Mobile Menu

Pharma or biotech: Who is better to work for?

To most in the life sciences, the perks of working for big pharma are obvious. Job security, company stability, steady funding, nice benefits, no-questions-asked expenses, competitive compensation, plenty of room for progression etc. etc. However, the once perceived poorer, riskier choice: the biotech, with a record year in 2019 of initial public offerings, must have their own advantages. Not least of all in their bottom-line offering.

Career progression

Whilst most big pharma normally have clearly defined routes of linear progression department-wide, you may be better positioned to reach upper management in a smaller setting. Back in 2015, Mary Kerr left her role as Senior Vice President at GSK to become CEO of two small clinical-stage biotechs, KaNDy Therapeutics and NeRRe Therapeutics. In an interview with Labiotech Kerr explained how biotech offered her what big pharma couldn’t: “I was at a stage of my career where I’d always wanted to be a CEO, but I wasn’t going to become CEO of GSK. I could move into biotech and create something new and exciting at a time when I had energy, experience and a desire to do it.”

Responsibility and autonomy

Whilst many find comfort in the stability of working for large corporations, the bureaucracy and inability to affect department-level change is what many who’ve made the lateral move to biotechs cite as their motivation. David Lowe, Co-founder and CEO of Aeglea Biotherapeutics captured this sentiment quite nicely: “the advantage for new grads coming into the industry, targeting biotech is really the opportunity to work in a dynamic organisation that’s trying to develop something new and novel. Seeing on a day-to-day basis how your efforts can impact the organisation. Whereas it’s easy to get lost and be a very small cog in an enormous machine in pharma”


There’s not really any discussion needed here. Those working in biotechs will almost certainly face greater resistance and challenges in securing funding than their pharma counterparts. Mary Kerr explained, “In pharma, if a project has merit, it’s likely to be funded, whereas, in biotech, the CEO and the team need to convince investors that it’s worth investing in a project. Even projects with merit may not always get funding for a number of reasons, because the concept isn’t fashionable (that was my experience with women’s health), or the story is not told very well, or they are not speaking to the right investors.”


For many, the opportunity for greater decision-making and responsibility in smaller companies may not compensate for the undoubtedly higher risk involved. Ellen Clark, President of Clark Executive Search, who places candidates in both pharma and biotech roles, takes a sceptical view: “Biotechs are still a risky game. They have one or two things, then boom, they fire everybody, although upper management manages to make it.”

However, pharma by no means guarantees 100% job security either. As the old saying goes, there are only two groups of people guaranteed a job for life: tax collectors and undertakers. It was reported in 2017 that in the ten years prior the global pharma workforce had seen relatively minor growth. Albeit the risk of lay-offs and divestments from mergers and acquisitions remain markedly smaller in large pharma.


Nearly ubiquitously working for smaller companies comes with more variable working hours than larger corporations. Biotechs by nature of having smaller teams and less niche roles, with a more all-hands-on-deck expectation of their staff, often have greater workloads and consequently longer hours overall.

Whilst the start-up stereotype maybe the quirky, ultra-casual anthesis of corporate culture, no two companies are the same. Social perks and unconventional team-building activities are highly regarded by young companies as central to their culture. Genentech said to be the first true biotech, topped a Fortune employee survey for best perks and culture in the life sciences industry. Their employee centre in Silicon Valley was built after interviewing employees on what they wanted, and among a long list of funky features includes care clinics, nap pods and a farmer’s market. However, in the wrong company, these can do little to, for example, make up for difficult personalities in upper management, the effect of which is invariably intensified in a smaller team.

Conversely, while the perception of pharma as being more conservative in their corporate culture is not wrong in most cases, that doesn’t mean the benefits aren’t considerable. According to a Glassdoor survey last year, Johnson & Johnson were crowned the best pharmaceutical employer, for their culture and values.

Is the move from pharma to biotech worth it?

Michael Bauer of Cellestia Biotech explains that the move from pharma biotech to isn’t for everyone. A successful transition is “largely down to an individual’s personality and mentality, and requires an ability and willingness to take responsibility for decision-making within a small team without hiding behind decision-making committees and corporate processes. Technical skills come with years of industrial experience, but the question is whether or not an individual can use these in a dynamic biotech context!”

More on these topics

Biotech / Careers Advice

Share this article