Readers and friends often ask me if it makes sense for someone to go to pharmacy school nowadays. As someone who has been a practicing pharmacist and instructor for high school and college students since 2000 I feel like I’m qualified to throw in my two cents.
So whether it’s you, a son, daughter or grandchild considering the profession here are my thoughts.
Why Are You Considering Pharmacy School?
In my freshman year of college I had to take a speech class. Like millions of other people I was dreading taking it but it ended up being something I was really good at.
Truth be told, I had a penchant for speaking in front of people at a young age. I had won other speech contests before. But, I had been out of practice a long time and was nervous.
I shouldn’t have been. The class went so well that the professor asked me and another student to perform a debate at the end of the semester – which was a blast.
But it was a conversation that I had with my professor outside of class that really jolted me. We were walking down the hall and he asked me what I was majoring in. I told him I was trying to get into pharmacy school.
In a disappointed tone he asked, “Why are you doing that.”
He then said, “You’re wasting your talent.”
Another great thinker by the name of Aristotle gave similar advice a while ago and I’d encourage you to think long and hard about it:
“Where your talents and abilities and the needs of the marketplace intersect – therein lies your vocation.”
In other words, start with the end in mind.
So many people, myself included – used pharmacy school as the beginning because we could make ‘good’ money without ever giving any thought to:
- What does the market want and value?
- Where do your particular talents and abilities lie?
I had a penchant for speaking. I knew that. My professor knew that. But I was headed into a field that would – for the most part – NOT leverage this talent.
You likely have similar talents. If they are a fit for pharmacy … great. If they aren’t, it may be time to rethink your decision.
Action Step: Takes Artistotle’s advice to heart. First, find out what you’re unique talents and abilities are then look at the market’s wants and needs. Where those meet is where you should focus. If it’s pharmacy, great. If it’s not, move on.
Pharmacy School Is Different From The Field of Pharmacy
From the first day I took classes in college until I was accepted into pharmacy school was just over a year and a half. Which gave me plenty of time to do some background work and talk to pharmacists to get their take and see what pharmacy was really like.
Do you know how many pharmacists I actually talked with?
In fact, I didn’t even know any pharmacists growing up. I had absolutely zero evidence to support my decision to apply to pharmacy school other than things I had read (which was little). Or second and third-hand reports I was getting (which, it turns out, were unreliable and biased).
If I had to do it again I would not only talk – but try and shadow – at least 10 people in the field I was pursuing. And when I talked with them I would try to do it away from their work environment. Take them out for lunch or coffee. Most people are going to hedge their answers somewhat when they know there might be coworkers or bosses within earshot.
Action Step: No matter what field you might be considering talk to at least 10 people in that profession outside of their work environment. Encourage them to be brutally honest with you. Also job shadow those people. Is this a lot of work? Yes. But you’re about to make a huge decision that will affect you in many different ways. This is MANDATORY.
Medicine Will Always Be In Demand?
I recently read a statement by Doug Casey – the best selling author – encouraging people to gain certain skills to protect themselves financially. In that article he said medicine will always be in demand so it would be a good field to consider.
Medicine WILL always be in demand – but Casey is taking a 35,000 foot view of the situation. You need to dig deeper. Just because medicine will always be in demand doesn’t mean HOW that medicine will be handed out won’t change.
It’s no different than saying ‘people will always need drugs’. Which is an accurate statement. But that doesn’t mean pharmacist’s will always be the ones dispensing those drugs.
Pharmacy Has Changed … And Not For The Better
I was fortunate. I got into pharmacy school during a huge boom. In the late 90’s there was a severe shortage of pharmacists. Salaries rose and I and my contemporaries enjoyed a rising tide.
In response to the market shortage of pharmacists pharmacy schools began to pop up all over the country. There are now roughly twice as many pharmacy schools as there were when I went.
The market has now been flooded with pharmacists. The tide has shifted in favor of employers. I know of pharmacists who now cannot find jobs.
Granted, it’s not bad, per se. But the job market has tightened.
Earning Potential And Job Satisfaction Has Dropped
I’m always leery of those job satisfaction surveys you read online.
First, if employees know their results may become public they’re more likely to hedge their bets and fib about what they REALLY think. This is why I suggested above to talk with those pharmacists OUTSIDE of work.
Furthermore, if my conversation with rank and file pharmacists are any indication, 9 out of 10 don’t enjoy their job. And I’d feel comfortable placing a sizable bet on 75% of them absolutely loathing their work.
Is it all bad? No. And some of the bitching and moaning is just because people like to complain.
Me personally, I’ve moved to a different position that I think is going to grow into something that fits my wheelhouse a lot better in the near future. That’s not guaranteed, mind you. But I have reasons to be optimistic about my future.
Another reason for my optimism is because I’m making a general move to get on the right side of the balance sheet. More on that below.
But back to REAL job satisfaction.
It’s dropped simply because pharmacy has become more and more of a volume game. You can especially see this in the retail setting. There have been a lot of factors that are driving this from tighter margins to plain overall greed in the big, corporate setting.
But pharmacists are forced to do more, with less. Stress is at an all time high. Benefits have been cut back.
In short, the general trend has been headed this way hard for the last decade. I don’t see it letting up anytime soon.
Move Away From Being a Generalist
Despite a gloomy outlook in ‘traditional’ pharmacy (i.e., the drug store setting) there are opportunities out there and pockets that you can plant your flag.
One of those is Specialty medications. The overall spending outlook for this class of drugs is rising through the roof. So there are certainly opportunities there.
However, in the last few years more and more large corporations see what’s going on and are entering the game – so the window is closing.
I’ve seen this before with other pockets over the years so I’m sure there will be other things to pop up.
My point is that you can’t think like a generalist in pharmacy. Get it out of your head that you’re going to make it big in the little corner drug store. Those places – for the most part – have gotten pinched out. Which leaves you with big corporate retail pharmacy (i.e., Walmart, Walgreens, etc.).
Action Step: Look for areas of specialization.
Get On The Right Side Of The Balance Sheet
Imagine yourself as a bean counter in a company. Each month you’re looking at the balance sheet: expenses vs income.
You’re job is to lower expenses and increase income. The ways in which you do that vary by company. But the bottom line is a company needs to turn a profit or close it’s doors.
Burn this in your brain: pharmacists – by in large – are an expense. And a big one at that.
For ease of math’s sake let’s say that a pharmacist is making a $100,000 a year salary. The estimates vary but you could easily bump the real cost of that pharmacist up to $150,000 when you include benefits, time off, various insurance, so on and so forth.
So, as the bean counter what do you do? You look for ways to lower that cost. They can include:
- Paying less and offering fewer benefits
- Cutting other ancillary staff (technicians and clerks)
- Cutting pharmacists positions and boosting ancillary staff (depending on the state laws)
I have seen all these done and personally experienced some of them.
Automation Is Here, Growing and Changing The Profession
Some people poo-poo the whole idea of technology and automation.
I’m not one of them.
I personally know one pharmacist who came into work one morning and was told his position would be eliminated. Along with 11 other pharmacists.
Turns out the big automation machine they had purchased some time ago had proven itself and could replace the work of nearly a dozen pharmacists.
Another example from Teeka Tiwari of the Palm Beach Daily who put together a piece on how automation is changing – and in some cases eliminating – certain professions:
“Pharmacists: A pill-picking robot at the University of Central Florida has dispensed 350,000 prescriptions without a single error. More than 50 university jobs were replaced by adding one robot pharmacist.”
I once worked for a large mail order. During the year I was there I never touched a drug. Pharmacists checked all prescriptions for accuracy but the filling component was done by a totally automated facility in another state.
The only errors that came out of that facility were caused by humans. I was told by one of the executives that their system had yet to make an error and well over a million prescriptions went out of that facility each year.
Automation Cannot Replace Certain Positions
Mind you – there is nothing wrong with automation in my mind. It’s simply the reality of the situation. If you can purchase a machine that can do exactly what a person can do – sometimes better – and for a fraction of the cost you are going to do it.
Prepare yourself for this reality – not just in pharmacy either.
But – if you are an income generator then that bean counter along with the executives aren’t going to think of killing their goose that lays the golden egg.
How do you become an income generator? That’s another post for another time but – in general – you’re talking about sales and marketing. Become a person that brings in business and income – not just costs the company money to service that business.
Insurance Companies Control Health Care
The reality of health care is that no matter where you enter the field (doctor, pharmacist, nurse, dentist, etc) your payment and livelihood is often controlled by insurance companies.
Some people say that ObamaCare will fix this and to them I can only assume they’ve recently underwent a full frontal lobotomy.
If anything – it will make the situation worse. Trying to not only get timely payments – but fair and accurate ones – on the services rendered from the government may be worse than insurance companies.
Pick your poison. The purse strings in health care are controlled by private insurance companies or the government.
Some professions (i.e., dentists and some doctors) have had some success moving to a cash-on-the-barrelhead type existence. I’d love to see more of this. It gives consumers more power and better service. It’s also more business friendly with higher margins and less overhead. But it takes cojones to pull it off which is why I imagine so few try.
Would I Do It Again?
The short answer is No. But let me clarify that a bit.
First of all, I really have no regrets. When I was in pharmacy school I loved it. I loved the clinical aspect of what I was learning. I thought at the time I had made an excellent decision. But I was naive. I hadn’t done enough research on the ‘real’ world of pharmacy and instead relied on the picture that was being painted in pharmacy school.
This isn’t a knock on my pharmacy school, by the way. They were encouraging us to use our clinical knowledge and be ‘change agents’ when we got out in the field. Their intentions were noble. But the real world of pharmacy made fulfilling those intentions hard – if not impossible.
And the people who really went out there are tried to change it had mountains – sometimes impassable ones – to climb. If I’m being honest – they weren’t ones I was personally willing to climb.
Now from an ROI perspective my degree was a good choice. I immediately entered the workforce making good money. Within a couple of years – with the help of mandatory overtime at my second employer – I was nearing six figures.
But, for the last five years I have seen salaries stagnate and then actually go backwards. Not terribly so, but the days of making low six figures with low five figure bonuses a thing of the past.
More and more pharmacies are selling to larger companies. Those buyouts often mean layoffs and or more work for the same amount of pay.
And I haven’t even touched on school debt.
Most state pharmacy school charge a ‘super tuition’. That is a tuition above and beyond the normal tuition. I had a number of people in my pharmacy class who had attained undergrad degrees prior to being accepted to pharmacy school.
So their bills were pushing six figures before they ever graduated. That was twenty years ago.
I don’t need to beat a dead horse – but college tuition certainly hasn’t gone down during that time.
Does that make pharmacy a bad financial choice? Not necessarily. But it certainly is not as favorable as it used to be when you consider all the factors I’ve laid out above.
But only you can make that decision.
Overall, my advice is to tread lightly. I am personally encouraging my own sons to avoid the field.