A new M.S. program simultaneously aims to provide workers to drug makers and funnel more candidates to the Ph.D. program
By Greg Barr
In 1999, after Roserika Brooks earned her psychology degree from the University of Texas at Austin, she taught preschool-age kids and thought about pursuing a master’s degree involving children’s cognitive development.
But her migraine headaches changed everything. Brooks’ lifelong battle with pain sparked her own pharmacology research to learn more about various antidepressants, anti-convulsants, and pain relievers. “I was trying to see if one drug would be better than another, and I got into finding out more about the mechanisms of drug interactions,” she recalls. That led to discussions with her uncle, who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry for twenty years. The drug companies, he advised her, were scrambling to find graduates with a combined biology and chemistry background. That got her attention.
She was willing to invest two years in a master’s program—not the four or five years it typically takes to earn a Ph.D. Only a few universities in the country offered a master’s in pharmacology, Brooks discovered, but one of those was in the native Galvestonian’s home town.
Brooks is one of five students who last August successfully completed the first year of the fledging two-year Master of Science in Pharmacology and Toxicology program. The department hopes the program will further enhance the university’s visibility in pharmacology and ultimately boost the number of Ph.D. candidates.
The program includes $20,000-a-year stipends designed to cover living expenses, tuition, and health insurance for M.S. students in both the 2003–2004 and 2004–2005 academic years. Three one-year stipends are supported by grants from pharmaceutical companies—Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck & Co., and Novartis. Brooks, Todd Hieronymus, and Noelle Anastasio were chosen to receive the industry stipends.
Before launching the program, Pharmacology and Toxicology Chair James R. Halpert and Professor Kenneth M. Johnson Jr. contacted about thirty pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to confirm their need for graduates with master’s degrees in pharmacology. “There really seemed to be a unique niche in the industry for students with a master’s degree,” says Halpert. The program, he adds, “gives us access to different kinds of students, who perhaps were not thinking about four or five years of research and a Ph.D.” Some of the M.S. students, Halpert hopes, will “come in and be exposed to the graduate program and switch over to the Ph.D. once they get a taste for research.”
Typically, notes Tom Baillie, vice president for drug metabolism at Merck Research Laboratories, those with master’s degrees “are recruited to our industry with backgrounds in chemistry, biochemistry, or a related discipline, and then they receive on-the-job training in pharmaceutical research.” He adds: “One of the strengths of the new program at UTMB is that the curriculum is much more closely aligned with the needs of the pharmaceutical industry in general,” focusing on areas such as “drug metabolism, pharmacokinetics, and safety assessment/ toxicology, which are major growth areas.” For this reason, Baillie thinks “employment opportunities for graduates from the UTMB program should be excellent, since they will be able to ‘hit the ground running.’”
David Rodrigues, executive director of metabolism and pharmacokinetics at Bristol-Myers Squibb, agrees that program graduates should have plenty of options.
“A young scientist with an M.S. degree who communicates well, can function in a team environment, and is highly motivated can do very well, and might end up with a boatload of job offers,” says Rodrigues. At a pharmaceutical company, he continues, a graduate with an M.S. degree can expect to start at $55,000 to $60,000 annually. Ph.D.s, meanwhile, may earn in the range of $75,000 to $90,000, depending on their research program and postdoctoral experience.
Rodrigues adds that those with M.S. degrees in pharmacology also may use their graduate training and their undergraduate experience to land drug industry jobs outside the laboratory, in areas such as administration, marketing, or finance. Brooks says that’s her goal: “I want to go into administration or PR in the biotechnology industry, but it’s important to have the science foundation to know what’s going on.”
“There is considerable demand at present for M.S.-level graduates for careers in the pharmaceutical industry—perhaps even greater than for Ph.D. graduates,” Merck’s Tom Baillie notes. Rodrigues, who has worked in the industry since 1984, says the competitive nature and rapid expansion of drug companies has left them top-heavy with Ph.D.s. Of his department’s research employees, he says 40 percent are Ph.D.s working as independent investigators and team leaders. The ratio of those with Ph.D.s to those in associate research positions with master’s degrees is now one-to-one. Rodrigues aims to shave that ratio to one-to-two or even one-to-three, which means, he says, that he will be hiring mainly those with master’s degrees as Ph.D.s leave or retire.
“Having good students attracts more students to the program, and that can be your best recruiting tool.”
David W. Niesel, vice dean of the Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences and chair of microbiology and immunology, says industry support for the new M.S. program may help UTMB raise additional money from major drug companies. “Often industry is very enthusiastic, but it’s a different story when you go back to ask for resources,” says Niesel. “This time, pharmaceutical companies have helped make this program possible, and we can showcase this cooperative effort with industry.” For starters, Halpert and Johnson intend to solicit additional drug company funding for master’s degree student stipends for the 2005–2006 school year.
Johnson says the infusion of new students—three more began their first year in the master’s degree program this fall, bringing the current total of M.S. students to ten—means there are now twenty-nine students in the pharmacology graduate program, the most ever during his more than two decades at UTMB. He hopes this will trigger what he calls the “flocking” effect: “Having good students attracts more students to the program, and that can be your best recruiting tool.”
Like Halpert, Johnson hopes that by helping some M.S. students get their feet wet, the master’s program will ultimately funnel more candidates into the pharmacology and toxicology Ph.D. program.
That is the case with Noelle Anastasio, who graduated from UT-Austin in 2001 with a B.S. in biology and worked for two years as a technician in Johnson’s lab. She was accepted into the M.S. degree program in 2003 and says her first-year experience was so positive she will reach even higher. “I’m going to apply for the Ph.D. program because I want to be a research project leader and be in control of what I’m doing in industry,” says Anastasio, who already has co-authored two articles published in peer-reviewed journals. “I love doing the research,” she says.
A more rigorous set of courses better suited to pharmacology studies—including biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology/genetics—was introduced in fall 1999 with the graduate school’s Basic Biomedical Sciences Core Curriculum. Johnson notes that in several of the courses, which include first-year Ph.D. students, some of the first-year master’s degree students were among the top students in the class.
Concludes Halpert: “To see [some of the master’s degree students] do so well and gain confidence so quickly is exciting and rewarding. It’s what education is all about.”