Know the value of an MBA

January 1, 1999

Pharmaceutical Representative

Can an advanced degree boost your sales and career?

Making the decision to get a master's degree in business administration depends on factors such as a person's career goals, personal philosophy and schedule. For pharmaceutical sales reps, the value of earning an MBA is debatable.

Ronald Sibert, MBA program admissions director at the University of Delaware's College of Business and Economics in Newark, DE, has noticed that a wider range of people are returning to business school. In part, he attributes that trend to the changing national economy and people's perception that they need to diversify their skills in order to remain competitive in the job market. "The MBA, because of the fact that it can be applied across various professions and various industries, is in demand," said Sibert, who earned his MBA at Delaware. "When people reach the conclusion that they need to hone their skills, or that they need to refine their credentials, they often come to the conclusion that the MBA is the way to go."

Preparing for the future

Like other possible MBA candidates, sales reps can use an MBA as a tool for fulfilling professional goals.

"An MBA is valuable for anybody, anywhere, anytime," said Jim Westbrook, director of training for sales and marketing at Pasteur Mérieux Connaught, Swiftwater, PA. "It doesn't matter what [business] you are in because it is extending your learning and your education, and that certainly can help you be exposed to how other people think and see things."

But Westbrook, who has worked in pharmaceuticals for 10 years and taken a number of graduate school classes, stresses that any type of continued education is worthwhile. Further education also can take the form of college courses or career development training programs recommended by employers.

He adds that although he doesn't think an MBA degree will help reps sell more products, it can help them better understand the process of taking care of their customers and their business. "I see that there are more people interested in extending their education for career development," Westbrook said. "They are seeing that as being more important to them, not so much for being a representative, but it's more important to them for the advancement of their career - such as moving into marketing or management."

Jay Ross, supervisor of training and development for Sankyo Parke-Davis in Parsippany, NJ, earned his MBA at the University of Baltimore. A former sales rep, Ross agrees that an MBA may not be necessary to succeed as a pharmaceutical sales representative. "I think [an MBA] was nice to have and it helped me in terms of personal development, but I don't think it accelerated my ability to be a good pharmaceutical sales representative."

Ross stresses that a sales rep can be very successful without an MBA. "An MBA can't teach rapport. It can't teach people the ability to read customers," Ross noted. He did say, however that he believes having an MBA earned him more respect among his physician clients.

Ty Faulkner, manager of sales training at Eisai Inc., in Teaneck, NJ, also is a firm believer in the value of education. "Personally, I am really big on education. I believe in the Jesse Jackson theory that 'a mind is a terrible thing to waste,'" said Faulkner, whose master's degree in journalism focused on marketing and advertising.

Faulkner adds that much of what he learned in his course work has proved helpful in his current staff position. For example, he recalls one class taught by pharmaceutical executives that outlined the process of bringing a product to market from the materials management viewpoint. "That gives me a great appreciation when I sit down and look at launching a new product," he said. "And, I can refer back to my educational background, and to what it takes to get a product on the shelf. It's not something that I probably would have gotten had I been a sales rep and not gone on for an advanced degree."

Although Faulkner personally thinks that advanced degrees can prove very useful, he doesn't insist that everyone needs one. "From a sales perspective, I really can't say it would have made a tremendous difference if I had [an advanced degree] during my early years as a sales rep. I think it's a maturation process. I certainly would have felt stronger about my ability to interact with folks in certain areas of the business if I had an advanced degree," Faulkner said. "But I don't know if it would have made me sell more product."

Timing is everything

For reps who do decide that earning an MBA is the way to go, Westbrook suggests timing it right. "Education is vitally important, but I think understanding and getting experience from your customer may be equally as important," he said. "An MBA may not mean much if you don't have that experience to go with it."

Westbrook also cautions reps not to underestimate the time commitment. "Make sure that your business and personal life are in such a state that you can take the time and give it your best shot, because it is going to be very time consuming," he said, adding that finding a good school and the right subject matter to suit personal goals are also important considerations.

Ross suggests that sales reps also talk with their managers to determine if the time is right with regards to upcoming product launches or future workflow.

Although MBA degrees are by no means prevalent among pharmaceutical sales reps today, that may change in the future. "Now, you have a lot more of your colleagues competing for future positions as they become available, and they have MBA's," Ross pointed out. "That alone is changing the industry to make it more valuable to have one." PR

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