Nontraditional PharmD degree: Was it worth it?

February 14, 2013

A longtime RPh ponders the midlife cost of her new PharmD degree.

It was the culmination of nearly three long years of classes and rotations. Two faculty members carefully placed the hood over my head, arranging it perfectly before my walk across the stage. The dean of the college of pharmacy reached to shake my hand as we turned for the official picture. That was when he asked, “Was it worth it?”

Was it really worth it? That question has played over and over in my mind for months now. What was the answer? It had to be yes - didn’t it?

The journey to my PharmD started almost 20 years ago. I graduated with a BS Pharmacy degree in 1983. By the mid-1990s I was convinced that obtaining the PharmD degree would be necessary to keeping my professional credentials current. The problem was, how?

Some schools were offering external PharmD programs, but the cost of taking time away from work to complete the experiential requirements was prohibitive. One estimate I read put the cost of the degree, with time lost from work factored into the equation, to be over $100,000! Time off without pay at this stage of life was not an option for me.

I kept looking for a program that took my professional experience into account or at least allowed rotations to be done on a part-time basis. Two external PharmD programs opened in my home state, but the cost and experiential requirements remained a barrier. By the end of the 1990s, “clinical” functions at my hospital pharmacy were assigned only to pharmacists with PharmD after their names. I was relegated to performing only “distributive” functions, despite my years of experience.

Fast forward to 2009 … I was feeling the pressure to upgrade my degree more than ever now. All pharmacy school graduates were entering the profession with the PharmD degree. Furthermore, the profession had once again raised the bar. Clinical functions were given preferentially to the pharmacists who had completed at least one year of residency training.

I felt betrayed by the profession that I loved so much. I felt trapped by a hopeless feeling of always being a step behind the curve. Many nontraditional pharmacy programs were starting to shut down. There were currently no programs offered in my home state, and only a few programs remained in operation nationwide.

A hard decision

The decision to return to school nearly 30 years after graduation is not one to be taken lightly. Distance learning requires a tremendous amount of motivation and perseverance. I narrowed my choices down to two schools. Both allowed completion of experiential work at the student’s place of employment. Finally, it seemed possible for me to get the job done.

I have nothing but good to say of the school I chose. My instructors were professional and enthusiastic. The quantity of work required to complete the program, however, seemed almost overwhelming. Following my orientation weekend, I announced to my husband that “My life is over!” Indeed, for almost 3 years, I came home from work, grabbed a bite to eat, and then disappeared into my office for the remainder of my waking hours. I fell asleep nearly every night with a journal article in my hand and awakened with the pages in a heap beside me the next morning. Tests made me sweat bullets.

Was it worth it? I wish I could say with absolute certainty that it was. I cannot. Only time will tell whether the degree gives me an added measure of job security. Promotion without completing a residency is almost out of the question. I will probably never break even on my monetary investment. I will never be able to make up for the time lost with family and friends.

The news, however, is not all bad. I am a much better pharmacist now. Pharmacy education has changed a lot over the past 30 years. I really enjoyed learning and studying. Completing the program was a tremendous personal and professional achievement.

The bottom line

The degree was not “worth it” for me from a financial perspective - at least for the near future. However, the knowledge gained and feeling of accomplishment were priceless.   

Lynda Kiliany is a pharmacist at Mercy Medical Center, Canton, Ohio.