Expert advice on pursuing a career in drug discovery

Deciding to start a career in drug discovery can be a daunting task. Without knowledge of the available options or a full understanding of what skills are needed, your career search can quickly lose momentum. As such, whether you are starting out in drug discovery or transitioning from a different scientific field, it is important to gather insights into the challenges and benefits of working in the sector (while also uncovering ideas for where and how you could begin your journey).

To help answer some of these questions, Del Trezise, Senior Director at Sartorius and a member of the ELRIG board, is leading a workgroup delivering a series of networking activities for early career professionals across ELRIG’s events. The next opportunity to participate in the workgroup is at our upcoming Drug Discovery 2018 conference (October 9th and 10th at the Excel Arena in London – book your free place here).

Ahead of the event, we asked Del to provide some brief advice on how best to enter the drug discovery field, as well as highlight some of the opportunities and challenges you could face once you get there. Here’s what he had to say…

What does a career in drug discovery offer?

If you’re looking for a career where you can combine your interest in biomedical science with your desire to help society by finding new medicines and helping treat diseases, then drug discovery could be your field of choice. Del describes his years in drug discovery as “a unique opportunity to work alongside fantastically-talented people, to experience a very wide, multi-cultural community, and to deepen his knowledge through business travel and attending world-class conferences”.

Simply put, drug discovery offers a stimulating, challenging and fast-paced environment, which is typically well-funded. As such, it enables biomedical scientists to develop a prolonged career focused on understanding a series of diseases and working towards screening, testing, and validating new treatments, whether they be small molecules or biologics, such as antibodies, vaccines and potentially cell therapies.

Which career options are available to aspiring biomedical scientists?

Modern drug discovery research is conducted throughout both academia and industry, forming a varied ecosystem that includes a wide variety of companies, businesses and academic institutions. This can offer a number of options to those looking to move into the field.

So, if you’re keen to focus on the early aspects of drug discovery, including studying the molecular mechanisms underpinning disease development and progression, and validating new drug targets, then an academic career could suit you. Instead, consider a career in industry if you’d like to work on identifying novel drug candidates against validated targets, and then testing them to find out whether they could form the basis of a new treatment.

However, in addition to what most people think of as ‘traditional’ large pharmaceutical companies and ‘classic’ academic institutes, there has been a rise in smaller biotechs (typically funded by venture capital), contract research organisations (CROs), contract manufacturing organisations (CMOs) and not-for-profit or government-funded research institutions, all of which are playing increasing roles in drug discovery. These players are interconnected by essential support functions such as publishing houses or intellectual property, creating a dynamic collaborative network where the success of each player relies upon how well they support one another. As you can imagine, these areas offer even more career options to choose from!

Regardless of the career path you choose to follow, being a part of the drug discovery community can provide you with multiple opportunities to learn new skills and create new connections with fellow scientists. “There is an increase in the ability to seamlessly move between different sectors and roles within the drug discovery industry, making it easier for people to gain new experiences that could significantly enhance their career,” explains Del.

Are there alternatives to a lab-based career?

Lab-based careers are what immediately comes to mind when considering drug discovery (and there are quite a few available across academia and industry, as highlighted above). As Del puts it, “There are many different avenues you can take to pursue a lab-based career. Nowadays, for example, these roles are also prevalent in CROs that are performing more and more front-end discovery and downstream processes. So, if you are considering a lab-based position, you are certainly no longer restricted to academic institutions and large pharmaceutical companies.”

On the other hand, there are wide-ranging opportunities for those who choose to look beyond the lab. To make this point, Del looked at the different careers within his own company. When considering 60 people in the team, 48 have a biomedical degree or higher academic qualification, yet only 11 of the 48 hold what you might consider to be ‘classic research and development’ roles. Instead, the others have roles including field application scientists, technical sales and support, marketing, and product management, to name just a few.

These and other career options performed outside the lab still benefit from a scientific background. Large pharmaceutical companies, for example, also need specialists in project management, marketing, regulatory affairs and other supportive disciplines, all of which are essential to achieving the company’s goals and often still require the scientific foundation gained from a degree or PhD. As such, you can move into these non-lab-based positions, safe in the knowledge that you’ll get to make good use of your scientific training (while also learning new skills).

Tips to follow when embarking on a career in drug discovery

Know your science

“Having a strong academic background and knowing your science is a very good starting point and provides early career professionals with a good platform to build from,” advises Del. Beginning with a good foundational element is essential to enable you to claim a position in most types of organisations across the drug discovery industry.

Vary your experience

Del recommends gaining early experience in both a small drug discovery company and a large pharmaceutical organisation, if you can, as each offers different learning opportunities. Many well-funded biotechs, for example, offer opportunities to wear many hats in a more fluid environment, whereas taking a position at a larger organisation can provide more formalised training and a structured framework to work within. “The combination can prepare you for any downstream opportunities that may introduce themselves,” explains Del.

Networking is key

One of the most important things you can do, not only at the start of your career but throughout, is to build a strong network. Since drug discovery makes for a quite complicated landscape with many different contributors, it can be extremely valuable to have a good understanding of these differences and connect with influential people that work in your business (as well as other related businesses).

A key way to build and expand your network is attending well-regarded scientific events. Drug Discovery 2018, ELRIG’s flagship conference, will bring together people from across the drug discovery community, offering a unique networking opportunity. Del adds, “This is the largest event hosted by ELRIG, with an expected 2,000 attendees, making it a fantastic platform for early career professionals to meet and exchange insights with their peers.”

Learn from the experts

It is useful to reach out to organisations like ELRIG for additional networking and educational opportunities such as speed networking, CV workshops and career development support talks, all of which are available at the Drug Discovery 2018 conference. These and other programmes are part of the early career professionals’ workgroup led by Del. The ongoing workshops and meetings are designed to help you decide your best path and provide the information you need to get there successfully.

ELRIG is a very open and inclusive network that highly values what early career professionals can bring to the community in terms of science, energy and a forward-looking perspective. As Del says, “People in the early stages of their career today are the subject-matter experts and key decision-makers of tomorrow. We are passionate about providing opportunities for them to learn from others, as well as access a valuable chance to gain a better understanding of drug discovery and where their career can take them.”

“At the same time, the industry can greatly benefit from the new knowledge and modern perspectives early career professionals can contribute. By adopting such a collaborative approach between experts and early starters, we are empowered to explore new opportunities and drive innovation,” Del concludes.

Book your free place at ELRIG Drug Discovery 2018

If you’re looking to start a career in drug discovery and would like to connect with colleagues and mentors in the field, book your place at ELRIG’s Drug Discovery 2018 conference now. The event is open to everyone and registration is free. The conference will be held at the Excel arena in London on October 9th and 10th and is a great way to kickstart your search for a new career in drug discovery.