Enticing Pharmacy Students to Join the Industrial Revolution

29 March 2009 (Last Updated March 29th, 2009 18:30)

The majority of pharmacy graduates in the UK opt for careers in the community or hospital sectors. As a result, industrial pharmaceutical companies are being forced to think of new ways to encourage students back into the fold. Alex Hawkes investigates.

Enticing Pharmacy Students to Join the Industrial Revolution

Today's pharmacy undergraduates studying at any one of the UK's 24 schools of pharmacy have a wealth of future career options available to them. Yet, over the course of the last decade, a combination of a more clinically focused pharmacy degree and a shortage of preregistration positions within industrial companies has led to the vast majority of undergraduates joining the community or hospital sectors.

Such a fact has not gone unnoticed by the industrial sector, which has always recruited pharmacists across a broad area of research fields – largely because such graduates possess a wider breadth of understanding when it comes to all things science compared with the more specialised knowledge of chemists and biologists.

"The industrial sector has always recruited pharmacists across a broad area of research fields."

Group mentality

Representing the unique position of industrial pharmacists is the Industrial Pharmacists Group (IPG), which aims to support the interests of existing professionals and encourage new talent into the sector. IPG committee member Steve Robertson says he believes it is vital that pharmacy students are made more aware that the industrial sector is open to them.

"The message we are trying to get across is that a career as an industrial pharmacist offers a very interesting and alternative path compared to working in the community or hospital sectors.

Often many undergraduates have a number of myths about working in the industrial sector, which we work hard to dispel," says Robertson.

IPG puts this message across to students in a variety of fashions. Firstly, the group assigns professionals with an industrial pharmaceutical background to each of the schools of pharmacy peppered around England, Wales and Scotland. As a point of contact between the group and the students, the IPG representative delivers a number of presentations throughout the year explaining their role within their respective companies.

"The representatives, which are all volunteers from within the industry, go along and talk about their different backgrounds and how their careers have developed. They talk about what they do on a day to day basis in order to give the students a flavour of their working life," Robertson says. "All 24 contacts at each school are from all ranges of the industry – from global giants such as Pfizer and GSK to companies such as my own, which has about 65 employees. The main objective is to try and communicate what the industry as a whole can offer undergraduate pharmacists."

The placement problem

Career fairs provide a valuable opportunity for IPG to capture the attention of pharmacy undergraduates. Each year, the group has a strong presence at such events, which have particular relevance for third-year undergraduate students looking to secure the all-important preregistration placement. A UK master's degree course in pharmacy currently lasts four years and is followed by a year of preregistration work-based training, similar to an apprenticeship, that the undergraduate must successfully complete before he or she is officially registered with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS).

"IPG aims to support the interests of existing professionals and encourage new talent into the sector."

Preregistration placements, however, have proved to be a considerable stumbling block for the industrial pharmaceutical sector. Out of the 2,000 or so pharmacy undergraduates that apply for placements each year, only 12 places are available within industrial companies. With so many placements available in the community and hospital sectors, it seems natural that so many undergraduates then choose to continue down those career paths.

"We have always recognised this as a major challenge, both in terms of credibility and how we actually bring the undergraduates into the sector without a preregistration position," Robertson says.

"The industrial sector is certainly more competitive as pharmacy undergraduates are placed on the same footing as chemists, biologists and other undergraduate scientists.

"But there are a lot more summer placements available so it just requires more determination from undergraduates to knock on a few doors and make a few phone calls."

Students stick with what they know

In 2006, out of 46,974 registered pharmacists in the UK, 20,000 worked as community pharmacists, 6,000 in hospitals and 1,000 in industry – the remaining 2,500 worked either in primary care or academia. The dominating number of community pharmacists highlights the successful recruitment policies of large retail companies such as Boots and Lloyds – both of which have a strong emphasis on preregistration and summer placements.

The British Pharmaceutical Student Association (BPSA), which was founded in 1942 to represent UK pharmacy students and preregistration trainees, feels there could be a direct link between the lack of preregistration placements at industrial companies and the dwindling number of students opting for a career as an industrial pharmacist. BPSA's president James Davies says: "I think a lot more students would go down the industrial route if there were more placements available. When pharmacy students secure a preregistration placement, they become involved with a company early on and are therefore enticed to stay with them."

"Career fairs provide a valuable opportunity for IPG to capture the attention of pharmacy undergraduates."

BPSA's primary collaboration with the industrial sector is through IBA, which it has worked alongside for a number of years. The organisation, which is run by students for students, is keen to make its members fully aware of all career paths open to pharmacy undergraduates.

"Many students assume that they will end up working for companies such as Boots and Lloyds, but there are so many career opportunities and sectors available to them. We put on a number of events throughout the year and have a number of speakers, including representatives from IPG, that allow students to know what is going on," Davies says.

BPSA is currently creating a new careers website for its members, which aims to give a more independent account of the career options available to undergraduate pharmacists.

While the organisation feels steps are being made in the right direction by the industrial sector, BPSA still believes further encouragement could be offered.

"More can be done," Davies says. "If companies truly want more students entering the pharmaceutical industrial sector then they need to help develop their careers by making such a path more viable – namely through making more preregistration and summer placements available."