The following identifies several realities faced during my first 5 years as a pharmacist. This information may be helpful for future pharmacists as well as others soon to enter their post-college life.
Authored By: Timothy P. Gauthier, Pharm.D., BCPS-AQ ID
As a high school student looking to go to college I did not have a good handle on what I wanted to become as a working adult. For guidance I looked to my strongest areas of study, which were math and science. Eventually a career as a pharmacist caught my attention. I applied to a few schools and by September following graduation I was on my way to a 6-year doctor of pharmacy program at Northeastern University (Boston, MA).
Thinking back to the period of time between being accepted into pharmacy school and pharmacy school graduation day, I had many ideas of what life would be like as a pharmacist. Interestingly, during this time one scene frequently came to mind when contemplating my future. Seated on an airplane another passenger would come take his seat next to me. We would exchange greetings and he would proceed to ask me what I do for a living. My response of course would be: “I am a pharmacist.” But then upon being asked what that is like, I could never predict how I would respond.
At this time, I have been a pharmacist for just about 8 years. I have learned much over the years and perhaps some of the most valuable lessons came during my earliest years as a pharmacist.
To provide insights for others on what it is like during your first years as a pharmacist and perhaps part as an exercise in self-reflection, I have composed the following. These are five realities I have been faced with during my first five years as a pharmacist. Indeed several would not come up during casual airplane conversation, but they are some of the most important things to acknowledge.
Reality #1: All of the licensing requirements and paperwork is not that big of a deal
I recall being worried I may accidentally forget licensing responsibilities or have difficulty obtaining specific continuing education (CE) credits. To the contrary, this has been fairly easy.
Between the seemingly endless stream of email alerts from CE providers and large number of credits obtained from attending even a single pharmacy conference, the requirements have been hard to forget and fairly simple to achieve.
Being a board certified pharmacotherapy specialist has added another level of CE requirement, but given that it is spread out over seven years, this has not been so bad. Note, you can also forgo the CEs and retake the test to maintain board certification.
CE activities for basic licensing tend to be underwhelming. CE activities for board certification tend to be unnecessarily difficult.
When comparing pharmacist requirements to other healthcare professions, it is convenient pharmacists only need to do few basic CEs to remain licensed, while others are required to sit for re-licensing exams on top of a greater CE burden.
Reality #2: College loans really do come with a significant burden
Like many pharmacy students I graduated with a considerable amount of student loan debt. It was not as bad as the over $150k some students graduate with, but it was nothing to take for granted.
It was not the initial payments and responsibility that came as an unexpected reality check, but rather the fact I would be making payments for well over a decade into my future.
When it came time to budget for a car payment, home mortgage, daycare payment and other big life necessities the college loan payment has always been there limiting my flexibility.
My advice for my former self would be to (1) limit the debt you take on by applying for scholarships and managing expenses tightly, and (2) be aggressive about making money to pay off loans before taking on some of life’s major responsibilities. With more debt and more responsibilities, it becomes a greater challenge to pay off loans.
Reality #3: Being a pharmacist can be mentally taxing
While being a pharmacist means each day presents unique challenges and opportunities, at times the job can be very tiring.
As a hospital pharmacist doing order entry and staring at a computer screen for at least 7 hours a day it sometimes became hard to read the screen as my eyes burned towards the end of the shift. I would always get plenty of rest and come in ready to work, but over the course of the shift so much time in front of the screen became taxing. I would imagine many community pharmacist can sympathize with this experience.
Taking steps to reduce time spent in front of a computer screen is advisable. Spreading breaks from the screen out over the course of a shift is helpful rather than just taking one big break during a shift.
In addition, many times we are forced to juggle numerous complex issues at once. I learned that keeping checklists of pending tasks helped to limit the risk of over-looking something. I also learned that both patience and an understanding of the healthcare system are essential to effectively managing daily tasks. I still find it challenging to juggle everything, but it has gotten easier with experience.
Last, it is interesting to me that the vast majority of pharmacists seem to be consumers of various caffeine products. I never drank coffee until I was in my last year of pharmacy school. Now like many of my colleagues, I drink one almost every day.
Reality #4: Optimizing your health insurance, retirement and other benefit selections is not easy
In pharmacy school you may attend a session on financial management, but nothing really prepares you for when it comes time to pick from the plans your employer offers. I have continued to find it difficult to digest all of the base information provided as well as the endless procession of alerts, notices and updates. Speaking to peers, I know others also commonly struggle with this.
Discussing how others in the company manage their benefit options is one good way to help differentiate the options. This is especially helpful when others have similar family considerations or are on a similar path in regards to how long until retirement.
By not giving due attention to benefits you are essentially passing up on free money, but staying on top of it all is a continuous struggle and it is easy to overlook things.
Reality #5: Being a pharmacist is incredibly enjoyable
Pharmacy school is a challenge for even the most gifted students. I recall worrying that life as a pharmacist would be the same. Fortunately for me, this is not the case. I love being a pharmacist. More specifically, I love being an infectious diseases pharmacist.
Working with talented pharmacy, nursing and medical staff to help patients is fun and feels good. During all of my PGY1 pharmacy practice residency and at least 50% of my PGY2 infectious diseases pharmacy I felt amazingly inadequate. In time though, I gained more knowledge and this gave me greater confidence.
Now that I am confident in being aware of my limitations, it is easier to address the challenges I am faced with. Knowing that I am able to work effectively within the healthcare environment makes me feel as though I am able to better help patients and strengthens the bonds with my peers. This brings personal gratification and makes the job enjoyable.
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