How to balance studying with working as a pharmacist

Clinical diplomas, management courses and other advanced learning programmes can improve pharmacists’ knowledge and skills. But juggling work, learning and other responsibilities can be challenging — this article provides practical tips and guidance from those who have done it.

Clinical diplomas, management courses and other advanced learning programmes can improve pharmacists’ knowledge and skills. But juggling work, learning and other responsibilities can be challenging

A decision to dedicate yourself to years of postgraduate education is not one that is taken lightly, so it is little wonder that when Sanjeev Kaushal enrolled on the MSc in pharmacy practice at King’s College London, he admits to being worried.

He was committing himself to three years of part-time study at the same time as holding down a full-time job as clinical and professional standards manager at Celesio UK. Like many who undertake postgraduate courses while working, he was concerned about “fitting it all in”.

In addition to home learning of one to two hours per day at times, there were also 14 taught days requiring attendance at the university in both year one and two of his MSc. In order to attend these days, Kaushal took annual leave from his job – days that normally could be spent going on holiday or relaxing.

Managing your time well

So, how does he manage to juggle home life and work? “Time management is key,” he emphasises. “I took advice from people who had already taken the course. You have to plan and be organised, you can’t renegotiate with time, so it’s imperative to prioritise tasks. You need to work as you go along, and learn not to leave things to the last minute.”

This is echoed by Barry Jubraj, an experienced tutor from King’s College London and University College Pharmacy Foundation School: “Organisation is essential,” he says, “but this may mean different things to different people. It’s important to think, who am I? Am I a highly structured person, how will I make this work for me? You need to be self-aware.”

The Centre for Professional Development and Lifelong Learning at Keele University provides distance-learning courses for postgraduate pharmacists. Jacqui Kinsey, director of prescribing education, explains: “Our programmes are specifically designed to support the working pharmacist and we have a well-established team of tutors and administrators to support our distance learning students.”

She adds: “The student is told how many hours of study is expected of them and they are supported to identify where and when they will find this time.” A handbook provides links to study resources, including information on time management, while taught research programmes have specific teaching sessions on the managing time effectively.

Shortly after his preregistration training, community pharmacist Babir Malik enrolled in Keele University for a diploma in community pharmacy. This part-time distance-learning course also included taught days requiring attendance at the university on six Sundays over two years. While holding down a job and studying was still a challenge, Babir believes he had a slight advantage at this early stage in his career: “It was quite difficult to balance everything, but I was lucky in that I did it a year after qualifying so it wasn’t hard to get back into the preregistration mode of studying after work.”

Malik also fitted in time for studying whenever the opportunity arose: “If you are lucky enough to get a lunch hour, then using 15 minutes of it to work on your diploma helps. Also, depending on where you work and if you locum on a weekend, you could have time for studying at work, too.”

Hospital pharmacist Helen Jarvis, who completed a diploma in clinical pharmacy at Cardiff University, used some effective studying strategies that helped her to stay motivated: “To avoid the work eating into every weekend and evening, I set aside a few evenings a week to do the work, and then I made plans for the other evenings and weekends. This way it meant that the work had to get done on those allocated evenings. It also means that you have something to look forward to.”

Jarvis tried to use the library for studying: “It means that your home environment is kept for relaxing and you can have a non-interrupted space to get the work done.”

Maintaining motivation

Kaushal believes it is important that others understand what is involved: “Friends and family also need to be aware of the commitment you will need to make to the course, the support you’ll need from them and the sacrifices you will need to make.”

Jubraj concurs: “Getting it right from the outset is critical, communication is key to those close to you. It can stress people out: spouses, your children, your close friends and it puts stress on those relationships.

“You first need to manage expectations. They will need to know how long it will last and how much studying you will be doing. For example, will you be working in the evenings? What about weekends? It’s important to negotiate time with them, and a happy home life will help with that balance.”

For those who are struggling with time, Jubraj suggests putting simple structures in place could help. “Something as simple as putting a reminder in the calendar when an assignment is due, not the day before but a week before, will help manage time better. Don’t leave things to the last minute,” he advises.

Once you have started the course, you need to make best use of the available time. Jubraj emphasises: “Counter intuitive as it may sound, it’s important to have regular breaks. Don’t fall into the trap where you keep going and going — inevitably, it is counterproductive.”

It is also common for people to get frustrated, tired and stressed out, so Jubraj recommends studying in short bursts, although admits this is not for everyone.

When your motivation is flagging, Kaushal advises: “You need to be in right frame of mind to study. If you’re not motivated, don’t do it, as the quality of work will suffer.”

Postgraduate students at Keele University are provided with course calendars that detail, on a month-by-month basis, the progress they should have made and what assessments are due, allowing them to plan their workload. At induction they are provided with information on strategies to support their learning. In addition, the university’s student support and development centre provides resources to help students, as well as one-to-one support, if required.

Working and studying are not separate

Keeping motivated can be difficult while juggling all life’s normal challenges and studying. Jubraj believes there is no better motivation than feeling you are making progress: “Look for how you can put learning into practice. Success is motivating. Work and study are seen as separate, but they aren’t. Learning is better in context. Sometimes you might see a patient and learn something from that encounter, or you learn something and apply that learning to a patient. That way you are more likely to remember.”

Malik also found that the course helped him in his day job. “Working can help with study and vice versa. One of the modules at Keele was ‘Working with prescribers in primary care’. This gave me the confidence to build better working relationships with local GPs,” he explains.

Kinsey says: “Postgraduate assessments at Keele are rooted in practice.” For example, case presentations require students “to reflect on the management of a real patient and make recommendations for the future management of the patient, or students studying an infections module might examine the appropriateness of a set number of antibiotic prescriptions”.

Jarvis also believes that, as well as being a challenge, working and studying at the same time is beneficial: “It is the best way of learning, if the work is relevant. With the diploma in clinical pharmacy it was often the case that the coursework would tie in with the rotations. If you have coursework where you can pick the topic, then it is worth considering a topic that would correspond with what you are doing in work at that particular time, because it makes learning so much easier.”

Getting the right support

For Malik, keeping in touch with other students throughout his course was also important for sharing ideas and experiences: “I found it helpful to keep in touch with fellow students on the course and bounce ideas off each other. Networking on social media with pharmacists who have already done your course can be helpful, too.”

This network could be useful in difficult times. Isolation is demotivating so it is important to know who to turn to for support in the event of problems, as Jubraj explains. “If you share problems with others who feel the same, such as peers, you will know you are not alone. If you’re struggling, speak to your assigned tutor early, even if it is just for a chat. Talk to the programme lead or other members of the team,” he advises.

Jarvis endorses these sentiments. She found that networking was easy and this helped with support and motivation: “As you are part of a wider group that meets up every few weeks for study days and assessments, you discuss how people are getting on from other hospitals and make contacts.

At Keele, students are given access to a virtual learning environment, where they can contact each other and discuss various elements of their work and the course. “This is important for students who study at a distance. We believe this makes them feel less isolated and gives them the opportunity to motivate each other,” says Kinsey. And study days “enable students to relate to each other better when working online, so they are in a better position to support and motivate each other”.

As well as peer support, Keele students receive workplace support. “In the hospital programme, each student has a clinical coordinator who can support the student through the studies and our independent prescribing programme uses ‘prescribing buddies’ who are qualified pharmacist prescribers,” Kinsey explains.

In addition, students are signposted to organisations that can help them in their working practice.

Malik found that the tutors were always there for help and advice when required. Kaushal kept in touch with his fellow students to share ideas and challenges and is fortunate that his employer has been both supportive and flexible while he undertakes his MSc.

However, if time pressures get too much or there are extenuating circumstances, it may be possible to postpone the course. This will depend on the course regulations, advises Jubraj.

And lastly, but importantly, he advises that it is essential to get the basics right: “Sleep, diet and exercise are easy to neglect, but skipping meals and snacking, going to bed late and getting up early is unsustainable. Exercise is great head clearer. Routine is important and this will help, but you must also leave time for play.”

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, November 2015, Vol 295, No 7883;295(7883):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2015.20069359

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