CRO vs. Big Pharma: Which is the Better Place to Work?

Published: Aug 07, 2017

CRO vs. Big Pharma: Which is the Better Place to Work? June 22, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

It’s obvious to people what a big pharma company is—an often-international corporation whose focus is the global development, manufacture, and sale of drugs and therapeutics. For people looking to work in the field, an alternate source of jobs is Clinical Research Organizations (CRO), sometimes called Contract Research Organizations.

Although the lines between pharma companies and CROs are blurring, CROs typically provide support to biopharma companies and medical device companies, assist in running clinical trials, as well as developing and submitting regulatory filings. However, in recent years, CROs have become actively involved in research activities as pharmaceutical companies outsource various tasks and jobs.

John Hubbard, currently chairman of the board of directors of the Association of Clinical Research Organizations (ACRO) and chief executive officer of Bioclinica, told Science, “In the 1980s, CROs were very small [and] they did something nobody else wanted to do.” They often took “projects that wouldn’t advance,” the repetitive lab work, and low-priority projects. That’s no longer true, with CROs involved in all stages of the R&D process ranging from drug discovery through clinical trials, regulatory filings and commercialization.

Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of working for CROs and big pharma companies. Like in most things, whether they’re a pro or a con will depend on your point of view and what you’re looking for in a career.

Pros of Working for a Big Pharma Company

1. Cutting edge technology. By their nature, pharmaceutical companies are innovative and working on the very cutting edge of technology and science.

2. Scientific excellence is encouraged. Related to the technology and science, overall excellence is encouraged—by and large, it’s a basic requirement of the competitive hunt for new drugs and therapeutics.

3. Excellent team environment. Big pharma companies are noted for their team environment, both internally and internationally, focused on specific company goals. It should be noted, however, that the same thing is generally said of CROs.

4. Excellent compensation/benefits. CROs, however, are also competitive and don’t typically pay better than big pharma companies. Square One said, “Unlike most drug discovery CROs, a lot of pharma companies are able to offer a substantial basic salary as well as several benefits; such as company cars, generous bonuses and stock options, which unfortunately are just not seen within a CRO … yet!”

5. Job Security. Although there are ups and downs in the pharmaceutical industry, it’s more stable than CROs, which depend on their clients—biopharma companies. Pharma may be hit by changes in regulations, the economy, and faltering programs, as well as mergers and acquisitions, but generally speaking it’s considered a stable employment area.

Pros of Working for a CRO

1. Variety of work and technology. Andrea Sisneros, a senior regulatory consultant who has worked for both CROs and pharmaceutical companies, told Hays, a global recruiting firm “Be prepared to work on projects that you haven’t worked on before. If you are transitioning from a pharmaceutical company. then you are likely to take on an increase in the volume and variety of workload. Take it all in, enjoy the opportunity to grow professionally and ask lots of questions.”

2. Promotional opportunities. Paul Strouts, Global Managing Director, Hays Life Sciences writes, “There is also good potential for moving into a managerial role and CROs are more likely to support home-based working.”

3. Home-based work. Although there are a number of opportunities for working from home in biopharma as well, because of CROs’ emphasis on regulatory issues and clinical trial management, there are many opportunities for the self-starter.

4. Higher Pay. Paul Strouts writes, “Some CROs offer a much higher salary than pharma companies, in order to compensate for the longer hours and extended responsibilities. However, this is very much dependent on the role that you are applying for.”

5. In-house training to expand skills. Sisneros noted, “I really enjoy the fast-paced nature of CROs and that you can interact with clients directly. There is regular in-house training provided so you are always expanding your skills, and I’ve really enjoyed working in a variety of therapeutic areas.”

Cons of Working for a Big Pharma Company

1. They’re big. Size can have pluses, but the negatives can include numerous layers of management, and the people who are making decisions are people you’ve never met.

2. Lack of variety. Scientists working for CROs often move from project to project, as Naomi Lubick wrote for Science, “Spending anywhere from two weeks to two years on each one.” That could be a positive, depending on your point of view. The problem with project hopping is not really becoming expert on a specific area, although one plus that you develop a broader skillset and flexibility.

3. Slower pace. This could be considered a positive. Sisneros told Hays, “At pharmaceutical companies, there is a tendency towards reactive working and there is a lot less pressure, which can make it feel as though work is not moving as quickly. Your skills will be developed in a specific area and you are likely to be working in a department or team with the same specialist skills.”

4. Culture. There are big biopharma companies that have a reputation for being hip and edgy, despite their size—Genentech comes to mind. However, big pharma companies are usually viewed as conservative and stodgy, and that is probably realistic. The larger a company gets, the more conservative it tends to become in terms of work culture. There’s undoubtedly plenty of variation in this regard, but be aware of company culture when choosing a company to work for.

5. Process for process’ sake. Derek Lowe, writing for Science Translational Medicine, says, “More money and resources often leads to box-checking behavior and a feeling of ‘Since we can do this, we should.’ There’s some institutional political stuff going on there, of course—if you’ve checked off all the boxes that everyone agrees are needed for success, and you still don’t succeed, then it can’t be your fault. Or anyone’s.”

Cons of Working for a CRO

1. Longer hours. Recruiting firm Hays’ Paul Strouts notes, “CROs can be very busy and on average employees work longer hours than in pharmaceutical organizations. The main focus is profit and bringing in new business as opposed to finding a specific cure for a disease. This can often result in a high-pressured working environment, and whilst working on a variety of products is a plus, you won’t have full ownership of a product from start to finish.”

2. Routine. Because big pharma companies want to keep control over proprietary technologies and products, CRO work can sometimes be more routine. On the other hand, Hubbard, currently chairman of the board of directors of ACRO and chief executive officer of Bioclinica, told Science that CRO scientists must be able to adapt to new corporate cultures when client companies change.

3. Small picture. Square One notes, “The downside for working within a CRO environment is that you don’t get to see the full picture—at the end of the day the decision on the project will still lie with the pharma company.”

4. Job instability. Maybe. That used to be the case, but Square One writes, “In recent years, it has been shown that the tables have turned due to the consistently increasing amount of projects being outsourced to the CRO companies to save on costs.” But what can often happen is a pharma company will end a project and move their work elsewhere, leaving the CROs scrambling for clients and new projects (of course, the pharma companies may be doing the same thing). On the other hand, many pharma companies have long-term relationships with CROs.

5. Tight deadlines. Sisneros said, “CROs put the focus on client satisfaction and therefore there needs to be added transparency in working, speed and efficiency. There is an immediate sense of accountability towards the client which is different to simply reporting to internal line management at a pharmaceutical company.”

CROs have taken over larger roles at sponsors. Science notes, “Pharma companies have been transitioning away from ‘transactional outsourcing’ … where a company hires a CRO to supplement its workforce when its workload peaks, and toward ‘functional outsourcing,’ where a CRO takes over a whole function, serving as a company’s statistical analysis department, for example.”

Both types of companies offer scientists opportunities for rewarding and lucrative careers as well as mobility. “It has become more common to hop from traditional (pharma) companies to CROs and back again,” Science notes.

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