Posted on

Rethinking Evil Pharma: Is it a Good Career for Helping People and How to Get Involved on Campus?

Elena Solopova | February 1st, 2024

Half of the employed class of 2022 pursued either finance, consulting, or technology. Only 1% [1] of the recent graduating class ventured into biotech, pharma, & life sciences. While this number doesn’t include those in graduate school who may end up in the industry later, 1% is shockingly low.

Many factors are probably at play, but one thing that was deterring me from pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical industry was the notion of evil pharma. While most of the people who were also studying molecular biology were pre-med, or at least it felt like so, I was interested more in drug discovery and development. Feeling out of place next to all these people in my major who were on their noble quest to save lives as future doctors, I wondered if the pharmaceutical industry was also a good career for helping people.

Let’s break down the idea of evil pharma as the industry that overcharges for medicine that were invented by academia. In a drug discovery course at Vanderbilt, I learned that developing medicine is a grueling quest. It takes over a decade, costs a ton, and will most likely fail. The average risks in venture capital pale in comparison to drug development. While around 75% of all startups backed by venture capital fail [2], more than 1,000 candidates fail for every approved FDA drug [3]. It’s no wonder that the dismal gap between academia and the industry where most drugs fail is named the “valley of death.” The mere 0.1% success rate means that to get even one drug that works, we must pay to develop the remaining 999 that don’t. The inherent risk to drug development makes it expensive. However, it wouldn’t be fair to say that these astronomic risks are primarily shouldered by academia. The pharmaceutical industry provides most of the funding for the clinical trials for the approved drugs [4] and a significant share of the overall research and development, commensurate with NIH [5].

Furthermore, unlike many other industries, pharmaceutical inventions ultimately become societal commodities that benefit people indefinitely. With profits during the patent-protected period intended to reward the cost and risk of their development, many drugs [6] then remain available as generics at very low prices that reflect merely their ongoing production cost. They essentially become public goods. In contrast to healthcare services, physicians, and hospitals which are increasing in cost, drugs eventually become cheaper and keep saving lives. Thus, the pharmaceutical industry uniquely benefits society through genericization. Not that evil now?

Dedicating a career to drug development goes in line with the research by 80,000 Hours. Named after the average number of working hours in a career, this non-profit investigates careers with the largest positive impact on society. 80,000 Hours advises that catastrophic pandemics are the second most pressing global problems and lists research as one of the most instrumental skill sets for tackling those.

Drugs help prevent unnecessary suffering and death in fields other than pandemics. Medicine for diabetes prevents people from going blind, medicine lowering blood pressure deters heart attacks, and vaccines allow people to live life as normal, making society more productive. Creating medicine bears extremely high risks and costs, requiring considerable investments from society. However, those investments pay off when generics become public goods. Therefore, dedicating your career to drug development can be a rewarding career choice for those who aim to make a lasting impact.

As an institution that has long been at the forefront of numerous clinical developments, Vanderbilt offers tremendous opportunities for students to learn about and engage with drug development. The Vanderbilt Vaccine Center [7] developed the antibodies in AstraZeneca’s treatment, and VUMC conducted early clinical trials to confirm the safety of Moderna’s vaccine for COVID-19. You may learn about the current therapeutic pipelines from the Center for Technology Transfer & Commercialization website [8] Vanderbilt’s and VUMC’s joint campus is home to other drug discovery centers, including The Warren Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery [9], Accelerating Drug Discovery and Repurposing Incubator, Vanderbilt Institute for Chemical Biology, and Fragment-based Drug Discovery for Cancer Therapeutics. You can reach out to their research laboratories – they hire students, too!

Luckily, many Vanderbilt professors who are leading extraordinary research efforts are also passionate about teaching. You can learn about the scientific principles of drug development in courses like Vanderbilt Drug Design and Development (CHEM 4720), Drug Discovery for Neuropsychiatric Disorders (NSC 3245), and Immunoengineering (CHBE 4820). Many courses dissect healthcare like Healthcare organizations (MHS 3220) and Health Care Policy (ECON 2350). Educating yourself on the principles of drug development and healthcare is relevant to everyone because we all inevitably become patients. It is especially critical for those who plan to contribute to creating medicine through their career in academia, pharmaceutical, medical, or other industries.

Doing due diligence, I’ve sought advice from someone who understands a lot more than I do about drug development (so that you don’t have to). Peter Kolchinsky earned a Ph.D. in virology from Harvard University, is the author of The Great American Drug Deal, a co-founder and managing partner of RA Capital, a healthcare reform advocate, and a founder of the non-profit No Patient Left Behind.

“I enjoyed science as a student and wanted a career that would let me make a positive difference in the world as a scientist. I recall that people called industry “the dark side,” which seemed amusing, but I didn’t take it seriously. Only gradually did I wake up to the reality that how the public understands and misunderstands the work we do impacts our ability to do it. Most of us scientists, and even our peers with business degrees, don’t have a foundational understanding of the economic and financial first principles that make our work possible. Why is a patent 20 years long? What is market-based pricing? What are the features of proper insurance? I can recommend a short free course Business of Biotechnology developed by the RA University to get familiar with the basic concepts.”

The statistics about Vanderbilt being the happiest college in the country may or may not be outdated. Regardless, happiness is correlated with career satisfaction, and helping others is an indispensable ingredient. The pharmaceutical industry is a great way to do so, and you can get involved here on campus!

I’d like to thank Peter Kolchinsky and Chris Morrison, the editor at RA Capital, for their thoughtful help in editing this article.


[1] Link:

[2] Harvard Business School senior lecturer Shikhar Ghosh. Link:[3] Seyhan, Attila, A., “Lost in translation: The valley of death across preclinical and clinical divide – identification of problems and overcoming obstacles.” Translational Medicine Communications, 4(1), 18, 18 Nov. 2019,

[3] Seyhan, Attila, A., “Lost in translation: The valley of death across preclinical and clinical divide – identification of problems and overcoming obstacles.” Translational Medicine Communications, 4(1), 18, 18 Nov. 2019,

[4] Zhou, Edward, W., Jackson, Matthew, J., Ledley, Fred, D., “Spending on Phased Clinical Development of Approved Drugs by the US National Institutes of Health Compared With Industry.” JAMA Health Forum, 4(7):e231921, 14 Jul. 2023, doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2023.1921.

[5] Galkina Cleary, Ekaterina, Jackson, Matthew, J., Zhou, Edward, W., & Ledley, Fred, D., “Comparison of Research Spending on New Drug Approvals by the National Institutes of Health vs the Pharmaceutical Industry, 2010-2019.” JAMA Health Forum, 4(4), e230511, 28 Apr. 2023,

[6] Rosenblatt, Michael, ‘The Real Cost of “High-Priced” Drugs.’ Harvard Business Review, 17 Nov. 2014,

[7] Link:

[8] Link:

[9] Link:[10] Link: