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Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology


The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry produces drugs and other products that help people and animals live healthier lives, recover from injuries, and fight illnesses. From its humble origins in local pharmacies and apothecaries that prepared “home remedies” during the Middle Ages, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology (or pharma/biotech) industry has grown into one of the leading industries in the world today. In the United States is one of the 10 most profitable industries in terms of percentage of revenues, is home to cutting-edge biological and chemical research, and offers opportunities for people across a wide spectrum of careers from scientists, physicians, and engineers to marketing and sales workers and human resources professionals.

Pharma/biotech companies produce three types of products: prescription therapeutics and prophylactics (drugs that treat or cure medical conditions or diseases and vaccines that prevent diseases), diagnostics (devices and tests used to diagnose disease), and over-the-counter consumer products, such as drugs and vitamins. Some experts also place medical technology (medtech) manufacturing under the umbrella of the pharma/biotech industry.

In a general sense, pharmaceuticals are defined as medicinal drugs that are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or other regulatory bodies and are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. Biotechnology, or biotech, is the use of biological research techniques to develop products and processes derived from living organisms. Biotechnology techniques are applied at the molecular level and include DNA typing and cloning, genetic manipulation, and gene transfer of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Biotech products, sometimes called biologics, are products that are created using recombinant DNA technology. According to the FDA, “biological products can be composed of sugars, proteins, or nucleic acids, or a combination of these substances. They may also be living entities, such as cells and tissues.” In recent years, the pharma and biotech sectors have become closely linked. Since the mid 1980s the terms biopharmaceuticals and biopharma have referred to both types of products. In that time, many biopharmaceutical firms have emerged, which are owned by traditional pharmaceutical companies and large drug manufacturers.

There are three main types of pharmaceutical companies. Large companies, sometimes known as innovative pharmaceutical companies, produce chemically-derived drugs and have many approved drugs on the market. They run huge research, development, and manufacturing efforts, sometimes with subsidiaries around the globe. Some innovative companies also produce biopharmaceuticals. Next are newer firms that often don’t have any approved drugs on the market, but that are involved in developing new drugs. Generic drug manufacturers, the last type, produce drugs developed by other manufacturers after the drug’s patent expires. Some generic companies also do original research and development to produce new drugs. 

“The lines between innovator and generic companies or between pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have become increasingly blurred, and most major multinationals now incorporate both biologics and generics subsidiaries in their portfolios,” according to the International Trade Administration. “As the prevalence of biosimilars grows, the high manufacturing and regulatory costs involved in developing these drugs further clouds traditional distinctions between innovative and generic business models and investment cycles.”

Pharmaceutical companies are scattered throughout the United States, but the greatest concentrations exist in the Middle-Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) and on the West Coast in California. A significant number of companies are also located in Massachusetts, Illinois, and North Carolina. California and Massachusetts have the largest number of biotechnology companies. North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York, Texas, and Florida also have a large number of biotechnology companies, and according to the California Life Sciences Association, roughly a quarter of U.S. biotech jobs are in California.

Pharma/biotech companies are complex organizations that must adhere to strict scientific requirements and rigorous government regulation. Their success depends on the coordinated effort of many different types of workers. Typical departments at pharma/biotech companies include:

  • business development
  • clinical research
  • commercial strategy
  • corporate communications
  • engineering
  • finance and administration
  • human resources
  • information services and technology
  • legal affairs
  • manufacturing and supply chain
  • marketing and sales
  • project management
  • quality
  • regulatory affairs
  • research and development
  • strategic planning

Opportunities in the pharma/biotech industry exist at every career level. Scientists who have graduate degrees are in demand, but so are workers with science-related bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. Workers with no scientific background may find jobs in administration, finance, law, marketing, and other areas. Even high school graduates may find work in production as capsule-filling-machine operators and tenders, fermenter and granulator machine operators, tablet testers, and quality-control workers. The bottom line is that pharma/biotech is a major jobs provider in the United States, and the employment outlook is good for well-qualified job seekers with cutting-edge skills and training. 

  • Make a difference in the world. Whether you’re working in the laboratory, in an office, or on a sales call, you’re helping people live healthier and happier lives.
  • Career diversity. There are jobs for people with every type of personality, skill set, and educational background and many opportunities to transition to other careers in the field.
  • Be on the cutting edge of science. Many people in the pharma/biotech industry love the high-tech environment and the fact that no two days are the same.
  • Financial rewards. Pharma/biotech companies often offer high pay and good benefits. Some even offer stock options. Mean annual earnings for pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing professionals were $74,890 in May 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This is significantly higher than the mean salary ($53,490) for all workers in May 2019. 
  • Geographic freedom. Opportunities in the industry are available throughout the United States. Or if you dream of living and working abroad, many U.S. companies have offices and manufacturing facilities in foreign countries and foreign pharma/biotech companies hire American workers, too.
  • Team focus. The industry offers excellent opportunities to work as a member of a team and the field is loaded with bright, motivated people, which can make each workday intellectually fulfilling.   
  • Good opportunities for advancement. With the right educational background and experience you can be prepared for opportunities for advancement to a managerial or executive-level position. Many companies offer leadership development programs. 
  • Limited job security. The pharma/biotech industry is always undergoing cycles of expansion, contraction, and restructuring. Companies are merging. Some are cutting research and development budgets, some are closing, and others are outsourcing work overseas. Currently, the industry is especially fragile because technology continues to change, and the companies that fall behind or bet on the wrong drug development plans fail.
  • Deadlines. Time is money in the drug industry, and deadlines are strongly emphasized. This can create a stressful work environment.
  • Less autonomy. Individualists may struggle in this industry because of its emphasis on teamwork.
  • Rules and regulations. The pharma/biotech industry is strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies. This adds up to a lot of rules to follow and paperwork to process.
  • Bureaucracy. Large companies often have large bureaucracies, which sometimes makes it hard to get things done. This can be frustrating, especially if you’re facing deadlines. Small companies may have less bureaucracy, but they also have fewer resources.
  • Extensive travel. Sales, marketing, management consulting, business development, and other positions often require significant travel, which can be stressful and affect your personal life.