Is pharmacy a good career choice right now?

I always wanted to be an archaeologist, growing up. I knew, however, that this was probably a pipedream- partly because I dislike creepy crawlies, but mostly because I was pretty sure in my childhood brain that everything interesting would have been dug up already by the time I was old enough to work.

Turns out I was wrong about that, but I’m still really proud of the profession I ended up in. I remember wandering up to the local shops with my Mum when I was little. We were talking vaguely about the future, when we had a little nose around the local chemist’s shop, cooing at the colourful bubblebaths and hairgrips that they had in stock.

“I know”, Mum said. “Why don’t you become a pharmacist?”

“What’s one of those?”, I asked. As far as I was concerned, the chemist’s shop was a place to buy cheap make-up and bath salts.

“Well, they stand in the back and mix up the medicines”. That’s it, I was hooked. I had images of brewing potions, mixing up gloopy ointments, and all sorts of stuff that, it turns out, in real life you only actually get to do for a couple of hours as an undergraduate. But my decision was made, and all the rest of my life I knew I was going to be a pharmacist.

As I got older, and I started telling people what I wanted to do, I used to hear nothing but positive things. I worked as a counter assistant in my local super market, and locums always used to tell me “You’ll never be out of work. Everyone is always desperate for pharmacists.”

At the time I graduated (2006), it still hadn’t been that long since the Great Pharmacist Shortage. This happened because the old style three year degree now became a four year Masters degree- so there was one year where no newly qualified pharmacists came on the scene. Everywhere you looked, people were crying out for a full time pharmacist to work for them. Whatever happened, you always knew that you could locum as a back up, and earn a good wage doing so.

As university went on, and I started applying for pre-reg places, I got worried. Not because I didn’t think I would get a place- in actual fact I was being courted by several companies, all of whom were clamouring to fill their pre-reg spots. I think I did maybe 10 interviews, and I got job offers from every one of them (and believe me, some of those interviews I was really quite atrocious in). No, I was worried, because I wanted to do my pre-reg in hospital, and I knew that pre-reg places really were limited in my local area- only 7 for the whole city.

I was lucky, and I got in. My year was really lucky, as it turns out there were enough jobs going for each of us pre-regs- though I actually went elsewhere. Whilst community pharmacy jobs were plentiful, hospital pharmacy was a lot more difficult to get a job in.

Nowadays, it has changed so much. I don’t think I can ever really hear myself saying the sort of things I was told to an enthusiastic school child now. “You’ll never be out of a job” would just simply be a massive lie.

When I was choosing universities, there were only a handful that actually offered pharmacy as a degree. In recent years there has been a proliferation of universities offering it now though, and as a result, the number of graduates is increasing year on year. I’m sure this isn’t the whole reason, but we have now reached a point where pre-registration places are becoming really hard to come by. There is a group of potential pharmacists, year on year, who will simply never be able to get a place anywhere.

So what does that mean? Well, you can’t register as a pharmacist, so you can’t work in your chosen profession. You’ve still got a Masters degree- but you’re actually pretty limited as to what you can do with it. Sure, its equivalent or better than a pharmacology degree, but you’ll always have a question hanging over your career, whatever you choose to do: “If you’ve got a pharmacy degree, why aren’t you a pharmacist?”. There’ll always be a slight, unfair, cloud of suspicion there. It means, even for those lucky enough to get pre-reg places, that jobs are more and ore difficult to come by, wages are being lowered despite responsibilities and workloads being higher, and locum shifts are both hard to get and pay an awful lot less.

Several places that I do locum shifts for have an email alert system for new shifts. On several occasions, I have received an email, checked my diary for my availability, then rang back immediately only to be told that all the shifts have gone already. The good thing that comes out of this is that, once you get your foot in the door, there is an incentive to work hard and become known as one of the best, most hardworking locums, because then you will get offered shifts first. The bad thing is that its now really hard to get that first step on the ladder.

How do we fix it? I have no idea, as it’s a multifactorial problem. A cap on the number of students studying pharmacy does seem logical, but that’s already been stamped upon by the Minister for Universities, science and cities Greg Clark MP, who has said:

Having considered the evidence I have decided that it is not necessary to introduce a specific student number control for pharmacy. The government's objectives for pharmacy can best be achieved outside of a number control system. It is the government's policy to remove student number controls wherever possible to enable students to have greater choice and to encourage universities to offer better quality courses to attract students. I believe pharmacy students can and should benefit from this reform and not be restricted. Therefore there is no need to consider further options for a pharmacy number control.”

It seems to me that the one thing that Mr Clark isn’t considering is those students. Yes, they might have greater choice, but I wonder, if asked, where their priorities lie- would they rather have more choice, or would they rather have some security in their future. I wonder if it has occurred to him to ask them directly.

So it is that I, and a number of other pharmacists, are sadly starting to discourage students from looking at pharmacy as a profession. Its through no fault of their own, and its brilliant that so many young people want to be pharmacists- but its hard out there, and its only going to get harder. Our bright young potential pharmacists might be better off opting for a less focused, vocational degree.

Hxxx