In winter 2021, Tori Czech became NEOMED’s first double-degreed pharmacy graduate, adding a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) from NEOMED’s Integrated Pharmaceutical Medicine (IPM) graduate program to the Pharm.D. degree that she earned from the College of Pharmacy in 2016.
Inspired by the examples of her mother and sister, Dr. Czech knew she wanted to work in health care and to help people – but she didn’t think she was cut out to be a nurse like them. And while she’s fascinated by medicine and the body, an M.D. track didn’t seem like the best fit, either. She had always been fascinated by the drug development process, and when her dad set up a shadow day with one of his pharmacist friends at a local hospital, she enjoyed it.
“I found out more about the numerous career paths that pharmacists can take (community, hospital, research, teaching, etc.) and decided that even though I wasn’t sure exactly which path I would want to go, most of the options in pharmacy sounded pretty good,” says Dr. Czech.
A research elective during Dr. Czech’s first year in the College of Pharmacy provided another “aha” moment: “I realized research was what I wanted to do, and that I wanted it to be part of my pharmacy career,” she says. Working in the lab of her doctoral advisor, Moses Oyewumi, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, she pursued her interest in drug delivery in the human body.
Strategically, Dr. Czech says, “I figured that earning a Ph.D. would open more doors and job opportunities for research-centric jobs than a Pharm.D. alone.”
Sure enough, shortly after earning her Ph.D., she started the first day of her new job as an associate medical science liaison (MSL) in the therapeutic area of migraine. She explains, “MSLs develop professional relationships with physicians and administrators within their region to help facilitate knowledge and implementation information for various products in a specific therapeutic area.”
The position is a great fit for her because it encompasses multiple interests of her – teaching, research, drug development and working as a team, says Dr. Czech.
She recently looked back at her years at NEOMED.
Motivation and rewards, challenges and strategies
“I am naturally curious, motivated to find answers about the why of things, and to solve problems – and I’ve been told that at its purest form, that’s what research is,” says Dr. Czech.
The two degrees she has earned have many similarities, but notable differences in the structure and atmosphere: “The pharmacy degree is highly structured and the Ph.D. degree path is more individualized,” she notes. For example, Dr. Czech enjoys branching out to learn many different things. Although that’s not normally what’s done in a Ph.D. program, where the idea is to develop expertise in one specific area, her advisor, Moses Oyewumi, Ph.D., encouraged her to pursue some of these avenues anyway.
Dr. Czech was glad for that support from Dr. Oyewumi, who is chair and associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, since “being a scientist is about being curious.”
The IPM program (NEOMED’s sole Ph.D. degree-granting program) allows Pharm.D. and M.D. students to attain a Ph.D. degree more quickly than if they were to complete the degrees in sequence. Under ideal circumstances, that would be four years for the Pharm.D. or M.D., and three more for the Ph.D.
It took Dr. Czech four years to earn the Pharm.D. and another five years for the Ph.D. “It was long, but NEOMED is such a wonderful place that if I had to spend nine years anywhere, I couldn’t have picked a better school. It’s very apparent that everyone here wants to see students succeed,” she says.
It’s not easy to obtain a second advanced degree. What were challenges and lessons learned?
Dr. Czech reflects:
- Learning to manage my time for extracurricular activities and interests, to figure out what I could feasibly pursue on the side, was a learning curve for me.
- Having a strong desire to engage in research and steadfast perseverance helped me tremendously. I was fortunate to have an excellent support system. Not even financial support necessarily, just emotional.
- My decision not to take a part-time pharmacy job helped; I knew I would have a much more difficult time seeing my Ph.D. through, although that might be a great option for other students. It’s definitely a matter of self-awareness, looking objectively, and weighing the pros and cons.
- Because the two degrees are so different, it takes a lot of flexibility, intrinsic motivation, and the ability to learn in different settings and to learn how to teach yourself. A natural curiosity and drive really help. So does a deep love of learning.
- Develop the ability to be comfortable in discomfort. You learn a lot on the fly (in both fields, but in different ways). This will also help you to be a more well-rounded individual. if nothing else! You’re never going to know every last little thing no matter how hard you work, and that’s ok.
- Find a great advisor (like Dr. Oyewumi) and a great support system. It really makes all the difference.
- I’d advise high school students to take College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests in any area they can. It can save a lot of time and money. Also, since pharmacy school acceptance was not dependent on having a bachelor’s (but only certain required classes), I finished that degree online during pharmacy school for admission to the Ph.D. program; I’d recommend that route, too, if possible.
“Research is inherently full of surprises, and serendipitous findings are probably the coolest thing,” says Dr. Czech. “The pursuit of knowledge in these two degrees teaches you so many things: about how to be a good pharmacist, a good researcher, and most importantly, it can teach you about yourself. You learn what you’re capable of.
“For me, that was the biggest surprise of all.”