What is Pharmaceutical Administration?
Big Pharma has had a checkered history in the United States. If you were talking about the big drug companies circa 2019, you were probably talking about embarrassing incidents like Martin Shkreli’s maneuvering to block generic rivals and then jack up the price of the only drug known to treat potentially fatal infections, by 5,000 percent, or maybe Purdue Pharma’s landmark settlement of $8.3 billion for illegally pushing opioids on the country and unleashing an epidemic that had human costs that will never be paid for. And for everyone in healthcare, the steady march of drug prices higher and higher, rising at three times the rate of inflation, had become a constant concern.
Then came 2020. And pharmaceutical companies, pulling out all the stops, rose to the challenge of developing COVID-19 vaccines in record time. Pfizer and BioNTech announced their plans to jointly develop a vaccine in March; just over a month later, they had an incredible four vaccine candidates already in testing in the field. Moderna, which produced a vaccine that has proven nearly 95 percent effective, spent a grand total of only two days designing that vaccine… a miracle of modern technology and genetic research straight out of science fiction.
And the production of tens of millions of doses of those vaccines, for distribution worldwide, require enormous logistical, administrative, and planning efforts, driving out vaccines in less than a year, where the previous benchmark had been closer to a decade.
Pharmaceutical administrators more than earned their pay in 2020, but there are both challenges and promises yet to come. None of the cost or ethical challenges of the pharmaceutical business have disappeared, but expectations are higher than ever—for future vaccines, for drugs to handle all types of endemic and exotic diseases, for conditions that may be untreatable today. It’s a big job for the industry, and it’s only going to hit those goals with managers and administrators who are driven and educated to save lives and promote a more efficient healthcare system.
What Do Administrators Do in Big Pharmaceutical Companies?
Big pharma has a healthy appetite for administrators, but it’s a considerably different type of job than what you would encounter in most primary healthcare organizations. While it’s the operational considerations of delivering medical services that occupy most healthcare managers and administrators, management jobs in the pharmaceutical industry are more closely aligned with research and development, manufacturing and marketing, and other industrial concerns.
A background in healthcare and healthcare economics is still critical, but much of your daily work will more closely resemble that of an executive at any major chemical company. These functions can include:
The actual mechanics of this kind of work are the same as you will find for any kind of manager in any business: a lot of time spent in meetings, on the phone, processing email, and reviewing reports and spreadsheets. You need a keen understanding of human resources and leadership techniques to keep your staff motivated, and you need strong communication skills to coordinate with other departments, suppliers, and customers.
What Kind of Education Do Pharmaceutical Administrators Need?
Pharmaceuticals are enormously complex compounds, developed with input from high-powered computational arrays and created in sensitive industrial processes with very fine tolerances. You need a lot of specialized knowledge to successfully manage these organizations: familiarity with chemistry and lab work in pharmaceutical development, FDA regulatory knowledge for compliance, medical practices and procedures for product manufacturing, a bit about doctors and healthcare concerns if you work in marketing.
This means you need the kind of degree that will deliver a strong helping of scientific and healthcare education alongside the traditional kinds of business management training and leadership skills needed in any organization. That’s a blend of medical and business training that you can only find in a narrow range of majors, including:
College Education Options for Pharmaceutical Administration Jobs
As a rule, you’ll find that these highly specific majors narrow in focus as you look at more and more advanced degree programs. But general administrative jobs in the pharma industry can be had with just about any level of college education, from the two-year associate’s level all the way up to terminal doctoral degrees.
The important thing is to plot your career path so that you progress through the right sequence of degrees to get to the executive position you are dreaming of. That may mean earning a degree in a more general field—say, business, or healthcare administration—at the associate’s or bachelor’s level and laying the groundwork there for your progression into the more specialized master’s or PhD programs later on in your studies.
Associate and Bachelor’s Degrees Might Get Your Foot in the Door in Preparation for a Job in Pharmaceutical Administration
A two-year associate’s degree is a perfectly good start to a career in pharmaceutical administration. At this level, you’ll be looking at fairly elementary business or healthcare administration studies, but those are just the right kinds of courses to get you in to routine office jobs or basic administrative positions in marketing, product testing, or corporate relations work in big pharma.
Better yet, they can serve as the first two years of a full four-year program so long as you are sure to pick a two-year college that has a transfer agreement to the university you plan to earn that bachelor’s at. The kind of elementary accounting, communications, and basic business skills you pick up will be instrumental in giving you credibility as you start exploring pharmaceutical administration.
A bachelor’s degree is where you will start to find some more in-depth specialization in your chosen field of study, but also where you will find your education noticeably broadening out into other fields entirely: even bachelor of science degrees, the sort you will most likely enroll in for business or healthcare studies, include a healthy helping of liberal arts courses in the required catalog.
These aren’t just there as a distraction. Instead, they form the centuries-old basis of a traditional education, the sort of perspective-broadening, critical-thinking, brain-opening scholastic experience that most businesses consider critical in well-rounded leaders.
So these programs will qualify you for higher salaries and mid-level managerial positions in pharmaceutical companies, as well as bringing more specific expertise into your portfolio in terms of understanding healthcare system regulations, financial considerations, and chemical and scientific elements of pharmaceutical manufacture.
Master’s, MBAs and Other Advanced Degrees are a Lock for Careers in Pharmaceutical Administration
Your next step up—in fact, the final step in the educational cycle of pharmaceutical administrators—will be into the rarified scholastic airs of advanced degrees.
These master’s or doctoral programs will offer you some of the most highly targeted education in pharmaceutical administration that you will find. Classes in specific subjects like pharmaceutical marketing, product development, and strategy and competition in pharmaceutical and biotech industries will give you a unique perspective in the field, and the kind of skills required to run a major division or even an entire pharma company.
For the most part, these degrees will be MBA with pharmaceutical or healthcare business concentrations. It’s less common to advance to the PhD level and not required outside of very specific scientific functions in these companies… for the most part, a PhD in these areas will be oriented more toward research than the kind of heavy-duty commercial operations required of administrators. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility to earn a Doctor of Healthcare Administration, a functional degree, that could build your leadership and managerial skills in the pharma sector.
In every case, you’ll have the opportunity at this level to take a more active role in programming your own education—selecting areas of study and research that will focus on the part of the business you want to learn more about. Your thesis or capstone project will be designed with exactly this in mind, and internships or other experiential learning opportunities will give you an inside perspective on operations at the highest level of the industry.
Specialty Accreditation Considerations for College Degrees Appropriate for a Career in Pharmaceutical Administration
Whether you choose to pursue degrees that are primarily oriented toward healthcare administration, or those rooted in business, you are going down a very specialized path that requires a highly focused curriculum, dedicated resources, and expert instructors for the right education.
That means you need to focus on programs that hold a specialty accreditation in the field in which you are studying. These are offered by agencies that are recognized by the Department of Education as having the right industry connections, evaluation processes, and skilled assessment professionals to hold schools to the kind of standards that their respective industries expect:
If it’s a degree in health administration you’re after, you’d be looking at these agencies:
If it’s a bachelor’s or MBA in Health Administration, or even a super-specialized MBA in Pharmaceutical Management, you’d be looking at programs accredited by one of these three agencies:
These differ from the kind of general accreditations that almost all American colleges already hold in that they get into the specifics of the training as it relates to their specialties. You can bet that hiring managers are going to be looking at whether or not any degree you hold has this kind of accreditation, because it’s going to tell them whether or not you have the right kind of preparation to hit the ground running in pharmaceutical administration on day one.
An Online Program Could Be the Best Choice for Earning the Degree You Need to Become a Pharmaceutical Administrator
Online degree programs were picking up steam even before COVID-19 rolled around and transformed the educational landscape, and they will be strong choices even after the pandemic subsides.
You’ll have a choice to make between going with a traditional on-campus degree program and one of the growing number of remote options, but it’s a choice that’s becoming easier as even many of the most traditional programs are going online. The trend began long before coronavirus was a household word, but it’s one that’s definitely accelerated in the wake of the 2020 pandemic. The technology has absolutely caught up with on-campus programs—Zoom, dedicated learning management systems, and chat and conferencing programs have all been found to be fully equal to providing the kind of experience you would expect from a high-end college education.
Remote studies offer new flexibility and options for many students. Often, online programs are offered asynchronously, with the option to study at any time, day or night, from any location… at home, in the office, or on the go. That gives you the freedom to structure your studies around your life, as it is, instead of uprooting to move close to the college you prefer and keeping classes on someone else’s schedule.
If you’re not comfortable with wholly online options, many of these degrees also come in hybrid formats today. Those combine online and off-line learning, often in compressed intensives that only require your presence for a week or a weekend per semester… completely manageable, yet enough to offer that extra touch of in-person interaction that some people prefer.
Pharmaceutical Administration Job Outlook and Salaries
The United States leads the world in per capita drug spending, representing between 30 and 40 percent of the global market. It also develops around 40 percent of the new pharmaceuticals in the world, representing a biomedical powerhouse that other countries count on for new lifesaving technologies. So you’re about to step into an industry that is already healthy and enormously profitable… with paychecks to match.
With big primary care provider shortages looming in the American healthcare industry, to the tune of some 52,000 providers by 2025, treatment by way medication is becoming one of the most important crutches that clinicians can lean on. That’s going to translate into big demand for new pharmaceuticals as well as heightened production and distribution of existing drugs. In 2018, the industry saw a record 61 new drugs and recombinant formulations approved by the FDA to go to market.
Naturally, that creates real challenges in administration and management. Overall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts an estimated 32 percent job growth for medical and health services managers by 2029, a warp speed growth rate that far out paces anything you’re likely to see in any other sector or job category.
While medical and health services managers show a median annual salary of just over $100,000 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, those working in pharmaceutical administration can more than double that with a median salary of $204,300 as of 2019. Those working in chemical manufacturing, a closely related sector, brought in a respectable $155,180 that year.
While the big money may not come until later in your career, building up your experience and learning the business from the ground up will pay off as you add to your education and climb into the executive ranks with a solid foundation underneath you.