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Choosing the Right Track: Pharma & Healthcare MBAs


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-10-01-2018
Volume 38
Issue 10

A growing range of MBAs with concentrations in pharmaceuticals and healthcare management are on offer. Pharm Exec look at how three of the top programs in the US prepare their students for industry success.

A growing range of MBAs with concentrations in pharmaceuticals and healthcare management are on offer in university curriculum from coast to coast. Pharm Execlooks at how three of the top programs in the US prepare their students for industry success


In a 2014 article for Pharm Exec, pharma business consultant and MBA tutor John Ansell noted that the previous decade had seen “a marked increase in the variety of specialist pharma MBA courses on offer.” Among these was a proliferation of online and mini-MBAs, but also an increasing number of full-time, “traditional” programs that offered varying degrees of focus on pharma and healthcare issues. Four years on, as these programs continue to grow in number across the US (and the world), potential students who are lucky enough not to be too restricted by cost, location, and/or ability may find choosing the right one a tricky prospect. 

Websites such as find-mba.com and MBA Crystal Ball help to make the selection easier. Find-mba this year highlighted six US institutions in its global “Top Business Schools for Healthcare/Pharma/Biotech 2018”-including Rutgers Business School (New Jersey), Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management (Nashville, TN); and Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management (Cleveland, OH)-while MBA Crystal Ball listed 21 schools in its “Best MBA Programs for Healthcare 2017,” which span the country from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management to Cornell University’s Johnson School of Business. As helpful as they are, such rankings require some further investigation, as each school’s pharma/healthcare offering can vary from fully specialized MBA programs to a series of elective courses. For example, where Boston University’s Questrom School of Business offers a specialized Health Sector MBA, UCLA Anderson students choose to specialize in healthcare through elective courses in their second year. 

Pharm Exec spoke to program leaders from three of the top universities offering MBAs with pharma/healthcare concentrations to outline the structure of their courses and to consider the question that may challenge pharma-oriented students as they pursue the MBA path-that is, to specialize or not to specialize?

Saint Joseph’s University (Philadelphia, PA)

Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) developed a Pharmaceutical Marketing MBA track as far back as 1991. Its current AACSB-accredited Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Marketing MBA requires the completion of 24 two-credit courses for a total of 48 credits. Core business courses-“designed to ensure that all students in the program have that common body of knowledge necessary for advanced study in business”-include Product Management, Pricing, Supply Chain Management, Pharmacoeconomics, and Global Corporate Strategy (with students traveling to Ireland in July 2019). The electives include Pharmaceutical Strategy, Creating Effective R&D, and Health Policy.

Key to the SJU model is flexibility; it offers online and in-person (weekend) program delivery to meet the needs of working, adult students. As such, students tend to have a wide range of experience. 

“On average, our students have 11 years of pharma and healthcare industry experience, which takes them typically into a manager or director role,” says Terese Waldron, director, Executive MBA and Industry-Focused MBA programs at SJU. “But we are also seeing students that are in their late forties and fifties coming back to school, looking for a second or third act. Students can take up to five years to complete their program if they need to. They can opt out of the program for a year if they’re on maternity leave, for example. There are nuances related to our flexibility that I think are missing from other models and other competitors.”

The SJU program also differs from most of its MBA competitors in its heavier focus on pharma and healthcare-around 50% of the class work. As the SJU literature maintains, “it’s not just an MBA with a concentration-it’s a program designed for professionals with established careers in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, biotech, medical device, diagnostics, and healthcare.” Waldron adds that “our accounting faculty, our finance faculty, and our management faculty all teach their courses through the lens of the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. So, there’s a great deal of focus and less distraction in the classroom. The content is truly relatable and actionable for many students seeking some early ROI. The value that the students can get in the classroom can be applied as soon as they go back to work on Monday morning.”

Rutgers Business School (Newark, New Brunswick, NJ)

Rutgers’ Pharmaceutical Management MBA program was launched in 2000, instigated by a Novartis seminar in the late 1990s that highlighted the concern that the MBAs the industry was recruiting still needed further training in pharma and healthcare. Given New Jersey’s position as “the Mecca of the US pharmaceutical industry,” it was suggested that NJ-based Rutgers develop a suitable program. “We didn’t know at first how long the program would last,” says Mahmud Hassan, PhD, the program’s director, “but quickly we were amazed with the quality of the applicants.” 

With industry assistance, Rutgers developed a curriculum with six pharma-specific courses: US Healthcare System and Managed Markets, Legal & Ethical Issues of the Pharmaceutical Industry, Pharmaceutical Industry Structure & Dynamics, Pharmaceutical Marketing Research, Pharmaceutical Product Management, and Managing the Pharmaceutical Sales Force. (A course in market access was later added to the curriculum.)

The Rutgers program can be pursued on either a full- or part-time basis, requiring 60 hours of course work to complete the MBA degree, including 18 hours focused on pharmaceutical management. While the course does not admit anyone with less than three years full-time work experience, “that experience can be in any industry: IT, consulting, finance, marketing, pharmacy,” says Hassan. “But it’s important to have real-world experience.” 

The average age of Rutgers’ pharma MBA students is around 29. Students in the full-time program are given paid summer internship placements at the end of the first year. “There is a big demand for the intern positions,” says Hassan. “Most of the students come back to start the second year of the program with a full-time job offer.”

As well as offering courses taught by “high-ranking and highly qualified pharma personnel who are either retired or still active in the industry,” Rutgers sponsoring companies, such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, and Novartis, invite the students to their sites once a month to keep them informed about the current environment. “The students that come out of our program do not need further training or orientation in pharma - they are ready to go,” says Hassan.



Columbia Business School (New York, NY)

Columbia’s renowned MBA program offers electives in Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management (HPM), which include Innovation in Global Healthcare, Healthcare IT Principles and Opportunities, and Pharmaceutical Drug Commercialization. The school does not offer a specialized healthcare MBA track, but is a general MBA program “that gives students options to take as many or as few courses as they want concerning healthcare,” says Professor Linda Green, HPM faculty director. “There’s a whole slew of things that students can take advantage of to tailor their experience at the school to their specific interests. We’re extraordinarily flexible in that regard.” 

The HPM track offers extra-curricular activities such as lunch and learns and an annual healthcare conference. Columbia’s guest speakers comprise a “Who’s Who of industry leaders,” says Green, including CEOs of major companies, major hospitals, and government representatives. “We also have a very active alumni group, so there’s a tremendous amount of interaction and networking with industry.”

Students on the Columbia HPM track are encouraged to take advantage of the healthcare courses taught at other Columbia schools that may enhance their knowledge of the field. MBA students may count a combined maximum of 6-credits of graduate-level courses from other Columbia Schools toward the MBA degree. 

There is no shortage of applicants for Columbia-Green notes that it is “really hard to get into the school.” Generally, Columbia students have been out of their undergraduate degrees for four to five years and all have some career background. Almost all the students do an internship, and, as for subsequently finding a job, Columbia “has one of the best employment records of any school.”

Specialization level

While MBA programs such as the ones outlined are noted for the quality of their pharma and healthcare concentrations, potential students and employers may question how much concentration is necessary. Scores of past and present executives have led pharma and biotech firms with a “traditional” MBA under their belt. 

Columbia’s Green says, “Our feeling at the school is that an MBA is supposed to be a generalist degree to prepare you for the world of business. A specialized MBA that takes away some of the flexibility compromises this idea. Anything you teach that’s very specific to an industry right now is likely to be outdated very rapidly.” It’s much more important, says Green, to prepare students “with general perspectives and tools and frameworks for understanding the world of business.” Also, she notes, students can “start off on one path and generally wind up somewhere else; I think very few people really know with any certainty where they are going to be or will want to be in five years”. The Columbia MBA, she adds, “prepares students for the long run, both while they’re within our full-time program and also as alums.”

While he notes that, on the Rutgers program, students “from a science background tend to do better,” Hassan also says that employers in the industry “do not really emphasize the need for pharma experience.” More important, he says “are original, clear thinking and good leadership qualities. You need to be able to combine skills in finance, supply chain, economics, accounting, and business all in one.”

In his 2014 article on MBAs for Pharm Exec, however, John Ansell noted that “[a]lthough some issues the pharma industry faces are no different to those applying to any other, many are. With time at a premium, a specialist pharma course can cut more quickly to the chase, addressing topics of most relevance to pharma participants”. Waldron says that for people who choose to stay in the pharma industry, “there’s no substitution for the model that SJU offers.” SJU data points to up to 80% of its students being promoted before they even graduate. “That is unheard of in most industry standards,’” she says. “We believe that it’s the program concentration that gives them that differential.” The SJU model also continues to evolve to reflect the ongoing transition of the pharma and healthcare sectors. “We have an integrated approach, which creates a greater value and understanding of the entire healthcare space,” Waldron says. 

This broad approach means that, for students wishing to make a career change down the line, the SJU MBA “can take them anywhere.” Waldron adds: “Pharma is still one of the most respected industries in the world and it has given business some of its best practices. It’s no shortcoming to make that selection and then make a career change later on. It’s about equipping a student to be more holistic in their approach to a particular industry, and that’s a transferable skill.”

Whether a student opts for a specialist or a more traditional MBA, Green reminds us that “the value of the MBA very much depends on the school and its reputation in general.” That so many of the US’s top schools are featuring pharma and healthcare tracks in their long-established MBA programs is certainly a positive development for the industry. It also underlines M. Filtz’s comment that the business of healthcare “meshes with [the] millennial worldview, which tends to be entrepreneurial and strongly idealistic”.[i] While many of the graduates of these programs are still a little too young to have reached the very top positions in the industry, we can surely expect to see them making a difference-both entrepreneurially and idealistically-in the years to come.

[i] M. Filtz, “How MBA programs can help students tap into a wide range of roles in both big and small pharma firms”, find-mba-com (August 20, 2013). Accessed September 20, 2018.




Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at julian.upton@ubm.com 

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