratory background.

#17 – “Contract service companies can offer a stepping stone into pharma or medical device manufacturing”

Contract service companies can be a great option for getting your first pharma experience.

These are companies that hire you directly and then place you within a client pharmaceutical or medical device company. The client company pays them and the contract service company pays you.

A lot of companies (not just pharma or med device manufacturers) like using them as it gives flexibility when it comes to quickly increasing or reducing a workforce. It also offers client companies the long interview, where they can judge your performance over a prolonged time frame.

It can often be easier to get your first job within the sector using these companies and they can offer a great way to build your experience. We have certainly seen a lot of people move from working within a contract service company to getting hired directly by the client company. 

Salary-wise, the contract service company is keeping a percentage of the money paid to them by the client company so, for entry-level jobs, you would generally find that your salary would be lower than that of the equivalent full-time employee employed by the company. 

For more senior roles, like an automation or validation engineer, it is more difficult to say. Salaries could be lower or much higher than those employed directly depending on the nature of the work, the local labour regulation rules, and the market demand. 

#18 – “Most people forget service companies to the industry, especially the engineering consultancies that design and build these manufacturing plants”

Another often overlooked path into this sector is to apply for a job with many of the service companies that work together with this sector – especially with the engineering consultancies that design, build, and service this sector’s manufacturing facilities.

This is an excellent path especially for anyone with a chemical, process, petrochemical, project, validation, automation, electrical, mechanical, maintenance, plant, environmental quality, CAD design, or even civil engineering background.

Other highly relevant backgrounds and job roles would be in environmental science, instrumentation and calibration technicians, HVAC technicians,  architects, quantity surveyors, cost estimators, pipefitters and coded welders, documentation control, and project planners.

In contrast to working directly for a pharma or medical device manufacturing company on ongoing internal projects, you would be more likely to work on large-scale capital projects. This type of work pays well, often with significant opportunities for overtime. The work is often more varied but you do have to move from project to project and your long-term work schedule will be far less predictable. 

In the interest of full disclosure, we should mention that our former parent company was an engineering consultancy that builds pharmaceutical manufacturing plants. 

#19 – “Pharmaceutical manufacturing is a regulated industry”

The pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturing industries are regulated. What happens on the factory floor is subject to the law of the land. These regulations are called Good Manufacturing Practices or GMPs and legally require that pharmaceutical, medical device or drug packaging manufacturers take proactive steps to;

  1. Make sure their products are safe, pure, and effective
  2. Protect the public from products that are not effective or dangerous

GMPs cover all aspects of production from the raw materials, factory and equipment, to the training and personal hygiene of staff. Each time a product is made, there must be a written procedure and documented proof of how a task was performed. Detailed written procedures are essential for each process that could affect the quality of the finished product. There must be systems to provide documented proof that correct procedures are consistently followed at each step in the manufacturing process every time a product is made.

Failure of a company to comply with GMP regulations can have serious consequences including product recall, seizure, fines, and even time in jail.

These rules, protocols, and guidelines are laid out by a government regulatory body such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States or the European Medicines Association (EMA) within the EU. There are many other regulatory frameworks as well. 

This level of regulation has implications for staff training and almost all workplace activities.

#20 – “People can’t be GMP certified. Nor can companies”

Every now and again, we are asked “Does completion of your course get me GMP certified?” The answer is “No” because, from the perspective of GMP regulations, a person (or a company) can’t be GMP Certified. Only the manufacturing facility including all its systems and processes can!

Perhaps an often misunderstood point from people outside the industry is that technically speaking the pharmaceutical or medical device manufacturing company is not approved to make a specific medicine or product at all of its manufacturing plants. Instead, the regulatory authorities approve a specific product to be manufactured at a specific manufacturing plant. In other words, the local regulatory authorise (EMA, MHRA, FDA, etc) have visited, inspected and audited that facility and certified it to manufacture that product conditional on demonstrating strong regulatory commitment and compliance to the relevant GMP standards.

And GMPs cover and extend to all aspects of production from the raw materials, factory and equipment, to the training and personal hygiene of staff and focuses on the outcomes of the facility as a whole and not to actions of one individual who was involved in its production. So the people or even the company aren’t certified. Only the manufacturing facility is certified to manufacture a specific product.

However, you may sometimes hear people say that a product is GMP Certified especially if they are from North America. What this means is that the product was made in a GMP approved facility.

#21 – “There are approx 4 areas scientists and science graduates can find work within pharmaceutical manufacturing”

We have been putting together the largest pharma jobs board for both Ireland and the UK 2 times a month for the last 5 years. And from looking at the job requirements for thousands of jobs, we can see that the job roles for those with laboratory/science qualifications map into approx four areas. Now, just to clarify, we are not talking about research, regulatory affairs or pharmacovigilance. We are talking specifically about pharmaceutical manufacturing.

The 4 areas are:

Development is the “D” part of “R&D”. Development is the phase after research where the creation of a proven drug is moved from the lab to the manufacturing plant.
Typical roles we see advertised: Tech Transfer Scientist, Process Technology Transfer Scientist, Transfer Scientist, Product and Process Development Scientists

Science roles that support manufacturing – Typical roles support the manufacturing process in a regulated environment and work within multidisciplinary teams to produce medicinal products.
Typical roles we see advertised: Microbiology/Particle Analyst, Process Sciences Manager-Upstream, Environmental Microbiologist, Bioprocessing Scientist

Quality assurance is process-oriented and focuses on removing any variation from the processes of manufacturing. The role tends to be detail-orientated and documentation-focused.
Typical roles we see advertised: Quality Assurance Specialist Quality Assurance Associate, QA Compliance Specialist, QMS/QA Specialist

Quality control is product-oriented and focuses on testing samples from the manufacturing process to make sure they meet the required specifications and standards.
Typical roles we see advertised: Quality Control Microbiology Analyst, Quality Control Specialist, Quality Control Analyst FTC, Senior Quality Control Analyst

#22 – “Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are a good fit quality assurance roles”

Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians are a good fit for quality assurance roles within pharmaceutical manufacturing. They may also be able to find roles working in quality control if they have sufficient laboratory experience. See the previous point for more details on typical roles in quality assurance and quality control.

There are a variety of roles in the pharmaceutical industry outside of manufacturing as well. Here are some of the most common.

In Clinical Trials:

  • Clinical Trial Administrator (CTA) – provides administrative support to clinical trial sites and clinical research associates.

  • Clinical Research Associate (CRA) – coordinates the running of clinical trials. This can involve a variety of tasks including writing trial protocols, training of staff at trial sites, collection of trial data and writing reports documenting trial outcomes.

In Regulatory Affairs:

  • Regulatory Affairs Specialist / Officer / Associate – involved in ongoing quality monitoring across the company. Gather and collate the data and information needed for review and submission to regulatory agencies.

  • Qualified Person – is a technical term used in European Union pharmaceutical regulation. QPs are legally responsible for certifying batches of medicinal products before they’re used in clinical trials or available on the market.

In Drug Safety:

  • Pharmacovigilance Officer – also called a drug safety officer. They are responsible for monitoring and reporting the effectiveness and any adverse effects or side effects of pharmaceutical products on the market in the general population and in hospitals and research trials.

#23 – “Nurses are a good fit for quality assurance roles”

Nurses are also a good fit for quality assurance roles within pharmaceutical manufacturing.  A nurse’s job makes heavy use of systems, procedures, and standardisation and that makes them a great fit for quality assurance roles in this industry.  See point #21 for more details on typical roles in quality assurance.

There are other roles in the pharmaceutical industry outside of manufacturing as well. Here are some of the most common.

In Clinical Trials:

  • Clinical Trial Administrator (CTA) – provides administrative support to clinical trial sites and clinical research associates.

  • Clinical Research Associate (CRA) – coordinates the running of clinical trials. This can involve a variety of tasks including writing trial protocols, training of staff at trial sites, collection of trial data and writing reports documenting trial outcomes.

In Pharmaceutical Sales:

Examples of jobs in this category include:

  • Medical representative – the salespeople meeting with front-line healthcare professionals to keep them up to date with products
  • Healthcare Development Manager – typically work with health sector managers and decision-makers
  • Medical Science Liaison – non-sales role that provides specialist detailed scientific information to customers of levels

#24 – “You don’t need to be able to code to work in computer system validation”

Computer System Validation is a rigorous methodology used in the pharmaceutical and medical device sector to absolutely confirm that a GxP computerized system application does exactly what it is designed to do.

One of the single biggest misconceptions of working in Computer System Validation is that you need to be able to code in say, for example, Javascript, Python, Jave, Ruby, C++ or PHP. Or that you need to be able to program a PLC. This is not the case. However, we do sometimes see a requirement for the ability to code in some roles where the job description overlaps with automation engineering. And you do need a solid understanding of the overall computer process you will be validating. Some typical examples of GxP systems are.

  • Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)
  • Clinical Trial Monitoring Systems
  • PLC for Controlled Packaging Equipment
  • Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)
  • Distributed Control System (DCS)
  • Chromatography Data System (CDS)
  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Systems
  • Manufacturing Execution System (MES)
  • Batch Record System
  • Building Management Systems (BMS)
  • Spreadsheets

#25 – “Never apply for the job you want first”

If you’ve been out to the job hunting game for a long time (especially if it’s more than a few years), you are almost certainly going to be rusty and make some basic mistakes with your job search, networking, and interviewing technique.

You are more than likely going to need practice your skills to reach a point where you’re representing yourself in the best light. For that reason, it can be a good idea to apply for a few jobs you’re less interested in (or that are outside of your commutable area) to get this practice. This means you’re not making basic errors with applications you’d really love to be successful.

#26 – “Nobody can guarantee you a job”

We appreciate that this may come across as stating the obvious but we do get asked this all the time – no, we cannot and will not guarantee you’ll get a job.

Like most sectors, pharma has strict protocols and procedures to ensure fairness and equity in its recruitment. As such, no university college or training organisation can guarantee you a job. What we can offer is the very latest in job hunting advice and guidance, which will leave you in a great position for your pharma job hunt!

Interested in a Pharma Career

No industry experience, science or engineering qualifications?
You’ll need to start with our Conversion Course into Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

Already working in the industry and want to upskill for a better job or a promotion?
View all 13 Pharmaceutical Courses

About the Author

Image with Claire Wilison from GetReskilled Team

Claire Wilson

Content Marketing and Career Coaching

Claire runs GetReskilled’s Advanced Career Coaching Programme – our specially devised job hunting course that helps our trainees take that final step into employment by leading them through the job hunting process. She is extremely enthusiastic about helping people reach their final goal of employment in their new career path.

Claire has a BSc (Hons) in Medical Biology from Edinburgh University and spent 7 years working in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.

Our Team

Donagh Fitzgerald

Head of Marketing & Product Development
Mechanical/Production Engineer

Donagh looks after the marketing and product development including the training and pedagogical elements of our programs and makes sure that all GetReskilled’s users can have a great online learning experience. Donagh has lived and worked in many countries including Ireland, America, the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. Donagh has also served as the Program Manager for the Farmleigh Fellowship based out of Singapore.

Donagh holds Degrees in Production Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from South East Technological University, Ireland.