Being a pharmacy professor is far different from what many pharmacy students imagine it to be. Here, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice discusses some of the things she has learned in her role as a pharmacy faculty member.
Authored By: Nicole Asal, Pharm.D., BCPS
I knew early on in pharmacy school that I wanted to pursue a pharmacy residency and when the time came to search for a residency program, I searched for ones that offered a teaching certificate. Not all certificate programs are created equal, so I looked for one that would not overwhelm me, but would definitely give me some insight and training into the world of academia
While the teaching certificate program I ultimately attended was organized and robust, I do not think anything could have prepared me for my leap into the world of academia. I’m not sure I had a lot of expectations going into this new realm, but now that I’m here, I’ve certainly had a lot of realizations.
The following are several of the major realities that come to mind as I reflect on my time as a pharmacy faculty member.
1. Your pharmacy professors (and preceptors) know everything
When I was in school, I thought professors (and preceptors) were all knowing. They were always so confident in their responses, citing guidelines and current literature like they wrote it themselves.
I’ll never forget the day this mindset started to change for me. I was on a surgical and cardiothoracic intensive care unit rotation and my preceptor asked me a question that I had to get back to him on, because I did not know the answer on the spot. I must have been visibly frustrated and disappointed that I didn’t know yet another answer when he smiled and said to me: “You know, we [your preceptors] don’t know all of the answers. You just don’t always see us looking it up.”
Now that I’m on the other side, I can tell you: yes, sometimes I know the answer, but a lot of times I do not. More than likely though, I am going to ask my students to find answers on their own. This is not because I am mean or I do not want to help them, but rather because this is what helped me learn when I was a student – and still helps me today.
As the saying goes: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
2. You must need a ton of experience & a teaching degree to pursue academia
I looked for residency programs with a teaching certificate because I knew I eventually wanted to do some sort of teaching. I have always loved communicating with people and learning new things. However, I thought this was something that would come after at least 5 years of practice (arbitrary number).
When I was a pharmacy resident, I helped to precept pharmacy students on their advanced practice rotations. I remember feeling out of my league thinking, “what can I possibly teach them? I’m still learning!” It only took seeing one patient together in clinic to help me appreciate how far I had come in my experience and learning.
Fact: most of your professors (pharmacy and non-pharmacy) don’t have higher degrees in teaching and/or education. However, in order to teach pharmacy students the required information, professors have to understand the material and its application. In pharmacy this means they are usually pharmacists or pharmaceutical scientists (i.e. med chem, pharmacology).
Becoming a pharmacy professor requires a commitment to lifelong learning. We are constantly researching, developing, and implementing new and innovative ways to deliver the required material.
3. All pharmacy professors do is teach in the classroom
When I was a student, I had no idea what my professors were responsible for doing outside of class. Perhaps you know them as a faculty adviser for a student organization or they met with you during office hours, but that was it.
I really only started to comprehend what pharmacy professors actually do after about a year or so into my current position. Even if we were only teaching in class, it takes constant time and attention to a topic to update it so you are learning the most up to date information. Writing good exam questions takes a tremendous amount of time. I learned this first hand on my academia rotation as a pharmacy student.
So what else do your pharmacy professors do in addition to “classroom” responsibilities? Well for example pharmacy practice faculty may take students and residents on rotation, maintain a clinical practice site, treat patients, bill for visits, offer novel clinical services, serve on committees (university, practice institution, and in regional and national organizations), advise student groups, or contribute to institutional and national guidelines. In addition, many faculty have research or “scholarly” responsibilities, which means being engaged in the design, execution, and manuscript preparation of research projects.
4. You only need mentors when you are a student
When I was a student, I did not really know what a mentor was. I had an assigned faculty adviser but I think I only met with her one time. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to talk to her about. However, looking back, I was fortunate to have many mentors along the way in my pursuit of pharmacy as a career.
Throughout pharmacy school, I sought guidance from several of my pharmacy faculty, rotation preceptors, work colleagues, and other pharmacists I knew from my past. These were people I connected with in different ways either because of an interest in a topic or course assignment, research area, or even just a personality match. In residency, I formed new lifelong relationships with mentors.
When seeking my current position as a Clinical Assistant Professor, I leaned on my mentors from all phases of my professional journey. I did not know much about the world of academia and my professors and preceptors were essential in guiding me through the process. Even in my current role, I have mentors that I rely on as I navigate the world of academia.
When I started as a pharmacy faculty member, I was assigned two mentors in my department: one that also has an internal medicine rotation and one who is also located at my practice site. In addition to them, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by a department and college that supports and encourages me. Each day, I am learning something new and I lean on my mentors to achieve my best.
If you asked me during my residency if would be doing what I am doing now, I would have thought you were crazy. Now though, I cannot imagine life any other way.
So, my main piece of advice to anyone considering pharmacy academia is this: be curious. Your job as a pharmacy professor will be to learn and teach… you will need to be passionate about it. Talk to your mentors and/or professors. We are all invested in your learning and want to see you succeed.
So be open to and seek out new opportunities, because you never know where life will take you. Maybe one day you will find yourself employed as a pharmacy professor!
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