“Grad School? I Thought You Already Were a Pharmacist”

Fall 2012 Transitions: By Matthew Witry, PhD

I have responded to the above question dozens of times, usually by explaining how I am learning to research pharmacy problems related to everything but developing the medications themselves.

I asked some fellow pharmacists from around the country why they decided to pursue a PhD in social and administrative pharmacy and I kept hearing the same few things: they valued being intellectually challenged, they desired freedom to pursue their own interests, and they wanted to make a large-scale impact. Each of these pharmacists also shared a desire to advance the profession and in one way or another, improve patient health.

So why get a degree in social and administrative pharmacy? “Something I have been hearing a lot from practitioners and insurance administrators is they have questions they want to answer or programs they want to evaluate, but they don’t feel they have the necessary training to do so,” said Kevin Look, PharmD, a PhD? student at the University of Wisconsin.

Completing a PhD or master’s in pharmacy administration gives you the systematic and theory-based inquiry skills required for conducting robust research in pharmacy practice and related fields. Most programs also are flexible so you can incorporate perspectives that interest you, including sociology, psychology, economics, business, public health, and other areas. This is consistent with a theme I keep hearing from our wise pharmacy elders—that we need to look to other fields for inspiration in solving the problems facing pharmacists.

The experience
Most of my graduate school experience was spent reading, thinking, writing, and working to solve problems in new ways through various research projects. It is not just about memorization anymore. While graduate work is more years of school—and that certainly is daunting—only the first half of a PhD program is in the classroom, so the remaining time you spend developing your skills as an independent researcher guided by your advisor. 

The economics
Okay, let me talk about the elephant in the room. Going to graduate school full time delays your entrance into the well-compensated world of pharmacy. Fortunately, most PhD programs pay you to learn! Students are given a stipend to cover living expenses in exchange for helping with research projects or helping teach pharmacy courses. In addition, since you are a licensed pharmacist, there is opportunity to work part time to supplement your income. Lastly, student loans can be deferred.

Also, in the long run, having a PhD or master’s degree can give you more upward mobility. That being said, most people I know didn’t get their PhD for the money. Instead, they were motivated and rewarded by becoming an expert in something, conducting interesting research that improves practice and health, and teaching the next generation of pharmacists.

The payoff
Earning a PhD or master’s degree in social and administrative pharmacy prepares you to do independent research and to look at problems in different ways than is taught in pharmacy school. Learning to lead research puts you in a unique position among pharmacists. For me, I wanted to become a faculty member at a college of pharmacy where I could teach and do research. Pursuing a PhD was my best route to that goal. Others on this path go into the pharmaceutical industry, government, insurance, and countless other areas where they develop new practice models, lead government-funded research, work to optimize medication use, and engage in other large scale activities. At the end of the day, I think all pharmacists want a career where they can be creative and have an impact and this is one route that can provides opportunities to do just that.

If you are interested in more information about pursuing a PhD or master’s degree in social and administrative pharmacy, a great place to start would be with your former faculty. Don’t be shy. In my experience, folks with graduate degrees in social and administrative pharmacy love to talk about bringing new people into the fold.

Matthew Witry, PharmD, is currently pursuing a PhD in Social and Administrative Pharmacy at the University of Iowa School of Pharmacy, where he earned a PharmD in 2008. He is also a relief pharmacist at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City.



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