Pharmacy Education Abroad:
From an Indian scenario, it is very hard to understand what Pharmaceutical Sciences mean to the Western world. To us, back in the country, a bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy does not mean a whole lot. It definitely will earn you a graduation and a job with a standard salary in marketing. You might also opt for a job in production with comparatively lower benefits. Some graduates tend to follow the path of higher education, as in M Pharm. Securing a master’s seat through competitive exams itself is tough or otherwise, needs solid cash. The case is not very rosy in the US or UK either for bachelor’s degree holders.
First, B. Pharmacy does exist in very few institutes here. Students usually pursue Pharm D which leads them to retail pharmacy shops, earns them a ton of money, which is anyway needed to pay back the debts they have accrued while studying. Otherwise, students usually come from Physical Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biology, Micro-bio or Organic Chemistry backgrounds. Pharmaceutical sciences, both Industrial and experimental therapeutics, pharmacology or novel drug design related training begins at the Masters or Ph.D. level in the US. It is worth mentioning here that MS or PhD is called graduate not post-graduate work in the US. I am more conversant about the US system, henceforth I will talk about the US system alone, not the EU or UK systems.
Graduate education in the US is a whole new experience for anyone and everyone coming from outside the country. It is comparable only to a handful of institutions in Germany, Switzerland, UK and the France. Even the low tier private institutions offer superb cutting edge technical and hands-on training in different areas for the candidates. For example, I did my masters in a state of the art lab in a rather small but renowned institute in pharmacology. The principle investigator (PI) gave me a project which investigated the role of serine 148 residues in the second intracellular loop of Dopamine D2 Receptors in Human endothelial cell lines. The project made me master radio-ligand binding assays, gel electrophoresis, western blotting, protein estimation studies, cell culture techniques, DNA transfection, PCR-mediated point mutation, Fluorescent labeling of receptors and inverted microscopy. I can bet, no master’s project in India will ever include a gamut of biochemical techniques like these.
After I started my Ph.D. program as a research assistant, life showed me new turns. It is very very hard and demanding to do a Ph.D. in the US. MS is hard for anyone coming from outside the US since the way the system works here is very different. But, believe me, Ph.D. is something else. You have to regularly put twelve to fourteen hours in the lab plus bear the load of aggressive course works. Then, there are regular lab meetings where you get thrashed, exams, assignments, seminars, and above all your qualifiers to become a Ph.D. candidate officially.
As a sentence of caution, be very sure before you join a program in the US, it is really hard to survive, you have to be really hard working and meticulous, and perseverant and bright simultaneously. I see people, everyday repenting their decision to join grad school as a Ph.D. candidate. But I do not because I like the job I am doing. Join a Ph.D. program only after you are absolutely sure about it. Grad life is prestigious but bereft of fun, apart from the regular drinking parties and occasional strip club visits that grad students make. But, guys, the training, and education you will receive during these four five years will take you a long way in life. You will not have to look back ever. As a graduate student, you will around 20000$ annually (around 112000INR) which is more than enough for an average survival. You will easily get a postdoctoral position and then a respectable job. If you plan to go back to your country, you can secure a well-paid job back at home and rise fast up the ladder.
The road to the US – the GRE:
All the above said situations and experiences awaits a few arduous steps before you can even reach the shores of Atlantic. To name the first and the foremost is the infamous GRE.
I will make this section a kind of guideline for GRE aspirants and not essay type. Here are a few steps you need to take to successfully accomplish a respectable GRE score:
1. Be proficient in English, read newspapers or online articles and story books written by good authors. Try to write essays and paragraphs. Enhance your vocabulary.
2. Do not try to mug up words, or a dictionary. Yes, follow a Baron’s or a Big Book. There are several others, but these two are enough for a normal human being to become a geek in vocabs.
3. Read the sections in these books over and over again. The GRE format has changed slightly after I have taken it. But the overall concept remains same.
4. Do not hurry to take the exam like I did. The exam swallows a lot of cash and has other bearings as well. I did hurry because I did not want to waste a year.
5. GRE fees are around 180$ (valid for 5yrs). And then you have to take TOEFL which is another 160$ (valid for 2yrs). If you take multiple GREs, the universities might take the latest or an average of all the scores. Let us talk about GRE first.
6. Invest at least 3-4 hours at night time or morning to prepare for English. Maths is really easy for any student who has passed +2 sciences. I did prepare for maths for only a month.
7. Baron’s will have sample exams. Enroll yourself in the USEFI, Kolkata. They have plenty of reading materials and CDs for dummy tests. Learn to do it tactfully since time is a big issue in this exam.
8. The exam is online and can be taken any day anytime in a year except the couple months of Jan or Feb (Check on this info). The exam is conducted by ETS, in specific locations under a camera.
9. Question patterns are easily available in any GRE book.
10. Registration is done online. You will have to create a profile and retain the info, as you will need this in future when you are applying to colleges.
11. Try taking CAT side by side. It will help you a lot as they have a lot in common.
12. A score of above 1250 in the older scale is good. If you take time, you can bump your score up to at least 1350 to 1400 easily. Scoring an 800 in maths is important for a good score.
13. Having a good GRE score is most important for scholarship and funding which is tight but available in abundance in the US not in the UK.
14. For masters, it is harder to get funding, but some lucky dogs do get it (Bough! Bough!). Funding for Ph.D. is necessary since otherwise, it is not possible to pursue it. All these come as Research or Teaching Assistantship depending on your GRE and TOEFL score.
15. There is actually no name in particular for the scholarships. Without support, a typical cost for a year would be around 6000$ for living expenses which can also widely vary if you are in states like New York. Tuition fees can be bleeding your pocket unlike anything else. Coming without a tuition fee waiver would not be possible for a kid of my economic stature.
16. Another component of the GRE exam is the analytical writing assessment (AWA). It involves an essay. This section needs considerable writing skills to score the lowest of 2.5/6. But good schools require at least 3.5-4.0. Topics of the essay are readily available online and in books. They include a wide range of current topics which needs considerably updated knowledge about recent geopolitical landscapes.
17. TOEFL is rather simple and straight forward. The standard is much lower than GRE. It can be discussed in a different article since its format is quite different from GRE. In short, a score of 110 or above out of 120 is impressive. Folks score up to 119.
18. IELTS serves the same purpose as TOEFL. US schools prefer TOEFL over IELTS.
19. Some institutes in Kolkata offer help in GRE preparation and application. George
Edcare is worth mentioning, it is cheap but helpful (not in application). Princeton is expensive; it is very helpful in the application. I would give more weight to USEFI and my dedication than anything else.
I came to know about GRE in my second semester. One day I went with a physical chemistry problem to a faculty member in Pharm Analysis. Unable to solve it, the faculty member steered my attention towards GRE. I decided not to take GATE. If I would be in India I would have pursued MBA. That was my personal wish because I could never understand what I could have accomplished after M Pharm. However, let me not get nostalgic. I started following strings and unearthing information about the process. It was an insurmountable task from Jalpaiguri, a tinsel town. I had to undertake weekly journeys from Jalpaiguri to Kolkata for various fact-finding missions, mostly in general compartments, hanging in front of toilets. During my second and third year, I did undertake a research project with Late Mr. Soumik Choudhury. This yielded me a publication later on and the first prize in an all India Science Poster Conference. The last few months before the exam, I ran away from college and concentrated totally on GRE and took the exam. I would not encourage any of my juniors to take this route, especially making absence from college, because my situation warranted it. You guys might land in trouble if your follow my steps in this regard. There were three great saviors, Mr. Pathak, Mr. Adhikary, and Dr. Burman, who stood behind me like iron walls through my hard times. Most of the faculty were against my leave and me taking GRE more seriously than my college education (which was not the case and was evident when I got Gold Medal for standing first in West Bengal, 2009). So for you guys, the task will be a bit more challenging. However, you will have the advantage of having people before you who can guide you through the steps.
I do not want to go into further details of my experience and make it a personal anecdote. But before I end, a couple sentences of caution from a senior, from his personal experiences. Take your studies very seriously. Know the subjects very well. Never adopt any unfair means during exams, or take any short cuts. Once you come here, if you do not have a very solid base, you might have to go back. Adopting unfair means is harshly punished here as well.
The writer of this communiqué is a former student of B. Pharm, 2009 batch. Institute of Pharmacy, Jalpaiguri, India (First D.pharm collage in India).He is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Traynelis Lab, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.