Career area: Industry research – EMBL Fellows' Career Service

EMBL Careers

A life science careers blog for early career researchers

This blog aims to inspire early career researchers exploring different career options. We provide interview-based profiles of life scientists working in diverse science-related careers and articles on a broad range of career-related topics, with new content added on a regular basis.

Career area: Industry research

There are many different roles in the industry. Here we focus on roles in the life science industry carrying out or overseeing research, including early product development (but excluding general software development, clinical trials management and roles related to technical support; these are covered in separate info sheets). 

Within industry research, the work might be very applied and focussed on a specific product idea or prototype; or the work may be focused on ‘early discovery’ projects, which investigate potential avenues for future products (for example, possible targets for therapeutics). 

For life scientists, industry research employers are generally in the areas of drug development, advanced therapeutics, diagnostics, research instrumentation & products, nutrition, scientific services, medical devices, crop science and other life-science or health-care related products. In these areas, there are numerous well-known and long-established multinational companies, but also many small and medium-size enterprises, including start-ups. 

Roles and responsibilities

The job titles and the tasks associated within industry research are quite diverse. In particular, there can be large differences depending on if the company is a start-up or more established company.

Possible tasks may include a subset of the following activities:

  • Planning relevant experiments and/or coding/analysis for projects you are involved in
    • Depending on the role / hierarchy of the organization you work in, there may be staff who you can delegate (some or all) routine experiments and analysis to, but many roles do still involve some time at the bench.
  • Meeting with / communicating with colleagues and collaborators to discuss results, priorities, next steps etc
  • Remaining up to date with domain / technology developments (e.g. reading the literature, attending conferences etc)
  • Writing scientific publications to disseminate the work

at the lab head / more senior levels

  • Oversee the research strategy and direction of the team’s projects
  • Mentor and support career development of team members
  • Report progress to management and other stakeholders, justify projects & budgets
  • Propose new projects and directions that align with company priorities, presenting these to decision-makers
  • Establish and manage external collaborations (including with academic labs)
  • Manage the lab budget & provide an organizational framework – or delegate / oversee this; ensure that the group follows scientific good practice (ethics, data management, appropriate experiment design & analysis including relevant standard operating procedures [SOPs])
  • In some start-ups: apply to European project funding

Major differences to academic research include more team-based work, a faster turn-over of projects and a focus on a viable end-product rather than on grants and publications. Procedures are also often more standardized, which is particularly important when the resulting data will be included in an application for regulatory approval, or the analysis or production pipeline will be part of the end-product.

Knowledge and skills

For roles where you will be at the bench or planning experiments / analysis, your technical expertise or domain knowledge are a key skill. Teamwork and the ability to communicate with scientists from other disciplines are also highly sought after. This is because, in general, research in industry is highly collaborative and interdisciplinary; it is common to have so-called ‘matrix’ structures where members from different teams work on projects, and you are likely to have multiple projects where you provide specific expertise, working with a different collection of experts on each project.

In our careers & skills survey, 16 industry group leaders told us about the competencies they used most often. The most commonly selected competencies were:

  • broad scientific knowledge (selected by 70% of respondents)
  • resilient problem solving (65%)
  • clarity of thought (selected by 60% ; and ranked as the most important factors for success, for those respondents)
  • teamwork (55%)
  • mentoring and leadership (55%)

For those in research staff roles (n=15), the most commonly selected competencies were:

  • teamwork  (61%)
  • resilient problem solving (56%)
  • broad scientific knowledge (56%)
  • organization (44%; and ranked as the most important factors for success, for those respondents)
  • clarity of thought (44%)

Language and teaching requirements

In our careers & skills survey, 26% of those working in industry research in a country where English was not the main language needed to be fluent in the local language; 26% reported that some knowledge was needed; and 47% could work without knowledge of the local language. We expect differences based both on the country and company.

Career entry and progression

The exact job titles vary a lot between companies. In start-ups, the job titles may appear more senior to those with similar responsibilities in a larger company. Therefore, when applying to positions do research the company in advance and read the job advertisement carefully.

 A rough guide to entry-point job titles for pharma and biotech is provided below:

  • Associate scientist
    • Focus: carrying out bench-based lab work and/or data-analysis
    • Typical entry requirement: master’s degree
  • Postdoc
    • Temporary scientist role focussed on hands-on bench / computational work; generally works on a main project that can be published.
    • Typical entry requirement: PhD degree; also possible entry point for scientists with some academic postdoc experience
  • Scientist or investigator (including specific titles like ‘computational biologist’)
    • Scientist role requiring hands-on bench/computational work, plans own work independently
    • Typical entry requirement: PhD degree; also possible entry point for scientists with some academic postdoc experience
  • Senior Scientist
    • Focus on bench / computational work; but involves more independence/ideation. Often involves overseeing the work of technicians or junior staff (e.g. the experimental design and interpretation of results) but typically not as their direct manager.
    • Typical entry requirement: PhD and often 2+years of relevant additional experience. More rarely entry point directly after the PhD.
  • Principal scientist or lab head
    • Minimal bench /computational work and a workload including more supervision, operational management & research strategy tasks; usually leading a small team.
    • Typical entry requirement: PhD and multiple years’ relevant experience, evidence of mentoring/supervision often required.

Career Advancement

Based on our career destinations study (Lu et al BioRxiv 2022), we estimate that 70% of EMBL alumni who enter industry research role remain in this career area, often rising through the ranks to more senior positions. A small percentage (around 10%) return to academic research, with around half of those directly entering – or progressing to – group leader roles, and the other half working in core facilities or other research positions. Around 15% of those who enter industry research move into other non-research roles – mostly within the life science industry (for example, business development, regulatory affairs, medical affairs) – or occasionally academic/public sectors (e.g. tech transfer, science management). A small fraction (around 2%) move into roles outside of science.

Why consider this career area?

In our careers and skills survey, scientists working in industry research told us that they appreciate that their work:

  • is intellectually stimulating
  • involves collaboration / working closely in a team
  • is financially rewarding
  • group leaders, also appreciated that the work is creative; and research staff commented that the work has high task variety and is fast-paced

Want to learn more?

Additional resources on this blog

Interview-based career profiles for this career area

Ami S. Lakdawala, Director in the R&D Strategy, Portfolio and Operations Team, GSK Ilaria Ferlenghi, Head of Structural Microscopy at GSK Vaccines David Jackson, Chief Innovation Officer, Molecular Health GmbH

Sources / further reading


Further internal resources

For EMBL fellows

Within EMBL, further internal resources (e.g. recorded career seminars) can be found on our career exploration intranet pages.

Informational interviews

For all career areas, we highly recommend first learning more about the careers using the resources above, then conducting informational interviews to gain further insights directly from former PhDs working in career areas that interest you.

Version 1: November 2022

Last update: June 2023

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The EMBL Fellows' Career Service incorporates the EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc (EIPOD) career development programme. EI3POD and EIPOD4 have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreements 664726 (2015-2020) and 847543 (2019-present) respectively.