Here are my 10 crucial pieces of advice for students who aspire to a career in pharmaceutical labs:
1. You need a solid foundation in science. Master the basics, and learn how to apply that knowledge.
2. But, try to also take classes and build skills in complementary areas like business, legal topics (especially intellectual property), regulatory affairs, quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC).
3. Don’t always shoot for the PhD; tailor your education to what the industry needs—which isn’t always making yourself a clone of your professors.
4. Recognize that, increasingly, drug discovery and development is occurring outside the hallowed walls of big pharma, in small startups and mid-size biotechnology companies. Train yourself to think like a startup entrepreneur.
5. Write a business plan pertaining to something in your field. Learn what a business model is, how to do market research, and how to make financial projections.
6. Build and hone your skills in both oral and written communication. Prepare an elevator pitch that describes your strengths and interests. Develop your brand.
7. Get out of the lab and attend regional and national meetings and networking events, especially if industry scientists are present. Network strategically—with a plan—not in a haphazard way.
8. Biologics is a hot new focus area in pharma, comprising four of the top-10 selling drugs in 2012, so learn how protein-based therapeutics are made and developed.
9. The trend towards biologics doesn’t mean chemistry skills are not in demand. But you should go beyond the traditional topics like organic and medicinal, to industry-relevant topics like process chemistry (e.g. current good manufacturing practices and scale-up) and analytical chemistry (especially high-performance liquid chromatography, and process analytical technology in general), and how they pertain to QA/QC.
10. Never interview at a company without researching what they do and knowing how to talk about it with them. You were brought in to solve their problems, not yours.
[Editor’s note: To tap the wisdom of our distinguished group of Xconomists, we asked a few of them to answer this question heading into 2015: “What advice would you give students who are interested in your field?” You can see other questions and answers here.]