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MBA Programs in Pharmaceuticals: Beyond the Lab

How MBA programs can help students tap into a wide range of roles in both big and small pharma firms

By all accounts, the pharmaceutical industry is huge, and growing. Recent reports put the worldwide revenue from prescription drug sales as high as almost $1 trillion. And with developing middle classes needing more and more drugs in places like China and India, the industry is globalizing, and is not going to slow down anytime soon.

Perhaps because of this growth potential, some business students are tuning in. A number of MBA programs that focus specifically in pharmaceuticals have emerged in the past decade, helping students combine business know-how with the technical knowledge that they will need in this scientific field. 

Many students who are interested in these programs find that the industry meshes with their millennial worldview, which tends to be idealistic and strongly entrepreneurial.

“What I find with this generation is that the healthcare sector in general has become much more popular, because they really like to work in sectors that have products and services that actually have meaning, and can help society,” says Cliff Cramer, who directs Columbia Business School's Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program, which launched in 2006.

According to Mahmud Hassan, the director of Rutgers' Business School's Pharmaceutical MBA Program, the program is not for everybody, and the students who tend to excel in the program are those who have either an interest in the industry, or a strong technical background (some students might even already have either a PhD or a PharmD.)

Top Business Schools for a Career in Pharmaceuticals: Infographic

“For the people who have done well, they've had science backgrounds or experience in the healthcare industry,” Hassan says, adding that “they may have worked not directly with the pharma industry, but indirectly, like as a consultant, or as a researcher.”

Due to the way the industry works – products are developed through scientific and technological innovation, and then distributed through a complex supply chain that is governed by evolving regulations – people with some knowledge of the industry, or those who have technical backgrounds, tend to succeed in pharmaceutical-oriented MBA programs.

Hassan notes that some students also come from other strongly quantitative fields, such as information technology and finance.

Cliff Cramer says that a previous connection to the industry can spur interest and provide a jumping-in point for a career in pharma. Some people who pursue the Columbia program “have been consulting in the space, and others have broader healthcare experience,” he says, “and some even come from different sectors or different areas, but they bring very strong quantitative and analytical skills.”

Columbia's program supplements core business topics with specific insight into both the pharmaceutical sector as well as the healthcare industry more broadly. The specialized curriculum includes a range of courses like “Economics of Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals,” “Investing in Medical Technologies,” and “Strategy and Competition in Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology.”

Such programs that offer broader concentrations in healthcare allow students to dive into not only pharmaceuticals, but also the biotech sector, as well as other parts of the rapidly-changing industry. Similar programs include Wharton's MBA in Health Care Management, which provides some pharmaceutical-specific curriculum, but also addresses the emerging regulatory, legal, and financial challenges of the industry; and Boston University's Health Sector MBA program.

And other business schools that have strong pharmaceutical placements might not necessarily offer a specialization in the field, but leverage proximity to large firms in the industry. For example, Copenhagen Business School generally places a fair number of MBA graduates each year in the pharmaceutical industry, without a concentration. Admissions director Thuli Skosana says that this is because the city of Copenhagen sits in what's known as “Medicon Valley” – Scandinavia's primary life sciences hub.

“It's not the majority of people who come here targeting the pharmaceutical industry, but people certainly find opportunities afterward,” she says, noting that some MBA graduates end up in large pharma companies like Novo Nordisk or in smaller startups that might specialize in bio-medical innovation.

An array of career options

Indeed, because the pharmaceutical industry is so large and complex, a huge variety of jobs await well-prepared MBA graduates. In the Rutgers MBA program, students who specialize in pharmaceuticals can also choose a second concentration, usually focusing on a functional area.

“Supply chain and marketing – those are the most popular combinations,” says Mahmud Hassan, who notes that a good number of other pharma students pursue a finance concentration.

Graduates of the Rutgers program by and large go into “Big Pharma” firms – giants like Pfizer, Novartis, and GlaxoSmithKline, which, from a revenue standpoint, make up a large percentage of the industry. These companies are so large and sprawling that they can offer jobs for MBA graduates with an array of interests, from roles in research and development and drug delivery management to corporate finance and marketing.

And often, even those whose goal is to work in a smaller pharmaceutical company or a startup would benefit from getting some experience in a larger company. Because of the way the industry works, “a lot of the financing that the smaller bio-tech companies need is coming from the larger pharma companies,” says Columbia's Cliff Cramer.

“If you get some experience with the larger companies, and understand their culture,” he continues, “and then you go to a smaller one, you're going to be very well-received.”

For more information about MBA programs that focus on pharmaceuticals, please see FIND MBA's list of the top schools for a career in Health Care / Pharmaceuticals / Biotechnology.

Photo: M. Filtz

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