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Rethinking education for pharmaceutical scientists

New medicines and new technologies challenge existing models of educating and training pharmaceutical scientists. How to ensure that we have a pharmaceutical workforce fit for the future was the focus of a session at PSWC 2017. Talia Salzmann reports.

“No workforce can be established without education.” It was on this premise that FIP scientific secretary Giovanni Pauletti opened a session on the training of the future pharmaceutical sciences workforce, giving the floor to fresh graduates before hearing from both academia and the private sector. According to the session co-chairs Prof Pauletti and FIP vice-president Ross McKinnon, pharmaceutical education needs to be rethought because:

  • Inequalities in disease are magnified by inequality in priorities for research and development
  • PhD training is viewed as preparation for an academic career, and students are unaware of and unprepared for other opportunities
  • Only 2% of PhD graduates in Australia (with similar rates elsewhere) will have an uninterrupted academic career

What will happen to the other graduates? The three main actors in pharmaceutical sciences, namely academia, the private sector and government, must find new ways to collaborate to ensure PhD graduates match what society needs. No one best illustrates the potential of science PhD graduates to be successful out of the academic path than German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a PhD in physical chemistry. What can supervisors do? According to Prof. Pauletti, PhD students need to acquire four core competency sets: knowledge, skills, attitude and values. Although supervisors cannot change people, they can instill, promote and encourage certain traits and create an environment conducive to these.

How to attract the best students

Three graduates shared their experiences: Kate Browning from the UK, currently postdoc at Uppsala University, Sweden, who moved from physics to biology; Chad Pickens from the USA, who studied pharmaceutical sciences degrees offering industrial internships (which consistently led him to jobs) and worked for a few years between degrees; and Tahnee Dening from Australia, who did a joint degree in pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences before starting a PhD and taking a sabbatical to work on another research project. They said they valued and recommended faculties increase:

  • Collaboration with industry such as mandatory internships and teaching in real-life settings such as hospitals
  • International experience — encouraging students to go overseas
  • Supportive research environments allowing newcomers to get up to scratch
  • Job skills — learning how to interview for jobs and how to keep them
  • Giving higher visibility to existing research and resources to avoid duplication

They mentioned high graduation per admission rate and multi-instructor courses as guiding choice of a university. As for transferrable skills acquired, they highlighted the ability to interact with scientists from many different fields, independence, critical thinking and functioning in different professional environments. The best piece of advice Mr Pickens has ever received was: “Be in an environment where you are with people who are smarter than you.”

What industry wants

The graduates’ call for practical experience was echoed by Brian Henry, head of global drug product design at Pfizer, who summed up industry requirements as “we need an agile workforce”. At Pfizer, many of the manufacturing technologies used require new skills, he explained. The current focus is on predictive science and computer science. The company tries to develop skills in-house, before looking externally. To optimise skill spread, each type of position has a blueprint of what the technical and soft skill requirements are. Many tasks are outsourced, meaning there is an increasing need for people who are both scientifically literate and competent in supervising and managing external teams. According to Dr Henry, there is a whole world of new careers and opportunities out there in a symbiotic ecosystem of companies ranging from big pharma companies to specialist providers with everything in between, in which all skill sets find their place. Some countries are already exploring PhD programmes with a broader aim than academia. Examples quoted by Prof. McKinnon were the French CIFRE (Industrial Agreement for Training through Research), Mitacs in Canada, and the Monash University, Australia, FPPS (Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences) programme, which marks a transition from “more students” to “students with more”. Flinders University, Australia, although it does not have a school of pharmacy, provides courses for pharmaceutical sciences students and professionals to extend their skill set to include entrepreneurship. Often, universities have an industry base, Prof McKinnon explained, but they are not connected with the PhD programmes. We need to get that dialogue started, he said.

A discussion with the audience led to a comparison of different educational cultures, whereby on one hand you are encouraged to work for a few years in between degrees, or expected to plough straight through on the other. Although the former is rarer, it ticked many boxes and came through as something that could be encouraged. Pfizer has also been rethinking education programmes, Dr Henry said, participating in combination PhDs, for example, with the University of Nottingham, UK, and focusing on apprenticeships where teenagers get enrolled straight into the programme without going via the academic track. Trainees rotate through different positions, which is considered key to developing flexibility and versatility. Prof. McKinnon expanded on this: traditionally, “T-shaped learners” (with the vertical bar being breadth of knowledge and the horizontal bar being depth of expertise) have been most valued, but what we are moving on to today is “Pishaped skills”, where people are quick and adaptive, have demonstrated a capacity to develop depth of knowledge and are able to do it again. Asked for one key piece of advice for programme directors, Dr Henry did not hesitate: “Connect with the faculties of engineering and predictive science.” A summary of these discussions is that we need to shift our view of education to that of a continuum of professional development.


Last update 14 May 2019

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