There are still a lot of pharmaceutical R&D jobs out there. However, where they are is changing. Drug industry mega-mergers over the past ten to fifteen years have resulted in the formation of some extremely large drug companies. The dozen or so largest are collectively known as “big pharma.” Big pharma includes: Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Roche, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, Abbott Laboratories, Merck & Company, Bayer Health Care, Eli Lilly and Bristol-Meyers Squibb. Lists of large pharmaceutical companies are available online (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pharmaceutical_companies).
Until recently R&D employment opportunities for chemical professionals were becoming increasingly concentrated in big pharma. These companies have impressive R&D centers, often several, employing a thousand or more people. However, industry innovation, usually measured as the annual number of FDA approvals of new drugs has declined over the last decade.
There are a number of potential causes of this decline despite increased industry R&D spending. It’s been suggested that these mergers have resulted in innovation-stifling bureaucracy at big drug company research centers. Another factor may be changes in U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations for permitting of new drugs.
In an effort to overcome the problem of reduced innovation, the drug industry appears to be in the process of switching over to a different R&D model – one involving more outsourcing of R&D and supporting functions and less internal R&D. The result has been reduced R&D staffing levels at many big pharma companies. According to Russell Reynolds healthcare recruiter Jacques Bouwens, the ten largest drug companies have eliminated approximately 27,000 R&D jobs since the beginning of 2009 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001
424052748704569204575328580921136768.html ). Big pharma staffing levels may continue to decline due in part to work force reductions and in part due to reduced hiring of young researchers.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) provides a representative example. Since 2006, the firm has cut its global R&D staff by 20%. At the same time it has substantially increased funding of outside projects performed by small biotech firms and academic research groups. About 30% of GSK’s drug discovery research is now outsourced.
As a result of extensive outsourcing, overall drug industry R&D spending has declined relatively little. However, new laboratory jobs are increasingly in smaller companies that work on projects outsourced by big pharma. This shift creates a challenge for job hunters. Smaller firms are less well known to job hunters than big pharmaceutical firms. Information on these smaller firms is often harder to find than information on big pharma companies. To identify these smaller firms requires the use of Internet search engines using search terms such as “contract research organization” and “list.” C&EN and drug industry trade magazines such as “Drug Discovery News” carry reports of outsourcing alliances established by big pharmaceutical companies with contract research organizations and biotech firms.
An ACS employment workshop, “Finding Jobs at Small Companies” provides tips on how to find employment opportunities at smaller firms. This workshop is sponsored by several ACS units and is usually offered at an ACS National Meeting.
As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the author of the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and more than 1,400 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is also an ACS career consultant.