Biotech vs. Pharmaceuticals: What's the Difference and Which One Is Better?

Before entering a life science career, many think of their career options as “biotech vs. pharmaceuticals,” but choosing a pathway can be less challenging after understanding the similarities and differences of each industry. From an unfamiliar perspective, it may seem like biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are very similar, if not the same. While this is not the case, we explore these subjects in detail. We compare skillsets, salaries, and career outlooks to consider which industry is best for you. With job seekers considering benefits beyond compensation, we understand the importance of optimal working environments. For that reason, we also note the similarities and differences between biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Our expert guide walks you through everything you need to know to help you determine your ideal career path between biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Working in Biotech

A couple factors determining biotech work are methodology and focus. Companies that are considered biotech deal with creating new products using living organisms. In addition to medicines, biotech companies can focus on developing many products like plastics or biofuels. They can also work to advance agricultural and environmental practices. In fact, if you’ve ever baked bread or brewed beer at home, you’re a biotechnologist! These simple practices require careful measurements and monitoring while utilizing yeast, a living organism, to produce a new product. In a similar fashion, biotech companies research, develop and manufacture drugs, medical treatments, and other products that affect daily life. With diverse applications, biotechnologists can specialize in engineering, environmentalism, agriculture, biology, chemistry, and more. For example, Amgen, a Los Angeles biotech company, specializes in biological and gene therapies for serious illnesses. Illumina, a San Diego biotech, studies the human genome and DNA sequencing to develop and manufacture life science tools and analytical systems.


When it comes to skillsets for biotechnology, there are several that a company will look for in an ideal candidate. Skills can be broken down between technical skills and soft skills. Technical skills can include experience with statistical analysis, cell-based assay, PCR, and tissue cultures. Experience with certain techniques and tools will depend on specific biotechnology job positions and requirements. These technical skills are often acquired through education and internships. Soft skills sought after in potential biotech candidates are complex problem-solving, innovative thinking, and working in multi-disciplinary teams.

Salaries and Career Outlook

Biotechnology is a wide-ranging industry and has many possible career paths. Depending on the specialization, biotechnologists can find themselves in plant or animal science, manufacturing, research, engineering, and much more. With interest in pathology, microbiology, cell research, genetic engineering, and other life science disciplines, candidates can discover something new in each job position they undertake. Careers in life sciences are projected to continue growing across the United States as biotech hotspots develop in Texas and North Carolina and maintain in California and Massachusetts. Coast to coast, biotechnology jobs are lucrative and expansive. A starting research associate’s salary can range from $42,000 – $47,920 per year, while seasoned biochemists can make $106,591 – $119,495 average pay per year.

Working in Pharma

Pharmaceutical companies specialize in researching and developing medicines. While biotech gets its namesake and products from biology, pharmaceutical companies traditionally focus on developing drugs and medicines using chemicals rather than biologics. Something discovered at a biotechnology company could also be bought by a pharmaceutical company for scaled manufacturing and sales. There are also biopharma companies working with biologics and pharmaceuticals together. For example, Bristol Myers Squibb is a global pharmaceutical company specializing in medicines through advancements in oncology, hematology, immunology, and cardiovascular disease. Another example is California’s biopharmaceutical company, Gilead Sciences, which specialize in virology, oncology, and inflammation.


In looking to begin a career in pharmaceuticals, there are several skills to have in your professional arsenal. Of course, these skills may change or become highly specialized depending on role and organizational needs. A general rule of thumb is to be knowledgeable and skilled with industry regulations and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices). In this heavily disciplined market with legal and health regulations, all potential employees must be up to speed on these matters. Other requirements are project management skills, especially with time, budget, and resources. You must have excellent record-keeping skills to maintain a clear record of research results and findings. On top of this, problem-solving and communication skills are sought-after when working in teams of other specialists.

Salaries and Career Outlook

With a passion for making a difference in medicine and medical technology, the pharmaceutical industry offers job seekers several rewarding career paths. Some career paths may be in research and development as analytical chemists, quality control specialists, or clinical trial associates. Other careers can be as a pharmacologist, product specialist, pharmaceutical sales, and more. Pharmaceuticals not only cover the research and development of medicines, but they can also lean into medical devices and large-scale manufacturing of medicines and therapeutics. With COVID-19 affecting the world, there has been a big push in pharmaceutical companies to continue research. A starting clinical trial associate’s salary range is $56,054 – $70,717. Pharmacologists, on average, make $108,043 – $132,673 per year.

What Are the Similarities Between Biotech and Pharmaceutical Companies?

Among similarities, biotech and pharmaceutical companies are involved in researching new drugs and therapies. Many scientific and technical procedures are utilized in both pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. In regards to standards upheld, both industries are also highly regulated. In some cases, biotech and pharmaceutical companies’ research go hand in hand when both industries work towards improving human health, technology, and the advancement of scientific knowledge. Both industries can work in laboratory settings with other scientific or clinical professionals. When choosing between biotech and pharmaceutical companies, your decision can come down to unique differences within each prospective company.

What Are the Differences Between Biotech and Pharmaceutical Companies?

Recently biotech and pharmaceutical companies have overlapped in similar products, procedures, regulations, and work environments. Here we discuss the main differences between the two industries when choosing your career pathway.

Main Focus

The main focus of biotechnology is to develop and manufacture solutions to a problem using biologics. Not only can this produce new medicines, but biotechnology products can also affect many industries like environmentalism, agriculture, cosmetics, and manufacturing. Products can be genetically engineered foods, biofuels, detergents, and other everyday goods. On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies typically focus on the research, development, and manufacturing of medicinal products. Both industries hold rewarding careers for any life science professional. Nonetheless, it is up to your preference for what outcomes you hope to achieve in your career.


On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies tend to be much larger and more established than biotech companies. Hence the coined-term “big pharma,” these companies can include multiple offices and departments across the country or globally. In weighing career options, consider whether you favor a multifaceted role in smaller, closer teams or more focused roles in larger, defined teams. While neither industry is immune to cutbacks and market fluctuations, pharmaceuticals can appear more “stable” than biotechnology to some candidates due to sheer size and having a steady pipeline of products.


In their approach to research, biotech companies look to be pioneers in scientific advancement. Often this means being the first to develop new molecules or technologies using state-of-the-art techniques. If successful, through mergers and acquisitions, biotech products can be sold to pharmaceutical companies. While more pharmaceutical companies are adopting biotech processes, these companies research developed drugs in clinical trials with the aim for approval to be manufactured and sold on a larger platform. Research approaches can look similar, but pharmaceutical and biotech companies may have different end goals.

What Does the Future Look Like for Biotech and Pharma?

Even with economic fluctuation, the future of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals is projected to continue its growth over the next five years. From an occupational standpoint, overall life science employment opportunities are also predicted to grow by 7% in the next decade. As an effect of COVID-19, life science fields are likely to develop with a rise in demand for advancements in medicines and immunology. When looking at the stability between startup biotechs and longstanding pharmaceutical companies, pharmaceuticals can hold more security, especially if a biotech venture fails while still in early research stages. While careers in both pharmaceuticals and biotechnology provide competitive compensation, starting ground-level at a biotech with employee stock options can reach huge profits if the company meets success. On the other hand, if a smaller biotech doesn’t grow as fast, opportunities for advancement could be limited compared to an established pharmaceutical company with defined career paths. Overall, the outlook for both industries holds diverse opportunities for life science professionals in the job market.

Biotech vs Pharmaceuticals: Which One Is Right for You?

With several points to consider, ask yourself what you consider most valuable to your career goals when reading the following.


Pro – Offers unique opportunities to be at the head of scientific discoveries
Con – Jobs can be less stable at smaller companies in the early research stages
Pro – Job opportunities available in several subcategories of life sciences
Con – May not provide as many opportunities for career advancements early-on
A biotechnology career pathway is worthwhile for professionals who thrive in fast-paced, ever-changing environments. This is especially great for those whose interests go beyond medicine. Biotechnology is an excellent pathway if you’re looking to make scientific discoveries that aren’t always involved with drug development. For those who thrive on developing new skills and acquiring new experiences on the job, this can lead to a rewarding career.


Pro – Defined career route with broader opportunities
Con – Main focus specific to drug research and development, manufacturing, and sales
Pro – Jobs are more stable at larger established companies with several products in circulation and pipeline
Con – Less likely to have stock options or shares in a company
In comparison, we recommend pharmaceuticals for professionals who like clear career routes when entering a company and have a routine workday. If you want to make an impact in medicine and therapeutics, pharmaceutical is a great place to establish your roots. With more focused job duties, a career here can be as equally fulfilling for life science professionals.

Getting Started In Biotech

Overall, pursuing a career in biotechnology or pharmaceuticals is a great option for anyone interested in life sciences. It’s important to keep in mind key factors like salary, work focus, and personal career goals when choosing either industry. Other factors to consider are also location and company culture. When researching prospective companies, ensure that their values align with your own. If looking for jobs in biotech, you might look towards areas like San Diego, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area. To find a suitable biotech or pharmaceutical position that works for your needs and skillset, work with one of our life science recruiters at BioPhase Solutions.