Industry experience needn’t always come after academia
Angus Stewart | | 8 min read | Interview
All too often, the hardest part of any career is getting your first job. But for some people, the difficulties start much earlier: How do you decide what career you want in the first place? Work placements and sponsored doctoral studies can help, so we spoke with Ruairi Bannon, a PhD student at the University College Dublin, who has benefited from close early-career contact with a local life sciences company.
How did you become interested in the pharmaceutical industry?
In 2021, I graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a first class bachelor’s degree in Medicinal Chemistry. Back when I first started my degree, many family members and friends asked me what jobs I could do with a chemistry degree. To be honest, I didn’t have a good answer at that time! All I knew was that I had enjoyed chemistry at school and that it was a subject for which I had a flair.
On our first day of university, we were told that many of those sitting within the lecture hall would end up pursuing a career not directly related to science. They said many graduates would take on roles in accountancy, banking, patent law, or teaching, for example. The statistics showed that those who actually pursued a career within the pharmaceutical industry were the minority. The key transferable skills gained with a degree in chemistry mean that you are equipped to follow multiple different career paths. That was a big attraction for me because I must confess that I did not feel mature enough to commit to a specific career at eighteen years old.
In my third year at Queen’s, I attended a careers talk given by Almac Sciences about industry placements which highlighted the many roles available to a chemistry graduate within industry. I was amazed to learn of the multitude of opportunities available within this truly global organizations on my doorstep, right across the island of Ireland. I think this was a defining moment where a career in the pharmaceutical industry, using my technical knowledge to truly make an impact on people’s lives, became a key focus.
Before pursuing your doctorate, did you have an understanding of the career opportunities it would open to you?
Before my doctorate, I undertook an industrial placement at Almac Sciences. There, as part of the custom and flow chemistry team, I was fully embedded within the day-to-day operations of the group and experienced a wide variety of opportunities – from working on customer projects to undertaking external collaborations with industry suppliers. It was here that I was introduced to the various departments within chemistry at Almac Sciences, such as biocatalysis, physical sciences, and process chemistry teams. This exposure highlighted the numerous career opportunities available within Almac and across many pharmaceutical companies.
It was actually my manager who suggested applying for a PhD position to further develop my research skills. My PhD project – which is running in collaboration with Almac Sciences – has an industrial focus. The aim is to develop a continuous flow biocatalytic process with my principal investigator Marcus Baumann at University College Dublin (UCD).
In your view, how can the worlds of academia and industry be brought closer together for undergraduate and postgraduate students?
I think communication is key. Notably, this is two-way – postgraduates and undergraduates need to reach out to companies early on to find out what they seek in terms of qualities and skill for graduates. In my experience, everyone in the industry is always willing to speak to students to help give valuable insights.
As an undergraduate student, the sheer scale of operations within the pharmaceutical industry that I saw was impressive. Understanding how work in the lab translates and scales up to plant-scale operations is insightful and exciting. Giving students the opportunity to visit production sites will help promote, engage, and foster meaningful relationships that will help make the host company a student’s first port of call upon graduating.
Fostering relationships through mentorships is also helpful. I was very fortunate during my placement to have meaningful interactions not only with my peers in the lab, but also with more senior managers who were able to give me advice that helped shape my future. Being immersed in the wider Sciences business unit showcased to me the growth that is possible within pharmaceutical companies, and gave me confidence that there will be more and more job opportunities on the horizon as science in Ireland continues to advance.
How did your placement with Almac benefit you in terms of hands-on experience?
The Technology Group at Almac was an exciting department to be part of because it is a truly multidisciplinary group working on biocatalysis, physical sciences, molecular biology, and even radiolabelling projects. During that placement, I was introduced to flow chemistry for the very first time. Flow chemistry pumps chemicals into a reactor (which is often a tube or a pipe rather than a batch vessel) that holds only a small amount of the reaction mixture. This increases mass and heat transfer, in turn improving safety and boosting the efficiency of the chemical reaction. Instead of using typical batch reactions where all the reagents are constantly in contact with each other – which may lead to unwanted side reactions – flow chemistry allows for continuous flow of materials through the reactor, which can then be collected as the desired product at the end.
During my placement, I was working hands-on in the lab, performing different reactions that I had learned “in theory” during my degree. It was really cool and interesting to have the opportunity to solve complex problems and suggest new routes of synthesis to target molecules! Unfortunately, my undergraduate degree had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting the number of practical skills I could gain. Through my placement I grew in confidence, used new equipment, and developed a deeper understanding of not only the chemistry I was working on but also why the molecules were needed. Other key skills that I built up included accurate lab book recording, use of analytical equipment, and project time management.
Working in collaboration with an external industry supplier which allowed me to perform photochemical reactions really emphasized how continuous flow is optimal for photochemistry, especially regarding the contrast between irradiation length to the reaction plate and that of general batch reactions. This project allowed me to build my network through collaboration, taught key research and development skills, and instilled a thirst to further my studies.
Overall, how would you rate your placement?
My placement in the pharmaceutical industry was a great moment of exposure – it gave me the opportunity to be fully immersed within a real team and provided a “real life” view of how it might be to follow that career path. The support that I received during the placement has in many instances extended beyond that year. My mentors and I naturally established the sort of lasting relationships that become invaluable throughout your career. For me, having a role model and ability to visualize myself in a certain job helps with the motivation to study hard to achieve that goal.
I know that within Almac Sciences there is extensive outreach, virtual work experience, and opportunities to attend open days. Most pharma companies will offer similar initiatives. For students, identifying key contacts that work in the company you want to know more about is a great way to get information or find out about placement opportunities. Reach out on LinkedIn or send an email – I guarantee they will reply and be happy to have a chat!
What do pharma companies still need to learn about the student experience – particularly when it comes to finding work?
The job seeking process can be very stressful for students. It is daunting – it’s the first step into the real world. For most, it is uncharted territory. Most advertisements for graduate pharma jobs state a necessary degree, plus “x” number of years in the industry. This is a problem and a deterrent because many students may not have any experience working in the pharma industry.
I think it’s fair to say that upon leaving university, most graduates want an opportunity to kick-start their professional career in a dynamic, challenging, and supportive environment. The majority of these former students will be engaged, enthusiastic, and willing to work hard to learn the ropes if given the chance – so experience as a prerequisite may not always lead employers to the best candidate.
Career-wise, have you decided between pharma and academia?
You may be surprised to know after my enthusiastic account that I haven’t decided yet. I was only on placement for a few months, and I have really only started my PhD, so it is definitely too early to fully commit to one direction. I am really enjoying the project I’m working on because it allows me to maintain close ties to Almac, with regular meetings arranged for updates. I very much enjoyed my time at Almac, and the team I was working with were truly advancing human health, so I would be really excited to return one day and get an opportunity to work at the forefront of developmental medicine. I still have another three years left at university, and I am looking forward to using them to develop my skills, confidence, and scientific knowledge!