A young woman looking at a test tube in a lab environment with other biopharma workers standing behind her.
Image: © malyutinaanna/Stock.adobe.com

Career advice: What you need to know to break into biopharma

6 Sep 2023

Networking, regular upskilling and staying on top of industry developments will stand to you if you’re hoping to get into biopharma.

Click here to view the full Starting Your STEM Career series.

If you haven’t heard that biopharma careers are especially lucrative in Ireland, you may as well have been living under a rock for the past few decades. For such a tiny island, we are punching well above our weight when it comes to big biopharma employers. Our position as one of the world’s biopharma hubs is such a source of pride to us that even schoolchildren who show the slightest aptitude for science are encouraged to think about going into pharmaceuticals. Science graduates, too, of course. But getting one’s dream job in biopharma isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

Like any huge industry, biopharma has a lot of complicated job titles – meaning career paths are not always clear. Think titles like manufacturing technician, bioinformatics analyst, clinical project lead, pharmacovigilance specialist, quality control analyst, bioprocess engineer, clinical researcher and research scientist. “Who are these people and what do they do?” you might ask if you’re one of the many people who have been told to enter the sector.

The confusion people may experience is something Carl Bermingham, a bioprocessing training team lead with the National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training (NIBRT), is quite cognisant of. Bermingham also lectures at Atlantic Technological University, so he is familiar with the questions students have.

Confusing and complicated

“I think particularly for students who are graduating, it gets quite confusing, but at NIBRT we’re closely linked to most of the higher education institutions in Ireland and also quite a few from abroad. It’s important to us not only to train and upskill those who are already in the industry but also to focus a lot of our attention on the workforce of the future – and those are the current students and people looking to graduate. We want to make sure that those types of people are equipped with the skills and the knowledge to continue delivering the impactful treatments that we’re seeing worldwide,” he said.

When we asked Bermingham for his top tips for people hoping to break into biopharma he advised that they do their research and stay on top of industry trends. Obviously, you won’t know everything about the industry but keeping an eye on resources like NIBRT – which provides regular training, webinars and information on university courses and other career paths – really helps you find people like Bermingham who know the industry well.

On September 13, Bermingham is due to give a webinar on job titles and other biopharma terms for people who are new to the sector. He is doing it with the Parenteral Drug Association (PDA), another organisation he recommends people familiarise themselves with if they want to keep up with industry developments.

Never stop learning if you want to progress

It’s not just new graduates who need to seek out resources for their biopharma careers, though. Bermingham pointed out that even for people like him, the learning doesn’t stop. He recently completed a Level 9 course online during the pandemic. The amount of flexible, online learning options out there nowadays is great for people who are already working in biopharma but want to advance their skills.

“There are great options out there, more so than we ever had before, for people to learn in their own time,” said Bermingham, adding that NIBRT works with people from the ambulance services and other areas of the broad healthcare sector who want to retrain in an aspect of biopharma. From Level 6 options to master’s level courses, there are plenty of ways for people of all stripes to get their foot in the door, as Bermingham put it.

He also said that biopharma is a jobseeker’s market. “The industry is growing at an incredible pace that we’ve probably never seen before. And it seems to be in the last 10 years that it has grown legs… So if someone is looking for an industry where there’s quite a high chance of getting a job and keeping a job, it’s really going to be biopharma, I think.”

Tech opportunities

There are also lots of opportunities in the sector for techies, and this is something that Bermingham reckons will only continue as the industry advances. He singled out Industry 4.0 and VR as big trends worth keeping an eye on in a biopharma context. “There are definitely opportunities for someone who has a lot of high-tech or computer-based skills to translate those into the biopharma industry because everything is becoming very automated. We’re relying on these computerised systems to automate our processes.” More and more, Bermingham and his NIBRT colleagues find themselves being approached by clients looking for tech talent to collaborate with.

Network and make yourself stand out

The bottom line for anybody – graduate, career pivoter, or otherwise – looking to get into biopharma is to try and make themselves stand out, Bermingham said. Networking is a great way to do that as Bermingham found himself. He joined the PDA when he was beginning his own career as a way of keeping his ear close to the ground.

The PDA chapter for early career professionals is free to join if you’re a full-time student or it can be joined at a reduced rate if you’re an early career professional (ie have been working in the industry for less than five years).

Bermingham’s final piece of advice is perhaps relevant to graduates from all sectors. It ties in with networking. “Think of yourself as almost a commodity,” he said. “You’re looking to make yourself something that you can sell. And nowadays, I think that’s more important than ever with your LinkedIn profile, your CV… that’s where recruiters go now to find out about candidates so put everything you can on there.”

“Take an opportunity, do a course, join PDA, come and do a short course at NIBRT if that’s something that you can do, and then just try to have this fantastic LinkedIn profile so that if an employer does come across you, they have no choice but to look at hiring you.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading