We Don't Need No Education: Post-Pharmacy School Options
Upon successfully earning an RPh or PharmD degree, many newly minted pharmacists likely exhale deeply, with the belief that the education requirements for a successful career have finally been satisfied.
Upon successfully earning an RPh or PharmD degree, many newly minted pharmacists likely exhale deeply, with the belief that the education requirements for a successful career have finally been satisfied. Most students believe that becoming a licensed pharmacist will distinguish them from the pack—allowing them to select their career path at will after paying their dues in an entry level role. However, several years of practice in a traditional setting can foster malcontent even in the most dedicated pharmacist and may not provide advancement opportunities as anticipated.
Although there is no correct answer to address this dissatisfaction, many pharmacists who find themselves in this predicament see value in further professional differentiation. However, even after deciding to seek additional credentials, navigating the maze of options and the value they add is nothing short of overwhelming. Because the myriad choices yield distinctly different opportunities, each individual should thoughtfully evaluate each path before pursuing the best match for their goals.
A-B-C, Easy as 1-2-3: Certification Programs
The section header is slightly misleading, as the various certificate programs are far from a walk in the park, but the Jackson 5 declined to record any iconic tunes about challenging yet obtainable goals. Although not intellectually easy, obtaining a certification has distinct advantages over other more labor-intensive means of differentiation. The crux of obtaining a certificate hinges on successfully completing an exam that bestows the sought-after credentials upon the candidate.
Rather than rejoining the ranks of collegiate students, the pursuit of a certificate program allows for self-study at the discretion of the candidate. Additionally, the examination fees are generally less than $1000 compared with tens of thousands of dollars for tuition. The credentials obtained are certainly less impactful than an additional degree, but the flexibility afforded by the process can certainly justify the effort expended by the certificate holder. A brief discussion of certifications that can be valuable to a specialty pharmacist is found below.
Board of Pharmacy Specialties (BPS)
A division of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), BPS offers certifications in 8 areas of pharmacy practice. Eligibility requirements vary from exam to exam, each of which is designed to assure adequate experience to maintain quality applicants. Although any of these certifications would be beneficial for a pharmacist, the Board Certified Oncology Pharmacist (BCOP) best aligns with the specialty pharmacy space.
In order to sit for the BCOP exam, candidates must meet the baseline eligibility requirements. In addition to graduating from an accredited pharmacy school and maintaining an active pharmacist license, experience as an oncology pharmacist must be documented. This requirement can be satisfied by:
- Completion of 4 years of practice experience (post pharmacist licensure), with at least 50% of time spent in oncology pharmacy activities.
- Completion of a PGY1 residency plus 2 additional years of practice (post pharmacist licensure), with at least 50% of time spent in oncology pharmacy activities.
- Completion of a specialty (PGY2) residency in oncology pharmacy.1
Once these requirements have been satisfied, an examination covering content from 4 domains—patient management and therapeutics, research and education, practice administration and development, public health and advocacy—must be completed with a passing grade.
This path is far from as easy as 1-2-3, but completing it can distinguish a successful applicant in their career path. According to the 2015 BPS Annual Report, only 1990 pharmacists actively hold BCOP certification.2
Certified Specialty Pharmacist (CSP)
More specific to the specialty space, the Specialty Pharmacy Certification Board (SPCB) offers the CSP designation to help distinguish more seasoned practitioners. In addition to a pharmacy degree and active license, individuals wishing to achieve the CSP designation must complete 30 hours of specialty continuing education and log at least 3000 hours of specialty pharmacy practice.3 Once these requirements are satisfied, the candidate must successfully complete a comprehensive exam.
The SPCB provides a comprehensive handbook containing information that outlines all facets of the qualification and examination process. As a newer certification, the CSP designation is currently held by only 168 pharmacists.4 Such finite numbers, in conjunction with payers investigating whether to require a specialty pharmacy provider to employ a CSP, suggest that obtaining this certification could serve as a differentiating characteristic for a specialty pharmacist.
School’s Out for Summer, School’s [Not] Out Forever
For the pharmacist seeking a more dynamic change to their career path, a degree in any of several complimentary disciplines may be the answer. It would not be feasible to provide an in-depth discussion of the multitude of options, including research, public health, law, information systems, and data analytics, among countless others. However, the veritable explosion and proliferation of the specialty channel has created a climate ripe with opportunities for the business-minded pharmacist.
Although success in the business world can come without any additional formal education—CVS CEO Larry Merlo has led the company to uncharted prosperity without a formal business degree—obtaining a master of business administration degree (MBA) can distinguish a pharmacist from their counterparts who lack similar credentials. However, all MBA programs are not created equally, and evaluating the merits of the multitude of options is an arduous undertaking. Below is a high-level overview of some of the options discussed in brief.
For pharmacists working full time, an online program appears to offer the best opportunity, at first glance. A program delivered via the internet provides students with the flexibility to learn at their discretion and develop an understanding of marketing, finance, and accounting—the cornerstones of any MBA program; however, the flexibility provided is a double-edged sword. Although online programs alleviate some of the time demand compared with a traditional program, the advantage comes at the sacrifice of countless networking opportunities with fellow classmates and instructors.
The old adage that suggests who you know is more important than what you know is somewhat true in the business world. The ability to increase your professional network, as well as nurture the ability to interact with that network, is as much a part of the curriculum of a traditional MBA program as finance or marketing. Indeed, knowledge of the basics of accounting are critical, but the ability to function on a multidisciplinary team is paramount to functioning in a business role.
Understanding the challenges facing a student working full time, many business schools offer a litany of choices regarding the speed of the program. From full-time 1-year programs to part-time programs that take several years to complete, a traditional MBA is obtainable for pharmacists under myriad distinct conditions.
Although both online and traditional MBAs provide training and insight into the business world at-large, a specialized MBA may be considered the best option to the pharmacist striving to influence the business of pharmacy.
The master of science in pharmacy business administration (MSPBA), offered for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016, is a novel option that provides guidance into the unique dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry. A hybrid degree from the School of Pharmacy and Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, the 12-month program is the first of its kind nationwide.
In the interest of transparency, I will break the fourth wall and acknowledge my participation in the inaugural MSPBA cohort. Although I lack any experience with other MBA programs, I confidently champion my experience in the MSPBA program. My pursuit of this degree has exceeded my wildest expectations regarding the acquisition of knowledge, expansion of my professional network, and access to opportunities for career advancement.
[Trying to Avoid Being Just] Another Brick in the Wall
Regardless of the path chosen, pursuing additional certifications and education can position a pharmacist to advance beyond the responsibilities of a traditional role. As a lot, pharmacists tend to be dedicated, hard-working, caring, and trustworthy. These traits, among many others, enable most pharmacists to provide a high level of care and satisfaction to their patients. Although the role of a bench pharmacist is more than satisfactory to a great number of practitioners, many find themselves seeking more: more opportunities, more diversity, more challenges.
For those who find themselves questioning their career trajectory, certification and additional education may be the first step to answering that question. A pharmacist can distinguish his or herself, advancing to leadership positions that wield greater influence on decisions that affect ever greater numbers of patients. In this way, these ambitious persons will act as stewards for patient care—which will always be the epicenter of pharmacy services.
This article was originally published in Specialty Pharmacy Times.
Christopher Ogurchak earned his PharmD degree from Duquesne University in 2011, and his MSPBA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. He currently works in strategic planning and data analytics for CVS Specialty.