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From kindergarten through college, most academic careers follow a pre-chartered course. After college, the waters get murky. While a bachelor's degree is usually essential for obtaining that first job, benefits from advanced degrees are less clear-cut. So, in a competitive job market, can you still make the grade with only a bachelor's degree?

If you're returning to academia, know that the traditional programs—MBAs, PhDs, JDs and MDs—all hold appeal for the healthcare industry. MBAs are common, especially for people whose career goals tend toward the managerial or entrepreneurial.

Kevin Schulman, M.D., MBA, director of the Health Sector Management (HSM) program at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business says, “Generally people come to a full-time MBA program to advance their careers, expand their knowledge in terms of management skills and techniques, and to look more broadly at their industry and career path. In the executive format, people are coming to build their skill set.”

HSM is currently the largest healthcare program affiliated with a top-tier MBA school, with 1,354 graduates since its inception in 1930. HSM's programs look broadly at the health sector, from service delivery, consulting, finance and pharmaceuticals to biotech and genetics.

“Someone coming to the program may be an expert in one area of healthcare,” says Schulman, “but hasn't been in a position where they have been exposed to the diversity of interests in the sector. So they can be a great market researcher or brand manager, but haven't been involved in pricing and reimbursement, and don't fully understand the payer environment or the regulatory framework. We help people develop their perspective on the industry.”

In the new global business realm, MBA programs can help individuals get an international perspective—about 40% of Duke's HSM program students are international—and help people develop a strong group of peers who can serve as valuable contacts in the years to come.

“Peer groups end up being very important,” says Schulman. “Probably half of what you learn in a degree program is going to come from your peer group.”

Other advanced degrees are useful. A PhD in marketing can lead to careers in research, investigation and teaching. PhDs in the sciences, as well as MDs, can lead to careers in manufacturing or research. A JD is widely applicable to a variety of careers, and a master's degree is always a useful tool to have.

In addition to the intellectual benefits, these degrees convey prestige, enhance employability and secure a valuable alumni network. According to the 2006 MBA Career Bible, major consumer products companies like Procter & Gamble generally require MBAs for entry into the brand management department. Jeanette Marquess, MBA, M.S., vice president, global marketing at Laserscope, and president of the Medical Marketing Association (MMA) says, “The last time I hired a number of product managers, every single one either had an MBA or was working on one; that's not to say that someone with a bachelor's degree who has achieved a lot isn't worth looking at, but it becomes a differentiator as competition for jobs ramps up.”

But, the need for an advanced degree is not a foregone conclusion. A diploma is not a substitute for ability, and in the long run, an intelligent person who consistently demonstrates their proficiency will likely go farther than a degree-holder without practical skills. Degree programs can be expensive, both in terms of tuition—as high as $39,600 per year at Harvard—and forfeited earnings. Additionally, the increase in salary at the end of the tunnel might not be as bright as expected. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that a master's degree can result in an additional $240,000 in salary over the course of a lifetime. But, according to a 2005 Business Week survey, the average base pay for 2004 graduates from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School was $95,000, while average debt came in at around $73,000. Also, an advanced degree may not be necessary for every vocation. Success in certain careers, such as creative director for an advertising agency or a sales rep, is more likely to be based on performance, originality and creativity—traits not gained in the classroom.

Yet, the end return on an advanced degree may be worth the cost. “It's important to think about career trajectory,” Schulman says. “You are framing your skill set and your ability to accelerate through your career. I have seen people's careers take very different trajectories, both as a result of the skills they've gained and from their ability to spot opportunities.”

Schulman believes that, after two years in an MBA program, a person's world view and way of solving problems will change significantly.

“You will understand broader industry trends, at least in healthcare,” he says. “You will understand functions and strategy within a company differently. Very talented people could probably do as well without a degree, but I think that is getting increasingly difficult.”

For people not sold on the idea of advanced degrees there are less formal options. Examples include the American Marketing Association's Professional Certified Marketer Program, or courses with the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Institute of Advanced Advertising Studies. Both the MMA and the Healthcare Marketing and Communications Council (HMC) offer educational conferences and programs at prestigious business schools, taught by the school's faculty.

Mary Lacquaniti, CAE, executive director of the HMC Council states, “The beauty of our program is that rather than an MBA, which provides you with skills across different industries, this is targeted to the healthcare pharmaceutical industry, so that people get very targeted information.”

Marquess also speaks to the need for these courses.

“Companies nowadays are getting extremely flat, and every job is so critical that companies don't have the luxury of coaching and mentoring employees in-house anymore. As leaders of teams, we have a responsibility to develop our staff, and these executive education opportunities are critical in helping us achieve those goals.”

Program participants come from a wide range of experience. HMC and MMA's Anderson and Kellogg school both have programs designed for healthcare advertisers, and pharmaceutical and biotech manufacturers.

These courses do not intend to replace or repudiate other means of education. Lacquaniti explains the interconnected nature of educational development as a three-part process. “Formal education provides the theory and academic background; internal education at companies teach people how that company's culture operates, what kinds of proprietary standards they employ; and the third piece is the outside outsourced service, which gives people more practical knowledge, applies it to the industry and gives them a competitive edge.”

Marquess agrees. “An MBA or a PhD gives you a credential that communicates a level of excellence. However, once you've finished your academic career, you still need executive education to stay up-to-date with what is new. They're totally different products, with different applications in your life.”

However, she adds a disclaimer.

“If you want a leadership or supervisory role, you pretty much have to have an advanced degree. A bachelor's degree is a ticket of entry; an advanced degree demonstrates that you have a commitment to education. Give yourself a body of knowledge that takes you to the next level.”
In the ever-evolving healthcare industry, whether you want an advanced degree for that competitive edge or a comprehensive understanding of the business as a whole, your ideal program is out there.

If, however, the thought of returning to school makes you start miss your cubicle, make your mark the old-fashioned way—learn on the job and excel at what you do. If you need a little inspiration, look to Bill Gates. Microsoft's mogul never even got a bachelor's degree, and the last I heard, he was doing just fine.

SIDEBAR: 5 programs for medical marketers

UCLA/MMA's Medical Marketing Education Program
■ For product managers, market managers, directors of marketing
■ Covers competitive advantage, pricing, brand equity, marketing intelligence, maximizing profit n Sept. 25-29, 2006; Apr. 30-May 4, 2007 ■ $5,650, inc. books, educational materials, receptions and most meals ■ Contact 310-825-2001or

Kellogg/MMA's Strategic Marketing for Healthcare Industry
■ For marketing managers, product/brand managers, researchers/ planners, communications execs, products consultants ■ Covers strategic/organizational alignment, segmentation, pharmacoeconomics, agreements, brand building, measurement n Nov. 5-10, 2006 ■ $5,600 MMA members, $5,800 non-members, inc. books, materials and meals ■ Contact 800-551-2171or

HMC's Management Development Program at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business
■ For marketers with 3-5 years experience in industry, advertising, communications, publishing ■ Covers marketing strategy, building brand equity, regulations ■ $5,295 HMC members and $5,595 non-members, inc. lodging, most meals, and course materials ■ Contact 610-868-8299 or

American Marketing Association
■ Professional Certified Marketer Program: covers the key areas of marketing. Cost: $375 for members and $535 for non-members. Email ■ The Tuck Bridge Program in Marketing: online courses for marketing executives and students on the basics of marketing, via Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. Cost: $600 for AMA members. Contact 800-262-1150

The AAAA's Institute of Advanced Advertising Studies
■ For agency professionals with one to four years of experience
■ Annual training programs developed in association with local colleges and universities ■ Evening courses, approximately 13 to 16 weeks long ■ $1,200 - $1,500, depending on location

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