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In this Sector...

Drug Discovery and Development

Drug Discovery and Development

What’s It About

This is a challenging and exciting area to work in and involves the initial discovery of potential treatments right through to manufacturing and having the product ready for the market. Opportunities in research are open to all graduates who have obtained a science degree, but advanced qualifications will often be required.

The Pharmaceutical industry invests an enormous amount of money into the creation of new medicines. This is where many of the biologists and chemists in the pharmaceutical industry will work, although it represents only a small portion of the people employed in pharmaceuticals compared to manufacturing.

Working in drug discovery and development means you will be investigating potential medicines and developing them into treatments that help patients around the world. It is a complex, expensive process, which means there are many different parts to play, examples of disciplines that are often key include cellular biology, genomics, medical science, physiology, engineering and chemistry.

New scientific products such as drugs, pharmaceuticals or sophisticated medical devices require rigorous testing to ensure they are safe and effective before they can proceed to the production stage. This process of experimentation is referred to as a clinical trial. These trials occur in phases, where the drug is tested on patients or on healthy volunteers.

Drug Discovery and Development in Ireland

Many of the biopharma companies in Ireland are focused on manufacturing, but companies do operate discovery and development operations here and there are government incentives to promote more activity in the space. Due to the nature of drug discovery much of this activity is occurring in universities, but there is also important discovery work occurring at Science Foundation Ireland Research Centres.

Career Paths

The critical path from promising new science and lab discoveries to applications that treat patients involves several key players including clinicians, medical practitioners, research scientists, business analysts and sales personnel. Research scientists would be key to the pre-clinical stage, investigating compounds for potential medicinal value, whereas medical practitioners and clinicians would be involved in the clinical work, testing the drug being development and assessing its suitability for use in medical care through clinical trials. This means there are many options for scientists starting out on their careers.

Effective Research and Development often takes place in collaboration with universities, with academic researchers attempting to make breakthroughs in avenues of research related to their field. Most of the major early discoveries that lead to new medicines are a result of university led research, before a pharmaceutical company takes on the long process of bringing the compound to patients. This means if you are interested in drug discovery you can follow through on your academic studies by pursuing a career in academic research or enter the private sector and work for a biopharma company. Some will switch between the two throughout their career.

Nature of the Work

Most researchers will be part of teams where they work closely with people educated in a variety of different fields and often teams working on a project will be spread across numerous locations. So as well as your scientific knowledge it will be important to develop good communication, organisation and project management skills.

Your work environment will vary dependant on whether you’re based in universities, research institutes or large pharma companies. This means a big choice for any research scientist to make is whether to focus on university research or the private sector. In academia you will generally have more freedom in selecting your research focus and less commercial pressure, however the private sector can offer financial security earlier in your career and a more practical role in the delivery of life saving drugs.

This is a field in which academic qualifications are extremely important, a science degree or one in a related field are the most common qualifications and most will have obtained postgraduate qualifications, with a high number having earned PhDs. It is a dynamic, challenging sector with excellent job prospects, as well as being a sector where you get the reward of creating products that can greatly improve millions of people’s lives.

Occupations in Drug Discovery and Development
(sorted by Job Zone)

Biology Laboratory Technician

Works under supervision of a lead scientist, and specialises in routine practical tasks essential to research and development in areas such as genetics, microbiology and chemistry.

Chemistry Laboratory Technician

Provides technical assistance to chemists by setting up equipment, preparing and carrying out experiments and taking measurements.

Laboratory Technician

Works in a laboratory assisting scientific and technical staff with day to day duties.

Biomedical Scientist

A scientist who specialises in the investigation and research of the science of disease.

Chemical Engineer

Researches, designs and plans the processes involved in the production of chemicals.

Analytical Chemist

Analytical Chemists study the exact chemical composition of natural and artificial materials.


Studies the chemistry of animals and plants and analyses their cells and tissues.

Biological / Microbiological Scientist

Studies, analyses and collects information about both plant and animal life.

Medical Scientist

Works in clinical pathology (hospital) and research laboratories performing and interpreting tests for the diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of disease.

Medicinal Chemist

An expert chemist with particular expertise in molecular design, the synthesis of drugs and understanding of biological functions.

Regulatory Affairs Officer

Ensures the appropriate licensing, marketing and legal compliance of pharmaceutical and medical products.

Research Scientist

Plans and carries out experiments and investigations to increase scientific knowledge in a range of areas such as life sciences, including physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, plant sciences.

Laboratory Manager

Manages all aspects of the laboratory service in chemical, research or clinical laboratories and ensures appropriate staffing, equipment, quality and safety.

Regulatory Affairs Specialist