The increasing demand for highly specialised skill sets in drug development

Do employers prefer specialists or generalists? While many would answer ‘it depends’, the fact is that adopting a middle path is usually seen as the way to develop the optimal skill set, the T-shape – a combination of generalist and specialist skills, as a best of both worlds’ solution.

The horizontal top line of the ‘T’ represents generalist skills and capabilities, while underneath it, the vertical line depicts the ability to deep dive and specialise in a particular aspect. But in the pharma industry, this broadly accepted principle, is undergoing a transformation driven by advances in life science and that, in turn, is changing the whole life sciences skills ecosystem.

Innovation is driving change in demand for skills

With exciting leaps in technology, especially in genetic engineering, have come new ways of researching and developing ground-breaking medical treatments. Recent breakthroughs have included dramatic advances in genetic research, with CAR-T and CRISPR technologies which are capable of editing genes and DNA, moving to the clinic and closer to mass-market use. We now have the potential of being able to address and cure previously incurable diseases like cystic fibrosis or even cancer.

Developments in neuroscience are following a similar trend – including in neurodegeneration where expertise in vaccines can add value – and these trends of increasing scientific complexity are leading drug developers to look for skill sets in their R&D teams that mirror the increasing specialisation of their drug pipeline candidates. For example, to work on therapeutic molecules such as CAR-T therapies, we’re now being asked to find CSOs who have very precise CAR-T experience, rather than broader skill sets as would have been the case in the more recent past.

Given the shortage of specialists in many of the fastest growing areas, we have to ask if this is a sustainable approach that will really enable faster development of new drugs and will there be sufficient candidates to fill each role? As we showed in our recent Talent Equity Report, Leaders in Oncology Innovation, the traditional R&D path in the pharma industry is a business model under pressure. The large and growing number of separate organisations working in oncology are all looking for talented leadership from a pool of individuals that simply isn’t growing at the same rate.

Academics and collaboration may be the way

As a result, companies are having to be much more flexible and growing demand has encouraged academics to play a bigger role.  Many are now joining industry in positions where they can facilitate the translation of science to clinical programmes and these individuals are being appointed as CSOs in SME biotech companies or in senior leadership positions, such as translational scientists, in larger pharma and biotechs.

“Transitions from academia/the not-for-profit sector to industry are a sign of the intense competition for talent in this space. These transitions and the growth in collaborations are acting as a catalyst and are helping to solve the problem of talent shortages” according to Nick Stephens, Executive Chair at The RSA Group. “The academic leaders who make the move from scientific and medical academia to industry often bring connections to a significant and extended network, adding to a company’s reach and acting as a magnet for future talent”.

For more information on The RSA Group and our industry leading Proof-of-Candidate® approach can help you, do contact me.

Mark Howard, Managing Partner |

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