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Pharma MBAs—From Mini Courses to the Full Monty


John Ansell assesses the wide range of pharma MBA courses currently available, from the five-day "mini MBA" to year-long programs of study.

John Ansell assesses the wide range of pharma MBA courses currently available, from the five-day ‘mini MBA’ to year-long programs of study.

Over the past decade there has been a marked increase in the variety of specialist pharma MBA courses on offer. These courses last from one week in the case of most mini MBAs, up to a year’s full-time study or equivalent. And so the depth of learning provided by these different types of course varies enormously. Both the public and private sector offer courses — sometimes they are provided by alliances of both.

Who takes the courses?

As a trainer and tutor who has been involved with five different MBA courses, I see a tremendous variety in the background of participants.

All of my courses have been for organizers based in Europe; I see participants from right across the continent but also from other regions — particularly the Middle East. Course participants are mostly in middle or senior management positions. Most are working in the pharmaceutical industry or for companies serving the industry but who lack commercial background. Most commonly participants have an R&D background.

Where do courses take place?

Courses may be completely computer based, they may be run on-campus at a university, at a conference hotel, or be held in-company. But often today there is a combination. For example, there is often preparatory on-line learning work to do before a face-to-face course starts.

Some companies see it is as an advantage that the participants they send to an open course get the chance to interact with their peers from other companies. Others prefer the confidentiality that in-house training ensures.

Evolution and trends

Of course, you can choose to study a general course rather than a specialist pharmaceutical one — as I did when I studied for an MA in Business Studies at the University of Sheffield near the beginning of my career; at that time there were no specialist pharma masters degrees on offer. I studied full-time for 12 months in the city that later gained increased fame as the setting for the film The Full Monty. The intake of students at the School of Management Sciences there has multiplied more than twenty fold since that time.

Specialist pharma MBAs and mini MBAs began to be set up from about 20 years ago. I detect three factors that have had a major impact on the nature of courses on offer over that time.

First, the cost of public courses has risen considerably. This means that anyone contemplating a year’s full-time course has to take into account not only the salary they will forgo but also hefty course fees and costs.

Second, the average pharmaceutical executive is today busier than in the past.

And third, distance learning technology is much more advanced today than it was 20 years ago.

All this has had several consequences. There is a trend towards shorter courses, and courses that take students away from their workplace for less time. The cost-effectiveness and better quality of distance learning has led to its much greater application to pharma courses. These trends have led to a much more noticeable growth in the number of mini MBAs on offer than of full MBAs.

Mini MBA courses clearly have to limit the material they cover. Normally sessions or modules include:

• An introduction to the pharmaceutical industry

• strategy

• marketing

• business development

• finance

• leadership.

While distance learning courses have gained in popularity because of cheapness, and they do allow flexibility on when coursework has to be done, they have the drawback that interaction is usually limited. To offset this, courses have been set up which offer students the chance to participate in periodic workshops.

As a tutor for the Manchester University MSc program, I field questions from students by e-mail and also lead a face-to-face marketing workshop which is part of an annual Winter School. Though this is not strictly an MBA course, I list it below, since it includes the option of a Masters Degree in Pharmaceutical Business Development and Licensing.

Specialist pharma vs general courses

Although some issues the pharma industry faces are no different to those applying to any other, many aren’t. With time at a premium, a specialist pharma course can cut more quickly to the chase, addressing topics of most relevance to pharma participants.

When I am kicking off a face-to-face course, I first cover a few pharma fundamentals. I usually spend the first session up to the coffee break on these specific pharma industry characteristics, because I have found that this avoids spending time later in explanations to puzzled participants. For example:

• The majority of participants don’t understand that a product’s commercial life may well not end when the patent expires. Why should they? No one has ever explained intellectual property to them! So I devote 10 minutes to that topic.

• The cost structure of a pharma company is very different to that of most of other industries. When the relatively very high R&D and low manufacturing cost elements are explained, a lot then falls into place.

Selecting a course

I have found courses that are run by organizations in Turkey and Poland. In India over 20 organizations are currently advertising pharma MBAs. The list on the right focuses on courses run by organizations in the USA and Europe. I hope that the links below will help potential participants choose the course most suited to their own particular needs.

Pharma MBA courses

Full-length MBA courses

Aspen University, Colorado

Drexel University College of Business, Philadelphia

IBC (Informa)/Middlesex University distance learning

St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia

MSc course

Manchester University Pharmacy School (for MSc in Pharmaceutical Business Development and Licensing, in association with UK Pharmaceutical Licensing Group

Mini-MBA courses

Falconbury, London

Management Centre Europe

Management Forum, London

• Marcus Evans, London

PTI (Informa), Europe

Rutgers Center of Management Development, Piscataway, New Jersey

About the author

John Ansell is a pharma business consultant and Senior Partner at TranScrip Partners. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Sheffield Management School and Honorary Consultant to the University of Manchester Pharmacy School’s MSc in Pharmaceutical Business Development and Licensing. He also runs mini MBA courses for Falconbury Ltd.

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