Blog | British Pharmacological Society (2023)

Published: 12 Sep 2017
By Lisa Wallace, Steven Tucker, Anna Zecharia

Today the Society has published a report from PwC showing that pharmacology is alive and well in UK higher education, and that graduates go on to a wide range of successful careers.

We commissioned this research because we wanted to understand more about how many courses are out there, what and where they are, who is studying them, and what graduates from those courses go on to do.

This research and the resulting report are an important strand of the Society’s wider Focus on Pharmacology project, which since 2016 has been seeking to understand the status of pharmacology in the UK, and how the Society can better support members in their places of work and study. As the Society prepares to incorporate Focus into its new five-year strategy, these objectives will remain important priorities.

At its inception, Focus identified that we didn’t have fundamental data about pharmacology courses at our fingertips – and that there are some important gaps in the information that was available to us. For example, we looked into the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DHLE) 6- and 18-month surveys from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) at the beginning of this work and as part of our response to Sir William Wakeham’s review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability. We did not feel that the data gave a true picture of what pharmacology graduates go on to do: the first survey is completed too close to graduation; and very few pharmacology students complete the later one. We are hopeful that HESA’s review of destinations and outcomes data (resulting in granular subject level reporting from 2019) will yield more meaningful results in years to come, but we wanted to get a head-start for pharmacology. Today’s report goes some way towards filling in those data gaps, and raises some interesting questions and opportunities. It also provides evidence to inform and underpin the Society’s ongoing activities, while providing direction that permits focus for new initiatives.

(Video) Explore Pharmacology with the British Pharmacological Society

So what have we found out?

First and foremost, the report shows that pharmacology as an academic subject is growing and is healthy. The number of undergraduate acceptances for places on pharmacology courses grew by an average of 4.1% per year between 2007 and 2015. This compares to a 3.2% average growth rate across all courses during this period. As a result, 40% more students began a course in pharmacology in 2015 than 8 years previously.

Number of acceptances onto pharmacology degrees is growing at 4.1% per year since 2007, compared to 3.2% across all courses

And this is not just because of an increase in supply: 6.4students apply for every pharmacology place, a level of demand which outperforms most comparable subjects. Pharmacology is clearly in high demand from prospective students. This healthy supply of students coming into pharmacology has been translating into a growth in the number of pharmacology graduates: an increase of 5.5% a year since 2011. There was also a larger number of pharmacology graduates compared to applicants, which might be explained by transfers into pharmacology courses from other subjects. This is something we’ve heard anecdotally from our education community, and may be something to explore further in the future.

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Pharmacology degrees are in high demand, with 6.4 applicants per place. This is at the top of the range for comparable subjects (3.7-7.0)

The second key finding is that pharmacology graduates are enjoying positive employment outcomes.

As noted, it is extraordinarily difficult to track graduates and their career choices. The PwC team followed a creative suggestion from the Society to use publicly available LinkedIn data as a sample to help explore this. While the sample isn’t perfect (it doesn’t capture everyone equally), it offers an interesting window into career choices that were otherwise invisible. The PwC team scoured LinkedIn for evidence of pharmacology education and then examined the resulting 3,000 career profiles. Employment destinations are varied and diverse, with routes to employment from all different types of courses. While a high percentage of graduates from Russell Group universities go on to pursue careers in academia, the report’s “deep dive” into pharmacology at the University of Portsmouth – which took on the greatest number of pharmacology students of any university in 2015 – shows a different picture of graduate destinations. While just 7% of Portsmouth pharmacology graduates are pursuing careers in academia, some 33% go on to be employed at pharmaceutical companies. This significantly outperforms the all-university average of 26%.

We’ve discussed these findings with Dr James Brown and colleagues at the University of Portsmouth. The value of personal contacts and networks came through strongly in our conversations. James says: “These findings may reflect the experience of our staff; I have a background in industry and make an effort to discuss this positively with the students. Many of our PhD students go onto careers in industry and we invite them back to speak at careers events – so it’s likely that our students have good exposure to industry role models”. James also told us about “the very pro-active” student society, which organises careers events and about the university’s use of LinkedIn to put students in contact with alumni. Final year students at the University of Portsmouth are supported with mock interviews and CV applications through their “Purple Door” scheme, which is likely to help them secure a job. Lastly, James reflected on the content of the course, telling us that “in the final year, there is a module which focuses on the drug development processes relating to novel anti-cancer agents. This may have focused our students’ thoughts on future careers and made them think about clinical trials, the pharmaceutical industry and drug safety as potential career options”. We’d be keen to hear about the careers strategies used by other pharmacology courses across the UK, and whether there’s a role for the Society to support them. Get in touch via if you’d like to tell us more.

The diversity of provision identified by the report would therefore appear to be catering well for a range of employment demands: from academia, the health service, industry, and the life sciences more broadly.

(Video) Hot topics in pharmacological publishing

Finding the “hidden pharmacologists”

Pharmacology is growing, but there has been even faster growth in the number of UCAS acceptances onto Biomedical Sciences courses, at an average of 9.3% annually. These courses are now required to offer pharmacology as part of their curricula: the Society recently developed a subject-specific statement for pharmacology in the QAA benchmark for Biomedical Sciences. Pharmacology is growing in areas not in our traditional purview. There is an opportunity to expand our community to support these educators and students, for instance by using the Society’s new core curriculum as a framework. Our influence on the wider economy is also broad. The LinkedIn sample shows that 29% of pharmacology graduates are working somewhere else besides academia, industry, health, or another life science-related industry.

Over 3000 pharmacology graduates are listed on LinkedIn – 69% of these work in careers related to the life sciences

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If nearly a third of pharmacology graduates are employed in other sectors, this suggests that a pharmacology education is highly valued by a broad range of employers. We don’t yet know whether this is an active choice made by graduates, allowing investment in their education to pay dividends to the wider economy; whether there are challenges in remaining in the life sciences – or a mixture of the two. The Society has a role to play in understanding this further (especially in the context of a changing UK biopharmaceutical industry) and ensuring that students are receiving the best careers advice and opportunities for them.

And there is a second argument for why careers advice and opportunities could be the crux of a bigger issue. While it is great news that pharmacology courses attract high quality students, the report shows that they increasingly come from privileged backgrounds. The share of pharmacology acceptances from students in the highest socioeconomic bracket grew from 22% in 2007 to 27% in 2014. These are typically the students or graduates who will be least disadvantaged by a lack of publicly available information, advice and opportunity, because they are the most likely to be able to fall back on personal networks and connections.

Lack of participation by students from lower socio-economic groups is of course a common and long standing challenge across higher education. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t play a role within our own community to try to address this.

So what can the Society do to help?

The Society prides itself on being at the centre of the pharmacology community. So if there is a lack of information, advice and guidance out there for young people looking at their university options, and for graduates looking for work experience, we think that’s our problem too.

To that end, we’re excited to say that the Society is already working hard to act on these findings and by the end of 2017 aims to have launched the first phase of our new careers “hub” on the website full of information and resources for pharmacologists at all stages of their careers.

(Video) Today's science, tomorrow's medicines: pharmacology and the British Pharmacological Society

As well as practical information and resources, we are busy compiling a host of case studies which illustrate the range of career pathways available to pharmacology graduates (here are the first few to whet your appetite!). We want these to not only inform but inspire current and prospective pharmacology students, and to bring to life some of the career pathways they may be only dimly aware of at the moment. We plan to keep on adding to these, so please do send your own to We’d also be keen to hear what support you would us to provide, so do please get in touch.

The PwC report also points to the value of internships and work experience. Our young pharmacologists agree, and we want to work with industry partners and other employers to explore the Society’s role in brokering such opportunities and removing barriers for those without their own networks.

Some of the data used were historical, with other measures more current and dynamic. This combination has provided an interesting picture of the current situation, and also offers measures that could be used to track Pharmacology into the future.

This new report by PwC contains plenty of very encouraging news about the health of pharmacology as a subject of study and as a route to good careers. But we would be missing an opportunity if we didn’t pick up on the challenges it poses too.

Prospective students and recent graduates need more help in finding out where pharmacology can take them, and we intend to help show them!


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