By: Claire Wilson BSc and Donagh Fitzgerald B.Prod Eng. Last Updated: April 2022

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