18 September 2023

An Overview of Pharmaceutical Internships & Placements

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

Read on to find out how to kickstart your career with a pharmaceutical internship or placement at one of the UK’s top companies.

Getting pharmaceutical work experience

Competition for pharmaceutical jobs is INTENSE.

The majority of 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’ll need to do the same.

Experience will give you the right skills to thrive in a pharmaceutical career. Industry professionals must be able to work together effectively at each stage of product development; from initial research through to marketing its release. 

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

Pharmaceutical internships

If you don’t want to take a year out of university, a pharmaceutical 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).

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.

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.

Pharmaceutical placements

If you’re on a sandwich course, your penultimate year will be spent working full-time for an employer on an industrial placement. 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.

“I was given a lot of support. When I first started, I had a lot of on-the-job training to complete and I shadowed a member of staff for the first couple of weeks whilst they taught me lab techniques and introduced me to my projects. We had weekly department meetings and weekly teams meetings, these allowed me to discuss my projects and their findings, as well as ask for help and guidance.”

Microbiology Placement Year Student at GSK

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).

A pharmaceutical placement student at work


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. This is why this vast industry employs around 63,000 people in the UK; including research scientists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers and marketers.

Depending on your skill set, you could end up doing anything from running clinical trials to selling pharmaceutical drugs.

The best pharmaceutical companies in the UK 2022-2023

Making the decision to do a pharmaceutical internship or 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 are the top FIVE that made RateMyPlacement’s Best 100 Student Employers… 

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.

Best Student Employer: GSK

Spotlight: AstraZeneca industrial placement

At AstraZeneca – one of the world’s leading Covid-19 vaccine developers –  you’ll be part of a company that delivers life-changing medicines to patients all over the globe.

The bio-pharmaceutical 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.

How much does a pharmaceutical scientist earn 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, pharmaceutical jobs typically come with compensation packages that can include medical insurance, gym membership and generous bonuses.

Science & Research is a galactic industry that reaches far and wide…
Moonwalk over to our guide to Science Internships for an insight into each area; including biomedical, Biology and Chemistry.