An Overview of Pharmaceutical Internships & Placements

A job in the pharmaceutical industry is one that helps people DO more, FEEL better and LIVE longer. Thanks to major breakthroughs made by the $300 billion pharmaceutical industry, Europeans can expect to live up to 30 years longer than they did a century ago!

Touching millions of lives every day, this cutting-edge industry continues to develop, test and manufacture lifesaving drugs to combat everything from HIV to high blood pressure.

But (there’s always a but), if you want to break into this highly competitive industry, there’s one thing you need. Experience. As much of it as you can get your hands on.

Read on to find out how to kickstart your career with work experience at one of the UK’s top pharmaceutical companies. 

Science & Research is a galactic industry that reaches far and wide...

Moon walk over to our Science Work Experience Guide for an insight into each area; including renewable energy, chemistry and psychology.

Watch this video for an insight into the pharmaceutical industry. (Roger that.)

Getting pharmaceutical work experience

Competition for pharmaceutical jobs is INTENSE.

According to High Fliers: The Graduate Market in 2019, applications to chemical and pharmaceutical companies went up by 12% last year.

The majority of these applicants will have degrees, just like yours. But they’ll also have some form of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. If you don’t want your CV to end up at the bottom of the pile, you need to do the same.

Experience will also give you the skills you need to thrive in a pharmaceutical career. Industry professionals need to be able to work together effectively at each stage of product development; from initial research through to marketing its release. Employers look for team players who are organised, inquisitive and able to think outside the box.

Most top pharma companies in the UK offer work experience in all shapes and sizes; from insight weeks to year-long placements…

Placements in the pharmaceutical industry

If you’re on a sandwich course, your penultimate year will be spent working full-time for an employer. Extending your degree by a year is a big decision, but the experience will be invaluable.

A pharmaceutical placement is an opportunity for you to work on real-life projects, alongside some of the world’s top experts in their field. You’ll be treated the same as any other employee and relied upon to add value to the company.

“At MSD I was treated like an actual employee and colleague, as opposed to ‘just’ a placement student. I was able to run my own marketing campaigns and present to the wider organisation and the leadership team.”  Marketing Associate at MSD

After completing a whole year in a pharmaceutical job, you’ll be armed with the soft skills, laboratory techniques and industry contacts you need to start your career.

You should also have a clear idea of whether or not you actually want to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry - and which area you want to specialise in. (Many companies will give you the chance to spend time in different teams, so you can get a feel for everything from R&D to HR or marketing.)

Pharmaceutical internships

If you don’t want to take a year out of university, an internship is the next best thing. These tend to last anywhere from 1-4 months, so you may be able to fit more than one in before you graduate.

A stint in the workplace is a great way to bridge the gap between what you learn in lectures, and what goes on in the field. Plus it will show future employers that you are committed to working in the sector. (This gets you serious brownie points).

Employers also use internships as talent-spotting exercises for their graduate schemes. A bit like The X Factor. But without the embarrassing auditions.The top pharmaceutical companies in the UK want people with initiative, who have made the effort to get experience.

So if you do well, your employer may push that Golden Buzzer and fast-track you onto their grad scheme. Like this lucky student on GSK work experience...

“I woke up each morning excited to go to work. Every day saw different challenges and I was given real work which had actual value to the business. I was even offered a place on their FLP graduate scheme when I finish university!” Commercial Management Intern (Pharmaceutical) at GSK

Summer work experience

All pharmaceutical companies, big and small, offer summer internships that typically last between 8-10 weeks. As a university student, you could have as long as three months off over the summer - so you’ll still be able to rewatch every episode of Scrubs and go to Glastonbury.

A 10-week AstraZeneca summer internship, for example, will give you a unique insight into the world of ground-breaking drug development. You’ll be part of a team turning research into innovative new medicines for patients around the world.

Pharmacy work experience

If you don’t manage to secure an industrial placement or internship, get yourself some work experience in your local pharmacy.

Any experience you can get will buff up your CV, and you’ll also pick up key skills such as customer care and knowledge of over-the-counter medications. This will make you a much stronger candidate when it comes to applying for jobs in pharmaceutical companies.

Most retail chains, such as Lloyds Pharmacy or Boots, offer summer placement programmes lasting between 6-8 weeks.

“I was entrusted to carry out duties both in the dispensary and the health care section, including advising patients on health issues, dispensing prescriptions and keeping records up-to-date.

Because I carried out key roles, I felt like a key member of the team - even though I was only there for six weeks. The staff were all very welcoming and I’m still in contact with them after my placement.” Summer Pharmacy Student at Lloyds Pharmacy


Did you know that by the time a product reaches the market, an average of 12-13 years will have passed since the active substance was first discovered?

Or that a new chemical/biological entity costs around €1,926 million a year to research and develop?

This lengthy and costly process requires all hands on deck. Which is why this vast industry employs around 73,000 people in the UK; including research scientists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers and marketeers. Depending on your skill set, you could end up doing anything from running clinical trials to selling pharmaceutical drugs.

Top pharmaceutical companies in the UK 2019-2020

Making the decision to do a placement is one thing. But you also need to think about which employer you want to work for.

Do you want a big name like GSK on your CV? Or would you rather work for an SME in the orphan medicinal products sector? Are you keen to live at home during your placement, or happy to relocate for the job?

These are all things you need to think about before deciding where to apply.

There are hundreds and hundreds of pharmaceutical companies to choose from. To get you started, here’s a list of those that made RateMyPlacement’s Top 100 Undergraduate Employers… 

And here are a few more… 

You can also look for pharmaceutical careers in public sector bodies (e.g. the National Health Service (NHS) Department for Education (DfE), Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)), as well as universities and research organisations.

Spotlight: GSK work experience

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is one of the world’s leading healthcare companies. They make everything from vaccines against measles to Aquafresh toothpaste, but they’re also a great employer...

Why? Because they’re big on diversity, personal development and rewarding performance. AND they run two brilliant programmes for undergraduates: 10-12 week summer placements and one-year industrial placements. Both are available in a wide range of areas; including finance, marketing, R&D and tech.

Top performing students can earn themselves a place on GSK’s Future Leaders Programme for graduates. They’re looking for future scientists, engineers, supply chain managers and more to change the future of healthcare.

Watch the video below to find out how pharmaceutical placement students and interns make a real contribution to the work GSK does.

Spotlight: AstraZeneca industrial placement

At AstraZeneca, you’ll be part of a company that delivers life-changing medicines to patients around the world. The biopharmaceutical giant is made up of scientists, leaders, analysts, creatives and entrepreneurs, working together to save lives through innovative science.

They are guided by FIVE key values: 

  • ​We follow the science
  • We put patients first
  • We play to win
  • We do the right thing
  • We are entrepreneurial

If these match what you are looking for, have a look at their 12-month programmes: Research & Development and Pharmaceutical Technology & Development.

AstraZeneca industrial placement students are assigned individual projects, which they work on with an experienced scientist. You’ll get a unique insight into the world of drug discovery or development AND develop a bunch of sought-after skills like communication and presenting.

Typical salary for a pharmaceutical scientist in the UK

According to The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the average starting salary for a graduate in the pharmaceutical industry is £27,500 a year. Which is more than a lot of grads can hope for.

Your salary will depend on the company, role and location (London-based employers tend to pay more), but you can expect to start on anything from £24,000-£31,000.

Starting salaries tend to be higher for those working in hospital or community pharmacy, than those in pharmaceutical companies. BUT, pharma jobs typically come with compensation packages that can include medical insurance, gym membership and generous bonuses.