Careers in Life Sciences
‘Life sciences’ are all the sciences that concern the study of life or living organisms, as distinct from the physical sciences, which concern inanimate objects and systems.
The life sciences sector ranges from universities and private laboratories doing basic research in life sciences (including some early-stage medical research) through to companies concerned with the research, development or manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and related products such as cosmetics, medical devices, biotechnology (for example, genetic engineering of foods), and food processing. It therefore includes both public and private sector organisations around the world.
There are, of course, generic jobs such as administration or management jobs within this sector, as in any other. There are also a wide range of ‘business’ jobs within the sector, because it involves commercial activities. This page focuses on the jobs within this sector that are sector-specific, and which generally require specialist scientific qualifications, skills and experience.
Understanding the Life Sciences Sector
The life sciences sector is both global, and diverse.
It contains both public and private sector organisations, and also both some of the largest companies in the world (so-called Big Pharma) and a huge number of small and medium-sized enterprises.
How big is the life sciences sector?
In the UK, government figures suggest that the life sciences sector employs around 300,000 people each year, across some 6,000 separate organisations or businesses. The sector’s turnover in 2020 was £88.9 billion. Just under half of this turnover related to pharmaceuticals, although more people were employed in the medical technology part of the sector.
(Source: UK Government Official Statistics, Bioscience and health technology sector statistics 2020)
Globally, turnover in pharmaceuticals alone is estimated to run into trillions of dollars. The global biotechnology market was estimated to be around $450 billion in 2019.
The sector is also growing rapidly. More than $800 billion in capital was raised by the sector in 2021, including through mergers, venture capital funding and initial public offerings.
The sector encompasses a wide range of activities, including:
Basic or fundamental research
The majority of research laboratories in universities are likely to be doing what is known as basic or fundamental research.
This doesn’t mean their work is simple, it just means that the work is designed to understand more about the world, rather than specifically to solve problems, such as finding drugs, developing new foods, or other applications. Sometimes findings that have this effect emerge from basic research, but it is seldom the purpose. It is therefore more open-ended than applied research.
Most research jobs require a specific scientific degree that matches the research specialism. For example, biotechnologists require a degree in biotechnology, biology, chemistry, biochemistry or similar. Microbiologists would normally have a degree in biology.
For fundamental research, researchers are likely to be at two main levels:
Postgraduates, either students or lab workers who have a first (undergraduate degree) and may be studying/researching for a second degree such as a doctorate; and
Postdoctoral researchers, who have a PhD or equivalent, and are now employed full- or part-time as researchers.
Many postgraduate and postdoctoral contracts are three years in length, meaning that turnover in many research laboratories is quite high, and researchers move around a lot. Researchers may also move from fundamental research into applied research in the same field, especially if their basic research has commercial applications that they wish to pursue.
Laboratories also employ technicians, to provide support for researchers. Technicians are often less qualified, though many still have a degree.
Both public sector and private sector laboratories also carry out applied research, which is defined as research to solve a specific problem.
Examples of applied research in life sciences include drug development, work in food technology to develop better products, developing medical devices to help people with particular conditions, and improvements to food processing techniques.
The majority of applied research in life sciences probably takes place in companies, particularly pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, as well as medical devices businesses. However, some also takes place in universities, especially through partnerships with commercial organisations.
Like fundamental research, most applied researchers will have at least an undergraduate degree in a relevant discipline, and may well have a doctorate. There may also be some lower-level technician posts that do not require a degree—but they are again likely to focus on supporting research without direct responsibility or much opportunity to engage in the research itself.
Many life sciences companies manufacture products, from drugs through medical devices to foods and food products. Manufacturing jobs may require fewer qualifications than research work, but are nonetheless highly skilled, especially since many factories are now robot-controlled. Many of these jobs require IT or engineering skills, and they often focus on quality control and quality management.
Manufacturing jobs are not covered in detail on this page, because the skills required are somewhat different from those in research. However, you can find out more in our page on Careers in Manufacturing.
Most life sciences companies also employ people in all the business-related fields, such as marketing, sales, operations, logistics and finance. There are also likely to be plenty of project managers and project directors.
These careers and jobs are covered elsewhere, in our pages on Careers in Business and on Project Management Skills.
Skills Required for Jobs in Life Sciences
We have already said that most scientists working in the life sciences sector will require a degree in their chosen subject—and that many will also have a second degree such as a doctorate.
However, the basic qualification is only the start. Scientists working in the life sciences sector also have several important sets of skills and knowledge, including:
Research skills, especially analytical skills
It should already be clear that the ability to carry out good research is essential in jobs in life sciences. In this context, ‘good’ research is carried out ethically, to avoid any kind of bias (and there is more about this in our page on Research Ethics). Samples and research methods are chosen to provide reliable results. Results are also analysed using appropriate methods, which are clearly explained in any write-up.
The key with any research is that another researcher could repeat your experiments (following your description) and obtain the same results.
There is more about these issues in our pages on research methods.
A desire to know more and to develop knowledge
Fundamentally, research, especially basic research, is about expanding the sum of human knowledge.
Researchers therefore generally share a desire to know more, and understand more about their field, and the world in general. They are interested in what is happening around them, and tend to read widely about science in general as well as their own field. This helps them to ask the right questions—a fundamental skill in research. In other words, they are curious.
There is more about the importance of this trait in our page on curiosity.
Communication skills, and particularly the ability to ‘translate’ your work for non-specialists
Research is useless if nobody ever learns about it, or about the findings. The ability to communicate clearly, both in presentations and in writing, is therefore crucial in research.
In basic research, you must be able to present at scientific conferences, and write scientific papers. In applied research, you will need to explain your work to senior managers and external stakeholders, or to scientific groups.
Perhaps the most crucial skill is being able to ‘translate’ your work from ‘scientific speak’ into ‘plain English’ and ensure that what you say or write is tailored to your audience. Many ideas and concepts in science are highly complex, and there is a real art to being able to explain them in simple terms.
There is more about how to develop these skills in our sections on Presentation Skills, and Writing Skills.
Time management skills
Researchers are high-level and very well-qualified professionals. They are therefore left to organise their own work, to a considerable extent. They often work on multiple projects at the same time, and good time management and, often, project management skills are essential. Some researchers may also manage projects across laboratories, involving several researchers.
Team-working skills, coupled with the ability to work on your own initiative
Research is both a team effort, and very much an individual one. Researchers need to be able to work on their own initiative, and often on their own projects. However, they also need to communicate with others around them, and work collaboratively at times. They therefore need both team-working skills and strong self-motivation skills.
A Specialist Field
Perhaps the most important aspect of research and scientific work in the life sciences sector to bear in mind is that it is a sector that highly values professional knowledge and skills. Qualifications are crucial—and they must be in the right subject. If your interest lies in life sciences already, this could well be a good field to consider.
This is likely to be true even if you prefer to move away from research into management roles, because a basic understanding of science can only help. However, even if you already have a degree in a different subject, all is not lost. The sector also employs general business professionals like marketing, sales, and finance people—although it will always help to be able to show a broad interest in life sciences.