'I am helping make an impact on the lives of 60 million people'

Sonia Patel says deciding which job to choose is a bit like trying on clothes. "You don't know what suits you until you try," she says. "I have always been interested in science which was why I wanted to be a pharmacist."

Patel is now senior associate scientist at Pfizer where she has worked for two and a half years. "After I qualified I knew I wanted to apply and develop my skills in helping to invent new medicines which would improve and save people's lives. I was also attracted by working with world-class researchers at the forefront of cutting-edge science and medical technology. I find my work fascinating and challenging," she says.

In the past, the career path for pharmacists in industry tended to lead into management. Now their skills are being deployed in a way that makes more use of their extensive training, whether in clinical trials, drug information, regulatory affairs, marketing or sales.

Patel is in research and development, working at the "discovery/development interface" in the pain therapeutic area. She says the learning curve has been very steep "but they allow you to grow at your pace and they recognise your contribution." She works with people from other disciplines on a daily basis.

Dr Michael Parker, vice chair of the Industrial Pharmacists Group at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB), says there has been a decline in the number of pharmacists entering industry in recent years. "This is partly due to the pharmacy undergraduate curriculum which tends to focus on clinical aspects and partly because there have been fewer pre-registration placements in industry and partly because there is strong competition for all jobs in the industry."

Parker says industry is still immensely attractive to some graduates. "If you really love the science and you want to go into drug discovery, there will be stiff competition from other scientists in specialist disciplines such as molecular biology and synthetic chemistry and therefore a higher degree could be an advantage. But pharmacists have a breadth of understanding through the degree course which gives them a natural advantage over many other science graduates for a broad range of roles in the industry."

Patel says there is growing recognition of pharmacists in industry. "I think the fact that pharmacists have a huge range of skills and can see the broader picture is becoming very desirable."

There are 46,974 registered pharmacists in the UK. Around 20,000 are in community pharmacies, 6,000 work in hospitals, 2,000 in primary care, 1,000 in industry and 500 in academia.

Parker now works in regulatory affairs, as director of chemistry and manufacturing controls for AstraZeneca in the UK. He has held this post for two years, having previously spent 16 years in various roles in pharmaceutical product development. He says, "I guess I am a very good example of the flexibility of industry. Pharmacists have the opportunity to move around a number of disciplines and broaden their experience."

He says many start out in research and development in areas such as pharmaceutical development or clinical trial supplies. "Later you can move into other disciplines such as manufacturing, regulatory affairs or clinical trials management. Good opportunities also exist in sales and marketing where pharmacists have an advantage because they can talk knowledgeably and confidently to GPs and other professionals about medicines."

Many pharmacy undergraduates are unaware of the job opportunities within industry which companies are trying to address by producing new computer-aided learning packages and by sending pharmacists into schools of pharmacy to give presentations.

Parker and Patel believe that some opportunities are being missed by pharmacists. For example, it is not widely known that a pharmacist can train to become a so-called Qualified Person (QP) - the individual with legal responsibility within the company for ensuring that medicines have been manufactured to the right quality before they can be released for clinical trials or onto the market.

Because a pharmacy degree provides much of the required knowledge, pharmacists only need one year of relevant experience to become eligible for QP status, compared with two years for biologists and chemists. However, surprisingly few pharmacists are taking on this role. "Pfizer is actively encouraging more opportunities for pharmacists to become QPs, particularly in the clinical trials manufacturing area," says Patel.

A degree in pharmacy equips people not just to be pharmacists, but opens the door to a career in pharmacology, biochemistry, forensic science, drug discovery, toxicology and many other scientific disciplines. And within each one, it is possible to focus on research, academia, teaching or regulatory work.

After many years of stagnation, several new pharmacy schools have opened in the last two years alone. There is a new workforce demand, and many students are attracted by the fact that pharmacists are much more involved in patient care than they used to be. The job prospects for pharmacy graduates are extremely good and they are likely to find employment in the field of their choice.

To study pharmacy, you generally need A-levels in chemistry and two of biology, maths and physics, although students with chemistry, biology and another subject may also be considered. In Scotland students require highers in the sciences.

To qualify as a pharmacist, you must take a four-year Master of Pharmacy degree course, followed by one year of pre-registration training within a pharmacy workplace (for which you get paid). Finally you must pass the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's registration exam. You can then choose to work in a variety of sectors including in a hospital, in primary care, in the community or in industry.

Parker says another attraction of working in industry is the salary and benefits package. "On first entry your salary may be less than that of a pharmacist in the community sector, but salaries rise quickly with experience and the potential for progression is great," he says. "If you are good enough, the sky's the limit."

Diane Leakey is head of communications and information at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), an executive agency of the Department of Health, responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices are effective and safe.

"What I love about this job" says Leakey," is that I am helping to make an impact on the lives of 60 million people every day.

More pharmacists work in the MHRA than in any other single location in the UK, with around 100 pharmacists working on every aspect of medicines from clinical trials through to licensing and post-marketing surveillance. The MHRA also monitors the yellow card scheme, in which pharmacists can report any suspected side effects. (www.yellowcard.gov.uk). In the late Seventies, Leakey began her career as a hospital pharmacist, working in large London teaching hospitals and in smaller district general hospitals. What attracted her to hospital pharmacy was the idea of making and manufacturing medicines, and liaising with doctors and other health professionals, but the reality was a little different. "Unlike today, in those days there wasn't much liaising with doctors, and you were soon banished back to the pharmacy."

After running a hospital pharmacy in Guildford, she decided to try retail pharmacy, serving as a locum relief for managers in the Moss chain. Leakey then applied for a job at the Department of Health's Medicines Division, the precursor of the MHRA. "What attracted me was that it was a complete step into the unknown. It was an office-based job and I didn't know whether it would suit me at first. I stayed because I really love it. Here I get to see the whole picture, from medicines development right through to the patient's experience."

She thinks medicine regulation provides exciting challenges. "Here there are so many opportunities for pharmacists to step into new areas where we can play an important role. The strength of regulation is that you see the bigger picture, you never get bored, and you are able to use all your scientific expertise and training."

See www.mhra.gov.uk for further information