As an MPharm student, I keep hearing about how competitive the pharmacy profession is becoming. At the beginning of my studies, I thought the best way to stay ahead of the curve was by focusing solely on my academic achievement. However, I quickly realised that this alone would not be enough.
Through completing work experience in a community pharmacy and a three-week hospital placement, I discovered that while having theoretical knowledge is extremely useful, it is the ability to apply that knowledge that determines how successful someone will be as a pharmacist. This is because much of the practical knowledge required in the role is gained while on the job.
Far more important than being book-smart is the ability to demonstrate your uniqueness and willingness to learn and communicate with others. One way I did this was by participating in voluntary activities and promoting them on my CV.
As with most things, getting started was the hardest part, but once I started to pay serious attention to university emails; a myriad of extracurricular opportunities became available, which left me with the tough decision of which opportunities to apply for.
To help me through the process I grouped my options into two categories: developmental opportunities and attention-grabbing opportunities.
Developmental opportunities have fewer incentives, or are highly available, so are less competitive. For example, being a peer-assisted study session (PASS) tutor, which involves teaching a group from the year below about concepts that they may be struggling with.
Attention-grabbing opportunities are unique roles that help students to stand out and provide evidence of skills, such as an administrative position in a society. Since these opportunities are limited, they are often highly competitive.
My experiences have taught me not to wait for opportunities to come to me but to actively search for them
When deciding which opportunities to apply for, it was important to remember that the overall goal was to develop myself into the best candidate for my dream job. I made a list of the skills I would need and applied for developmental opportunities that would allow me to develop these skills.
My first mistakes were being too focused on making my CV look impressive, and applying only for attention-grabbing opportunities. However, as I had not taken the time to develop the requisite skills to be the best candidate, I was rarely accepted for these. A better way to approach this kind of extracurricular activity is to participate in one or two developmental opportunities to allow you to develop the necessary skills.
Communication and leadership skills are the two skills every student should focus on developing. These are invaluable in practice, and evidence of these are required to be considered for most roles.
In pursuit of these skills, I would recommend becoming a PASS leader. These opportunities are available to all students even though some may feel they lack the skills required. By becoming a PASS leader, I have learned more about presenting and communicating with a wide range of people, and how to lead a group.
Working with other leaders is another benefit of PASS. My co-leaders are some of the most motivated and intelligent people I have had the privilege of meeting. Observing and learning from them was the best way to develop communication and leadership skills.
I have gained more than I originally expected and have taken advantage of opportunities that emerged from these experiences too. One example that springs to mind is when my co-leader decided to expand their PASS role to our pharmacy cohort — I was able to help run revision sessions for my own year group.
I have learned the importance of being proactive and developing my CV. My experiences have taught me not to wait for opportunities to come to me but to actively search for them. This is how I landed a paid summer placement in a laboratory, which had not initially been advertised.
Once you have developed a good foundation of skills, and learned to use your initiative, it becomes easier to gain further experience. But it is important to avoid overcommitting. It is easy to agree to things in the moment, but it is always worth considering whether you have the time to do something to the best of your ability.
Also, when it comes to interviewing for roles, think about how you can provide evidence of the skills you have developed, along with the outcomes you achieved in a role to help you succeed.
Alex McTaggart is a fourth-year pharmacy student at the University of Manchester.