PharmD PhD Dual-Degree Programs: A Candidate's Perspective on Potential Pitfalls

NOVEMBER 17, 2015
It seems that dual-degree programs are becoming more prevalent in pharmacy. Various academic institutions in the United States are now offering these programs, which appeal to pharmacy students who want to acquire additional skills for specialization or set themselves apart from the ever-growing pool of pharmacy graduates.
 
Right from the start of my pharmacy career, I knew that I wanted to pursue a dual degree to make myself more capable and competitive in the industry and/or academia while pursuing my passion for scientific research. I chose to enroll in the PharmD/MS program at the University at Buffalo, which subsequently led me to apply for the PharmD/PhD program because of my positive experience.
 
I completed the PharmD component in 2014 and am currently completing the PhD component. As a 6th-year candidate who can finally begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I want to offer potential PharmD/PhD students some insight based on my experience with this degree combination, specifically the challenges I have encountered and some options for overcoming them.
 
PharmD/PhD dual-degree programs are generally offered by universities, rather than colleges, because it usually takes 2 relatively specialized and well-developed collaborating departments to offer such a joint program.
 
The specific PhD concentration that is offered with the PharmD may vary, but it is generally within the realm of pharmaceutical science, pharmacology, or medicinal chemistry. PharmD/PhD programs generally take a handful of students per year and have various entrance requirements that may include minimum GPA, GRE scores, or PCAT scores, or a specific number of years in the PharmD program.
 
The duration of the joint PharmD/PhD programs are generally not fixed, since a PhD has a variable timeline associated with completion. Nevertheless, many programs estimate completion times of 7 to 8 years to obtain both degrees. The PharmD degree is often obtained first, followed by the PhD 3 to 5 years later.
 
There are some unique challenges to know when deciding to enroll in a joint PharmD/PhD program. These trials and tribulations are from my own experience and will obviously differ between individuals, but I believe they are nonetheless pertinent for potential students.
 
I am not including the obvious difficulty that is associated with high-level research, university-specific policies, and academic coursework. Instead, I am focusing on general issues that can arise in a joint PharmD/PhD program.
 
The first challenge I faced was figuring out how to handle the total cost of the program. PharmD programs are generally expensive, while PhD programs usually waive tuition for their students and give them a modest stipend for living expenses. In many PharmD/PhD programs, students are expected to pay for the PharmD component, but not the PhD component.
 
Unfortunately, if the student needs to take out loans to pay for the PharmD component, repayment is generally delayed while subsequently completing the PhD component. The modest stipend given to graduate students does not usually allow for significant loan repayment, leading to further accumulation of interest if additional employment is not sought.
 
Another challenge is balancing and adapting to graduate course material and research. Graduate coursework tends to have a greater emphasis on critical thinking and writing than pharmacy practice coursework.
 
It may be difficult to transition from memorizing specific drug classes and guidelines to answering questions that require designing an experimental process to solve a problem. This challenge may be compounded when taking pharmacy practice coursework and graduate coursework simultaneously.
 
Once the pharmacy coursework is completed and the PharmD is awarded, more challenges await. After the PharmD is awarded, a full transition to the PhD program often occurs. This can be a very difficult time for students, as expectations change and the focus shifts to research.
 
Quickly launching a research project and staying on track in an accelerated joint program can be stressful. The stress from this transition also makes it difficult to attain professional experience and further develop clinical skills while completing the PhD component. This is because completing the PhD is a very time-consuming endeavor, even when most of the classes are done.
 
Besides research and writing, there are often seminars, lab meetings, and teaching responsibilities that can make practicing as a pharmacist difficult to manage. Professional stagnation can result. 
 
While I continue to face these challenges, the good news is that they are not insurmountable. The first action that a current or potential PharmD/PhD student can take is to start looking for research mentors early, as they are the key to addressing the challenge of efficiently balancing professional and academic development.
 
Early selection of a mentor permits a student to start a research project earlier, which makes the transition from PharmD to PhD much smoother. It goes without saying that research focus and compatibility are very important factors when selecting a mentor, but a PharmD/PhD student also needs enhanced flexibility from a potential mentor because of his or her unique situation.
 
A flexible mentor can efficiently guide a candidate while accommodating additional professional obligations. This allows the PharmD/PhD student to grow both academically and professionally.
 
Networking with current graduate students before entering the PhD component of the joint program can also be very helpful when transitioning from professional to graduate coursework. Senior students can often be a great information resource for study tips, exam-taking strategy, and presentation advice.
 
Often, program directors or mentors can facilitate this networking. While student networking and a flexible mentor can help ameliorate some of the challenges related to the PhD component of the joint degree, professional development and planning is ultimately the responsibility of the student.
 
Working as a pharmacist after receiving the PharmD and while completing the PhD component can help alleviate some financial stress as well as foster professional development.
 
To avoid conflicts between PhD studies and practicing as a pharmacist, consider seeking part-time or per-diem positions that allow for flexible scheduling at times that do not conflict with research. This will allow a candidate to work on a limited basis as a pharmacist while having a minimum impact on research responsibilities.
 
Some who are involved in PhD programs may frown upon “extracurricular” work that does not involve research; however, I believe limited yet meaningful involvement in the pharmacy profession is extremely beneficial to the candidate overall. Working in the lab during the day and as a pharmacist in the evening can be daunting, so professional obligations should be adjusted to a level that is beneficial and not encumbering to research. 
 
As the pharmacy field expands and the talent pool of pharmacists grows, so does the need to set yourself apart when pursuing a PharmD. This has led to many pharmacy students choosing a dual-degree program that allows for more career flexibility and increased competitiveness in the job market.
 
PharmD/PhD programs can be challenging in many ways, but graduates are held in high regard because of the advanced and specialized training they receive. Graduates of PharmD/PhD programs are highly sought after because of their broad range of expertise in clinical and translational sciences.
 
My hope is that prospective students can use my experiences to better anticipate and overcome some of the hurdles associated with pursuing a PharmD/PhD program. I encourage students to explore what PharmD/PhD programs have to offer, as I believe these programs are critical to ensure that well-rounded clinical scientists are available to address current and future health care challenges.

Erik Hefti, PharmD, MS, PhD
Erik Hefti, PharmD, MS, PhD
Erik Hefti holds a PharmD as well as a Master's and PhD degrees in pharmaceutical science from the University at Buffalo. His research focuses on pediatric pharmacogenomic factors impacting cardiovascular toxicity following cancer chemotherapy and genetic testing utilization to improve healthcare outcomes. His clinical focus involves optimizing pharmacotherapy in patients with genetic disorders. He is the program director and assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, PA.
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