Written by: Abhiram Pushparaj

You’ve likely heard of the big names in biopharmaceutical industry, but how many small start-ups could you name?  Overshadowed by the industry giants, small start-ups are often where many blockbuster drugs are born and raised for their early years before being licensed or acquired by the giants with the capital and expertise to take the product to market.  If you’re currently job hunting, or will be in the near future, you might be wondering what it’s like working in these two distinct environments.  To establish the major differences, I sat down to discuss it with a few friends (who will remain nameless to protect their jobs!) whom collectively have worked in Big Pharma, small start-ups and medium size firms as well.  As a caveat, all of these individuals hold positions involving Quality/Regulatory aspects of the business and are all working in near entry-level positions.  The points made below are generalizations and obviously interpersonal dynamics will always play a role in the workplace environment.  Despite this, I think these points generally hold true and that the question of Big Pharma vs. small start-up is not one of better or worse but rather of personal preference and work style.

1.  In-depth Specialization vs. Wearing Many Hats

Big Pharma is a guaranteed training ground where you can expect to be built from the ground up.  They will ensure that you are fully prepared before setting you towards any task.  The guidelines, manuals and endless Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) may seem daunting at first, but they’ll ensure you know your role in and out before you become a piece of the process.  For those who like it clear cut and all laid out, Big Pharma will likely be where you want to be.

Small start-ups are often forced to be resource savvy.  This means you have to be able to hit the ground running.  There isn’t much time for formal training as everyone is highly focused on moving the product forward.  You need to be capable of learning on the fly when you get handed a task you know very little about how to handle.  This type of environment isn’t for those who don’t have the stomach to get lost and stumble a few times along the way.  If you like the idea of being constantly put outside your comfort zone and having to work through new challenges, small start-ups have the cliffs you’re looking to scale.

2.  Established Brand Name vs. Getting in on the Ground Level

Big Pharma is well known in the eye of the public, so you can be pretty sure that your Aunt whom you haven’t spoken to for a while can still remember where you work.  On your resume, you have an employer whose training and work standards are well recognized in the industry and trusted by recruiters.  Not to mention, everyone wants to know the different processes used by Big Pharma, so you’re likely to be considered a valuable commodity that other employers will want to poach.

A Small start-up may not have the name recognition, but if you’re loyal and want to see exactly how your hard work can drive a product towards market, working there can be highly rewarding.  If you’re lucky enough to watch a product from its beginnings to eventually being licensed, acquired or taken to market, you’ll definitely have a number of serious talking points for an interview and have several high-quality and quantifiable achievements for the resume. Not to mention, at that point your supervisors are very likely to be willing to support you with a strong reference letter.

3.  Robust Established Processes vs. Building the System

Big Pharma is a well-oiled machine with a fairly clear  cut manual for operation.  Working there, you can be sure that there is an SOP for all critical aspects of your job.  Those SOPs have been constantly reviewed and revised to ensure that they are nearly foolproof.  The processes, likely having been run many times before you stepped into the game, are very robust and have been adjusted for problems that arose in the past.  Your ability to provide input on these processes will likely be limited until you have several years under your belt and possibly have moved up to a supervisory level.  You can be at ease knowing that following the steps provided, you will be able to reliably achieve the expected outcomes for the tasks assigned.

If Big Pharma is like a well-engineered system, small start-ups are like building your own motorcycle.  Processes may seem like they are in disarray, vague or even non-existent.  And while it will often feel like the processes you utilize just don’t work, given time and effort you have the opportunity to fine tune and optimize those processes to your specific personality.  Being focused on the end goal means your supervisor will expect results and it’s your job to make the processes work best to get those results.  If you are someone who would rather build their own system than work within the constraints of an established one, small start-up may be right for you.

4.  Strong Support vs. Freedom & Independence

Big Pharma has the resources and manpower that can’t be matched.  If your department runs into any problems, you know that there is a group of people standing with you ready to take them on.  Your supervisor is often close by and will be able to make time to sit down and talk with you.  There is a dedicated team in HR, who is thinking of how they can make your work-life balance better and get you the job benefits you will use.  That same team is probably furiously thinking about how they can get you involved in a company sports team or team-building and social events.  If you like knowing that you’re part of a strong team who can take on almost anything, Big Pharma is likely for you.

Small start-ups don’t have the time or resources to monitor when you take your coffee breaks or if you’re at work by 8 or 11am. But with the freedom to do your job how you see fit, comes the responsibility of having to demonstrate results.  Your supervisor, if it is even clear who that is, will likely not have much time to walk you through things step-by-step.  They will expect you to figure out the basic aspects on your own and come to them with only the bigger picture, strategic questions.  If you don’t mind reverse-engineering how a certain critical document was compiled or scouring the internet to figure out how to use that Microsoft Excel tool you’ve never seen before, small start-ups will give you the independence to work the way you like.

5.  Large Colleague & Alumni Networks vs. Personalized Contact

Big Pharma have massive networks and you may even have contact with colleagues, suppliers or customers in other countries.  If you feel comfortable reaching out by phone, e-mail or through LinkedIn, you will have the capability to connect with a huge number of contacts with diverse specialties.  Being in one place for a couple years will mean you’ve seen people come and go, meaning you’ll likely have alumni contacts in the industry to look to for opportunities.  If you’re looking to establish a LinkedIn profile with connections of 500+, Big Pharma is the place to be.

Small start-ups are just that, small.  Your company LinkedIn page will have only ~20-50 employees associated.  However, this means you will possibly have the opportunity to sit down for a drink with your CEO.  You may be invited to your manager’s home for social events that have a much more intimate feel.   If you’re hard working, confident, can give a great presentation and hold a good conversation, you will potentially get yourself invited to that next meeting with the major VC investors who are backing the company.  Your ability to prove yourself goes beyond your immediate supervisor and your impact is more easily felt by others.  If you prefer LinkedIn connections that are willing and able to give you amazing recommendations, a small start-up might just make sense for you.

6.  Established Mitigation vs. Constant Problem Solving

This again relates to the idea of a well-engineered machine vs. the DIY motorcycle.  If you’re the type of person who prefers to take your car to the dealership and have someone fix your problem without providing the details, Big Pharma will give you that.  They’ve faced almost all the issues you can think of and have likely developed specific mitigation strategies already.  Even if the problem is something without  a clearly outlined strategy, you can be confident that someone in your team will have the experience to help advise you on a strategic solution.

Small start-ups will often be facing issues that no one in the company has ever dealt with.  You will have to be thinking constantly and quickly bouncing ideas off your supervisor and team members to address ever-arising problems.  You need to be highly resourceful in making use of contacts and knowledge out there on the web.  If you excel in the kind of clutch situation where you have to pick up a fumbled ball and run it in for a touchdown, small start-ups have what you’re looking for.

7.  Calmer Routine vs. Stressful Excitement

Do you like knowing generally what your work day is going to look like? Maybe even you work week? Big Pharma is the type of place where you can settle into a nice routine and work hard at becoming highly efficient at your tasks.  Again, you can count on some sort of company sports team or social event happening on a fairly regular basis.  If a routine 9-5 environment is what you’re looking for at work and you’d rather save the excitement for your weekends, Big Pharma might be right for you.

Stress is in the cards for those at small start-ups.  Though you may not face high pressure from supervisors, there will likely be a few prickly situation where you’ll need to buck up and take the lead.  It can be exciting to watch challenges arise and knock them out of the park one by one.  Then again, it can also be overwhelming at times and cut into your personal life.  You might find yourself at your desk late into the night and working through weekends to get things sorted.  However, if you like new challenges to motivate you and like knowing that you conquered it, small start-up can give you just that.

8.  Clear Performance Indicators vs. Evaluation by Value-added

Are you frustrated not knowing what is expected of you?  Do you prefer to know your role and what it means to play it well?  Big Pharma is much more likely to have clear performance indicators and a structured system for evaluating your job competency.  Bonuses are likely explicitly tied to these indicators and this can help you to set goals for yourself and discuss progress in a more quantitative manner with your supervisor.

Small start-ups often have no formal evaluative measures.  Many times, you might be there on a contract basis and not know what your employer expects from you in order to get your contract renewed.  You need to be able to establish your own goals and bring them to your seniors for review.  Essentially, you’ll want to tie your goals to explicit indications of how you’ve added value to the company and been critical to its recent successes.  Of course, this will take a little time to figure out when you’re starting out as a new employee.  However, you should be able to quickly pick up an understanding of the company’s business model and value proposition so that you can pick out the specific points where you’re involved.

9.  Greater Potential for Advancement vs. Being Irreplaceable

Big Pharma has a ton of opportunities for moving vertically and/or laterally within the organization.  Many companies even have internal career fairs where employees can speak with representative from other departments or business units.  It’s even possible to move back and forth between a parent company and its subsidiaries.  There are a ton of doors within view and you’ll likely have to restrain yourself if you’re the type of person who is always looking for the next best thing.  Supervisors don’t like parting with good talent and having to train new employees, so you’ll have to be strategic with your timing to prevent making enemies.

Small start-ups cling to those who have demonstrated they can provide value to the company.  If you’re an employee that your supervisor and other management know to be good at what you do, you’re unlikely to be let go unless instability and lack of resources truly requires it.  Finding a replacement is a long-term endeavour, which means if someone you work closely with leaves you will likely be asked to pick up the slack before their position is filled again.  If you like positioning yourself and working hard to become someone who is crucial to a company’s success, you’d fit in well at a small start-up

10.  High Competition vs. Strong Collaborations

Though the potential opportunities for internal advancement are high in Big Pharma, you’ll be faced with stiff competition.  Everyone on the outside is looking to get in while all your colleagues are likely just as keen on advancing as you are.  This can often result in some tension when you’re in a situation where only one person in your team will be able to get that better position.  At its worst, you could even be faced with colleagues who are looking to make you look bad.  But if you’re the type of person who is motivated by competition, you’ll be able to take this in stride.

Small start-ups often have big gaps between one position and the position immediately above it.  That means you may have to spend time outside of work trying to develop skills which could help you advance.  Then again, advancement opportunities are few and far between in companies of <50 people.  However, this type of tight environment means people are more likely to be highly collaborative and want to drive the company forward together.  If you’re all looking to make it towards a Series A round of VC funding, you’re likely to have a close-knit team who will all be pushing together.  This type of team is also less likely to engage in the type of office politics that larger organizations will often face.


The ideas above are generalizations and there are likely positions in both small start-ups and Big Pharma that you could see yourself fitting into.  Big Pharma by nature of size will always have a variety of microcosms in terms of workplace environments while small start-ups by nature of number will be highly distinct based off the corporate culture of management.  However, many of these generalizations will still hold true.  Regardless, this article will hopefully help you think of what sort of work place environment you might prefer and allow you to pose questions to future employers that can indicate if a particular job is right for you.