New Blood for Big Pharma

A specialized MBA program at Rutgers aims to produce skilled managers for the volatile pharmaceutical industry

New Jersey is home to some of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, as well as Rutgers University. That's why in 1999, when pharma industry insiders were seeking educators to train MBAs specialized in pharmaceutical operations, they turned to their home state's best-known institution.

Together, they launched the Rutgers Pharmaceutical Management MBA in 2000. The first graduating class consisted of 12 students. Today, the class usually includes more than 20 students, who often have dual concentrations such as pharmaceuticals and finance or pharmaceuticals and marketing. The seven original sponsors—Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Merck (MRK), Novartis (NVS), Organon, Roche, and Eisai (EISAF)—are financial benefactors as well as active participants in the education of these specialized MBAs.

The program is meant to be more than a marriage of convenience. The volatile pharma industry needs strong leadership, and the university is trying to provide companies with good people, says Mahmud Hassan, professor of finance and director of the pharmaceutical MBA program at the Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick. Recently, Hassan spoke with reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What kind of student should be applying to this program?

The students we're looking for should have some good experience in the pharmaceutical, consulting, or health-care industries. But it's not a necessity. If you want to apply for the scholarship, there are strict requirements—for example, getting a high GMAT score and having a high undergrad GPA and at least three years' work experience in a prestigious role—to compete for the scholarship. Then, students have to be interviewed by the scholarship committee. The committee consists of some of our Rutgers faculty and a representative from each of the seven sponsors.

What do students learn in this program?

In the first year, students fulfill their MBA core requirements. When the time comes for electives, there are six courses they have to take—U.S. Health Care Systems, R&D & Product Development, Law & Ethics, Pharmaceutical Sales Force Management, Pharmaceutical Product Management, and Pharmaceutical Marketing Research. Four and a half of the courses are usually taught by industry executives. Plus, every month they have to visit a company.

The sponsors invite the students to their site for a presentation. The reason for this is that the students get a lot of theoretical discussion and foundation building from the faculty. We want them to listen to industry executives, those who are doing this on a daily basis to see what's being applied and how they're doing it. This way, they have a good combination of theoretical foundation and applied theories, and they will know a lot about the pharma industry's operations.

Rutgers is revamping its MBA curriculum beginning in fall 2007. How will it affect the course of the pharmaceutical MBA program?

The changes to the MBA program didn't change the pharmaceutical program. The only difference is that now students will be able to take pharmaceutical electives in their first year. They used to have to wait until their second year. It gives students exposure to pharma issues earlier on in the program.

What kinds of opportunities are offered after graduation?

The students have a summer internship between the first and second year. We have 100% job placement. Everyone in the pharma MBA gets a summer internship. As a matter of fact, our pharma students get multiple offers. The same is true for the full-time job search. All of my students are employed by the pharma industry immediately—in positions in various functions including finance, marketing research, and product-development areas. Students get jobs—not just in the seven sponsoring companies but outside, too. Even biotech companies hire from our program.

Why would someone want to go into this field?

Students interested in business find that the pharma industry is a good environment that pays well and allows you to apply your MBA tools and techniques. They use finance. They use marketing. They use HR techniques. They use IT knowledge. The pharma companies hire MBAs without the specialized pharma degree. But getting someone trained in the pharma industry is an added qualification.

The pharma industry has gotten a lot of criticism for pushing medication in advertising (see, 5/8/06, "Hey, You Don't Look So Good") and various highly publicized drug recalls (see, 6/12/06, "ImClone on the Block"). What are you teaching your students about ethics?

I think I mentioned to you we have a full three-credit course on law and ethics. The students who go to these companies could teach people about ethical issues. If you look at our graduates, they move up the ladder every year, so they must be doing well. I hope they [remember] that they are dealing with human lives. They're making medicine, and there's a wide scope of unethical behavior. There is penalty [if you're unethical].

I hope they understand the balance about how far they should go. For example, what's the limit of using rodents to develop new drugs? You're sacrificing one life to save another. I hope the students take away the knowledge that there's a fine line, and ask themselves, "Is it really a benefit to society in general? What am I doing? Am I following all those guidelines of acceptability that are given by the government and society?"

The pharma industry is going through a rough time, which is why you need good people who know how to manage. This rough time is not just a problem this year, it's been a long time coming. And you need smart people to analyze and make plans ahead of time, so you don't have to go through all of this trouble. There are ways to avoid uncertainty for the future. Many companies don't have those experts. We're training those people.

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