Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker is the founder of The Happy PharmD, which helps pharmacists create an inspiring career, break free from the mundane "pill-flipping" life. He is a Full-time Pharmacist, Media Company founder, franchise owner, Business Coach, Speaker, and Author. He's also the Founder of Pharmacy School HQ, which helps students get into pharmacy school and become residents.

6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was in Pharmacy School

DECEMBER 09, 2016

“The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.” —Flora Whittemore

 

Hindsight is 20/20. I desperately wish I could go back in time and teach myself the lessons I've now learned. But because I can't, my hope is that future pharmacists will read this, take at least one lesson to heart and apply it to their lives. To help you get your future pharmacy career started on the right foot, I’m going to share 6 lessons and 6 action steps that I wish I would have figured out sooner:

 

Lesson No. 1: Clinical pharmacy is not the pinnacle of pharmacy practice.

 

Although I didn't understand this at the time, my pharmacy professors were subtly preaching that clinical practice was the ultimate form of the profession; that, to be a great pharmacist, I needed to practice clinical pharmacy. I didn't really understand what all that meant at the time, but I do remember believing that for me to be a great pharmacist, I need to be a clinical pharmacist, which meant I needed to get a residency.

 

Even though I had not experienced what a real clinical pharmacist does (more on that later), I was taught to believe that this was the goal and that shooting for anything less than a residency or clinical pharmacy practice was a poor career choice.

 

Action Step: You need to make sure that you realize what is influencing your career. Don't allow yourself to be indoctrinated to think any one way. Experience all of pharmacy—from a pharmacy technician position all the way to management or even research. Don't rule any career path out.

 

Lesson No. 2: Academic pharmacy is not pharmacy practice.

 

There are 2 basic schools within academic pharmacy: The pharmacy practice side of your education and the science part of your education. The science department is theoretical, mostly lacking in application, while the pharmacy practice side is nearly all application.

 

Traditionally, the science classes come first in order to understand more of the pharmacotherapeutics side of the pharmacy practice. Pharmacotherapeutics is taught by pharmacy practice professors who lead students through their pharmacy practice sites. I remember my rotations and thinking, "This is perfect." What these pharmacists do on a day-to-day basis is fun, exciting and challenging.

 

I also remember a rotation with a full-time clinical pharmacist whose job was much different than the academic pharmacist’s. They had different demands and a different, more challenging workload. The academic pharmacist who instructed me had more time to teach me and had more time to give me access to learn some of the applications. But the clinical pharmacist wasn't able to spend as much time because there was work to be done. There's also a different kind of work—work that wasn't exciting to me, like reports or analysis of workload.

 

Action Step: Although academic pharmacy rotations are great and you will learn tons, you won't really experience what it is like to be a clinical pharmacist. I encourage all students to shadow real practicing clinical pharmacists to understand what it entails, including the demands, the stress, the workload, etc.

 

Lesson No. 3: Never believe more debt is OK.

 

In my last year of pharmacy school, I had to take out an additional $4,000 of debt in to cover expenses. I remember having a conversation with my mother about this during which I said, "No worries. Another $4,000 isn't that big of a deal."

 

At the time, my mother (being the wonderful mother that she is) said something to the effect of, "Please don't think that. More debt is not a great thing." I didn't listen to her and I took out that debt. Looking back, I really regret that decision.

 

Action Step: Do whatever you can to avoid debt. To avoid that additional $4,000, I could have scrimped a little bit more. I could have eaten out less. I could have made more money at my job. I should have done anything to avoid that $4,000, because thanks to interest, that $4,000 cost me an additional $800 over the last four years of my career.

 

Lesson No. 4: Your network is way more important than you think.

 

The importance of your professional network is taught to students, but I don't really think most of them understand how critical it really is. Who you know truly determines where you end up in life. It's how job opportunities come through. It's how you learn about residency or career opportunities that no one else knows about. Early in our P1 year we were told that that our network is really important, but I didn't fully understand the consequences of not developing my network.

 

Action Step: Do everything you can to learn everything about your professors. As you begin your pharmacy career, they are your synergistic connector. They know dozens, if not hundreds, of pharmacists who could give you the experience you need to get your dream job. Even if it’s not your dream job, these connections could still lead to your first job.

 

Lesson No. 5: Go mile deep and an inch wide.

 

Pharmacy school is made to give you an expansive overview of the entire practice, meaning that you have to become an expert on a lot of things very quickly. This is great and it's helpful for anyone who has a wide interest in things. However, being a generalist usually doesn't benefit you.

 

The jobs are where the niches are. The more you niche down into your career, the more you are able to find a specialty that cannot only give you unique job opportunities, but also lead to a higher salary. Technology has changed many different industries, and pharmacy is ripe for innovation. If you have any tech ability, it would behoove you to learn more about technology and how you can apply it within the pharmacy profession.

 

Action Step: Don't join every pharmacy group. There are lots to choose from (American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, American Pharmacists Association, National Community Pharmacists Association, etc.), so pick one that really interests you and go deep within that group.

 

Gain connections through the group. Find out who's in leadership on a national level. Connect with them. I once connected with the CEO of American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy and that led me to a unique job opportunity (ultimately, I turned it down). The deeper you go with your interest, the more people you'll connect with.

 

Lesson No. 6: Leverage your connections.

 

I know I've harped on growing your network, but I can't overstate how important this is. The temporary pain of spending time growing your network will far overpay in dividends in the future. You must spend time growing your network, because if you don't, the job opportunities won’t be there for you after you receive your degree.

 

Action Step: As you grow your network, be sure to cultivate it. Don't just go on in life and never say “hi” to people. Make an effort to regularly connect with your contacts, because you never know when your hospital could shut down or your pharmacy group could be bought out. When those things happen, it's your network who will provide you with new opportunities.

 

To make sure your network is alive and well when you need it, you should make an effort to use your expertise to help others out. Volunteer for a cause that is important to a friend or help a contact organize a professional meeting. You should also try to meet new people through your existing contacts to expand your reach. And, don’t just think in terms of pharmacy. People from a range of professions might have advice, expertise or experience that could benefit you in some way.

 
By learning these lessons and following these action steps, you are on your way to being MUCH farther ahead than I was during my time in pharmacy school. Even though some of these suggestions will involve sacrifice and time, they are well worth the effort and will set you up for a successful transition from student to pharmacist.

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