Higher education

Is a graduate program right for you?
May 01, 2005
There comes a point in everyone's career when they stop to consider their options for advancement. The typical career path for pharmaceutical sales representatives takes them through the training department and into sales management. Other sales managers and representatives set their sights on their company's marketing department. While most companies offer training for reps entering a new position, a graduate school degree in pharmaceutical marketing or management can be a great way to gain the skills that can't be learned through internal training or picked up in the field.

Before you decide

Before you decide whether you want to go to graduate school, however, you need to take a good look at where you are and where you plan to go in your career. "The first thing I would ask [a prospective student] is, do they want to commit their career to the pharmaceutical industry?" says Terese Waldron, director of the executive pharmaceutical Master of Business Administration programs at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "If they love the pharma industry, they're inspired by the good work that's done in pharma and they really want to make this a career path, I think the industry-specific and focused programs that we have are ideal for them."

It's also important to consider how much experience you have in the industry. Some graduate programs require significant industry or even management experience before you can apply. For example, both Saint Joseph's and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia require that applicants have at least four years of pharmaceutical industry experience.

Consider that a graduate program will take you at least two years to finish and that you will most likely be working full-time at the same time. What is your free time like? Do you have commitments outside work that would prevent you from completing your course-work? "The best candidate has to be pretty motivated, because when they do a degree like this, it's incremental work," says Harold E. Glass, a professor and the director of the graduate program in pharmaceutical business at the University of the Sciences. "Even if the company gives them some time off, they don't really get their workload cut, so they have to be pretty motivated to be willing to do this." Because the programs are designed for working professionals, there is some flexibility as far as how long students can take to graduate (Saint Joseph's allows students up to six years to complete their course-work), but the burden on one's time can still be substantial.

"You do have to be willing to make a sacrifice," says Joe Truitt, a graduate of Saint Joseph's program and the vice president of sales and operations for Orapharma, a division of New Brunswick, NJ-based Johnson & Johnson. "There's a lot of homework. There's a lot of pre-work. You have to understand what you're getting into. It's not something that you are going to just show up, check the boxes in the classes and be done." On average, you can expect to spend between 10 and 15 hours per week on course-work, according to sources from various graduate programs who were interviewed for this article.

What to look for

There are several things to look for when choosing a graduate program. First, any program you plan to attend should be accredited by the Tampa, FL-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. According to the AACSB Web site, this accreditation ensures that the school:

* Manages resources to achieve a vibrant and relevant mission.

* Advances business and management knowledge through faculty scholarship.

* Provides high-caliber teaching of quality and current curricula.

* Cultivates meaningful interaction between students and a qualified faculty.

* Produces graduates who have achieved specified learning goals.

It's also important to look for schools with faculty who had experience in the industry prior to teaching. "A degree like this requires a nice balance between teachers who have worked in the industry and are good teachers and then more academically oriented teachers," says Glass. "It's really important that the faculty have worked in the industry and have a good industry knowledge, because there are just so many things that are very specific to the pharmaceutical industry."

Flexibility is also critical for a working professional. Does the school offer an online option for those who live outside the state? What class attendance is required (even online programs require that students fly to the school several times over the course of their studies for orientations and meetings)? "I think that [prospective students] have to look at the feasibility of the way programs and models are set up for them," says Waldron. "There's no value in starting a program when the model won't work for you -- if you travel, or if you are up for promotion all of a sudden, your graduate program can become a barrier to your success, not a component to your success."

What you'll learn

For individuals who have spent their whole career in the sales department of a pharmaceutical company, a graduate degree in pharmaceutical marketing or management offers a way to expand their knowledge. The curriculum can include courses in business subjects like human resource management, finance, accounting and organizational theory, as well as healthcare-specific topics like healthcare law, pharmaceutical marketing, pharmacoeconomics and new product development.

"The program allowed me to really learn about all the other companies, how they operate, the products that they market, how they market them, how they launch them, how they manage them," says Truitt. "So it was very broadening from the perspective of really learning about the general industry. The second component was, I basically had come up in a sales and marketing function; that's all I had ever done. And the Saint Joe's program is basically designed to teach you how to become a general manager. So I started learning about supply chain, logistics, [research and development], regulatory, finance -- which in my current capacity is critical."

Finance courses are essential for reps and managers who haven't been exposed to those skills on the job. "Those skills are very hard to learn unless you're in a specific finance position," says Peter Taffe, program manager at the University of Colorado at Denver. "Learning about accounting and financial management is hard to do in the field, so [students will] get specific skills and training in those areas as well as economics."

What students learn in an M.B.A. program comes as much from their exposure to other students as it does from exposure to their professors. Classes contain people from research and development and marketing, as well as the sales department. In fact, one of the reasons schools require prior industry experience is to facilitate classroom discussions. Students are expected to use one another's experience to build on their learning. "It just [makes for] a really robust discussion in class," says Amy Thurston, a specialty business manager with a large pharmaceutical company and a graduate of Saint Joseph's M.B.A. program. "I learned so much, and fortunately in my class there were a lot of people that had a wealth of experience in a lot of areas that I personally do not that weren't just sales."

Even individuals who choose to take their graduate courses online are exposed to other students through online discussions and the occasional trip to the campus.

Onward and upward

Though no training or additional education ever guarantees a promotion, getting a graduate degree in a pharmaceutical industry-specific program can certainly boost one's prospects for advancement. When asked whether his career changed as a result of getting his M.B.A., Joe Truitt's response was "Absolutely." After graduating from Saint Joseph's, Truitt went on to a position at Fairfield, CT-based IMS Health for two years before moving to the biotech start-up Orapharma. "I can tell you that pretty much everyone we started up the business with had an M.B.A. behind their name," he says. "The CEO, the CFO, the director of marketing. I was the vice president of sales. Everyone had an M.B.A., and it helped when you were doing a start-up."

At the very least, the additional education will give you the skills you need to perform better in your current position. "I feel like I have such a better background of knowing more about the areas that I didn't have experience in previously, like manufacturing," says Thurston. "You get a touch of managed care, but this is more in-depth than managed care, and you get the international global view from school that I wouldn't have otherwise learned being in the field."
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