Big pharma vs small pharma – which should you pick?

What we mean by big and small pharma

Before breaking down the positives and negatives of each, we thought it would be worthwhile explaining exactly what we mean by ‘big’ and ‘small’ pharma companies. 

"When someone refers to big pharma, it’s usually in relation to a top 10 company with regards to revenue - imagine big pharma as the blue-chips of the pharma world," explains Max. "These will typically have been around for a long time and have a lot of employees. Small pharmas, on the other hand, can be anything from a start-up right through to a medium-sized organisation. Generally speaking, these companies have lower headcount, smaller R&D teams and on-market portfolios. They’re quite lean in the way they work, meaning they don’t have big teams on projects."

Choose based on your priorities

When it comes to your career, your priorities will change over the years. A lot of candidates have come to us saying things like, "I now feel like a small cog in a massive machine" or "I’m not getting the exposure that I want".

The reality is they want change but they don’t always know what their best option would be - which is where our consultants come in, offering advice. So we’ve put together a list of priorities and a short explanation as to which would be the better choice – big pharma or small pharma. This is based on our conversations with professionals in the industry.

You like to focus on smaller elements of projects – big pharma

At big pharma companies, you’re more likely to spend your time concentrating on one particular aspect of a project or your role, instead of having a complete overview. This is generally because big pharma companies are more process driven, as the projects are usually larger and for bigger brands - so you play your part in the process and focus solely on that element. This gives you the opportunity to perfect your experience in one particular area of your job and will be exposed to the best practice whilst doing so.

You think about the bigger picture – small pharma

If you think about the bigger picture of what you’re working on, you’re most likely to enjoy working for a small pharma company. You’ll be able to see how things are implemented and how the project you’re working on will benefit others. You’ll be working with the patient very much in the forefront of your mind, whereas in a big pharma company, you tend to be focused on smaller elements of the project so it’s hard to see the end results of what you’re working on.

You would prefer structured processes – big pharma

Processes are a big part of any pharma company – big or small – however, if you prefer to work in an environment whereby there is more pre-defined process and more involved in decision making, you’ll better suit a big pharma company. Unlike smaller pharma’s, who give more autonomy to individuals, big pharma’s have spent years developing their ways of doing things.

You prioritise company culture – small pharma

"Quite often, candidates that have worked at both big and small pharma organisations have said that, although big pharma’s have a perfected company culture, usually you either fit in or you don’t. What candidates prefer with a smaller pharma is the opportunity to influence the culture with your own background and ways of working," explains Max. So if you like knowing that you can express your own personality and shape the team you’re working in, your safest bet is to go with a small pharma.

You would like high job security – big pharma

Typically, start up pharma’s are still going through clinical trials and don’t always have a commercial product or a medium size pharma’s with a commercial portfolio can still be massively affected by their pipeline results. As many assets don’t get approved, there’s a large risk you could lose your job, with less opportunity for the company to move you into a new area.

Although a failed launch or something similar happening in a big pharma could still lead to redundancy, they’re more able to move you to a new area of the business. One other factor to consider is the risk a big pharma will come along and swallow up the small pharma you work for. So when it comes to job security, the answer is big pharma’s, although risk can reap rewards as you will see below.

You’d like greater financial rewards – small pharma

This might seem quite surprising but, if you’re looking for greater financial rewards, more often than not the small-medium pharma organisation will be in a better position to deliver this. However, in order to reap rewards, there’s an element of risk required. Whilst the base salary won’t always be higher than big pharma, their stock options often prove to be more rewarding- especially in a start-up.

Your focus is on progression – big pharma

Whilst you can still progress at small to medium pharma companies, you’re more likely to receive regular promotions in big pharmas. Due to their size, there’s a lot more opportunity for growth within the company whereas in small pharma’s, you can sometimes find yourself reaching the top much quicker because they’re not growing as quickly.

In a big pharma organisation, you’ll go up a pre-defined career ladder, whereas in a smaller company, you could have the team grow out beneath you.

You’re looking for high job satisfaction – small pharma

Many professionals find that there’s far too much ‘red tape’ at the larger pharmas to get the same level of job satisfaction as they would in a smaller company. As a result, processes can take a long longer than they would in a small pharma. You also have more opportunity to see the benefits of the asset you’re working on, as you get to see the bigger picture and work closer to the patient. All of this can result in much higher job satisfaction.

Take the next step in your career

This article is designed to give you an idea as to whether you’d best suit a big pharmaceutical company or a smaller one. There’s no right or wrong choice; it all depends on personal preference and your own career goals and our consultants are ready to give you as much advice and guidance as you need.

Here at Real, we work with companies of all sizes which means we have access to some of the most in-demand pharma jobs. So if you’re looking to find a new opportunity, we can help. You can either use our job search or sign up for a job alert, so we can notify you whenever a role comes up that suits what you’re looking for.

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