In this article a current pharmacy student discusses a failure and how she learned from it to succeed in the future.
Authored By: Madeleine Tilley, Pharm.D., Candidate 2021
[Last updated: 24 May 2020]
I have never liked the word ‘failure’. I think my anxiety stems back to the first time I ever failed an assignment. It was a ridiculously intense syllabus quiz that asked for the professor’s phone number, email, and due dates for assignments. My heart raced as I broke out in a cold sweat and the feeling of existential dread lasted the whole class period. Chances are if you are in a pharmacy program, you understand that feeling too. Maybe it was when you were first asked to counsel a mock patient on an inhaler you had no idea how to work or you had to give a subcutaneous injection to your best friend with tiny arms. Those happened to me too and as a “Failure Survivor”, I want to share what I have learned through my biggest challenge, in hopes that other pharmacy students can learn from my mistakes.
During my second year of pharmacy school (i.e., P2 year), I attended a state pharmacy meeting where I heard an incredible speaker talk about burnout in healthcare. To my surprise, I now had a name for those negative feelings I had been experiencing that fall semester. I wanted to disengage from my peers, was emotionally exhausted, and felt no joy looking at our school building, a place where I was actively achieving my dreams. Participation in research is encouraged by my school of pharmacy and with my new interest, I decided that a research project in burnout was something I wanted to pursue.
Failure was the farthest thing from our mind when I collaborated with a fellow student and a faculty mentor to create our burnout-focused research project. We had done a literature search and found limited data on pharmacy students specifically, so that became our focus.1 I came into the project with high expectations that would not be met. Looking back now, it was not until my project went up in smoke that I was able to learn valuable lessons about the benefits of failure.
Lesson #1: Know Your Audience
My research team modified the Stanford Professional Fulfillment Index to examine the effects of a resilience intervention on pharmacy student burnout.2 The tool had been tested in healthcare professionals, was shorter than other options, and most importantly, was free. We created a test/ intervention/ retest model with hopes of seeing statistically significant changes to our population following the intervention. The intervention was a fourteen day trial of psychologist Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things”.3 To participate, each student was instructed to write down three good things about their day. With a personalized intervention, there was no way the study could fail, right? Wrong.
Our first study attempt yielded a complete response rate of 5%. That pitiful data yield was leagues away from our expectation of 30-40%. It was a failure. Looking back now, this is not surprising. Burnout can feel like you’re continually drowning in responsibilities and assignments. If a student was already experiencing burnout, study participation may not be feasible. If I would have taken the time to know my audience, my initial approach would have been more considerate of a pharmacy student’s limited time and energy.
Lesson #2: Your Work is Not Perfect
Life changing revelation here: people are not perfect… and the things people create are also not perfect.
As a Type A perfectionist, I do not like acknowledging that my work is not up to par. After realizing the sheer imperfection of our initial attempt, I knew we needed a complete overhaul. I was feeling defeated and had a final exam the next day. Perfect timing (LOL)!
To begin the revision process (in between cramming the ACC/AHA Hypertension guidelines), I met with our team and other faculty mentors to decide what direction we should take the project. I was challenged with thought provoking questions that gave me an opportunity to reflect on the objectives. The second round of our project had simpler methods and was reviewed by several faculty for feasibility. Our imperfection was an opportunity for a fresh perspective and a second chance.
Lesson #3: Don’t Quit (Even When You Want To)
Once my final exam was over, it was time to put our new vision into action. I had taken copious notes from our meetings the day before and had everything I needed to start attempt #2. Seeing those blank Institutional Review Board (IRB) forms made me tense up, since it had gone so poorly the first time and we were in a serious time crunch. I had only four days to make a draft, have my team review them, make changes, sign them, and submit them to the IRB. Quitting at this stage and delaying our project for another semester was tempting, but not the right choice.
With some caffeine, motivational music, and a pep talk from my faculty mentor, my inspiration returned with a vengeance and we completed everything in record time.
Lesson #4: Ask for Help
If I could go back to my first semester of pharmacy school and tell myself one thing, it would be not to be ashamed to ask for help.
Let’s be real, there is no way I could have gotten this far in pharmacy school without help! My research partner is my rock and never failed to answer my questions, no matter how ridiculous they seemed. My faculty mentor gave me the greatest gift of all – a safe place to fail. As I realized my previous mistakes, she helped me rebuild and try again. She is an incredible mentor. We were also lucky to have other faculty members who genuinely wanted to help us succeed. I will never be able to thank them or my team adequately.
Even with all of our new ideas, we had a complete response rate of roughly 2% for our second attempt. Keeping in mind all the lessons I had learned, I made a new plan. We went back to analyze the initial survey results and found a statistical significance in workplace exhaustion, one of the three components of burnout. This was meaningful information that could be shared with others! We were even selected to present our findings at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) poster session at the Midyear Clinical Meeting, which was the highlight of my pharmacy school career.
Who would have thought my biggest challenge would teach me so much? My victory is all the more meaningful because I fought for it. As for our school’s burnout, we took what we learned and applied it to our monthly Student Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (SSHP) chapter meetings. At the end of each meeting, we presented a resilience tool for students to try. By the end of the year, we presented 6 tools and some of my members expressed how the tools improved their overall wellbeing. We even have a follow-up burnout project in the works.
As I begin my P4 year with online rotations, I find myself reflecting back on what I have learned and hurdles I have conquered. I hope other students can learn from these lessons and use them to succeed in their own future challenges. With doors to the future beginning to open, I think it is time for this “Failure Survivor” to become a “Challenge Thriver.”
1. Henning K, Ey S, Shaw D. Perfectionism, the impostor phenomenon, and psychological adjustment in medical, dental, nursing and pharmacy students . https://medschool.ucsd.edu/som/hear/resources/Documents/perfectionism in students Henning_et_al-1998-Medical_Education.pdf. Accessed May 13, 2020
2. Trockel M, Bohman B, Lesure E, et al. A Brief Instrument to Assess Both Burnout and Professional Fulfillment in Physicians: Reliability and Validity, Including Correlation with Self-Reported Medical Errors, in a Sample of Resident and Practicing Physicians . Acad Psychiatry. 2017; 42: 11-24
Acknowledgements: Mary Douglass Smith, PharmD.; Missouri M. Jenkins, PharmD. Class of 2020; Katherine E. Hanlon, PhD; Eileen D. Ward, PharmD., BCACP, TTS
Disclosures/ Disclaimers: The author declares no conflicts of interest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Madeleine Tilley, Pharm.D. Candidate 2021
From Denver, NC, Madeleine is a fourth-year pharmacy student at Presbyterian College School of Pharmacy in Clinton, SC and is eagerly anticipating graduation in May 2021. After graduation, she plans to pursue both a Post-Graduate Year 1 and 2 (PGY1, PGY2) pharmacy residency program with the goal of becoming a clinical pharmacy specialist. As a clinical pharmacy specialist, Madeleine would like to work with an interdisciplinary team to provide quality patient care, while encouraging patients to advocate for themselves. Madeleine is passionate about Solid Organ Transplant, Infectious Disease, and Critical Care and hopes to complete a PGY2 in one of these areas. One of her long term goals is to give back to the profession by teaching the next generation of pharmacists. Throughout her time at PCSP, Madeleine has served as SSHP President, APhA-ASP Vice President of Membership, Phi Lambda Sigma Historian, Junior Board Member for SCSHP, and a student representative on the PC Board of Trustees.
In her free time, Madeleine enjoys wakeboarding with her family and playing with her chocolate lab, Kimber. She has recently learned how to bake bread and is training for a 5k. In the future, Madeleine looks forward to being able to travel and explore healthcare around the globe.
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