By: Claire Wilson. Last Updated: April 2022

funnel showing how to narrow down career opportunities

You should do more than just plan for your first job in the pharma industry – you should plan for a career.

Many people make the mistake of stumbling through their career – waiting for opportunities to present themselves and for others to notice their talent.

Don’t make that mistake. Instead, aim to progress through your career by making deliberate choices to reach your goals.

What is Career Planning?

As you start out in this career, you should take some time to consider where you want to end up, and plot a path to get there. It doesn’t mean that those choices are set in stone, you can still be flexible if you discover other opportunities later. But it means you have a clear goal to work towards.

And this isn’t just a task for aspiring CEOs – whatever your ultimate career goal, you should be actively working towards it.

But that’s a big task if you’ve never spent time doing something like this before. So grab a piece of paper and a pen, or open a new word document, and let us guide you through the career planning process in 5 steps…

Step 1 – Identify your motivations

In this first step, we’re going to dig deep into what you want. If you consider the “Career Fulfilment Iceberg” below, step 1 is all about identifying the “why”.

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Essentially this step is going to have you consider what kind of life you want.

This has to be your first consideration because it will change all future decisions.

So first, think about what you value most in life.

What you want from life…

What do you need from your life to feel happy?

And note that this is a deliberately bigger question than “what do you want from your career” – take a step back from that just now and think about the biggest picture.

There are no wrong answers and you don’t have to share your thoughts with anyone. So take your time and be honest (lying to yourself here is just going to take you down the wrong path).

To give you some ideas, you might consider your thoughts on:

  • Money
  • Travel
  • Power / control
  • Responsibility
  • Staying within one geographic area
  • Time with your family / friends
  • A hobby you love

This is by no means an exhaustive list – your most important values might be something completely different and that’s absolutely fine (no wrong answers!)

It’s not necessarily something that you can write down in 5 minutes. Make a note of your first ideas, but then give yourself a chance to reflect on them and think about them a little more to really get to what you want.

For example…

You might initially write money.

But if you give yourself time to think about it – you might actually be looking to buy your dream house, or save for your children’s future, or retire early.

There can be important differences in those – so try to really get to the heart of what you want.

What you want from your career…

Now we need to think about career-specific things to uncover the right path. Don’t be constrained by thinking about the next job you’re aiming for – or any specific job for that matter. This is about the long-term, what you’d ideally want to be doing. So instead, think about having a magic wand, what would you want from a job?

Again, this can be difficult to do by yourself, so work through the following questions.

Let’s think about how you want your working day to look. This isn’t about specific tasks – it’s more about general activities. Use the list below to start your thoughts, choosing as many as you want (and feeling free to add multiple others), but then try to prioritise your list – so you’ve also got a sense of what’s most important.

checklist of ideal working day

Now answer these questions to help you identify what’s important to you in a job:

  • What parts of previous jobs have you enjoyed?
  • What tasks do you look forward to doing?
  • When are you happiest? And can you capture that in a workplace environment?
  • What hobbies do you have? And what do they tell you about your personality? (i.e. playing football – teamwork, leadership, physical activity)
  • What types of tasks do you enjoy? (e.g. repetitive, predictable, projects, new/novel, etc)
  • What tasks or roles do you see colleagues doing that you think you’d enjoy?

And now try to answer these questions to help you identify what you should avoid, if you can:

  • What parts of previous jobs have you disliked?
  • What tasks do you put off doing?
  • What tasks or roles do you see colleagues doing that you’re glad you don’t have to?

Again, these are tasks that might immediately bring some things to mind. But to complete them thoroughly, you’ll probably need to give yourself time to think about them.

And finally, for this step, look at your answers and see if you can spot any patterns. Are there common themes? Or ideas that keep repeating? This will help you identify the core things that are important to you.

If you feel comfortable sharing your answers with someone else, see if they notice any patterns that you didn’t.

Step 2 – Figure out your skills

Now you need to figure out (and write down!) the skills you have.

To fully capture your current skill set, think about:

  • Professional experience
  • Experiences in education
  • Hobbies & interests
  • Social situations

You’ll probably find it quite easy to capture things like technical skills and things you have training in, and that’s important. But I can guarantee you have more skills than that.

I want you to delve deeper, and uncover the range of transferable skills you have.

Transferable skills are industry-independent – you might have heard of them referred to as “soft” or core skills.

Examples of transferable skills include:

  • Written communication
  • Verbal communication
  • Attention to detail
  • Leadership
  • Problem solving
  • Team working
  • Self-motivation
  • Organisation
  • Result orientated
  • Initiative
  • Project management
  • Supervision

To identify your transferable skills, think of the duties and responsibilities you’ve had in previous roles, and then think about the transferable skill involved.

For example…

You worked in an office and trained new colleagues when they joined. To help them, you wrote a check sheet for the essential parts of their job, and numbers of who to call if they had questions.

This displayed:

  • Team working – helping new staff settle in and be successful
  • Initiative – to create the document
  • Organisation – to gather together all the resources they might need
  • Written communication – describing things accurately on the check sheet
  • Supervision – mentoring of junior staff

If you consider all previous experience in this way, you’ll quickly develop a long list of skills.

Once you’ve done that, look for patterns and repeating themes.

Which of these skills are related to the tasks that you particularly enjoy? Are there some transferable skills that don’t appear on your list at all?

And it’s also worth thinking about your particular strengths and weaknesses.

To identify strengths, consider:

  • What am I praised for?
  • What have managers highlighted as strengths in appraisals?
  • What do colleagues come to me for?
  • What subjects did you enjoy in school? (it may be a while ago, but it might help you to think about some of your core “likes”)
  • Are there times you shine when others around you are having difficulty? (e.g. tight deadlines, tasks that need organised, when there’s conflict that needs resolved, de escalating complaints, etc)

To identify weaknesses, think about:

  • What do I need to ask colleagues for help with?
  • What have managers highlighted as areas for development in appraisals?
  • What situations do I avoid? (e.g. big team gatherings, conflict, presenting, etc)

When writing these down, you don’t have to be concise – use as many words as you need to at the start to simply capture your awareness. Then you can worry about being able to concisely define it into skills and qualities.

You might find that in trying to put it into words, your understanding of it changes – that’s the whole point!

Step 3 – Get to know the opportunities / job roles

Ok, so now we step away from you, and look to the job opportunities in pharma.

I’d argue that this can be the most difficult stage. For now – you don’t know the things you don’t know. But don’t let that put you off, it’s worth giving this your best effort. And again, we’re here to guide you…

To do this, we’re going to think of industry opportunities in a funnel – we’re going to put all jobs in the top, and then narrow it down in a series of steps.

funnel showing how to narrow down career opportunities

Understand industries

So let’s start broad and see if we can narrow down the specific industry at all. You’ve got “pharma” in mind, but there are still a range of similar options open to you:

  • Pharmaceutical manufacturing – this is the traditional making of medicines that involves combining chemicals to make small, active molecules from scratch and packaging them in a way the body can use (like in a tablet).
  • Biopharmaceutical manufacturing – this is a much newer industry that takes things found naturally in biology (like proteins and cells) and packages them into a usable treatment. While many of the same steps apply (and the regulations certainly do), some of the jobs can be a little different due to the different processes involved.
  • Medical Device manufacturing – this is a diverse term that covers the manufacture of any product that diagnoses, prevents, or treats a health condition without any chemical change in the body. Think of things like heart monitors, contact lenses, or artificial joints. This is a very different industry – often following the procedures for discrete manufacturing – and therefore offers a very different range of jobs. Salaries can be lower than in pharma, but it can be easier to get an entry level position.
  • Combination Product manufacturing – this industry manufactures products that combine a medical device with a pharmaceutical or biopharmaceutical product. Think of things like insulin injector pens, drug eluting stents, and metered dose inhalers.

This article has more information about the steps involved.

Depending on the type of job you’re interested in, you might not narrow down your search too much here.

Get to know departments

Now you understand what’s being made, it’s important to understand the different departments involved.

As a quick overview, departments include:

Research – during this stage, experiments are done to find new products or improve existing ones. This looks very different in the different industries. In pharma/biopharma, there’s a strong focus on lab-based science roles (filled by candidates with specific experience and advanced degrees). And in medical devices, engineering (including design engineering) is dominant.

Clinical Trials – all products undergo strict testing procedures to prove they perform as expected. In pharma, this involves teams of nurses, pharmacists, coordinators, and administrators.

Development – at this point testing and planning is carried out to establish how products can be made reliably at scale. There are many opportunities for engineers and some scientists at this stage.

Production / Manufacturing – this is the part of the process where the products that eventually end up with patients are made. In a typical manufacturing plant, this department makes up about 50% of staff. There is a wide range of positions available to suit many skill sets – from entry-level operator roles, through to specialist engineers and management. There is significant scope for progression within this department but it can also serve as a starting point to gain “on the floor” experience, before moving into more advanced roles in more specialist departments.

Validation – this is a specialist department that assesses and documents all parts of the manufacturing process to ensure that products are made consistently and reliably. Work in this department typically requires staff to have a detailed understanding of the manufacturing process as well as the requirements of validation (you can read more about that here). Depending on the size of the company, and the scale of the validation project, validation professionals might be employed directly by a company, or hired in as a contractor through an engineering consultancy.

Quality – this is another specialist department that sits alongside production, with a couple of notable sub-specialities.

  • Quality Assurance professionals take a largely preventative role. They create, revise, and implement documentation that ensure that the manufacturing process is operating as it should. Doing so requires detailed knowledge of the manufacturing process and regulatory requirements.
  • Quality Control professionals sample and test the manufacturing output at several stages, including the finished result. In pharma, Quality Control testing is typically carried out by scientists in a lab setting.

Regulatory Affairs – another highly specialised department, this time dealing with the documentation that is required by regulators. Entry-level roles are not common, and professionals typically end up here after significant experience in other departments.

Operations – this department ensures the functioning of the manufacturing plant and its equipment. There are a range of roles available here from entry-level technical roles, through to specialist engineering opportunities and management.

Sales & Marketing – often based within company head offices and sometimes as a customer-facing sales team, this department advertises and promotes the products in line with all applicable rules and regulations.

Check out this article for some additional information and example job titles for each department.

Consider your own area of interest

With your new-found understanding of the industries and departments, it’s now time to think about your preferred areas of interest / specialisation for your career.

  • Do you want to be researching new products?
  • Do you want to follow specific protocols and manufacture products?
  • Do you want to be involved in checking product quality?

Generally, the more specialised the department, the higher the salary BUT the more time, effort, and education needed to get there.

You might also spend some time researching if there are any specific skills shortages in your country (or geographic area). National level skills reports can be good for a big-picture understanding, but monitoring local jobs boards and talking to local recruitment consultants can be useful to understand the on-the-ground situation.