A Prescription for Success: Finding Career Opportunities in the Pharmaceutical Industry

By Jackson, Lee Anna | Black Enterprise, June 2006 | Go to article overview

A Prescription for Success: Finding Career Opportunities in the Pharmaceutical Industry


Jackson, Lee Anna, Black Enterprise


LONNEL COATS BEGAN HIS CAREER as a sales rep for a beverage company in 1986. Ten years later, he switched careers and joined Eisai Inc., a healthcare products manufacturer that develops drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, gastrointestinal discomfort, and epilepsy. His first major project was the launch of Aricept, a prescription medicine for Alzheimer's, which was the company's first product in the United States.

Coats' salesmanship and business prowess put him on the fast track to the C-suite. Today, he is president and COO of the U.S. subsidiary of the Japanese-based Eisai. Coats. 41, made his quick ascent through research, networking, and toiling in a number of the company's business departments. Through a series of promotions, he was also able to secure key roles at a time when Eisai was gaining a foothold in the U.S. As Coats discovered, the rapid growth of the pharmaceutical industry has created a variety of opportunities for professionals with expertise and training in sciences, as well as those poised to make a career transition. In fact. during the recession of 2001. it was one of the few industries that actually prospered, growing into a $550 billion sector by 2004. According to WetFeet.com, the top five "big pharma companies--Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer Group, and Roche--spend nearly $32.6 billion on research and development.

A number of factors are driving the industry's expansion, mostly the aging baby boomer population and looming threats of bioterrorist attacks. As a result, employment in this field is projected to grow at a rate of 23% annually through 2012. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth in the pharmaceutical industry is greater than all other sectors combined.

There are no rigid requirements for entry into this industry. Some skills are easily transferable while others involve on-the-job training. Degrees in the sciences, engineering, business, or computer science can be applied to manufacturing or sales positions.

"There are people who are sitting in professional jobs throughout our company today that came in as administrative assistants, with absolutely no experience in pharmaceuticals," says Coats.

Jennifer Stewart, a 30-year-old senior manager of federal government affairs for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, transitioned into her position after five years on Capitol Hill, first as Rep. Gregory Meeks' legislative director then as Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson's legislative assistant. Stewart, who does not have an educational background in science, is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in education and public policy.

But her current role is a natural progression from her previous position. She spends roughly 60% of her time lobbying members of Congress and political staffers.

It is a heavily networked business, confirms Janet Murphy, a former chemical engineer and president of bcgPHARMA, a pharmaceutical recruitment firm based in Cincinnati. "We find our candidates primarily through networking, especially at association conferences," she says. Murphy strongly advises students and entry-level candidates to join industry associations.

Jarrod Collier, a 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate in pharmaceutical sciences at Howard University, agrees. Collier, who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a master's in pharmacy, gained work experience as an R&D chemist at Novartis. He has worked with his fellow graduate students to form Howard's first student chapter of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, a nonprofit organization of more than 13,000 industry professionals. The goal is to provide greater opportunities to more black students.

"As anyone knows coming out of graduate school, you're looking for a job," says Collier, who conducts doctoral research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and works as a clinical research assistant at Howard University Hospital. …

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