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Pharmaceuticals Overview

  The aim of the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry is to create a variety of medicines and other health products that will improve the lives of people. The pharmaceutical industry is mainly known for its prominence in research and development (R&D) of new drugs, yet the actual manufacturing of these drugs is the last stage in a much longer process. This process starts with the R&D departments testing thousands of chemical compounds in the effort of finding a new drug. A large part of this is applied research, where scientific knowledge is used to develop a drug targeted to a specific use. After a drug is developed, it is tested through a screening process and after this clinical investigations are conducted where the drug is tested on human patients. After the drug passes animal and clinical tests, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research must review the drug’s performance and approve it for commercial use. Once this approval is given, the drug is manufactured and marketed to the public.

  “The pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry consists of over 2,500 places of employment, located throughout the country. These include establishments that make pharmaceutical preparations or finished drugs; biological products, such as serums and vaccines; bulk chemicals and botanicals used in making finished drugs; and diagnostic substances such as pregnancy and blood glucose kits.” The industry ranks among the fastest growing manufacturing industries, with 43.4 percent of all jobs in large establishments employing more than 1000 workers. Overall, earnings in the pharmaceutical industry are much higher than in other manufacturing industries.

  Extremely linked to the field of pharmaceuticals and medicine manufacturing is the field of biomedical engineering. Indeed, in the process of testing the millions of combinations to create new drugs, engineering (genetic engineering, tissue engineering, fluids engineering) is required. “By definition, biomedical engineering integrates physical, chemical, mathematical, and computational sciences and engineering principles to the studies of biology, medicine, behavior, and health. Among its plethora of applications are advances in materials, processes, implants, devices and informatics geared toward patient rehabilitation among other things.”

  Biomedical engineers aim to improve “human health through cross-disciplinary activities that integrate the engineering sciences with the biomedical sciences and clinical practice.” Biomedical engineers have been responsible for various scientific advances, among them artificial joints, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the heart pacemaker, arthroscopy, angioplasty, bioengineered skin, kidney dialysis, and the heart-lung machine.

Who They Serve:

  While those working in pharmaceuticals often work for a specific large pharmaceutical manufacturer such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, etc., biomedical engineers work in many varied environments. They are employed “in universities, in industry, in hospitals, in research facilities of educational and medical institutions, in teaching, and in government regulatory agencies. They often serve a coordinating or interfacing function, using their background in both the engineering and medical fields.”

Pharmaceuticals Specialties

  The largest occupations in the pharmaceutical industry are professional and related occupations such as scientists and science technicians; this sector comprises about 28 percent of the field. Another 16 percent are in management occupations, while 13 percent are in office and administrative support, and 3 percent in sales and related occupations. Most jobs, 3 out of 10, are in production occupations.

  Professional and Related Occupations - “Scientists, engineers, and technicians conduct research to develop new drugs. Others work to streamline production methods and improve environmental and quality control. Life scientists are among the largest scientific occupations in this industry.” Types of scientists found in this industry include biological and medical scientists, biologists and bacteriologists, biochemists, microbiologists, physiologists, pharmacologists and zoologists, virologists, botanists, pathologists, toxicologists, medical scientists, chemists, organic chemists, physical chemists, radiochemists, analytical chemists, biological and chemical technicians, chemical engineers, bioprocess engineers, and industrial engineers.

  Job duties vary greatly depending on the job title. A Bachelor of Science degree is the typical minimum for work in this area of specialization, yet scientists involved in R&D typically have a master’s or doctoral degree. A doctoral degree is the minimum requirement for medical scientists, and those who administer drug or gene therapy to patients in clinical trials must have a medical degree.

  Science Technician Occupations - The science technician occupation is a common entry-level position in this field. These workers “begin as laboratory helpers or aides, performing routine jobs such as cleaning and arranging bottles, test tubes, and other equipment.” There is room for advancement in this profession, with employees eventually reaching the position of supervisory technician. Employers fill these jobs with graduates who have a background in chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, biological or chemical sciences.

  Sales and Related Occupations - Those working in this specialty are responsible for describing their companies’ products to physicians, pharmacists, dentists, and health services administrators. They serve as a line of communication between company and client. Employers prefer to hire college graduates for this field, particularly those with a strong scientific background. Rigorous formal training is also usually required.

Biomedical Engineering Specialties:

  Bioinstrumentation - “Bioinstrumentation is the application of electronics and measurement principles and techniques to develop devices used in diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Computers are becoming increasingly important in this field.

  Biomechanics - “Biomechanics is mechanics applied to biological or medical problems.” This may include the study of motion, material deformation, flow within the body and in devices, and transport of chemical constituents across membranes. Biomechanics engineers have developed the artificial heart, kidney, and hip.

  Biomaterials - “Biomaterials describes both living tissue and materials used for implantation. Understanding the properties of the living material is vital in the design of implant materials.”

  Systems Physiology - “Systems physiology is the term used to describe that aspect of biomedical engineering in which engineering strategies, techniques and tools are used to gain a comprehensive and integrated understanding of the function of living organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.” Examples of this field are the biochemistry of metabolism and the control of limb movements.

  Clinical Engineering - “Clinical engineering is the application of technology for health care in hospitals. The clinical engineer is a member of the health care team along with physicians, nurses, and other hospital staff….Clinical engineers feel the excitement of applying the latest technology to health care.”

  Rehabilitation Engineering - “Rehabilitation engineers expand capabilities and improve the quality of life for individuals with physical impairments. Because the products of their labor are so personal, often developed for particular individuals or small groups, the rehabilitation engineer often works directly with the disabled individual.”

Pharmaceuticals Breaking In

What Employers Want:

  Workers in the pharmaceutical field are usually quite educated; more than 6 out of 10 of all workers have a bachelor’s, masters, professional, or PhD, more than twice the proportion for all industries combined. Backgrounds in chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering, biological or chemical sciences are favored.

  Biomedical engineers are almost always required to have a bachelor’s degree for entry-level positions, and a graduate degree may be required for some. Often, biomedical engineers have a specialty in another engineering background such as mechanical or electronics engineering in addition to specialized biomedical training. Courses in both mathematics and science are important backgrounds for biomedical engineers. As bioengineers often work in team situations, employers look to hire engineers that work well with coworkers and have the ability to communicate well. “Engineers should be creative, inquisitive, analytical, and detail-oriented.”

What They Hire Undergraduates to Do:

  Employers in pharmaceuticals and medicine manufacturing often hire inexperienced workers and train them on the job. “Beginners in production jobs assist experienced workers and learn to operate processing equipment. With experience, employees may advance to more skilled jobs in their departments.” A common entry-level position in the field is as a biological or chemical technician. These workers “play an important part in research and development of new medicines. They set up, operate, and maintain laboratory equipment, monitor experiments, analyze data, and record and interpret results.” These positions most often work under the supervision of scientists or engineers.

  There is a strong emphasis on continuing education for employees in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry. College courses in chemistry and related areas are particularly encouraged, and the company may reimburse some continuing education.

  A graduate degree is often a minimum requirement for many entry-level biomedical engineering positions. Common entry level biomedical engineering positions include staff engineers for a company in the medical device, biomedical imaging, or pharmaceutical industry, technical sales engineer, marketing trainee or management trainee in a bioengineering company, or a researcher/engineer in a research lab of a hospital, university, government agency, or the military.

Pharmaceuticals Alumni

Geraldine Peterson- Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, Garvey Associates B.A., Biology, 1976

  1. How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - Yes, originally in nursing.
  2. What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - I worked for years in nursing in various positions then did a major in health services and policy. I began in my job because of my "business" training and medical experience.
  3. What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - Emergency department nurse. No, not in my current field.
  4. What advice do you have for current students? - Study what you love and be open to new experiences. You have a lot of years of working and careers often develop in serendipitous ways.
  5. What is your typical day like? - I work in a very small firm. I check with our president and the secretary about anything that may be happening that I'm unaware of, check email (usually every hour), check FDA updates, continue working on article reviews, document reviews, online searches as necessary. Usually a teleconference with at least one client to discuss progress or issues with a project.
  6. What’s most rewarding about your industry and/or job? What's most challenging? - Rewarding: Problem solving. Challenging: Problem solving--along with delivery of often discouraging news to clients.
  7. What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - Regulatory assistant. Ask to do or participate in all aspects of the regulatory process. Be detail oriented.
  8. Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - Drug regulatory affairs will be even more globally technically oriented.
  9. What skills and out-of-class experiences are ideal for entering your industry / career field? - Basic science or clinical background is a good foundation for the field.
  10. Where can someone in an entry-level position expect to be in two years? Five years? Ten years? - After two years in a very large firm, still as assistant, after five years, a manager, after ten years, a senior manager--in a smaller firm, after ten years, a vice-president.
  11. Which professional organizations and resources should students look into or get involved with? - RAPS-Regulatory Affairs Professional Society and DIA-Drug Information Association.

Krishnan Ramanathan - Head, Pediatrics & Specialty Vaccines Marketing, Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics, Global Marketing, Indian Institute of Technology, Mechanical Engineering, Class of 1991, Master’s in Biomedical Engineering, 1995 Johns Hopkins University, PhD/Doctorate in Biomedical Engineering, 1999, Johns Hopkins University

  1. How did you get interested in your field? Was it your original goal when you started at Hopkins? - Keen on combining engineering with medicine and hence chose Biomedical Engineering.
  2. What was your career path? How did you get to where you are today? - Post PhD, spent 3 years doing management consulting and slowly shifted to more corporate management and marketing strategy.
  3. What was your first job after college? Was it in your current field? - McKinsey & Company, post PhD at Hopkins. It was not in current field, but in consulting.
  4. What advice do you have for current students? - Get practical experience during college by doing summer internships or other forms of internships at corporations, other places of work.
  5. What is your typical day like? - Spend time in meetings with different functions, writing presentations for decision making, interviewing customers/ advisors and coaching/ mentoring team members.
  6. What’s most rewarding about your industry and/ or job? What's most challenging? - Most rewarding is making big impact on public health with new medicines. Most challenging is that it takes a long time to come up with a new medicine/ product.
  7. What are typical entry-level positions for this field? What tips do you have for students to be successful in these positions? - Associates for marketing, market research/ analysis positions. I would recommend that students keep a broad perspective and try to bridge between the science and the practicalities of developing new products.
  8. Where do you see the field going in the next 5-10 years? - Since I am now in marketing, I see it becoming increasingly scientific (data oriented) and sophisticated with segmentation and targeted marketing.

Additional Alumni Profiles

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Pharmaceuticals Resources


Industry /Professional Organizations:

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  Networking with professionals who work in this field can help you learn very specific information about a career field. Professional contacts through professional associations, faculty, friends and family can be very helpful. You may also explore career opportunities by talking with employers at career fairs, and company presentations.

  Internships - research positions and summer employment are highly effective ways for you to try out a field, gain experience and skills and make professional contacts.

Pharmaceuticals Related

  If you would like to talk about how your search is going, we invite you to make an appointment with a Career Counselor by calling 410-516-8056.