Q&A: How to Become a Pharmacist

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Emily Bellan, PharmD candidate at Duquesne University, shares insights on pharmacy school applications, on-campus involvement opportunities, and career paths after graduation.

Community pharmacies stand as pillars in their communities. Unlike at busy doctor's offices or hospitals, community pharmacists have the time to build relationships with their regular customers: this familiarity allows them to tailor care to specific needs, identify potential medication issues, and ensure patients are getting the most out of their treatments. This commitment to personalized care bridges the gap between the clinical efficiency of larger institutions and the individual needs of patients, fostering a supportive environment where health and well-being come first.

Pharmacy icons on blue background / Chingiz - stock.adobe.com

Pharmacy icons on blue background / Chingiz - stock.adobe.com

This dedication to patient care, and proximity to the community, is what inspired Emily Bellan, PharmD candidate at Duquesne University, to pursue pharmacy. In her words, "Getting to work in a community pharmacy meant that the same customers would come in and get to know me. I thought that building those relationships, and knowing that these customers trusted their local pharmacist, was so amazing. "

In a conversation with Drug Topics, Bellan talks about her path to becoming a pharmacist, how to apply for pharmacy school, post-graduate opportunities for students in the field, and more.

READ MORE: Redefining Pharmacy Education for LGBTQ Pain Management

Drug Topics: What made you interested in studying pharmacy?

Emily Bellan, PharmD candidate: As soon as I got my driver's license at 16 and a half, I got a job at the local community pharmacy, and I started off as a lottery girl. I worked at the front counter as a clerk. Then they moved me to the back of the pharmacy, where the pickup counter was, and eventually I wanted to try to become a pharmacy tech. I really enjoyed the people that I saw every day at work, and the process of everything, and I was good at school, but I didn't know what I wanted to do after. Then I got this job, and I thought, “I kind of like this, this could be something to explore further. Why don't I just become the pharmacist? Why don't I just keep working my way up and see what it's all about?” So that’s my experience. I feel like it's very different from most people, but I just was able see the industry for myself and what it was all about.

Drug Topics: So, you started working in a pharmacy, but you didn’t ever anticipate becoming a pharmacy tech?

Bellan: No. When I started, I was 16 and needed gas money. My parents said, “Why not just work at the pharmacy?” We had been going to the local pharmacy since I could remember. My grandparents use that pharmacy, we use that pharmacy, and the staff was a great group of people. I come from a very small town, so we valued the community that it provided.

Drug Topics: What was your favorite part of the job?

Bellan: It was probably a combination of both the actual work process and the structure. Getting to work in a community pharmacy meant that the same customers would come in and get to know me. I thought that building those relationships, and knowing that these customers trusted their local pharmacist, was so amazing. I wanted to become a part of that—to be that pharmacist and community member that people sought out and talked to about their problems and their health care. I had good mentors and good pharmacists to look up to, and that made me want to model my future after that.

Drug Topics: How did you choose your current school?

Bellan: As for Duquesne, I really liked that it is a smaller university. I felt much more valued and appreciated here opposed to other pharmacy schools where I felt like a number. I think that it came down to going to campus. Duquesne has this pharmacy acceptance day where staff walks you through everything about the pharmacy school at the university. After attending, I felt a much deeper connection there, more valued, and closer to the professors and the faculty than I did at other schools. I still feel that now as I attend the school. Duquesne definitely cares about their students and wants them to succeed.

Another thing that I thought was great about Duquesne was that they had guaranteed acceptance. So, if I kept a certain GPA within the pre-professional phase of my program, I was guaranteed admission to the professional phase. It just required an interview. It gave me a safety net knowing that as long as I worked hard enough, I didn’t have to compete too hard for a slot.

Drug Topics: What extracurriculars are important to put on an application to pharmacy school?

Bellan: Since you are going into a health care field, I think that you should be confident in the science and STEM areas in school. But just because you’re good at science doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing you should put on your application. Any sort of university, pharmacy school included, wants to see that you have passions and interests. So, do sports because you want to do sports. Don't just join Model UN because you think that it’s going to make you look smart. Stay true to yourself and do what you like to do.

Duquesne values professionalism, leadership, innovation, career exploration, service, and professional work experience. You don’t need to have years of pharmacy experience before you apply for pharmacy school, but going to your local pharmacy and asking if you can shadow or get involved in some capacity shows that you're interested in exploring your career before you even get accepted. When it comes to innovation, if you're creating something that didn’t exist before, putting yourself out there, or just making your school better, that is incredible. They would love to see that on an application.

Drug Topics: What are the most valuable opportunities you found at Duquesne that students should consider exploring in their own experiences?

Bellan: There is something for everyone here. The university really wants you to be involved in the pharmacy school, whether that's being a class officer, such as a president, vice president, or secretary, but they also have an opportunity to be a curriculum ambassador. In the role, you communicate how your class feels about the curriculum, courses, and university operations, to help the school improve and change.

Duquesne also has pharmacy Greek life. I'm part of Lambda Kappa Sigma on campus, which is an all-female fraternity. On top of that, they have a whole slew of pharmacy organizations that you can find your niche in. I’m on the executive board of AAPP, which stands for the American Association of Psychiatric Pharmacists. I'm also part of HEART, which stands for Helping to Educate and Rehabilitate Together. It’s an organization that addresses substance use disorders and people that struggle with addiction. In those organizations, I get to be involved in so many more opportunities that allow me to engage with the community, do fundraisers, and provide service.

There's something for everyone and the university highly encourages students to get involved. It’s a very low commitment thing—if you find that you're not interested in an organization, you could check out a different organization meeting next semester. I think something cool about Duquesne is that we have a common hour, which is an hour at lunchtime where no classes run. That's when all these organizations have their meetings, so there’s no scheduling interferences for students who want to get involved.

Drug Topics: What are the most common paths students take after pharmacy school?

Bellan: At Duquesne, pharmacy students are assigned rotations in their last year, which allow them to complete field work to use as stepping stones for figuring out what they want to do. Next year, I’m going to be on 7 different rotations.

When I started, I had no idea that there was so much to choose from, but the university helps push you to explore your options. You can do community pharmacy, or you can work as a general pharmacist in a hospital setting. You can also do a 2-year residency, where you’re able to specialize in a certain field of pharmacy, like oncology, cardiology, endocrinology, and more. You could also work in the emergency department with patients who are critically ill, or work in an ambulatory care setting. And if you don’t like any of that, you can go into research.

A lot of people think that we put the pills in the bottle and hand them to patients, and that’s their idea of pharmacy, but there’s a whole world of things that pharmacists can do that people aren’t aware of. When people visited their pharmacy for COVID-19 vaccines, they realized that they could get more than just flu shots in that health care setting. It helped people to see that pharmacists can do so much more than they thought that they did.

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