Career options are endless for pharmacists who go back to school

A gallery of pharmacists who went on for higher education and great careers are featured


Career options are endless for R.Ph.s who go back to school

Since pharmacy switched to the Pharm.D. as its entry-level degree, the number of pharmacy school graduates who have gone on for higher education has plummeted. Pharmacy educators contend that this is unfortunate, since many exciting careers await those who are willing to invest the time and money into getting another degree.

Tom Bernhardt in the Office of Pharmacy Practice at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia confirmed that the number of pharmacy graduates applying to graduate school has fallen off dramatically since the transition from the five-year pharmacy curriculum to the six-year Pharm.D. degree. He revealed that in the past four years, only three Pharm.D. graduates in his school have chosen to go on for further education. The numbers are down drastically from as recently as six years ago when as many as six B.S. pharmacy students per graduating class went on for more education.

Pharmacy experts maintain that pharmacists, with their training, have an excellent foundation to use as a springboard to go into a wide variety of other disciplines. Some of these fields frequently recommend or require further education.

What follows is a look at some pharmacists who have chosen to get advanced degrees and what those degrees have done for their careers.


Kristopher Conforti, R.Ph., today owns a thriving independent store, the Palmyra Pharmacy, in Palmyra, Pa. Although Conforti is quite happy with the way things have turned out and said that he "wouldn’t change a thing," his career today is very different from what he had anticipated as he was completing pharmacy school in Philadelphia.

As a pharmacy student, Conforti worked for three years in a hospital setting. After completing nearly all his apprenticeship hours in a hospital, it was not surprising that he pictured himself eventually working in hospital administration. Conforti’s mentors advised him that a one-year postgraduate general residency in a hospital would be the best way to get onto the fast track toward a hospital administrative position. While working as a pharmacy resident at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., Conforti noticed that most managers and department heads within the hospital possessed secondary degrees, such as master-level degrees in public health administration or in business administration.

After completing his residency, Conforti decided to tackle an M.B.A. on a part-time basis, while working full-time as a supervisor in the hospital pharmacy. Although taking classes and working full-time was difficult, he found that one benefit of earning an advanced degree in this manner was the economic advantage of receiving tuition reimbursement from his employer (though not all employers provide this benefit).

After completing the M.B.A., remarkably a door opened for Conforti not in hospital pharmacy but in community pharmacy. He was able to open his own store. When asked how his M.B.A. has helped him in the management of his store, he said, "It is sometimes difficult to apply the theory learned in the classroom to the workplace setting, but the courses within the M.B.A. program laid the foundation for problem-solving skills."

For example, Conforti said that when dealing with problems associated with third-party payers, it is frequently necessary to "give patients negative answers while still making them feel like winners." He credits communication courses taken as part of his graduate education for providing him with this skill. Acknowledging that an MBA is not necessary for all pharmacists, he said that it "may be appropriate for those who have a goal of being decision-makers beyond the pharmacy. For students who hope to play a management role in some organization or business, an MBA is strongly recommended. The skills learned in the classroom can be applied to many decisions that are made in business."



Lili Fox Velez, Ph.D., director of the biomedical writing program at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, oversees a one-of-a-kind degree program that targets health professionals and puts them in an ideal position to work within the pharmaceutical industry. Students enrolled in the biomedical writing program may take courses in such topics as regulatory writing and document design in order to obtain a master of science degree in medical writing.

"Pharmacists are highly recommended for this field," said Velez. "Medical writing is a great career for pharmacists because there is a great chance of using the knowledge that took so much time to acquire." Medical writing allows "pharmacists to be part of the process, closer to seeing where the drugs are coming from, what is in development, to be part of the action, instead of only the end supplier," she said.

There are currently several pharmacists working toward a degree in biomedical writing. One of Velez’ students, Haril Mankad, R.Ph., works as a medical affairs specialist for McNeil Consumer Healthcare. As a medical affairs specialist, Mankad increasingly finds herself involved in writing projects. Recently, she wrote training documents for sales representatives and updated product monographs. She said, "Although I was still in pharmacy school during the transition to the Pharm.D. as an entry-level degree, I opted to get a B.S., work for a few years, and wait to see what degree I needed or wanted."

Mankad said that, although she really enjoys her job, her "goal is to work as a freelance writer in a few years. Although freelancing requires a great deal of discipline, I like the idea of the flexibility, working on various projects, and being able to say Yes or No to jobs that come my way."


When asked why he chose to attend medical school after completing pharmacy school, Jeffrey Martin, R.Ph., M.D., replied, "When I was getting out of pharmacy school, I felt that pharmacy was changing. It wasn’t independent, small-town pharmacy anymore, and it was never going to go back." Since he wanted to be intimately involved in patient care, he had "tossed around the idea of getting a Pharm.D.," but he said that, while in school, he felt he really had no good role model or mentor to steer him down that path. Instead, he said, "the decision to go to medical school came in my third year [of pharmacy school].

Martin is convinced that he "made the right decision" and noted that it has provided him with professional gain insofar as taking care of patients and having the power to make patient decisions. He cautioned, however, that the lifestyle of a resident is tough. Working 80-hour weeks on-call doesn’t provide him with much time to see family, especially his newborn. "Although taking care of patients is rewarding, it is a long, long road after pharmacy school, with four years of medical school followed by residency. Don’t do it for financial reasons alone, because it is sometimes frustrating to see pharmacy friends and all that they have and all that they are doing, while you are still a student and acquiring more loans," he commented.

Martin feels that his background in pharmacy has been a tremendous asset to him in recalling drug interactions and learning proper drug dosages. Things that other medical students and residents need to routinely look up in text books, he remembers from pharmacy school. As a testimony to the value Martin places upon his pharmacy background, he said that even now, as a resident, he "still works part-time as a pharmacist in a local hospital."


Pharmacists have routinely chosen, over the years, to pursue Ph.D. degrees in a variety of fields, ranging from life sciences to pharmaceutics to pharmacy practice. One individual who, after completing a degree in pharmacy decided to pursue a Ph.D. in pharmaceutics is Christine Birnie, R.Ph., Ph.D. Birnie, now a senior research pharmacist at Merial, a leading animal health care company, began college as a math major. She initially chose math because she was good at it and it came naturally to her. However, she realized early on that she didn’t want to teach math and she said she was "talked into transferring to pharmacy."

While taking professional pharmacy courses, such as pharmaceutics, Birnie found it to be "a really neat area." In particular, she enjoyed that pharmaceutics was "applied math and very analytical." She was fortunate as a student to be exposed to research and was able to participate in a summer internship program sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company. Describing her internship, she said, "I had a very positive experience, and it was the deciding factor when I realized that I was definitely going on to graduate school."

As a graduate student, Birnie worked on a project that involved the formulation of gels and creams for an investigational "amphoteric surfactant antimicrobial agent." She said once she found out about career options, "I knew I wanted to work in industry." Currently, she is doing just that, although she has found a niche in industry that is unique from what most pharmacists consider, as Merial specializes in veterinary products. She agrees that she is in a unique position, "The field of veterinary medicine is much smaller than that of human medicine and, as a result, offers more opportunities to move up the ladder." And that is just what she intends to do. She would like to eventually move out of the laboratory and into project management, where she said there "is a better focus on where your product is going." As a result, she has not given up the idea of pursuing an M.B.A. in the future.

Birnie noted that the opportunities in industry "are endless for pharmacists. Industry is an incredible place for pharmacists due to its diversity, regular hours, the manner in which big companies treat their employees well, opportunities that are provided to move around within the company, and good salaries. Even though initial salaries may start out lower than those in community pharmacy, there is an opportunity for those salaries to go much higher within big companies." Pharmacy students often think that "Rite Aid and CVS are their only options, when in reality the opportunities are endless," she said.


Another option for pharmacists to consider is the road chosen by Ken Baker, R.Ph., J.D. After completing pharmacy school, Baker worked as a drug representative during the day and pursued law school at night. He said he always knew he wanted to pursue further education, something along the lines of an M.D., Ph.D., or law school.

To Baker, "law school sounded exciting." He spent 13 years as a general practice lawyer, taking cases ranging from divorces to criminal law to defending pharmacists before state boards of pharmacy. From practicing law, he made the transition to his present position as v.p., general counsel at Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Co. In his position, Baker "advises the corporation on legal matters, oversees professional liability claims, provides advice on pharmacy-risk underwriting, and runs the legal department." As words of advice to new pharmacy graduates, he cautioned, "Go look at doing something fun, something you’ll enjoy, because you’ll be doing it for a long time."

And that may truly be the best advice of all.

Kelly Dowhower Karpa, R.Ph., Ph.D.

Based in the Pennsylvania area, the author has chosen a path of writing and teaching.


Kelly Karpa. Career options are endless for pharmacists who go back to school.

Drug Topics