APhA-APRS Postgraduate Advisory Committee Chair, Jill Augustine offers advice on choosing the appropriate graduate program.
So you have decided that after your PharmD that you actually want to stay in school? This is a very intricate decision and there are many factors to consider. Important decisions range from your research focus, to geography, program characteristics, and even your budget. I completed the application process about a year ago. There was excitement and frustration all in one and it was much like applying to pharmacy school, except this time there was a greater focus on what I hoped to achieve in the field. This time you answer the real question “What do I want to do and why is it compelling enough that I want to spend more time working on accomplishing my goal?”
Let’s start with the basics!
Location- You may have preferences for different environments, for example, city size and community type. Wherever you pick, however, make sure you are comfortable calling it home for the next several years. For me, location was a large factor. The schools I applied to were completely different. Factors such as safety and traffic were important for my family. Some people do not mind a long commute whereas others want less time in a car and more time for eating dinner at home. You have to decide what is right for you and consider what kind of town you are going to live in. Consider how students get to campus. Do most people walk, bike, or drive? Is there parking on campus? Do you feel comfortable walking around the city? How does living in a metro area fit you? Do you need stores close to you or is a scenic drive more important?
Family- There are unique considerations for going to graduate school when you have a spouse or partner and children. Graduate school is a family decision and that may require moving to a new place and essentially starting over again. Your spouse or partner has to be supportive of your aspirations, especially knowing you could be earning more as a full-time pharmacist. While student loans may be deferred during school, budgets can be tight. There are going to be long nights of editing papers and your significant other has to understand your need to stay up and maybe even bring you some coffee. This is a commitment not only for you, but for your family. I know many graduate students with children and it is definitely possible to accomplish your degree, though it is unlikely any of them think managing their time is easy!
Program- What do you want to study? Do you want to incorporate a clinical focus or seek primarily a research focus? Do you want to be part of a College of Pharmacy or would you consider a College of Public Health? Program size is important as well. How many advisors are taking students and how many students does each advisor have? How many students are in the program? Some applicants prefer a smaller program where they can have individualized attention though larger programs may have more diverse research or social interaction. Graduate school can feel like an independent and solitary process at times, particularly as you work on your dissertation, so it is a good idea to pick a program that fits your personality and where you think you can find a good support system. The focus is on research and does not usually involve large classes or as many students. Graduate school is an adjustment from the happy Pharmily of Pharmacy School.
A combined PharmD/PhD program at your own school can be a great option, but these require you to know early on that you want to continue on to graduate school so you can take credits during pharmacy school that apply to your graduate degree. Also, many schools have not yet developed these tracks. There are many questions about a program that you want to ask before you decide where to apply. Draw on your faculty connections for advice on choosing a program, especially faculty that have gone through graduate school. If possible, try to contact current graduate students to get their opinion of their program.
Advisor- Picking the right advisor can play a large role as far as the time required to finish your degree. Your advisor will become a great mentor and can become like a family member. The first thing you should look for in an advisor is shared research interests. E-mail potential advisors before you apply to start a dialogue about your research interests. Your advisor should be a person you get along with well and someone you feel is going to push you to produce your best work.
I think this quote defines what you are looking for in an advisor is a great teacher.
"The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires."
- William Arthur Ward
$$$ - You know that you are temporarily giving up your $100,000+ paycheck in exchange for following your passion and entering a community of PharmD/PhDs. It can be tough when you make the choice to go to graduate school and see all of your pharmacist friends are buying new cars, new houses, new furniture, and take exciting vacations while you use your stipend to pay the rent, buy groceries, take regional vacations, and trips to Ikea. You have to be passionate about pursuing another degree because of your love of learning and desire to make a unique contribution. “Live like no one else now so you can live like no one else later.” This is one of my guiding quotes that keeps me motivated! When you say you’re not in it for the money, you have to mean that!
Students are offered a teaching or research assistantship to cover living expenses. Also, tuition waivers allow you not to accumulate more loans. It is important to create a budget based on your agreed upon assistantship before you accept. Make sure you can afford your expenses and realize that you are not going to be able to compare yourself to your friends. If you think you may not be able to afford all of your bills on just your stipend, be sure to ask about additional scholarships. Many graduate students work through the program as a licensed pharmacist. Be sure to check with your program about their policy regarding outside work. There are programs that consider it common practice for students to work, other programs discourage working but allow it, and others do not allow you to work outside if you take a research or teaching assistantship.
In the process of applying, which is not a little feat, you should consider how many schools you want to apply to and the cost of applying. I applied to 3 schools, though I know plenty of students applying to between 1 and 10 schools. The good news is PharmD students are recruited by graduate programs, especially those associated with colleges of pharmacy. If you are applying to elite programs around the country it is probably smart to apply to more than one program, although having a PharmD makes you a very desirable candidate. Applying to too many schools will be taxing as each has unique application requirements and associated fees. Then there is the stressful waiting period where you apply and you jump every time your outlook e-mail bings because it may be an acceptance letter. The period is very similar to applying to pharmacy school and it is just as stressful! Your friends are getting matched in residences or taking fellowships and you want to know where you are going to study next year. This time of year is very exciting for PharmD students as you are going to see where everyone decides to accept positions and begin entering the profession.
Good Luck Applicants!
The APhA-APRS Postgraduate Advisory Committee would enjoy hearing from you! If you have any questions or comments related to postgraduate studies, please email the Committee.