An Interview with Pharm.D Graduate Jen Athay

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with Pharm.D Graduate Jen Athay

Determination lead from the dance team to a Pharm. D program and eventually to helping future pharmacists achieve their goals

As a Boise, Idaho-area teen, Jen Athay's biggest college aspiration was to become a part of the nationally-ranked Mane Line dance team at Boise State University. Once part of the team, the health science major began to explore career options, and the field of pharmacy called to her.

"I was not your typical student pharmacist. From the faculty and pharmacy school aspect, it's not very often that dancers become pharmacists. If you've seen the movie Legally Blonde, change the plotline from law school to pharmacy school, and make me not so sorority-like, and it's sort of my story," she tells "When I started pharmacy school, there were a lot of people that were fairly skeptical if the blonde dancer type would make it or not..I didn't really worry about their opinions. I think they were all pleasantly surprised that I was different than what I expected."

And that's being modest - at her 2004 Pharm. D gradation from the Idaho State University College of Pharmacy (Pocatello, Idaho), Jen received the prestigious Pfizer Student Leader Award. She was nominated for the 2003 ISU Student of the Year award and was the recipient of the 2003-2004 Frank L. Savage Scholarship for student excellence. Under her leadership, the ISU American Pharmacists Association-Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP) chapter received the Regional Operation Immunization Award in both 2003 and 2004, as well the National Policy and Legislative Award in 2003.

As a Pharm. D student, Jen devoted herself to educating others in the profession and wider healthcare field via articles in Pharmacy Student Magazine and presentations to professionals and Pharm. D students. Her work with APhA-ASP as a student led to numerous leadership positions, and ultimately, to her current professional role with the organization.

Her pharmacy clerkships/internships/externships included: community/retail pharmacy with Walgreens; ambulatory care pharmacy at a low-income clinic; inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care at a VA Medical Center; inpatient and outpatient adult pharmacy medical care; critical care pharmacy resource for 400-bed trauma center; pediatrics hospital pharmacy resource; pharmacy association management; and HIV Clinic pharmacy.

She currently is the Senior Manager of the Student Development Department for the Washington, D.C.-based American Pharmacists Association-Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP). Her position includes responsibility for development and management of various student pharmacist projects and programs, development of on-line resources, is part of the professional organization's efforts to develop student leadership abilities through APhA-ASP and the International Pharmaceutical Students' Federation (IPSF), and provides content and direction for Pharmacy Student Magazine.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your Pharm. D education and your educational background leading up to the Pharm. D program. How did you decide to study pharmacy?

I started my education at Boise State University; when I started school, my big aspiration was to be on the dance team at Boise State. I had no idea what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. My big aspiration was to go to school and dance for a nationally ranked dance team. As an undergrad, I took general studies, and I started noticing the classes I found most interesting fell in the sciences. I thought about going into healthcare, but I didn't know what part.

I started evaluating of fields within healthcare. I looked at being a physician and decided, based on the scheduling, that I didn't want to be on call all the time. I looked at being a nurse, but decided I'm not nice enough. I looked at being a physical therapist, but the statistics on how many are needed, and how many there are made it very competitive. I couldn't be a dentist, because I thought it was gross to put my hands in someone's mouth.

My friend's dad is a pharmacist, so I decided to ask him about being a pharmacist. He was actually getting out of the profession and getting into real estate when I talked to him. He had worked at a retail pharmacy setting for a long time, and had grown disenchanted with the field; he didn't feel like he was making a difference any more. He told me all of the reasons he got into it, the reasons he wanted to get out. So I so I thought to myself, "If that's all there is that's bad at about it, this might be for me."

So with the help of a friend in the field, I got a job working as a pharmacy technician at a hospital. The longer I worked there, the more I decided that I enjoyed what I was doing, that my personality was suited to the other pharmacists there, and that it was something that I wanted to pursue as a career.

I shifted my undergrad education to meet the prerequisites of getting into pharmacy school. Once you make the big decision, you have to look at what school you want to go to, as well as the type of school. Some schools are set up as six-year programs, where in the first two years, you are a pre-pharmacy student. Because I had two years of school under my belt, and had completed many of the prerequisites, I looked for a program offering the last four years. You have to look at specific prerequisites of each university. Each has a slightly different curriculum, so they'll have slightly different prereqs. I looked at schools where I live in Idaho, and in Utah, and the BSU counselors helped me set up a plan to take classes based on my first three pharmacy school choices.

I knew pharmacy school was going to be intense, I knew I'd be done with dancing; it was like a full time job. I chose to go to Idaho State, partly for financial reasons, and partly because I knew it was a good school; I knew people who went to school there who I thought were good pharmacists.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in the field of pharmacy?

Look at the geographical area; make sure you know a little bit about where you are going to spend a lot of time. If you're from New York City, a school somewhere in the middle of Nebraska might not be the best place for you. You are going to be there for a while.

Look into the curriculum, see how they've organized the classes. Ask questions: Are you going to learn body system by body system, topic by topic? How do you learn, and how do they teach; is it a fit? How much time will you spend hands-on with patients, how much time in class? Do they teach in a way that you can learn? Will they train you to be the best pharmacist that you can be? Look at all of these areas, they are important.

How has your previous education contributed to your success in the Pharm. D. program?

I got straight A's in high school without studying, without trying. I went to college, and I had to try. That was the time I learned how to study, how to learn the things that were the most important so I could remember them. I took the time to work in the hospital pharmacy to get some experience in the field. Some students go into pharmacy school without ever stepping foot into the pharmacy; for me, I didn't want to get that far and not know what the culture would be like. It was important to me to get experience into the field of pharmacy first, so that I felt like I was getting an informed decision before investing all that time, study, and money.

You were active in several pharmacy-related organizations as a student. Tell us about your experiences with these groups.

I saw the opportunity, especially with APhA-ASP, to make myself more marketable as a pharmacist by developing leadership skills, to make myself more professional. A lot of students miss out on those opportunities. I saw my friends and classmates further ahead of me in school gaining those skills, and I wanted to be a part of it. I realized you could go through school and graduate and never get those skills. Already a member, I decided to become more active in the organization to gain the skills I saw in others.

Because of my leadership roles in APhA-ASP, I was invited to be involved with the Phi Lambda Sigma leadership organization.

I learned things by being an active member of these professional associations. Regardless of the setting, on externship or clerkships or here at APHA, I gained skills that were applicable for any practice setting I was in. A lot of business skills, how to dress appropriately, how to have a professional demeanor, interviewing skills, about the residency process, as well as the importance of networking. I made friends though my involvement in the association; now we compare notes on opportunities in different areas of the country. Those networking opportunities really paid off as we were evaluating what we wanted to do with our careers. In fact, that's how I got my job in association management, by following up on opportunities.

Based on your experience as a student and your current role as senior manager of student development at APhA, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious Pharm. D schools, departments or programs?

There are listings that come out in publications like World News, Consumer Reports, etc. that will tell you the top pharmacy schools. Students should really look at the info that weighs the decision on what makes that the top school. If it is in part based on research dollars, that might not be the best thing to decide that it is the best school. Take those reports and look at the top half, they're probably pretty good, but don't allow rankings to influence your decision too much. My best professors were the ones that focused on me learning how to be a good pharmacist, and their research came second. It's hard to say that because there are research dollars it will be a good school. A lot of students will look at the lists and say I want to go to the No. 1 or No. 2 school. When it comes down to your education, you want them to be the best and brightest in the field, but you primarily want them to be able to teach and care about students.

How can prospective Pharm. D students assess their skill and aptitude?

Get some experience. Know what the school expects as a student. As you start investigating the schools, give them a call, ask them about their top choices of attributes for pharmacy school applicants. Be involved, if you are a pre-pharmacy student, get involved. Show you are able to get good grades and also have a life. If all you can do is get good grades, but you don't have social skills, you might not be the best pharmacist you can be.

What can students applying to Pharm. D programs do to increase their chances of being accepted?

Put on your best self when you go interview. Where I went to school, students were part of the interview process, asked applicants questions; applicants got to interview students, and they get to interview you. I saw a lot of students who didn't put on their best self; they weren't prepared, and some were not dressed appropriately, casual as opposed to a suit and tie. Present your best side on the day you interview, let them know you take this seriously. As a pharmacist, I want to make sure that anyone who represents my profession to going to represent it well. I'm proud to be a pharmacist, and like it our not, they are stuck with my standards. I expect that they will be the best they can do. I'm wondering if someone has the potential to represent the profession.

In retrospect, what do you know now that you wish you knew before pursued your Pharm. D education?

I investigated a lot. Part of the personality of a pharmacist is that you are detail-oriented - finding out as many details as possible. Mainly, find out about how curriculum works, if it's going to be a fit for you...

You & Your Career

In your pharmacy career path thus far, you tapped into your educational background and various hands-on experiences in the field of pharmacy to land a position with a leading association in the pharmacy field. What made you decide to become involved in the field at the association level rather than as a practicing pharmacist?

Because I was involved as a student, I got involved at the local level at my chapter at my school, as well as on a committee at the national level. I saw through my experience at the national level, what the association does for my profession. I learned that there are other associations that focus on certain areas, this association represents all pharmacists. I started learning more about the way the association does things, and how it can impact the professional - I was impressed by that. In somewhere around my 3rd year of pharmacy, I decided I would always be a member. I enjoyed being active in the organization, the people I met - I enjoyed the opportunities that were presented to me.

To land first the internship, then my current position with APhA-ASP, I was in the right place at right time, and said the right thing to the right person. While attending an educational retreat, we all went out for dinner as a group, including students and the APhA-ASP communications director. He asked me what type of pharmacist I wanted to be, and I told him that going into my last year, I was still figuring out, taking rotations to explore different opportunities. Then I told him "I would love to have your job, because you get to work with students all the time, and have a real impact on the profession." And he said, "O.K." From that point on, it evolved. It was a year-long process. I changed a rotation to learn about association management instead of infectious diseases, and they created a new position at APhA to add me in the department.

The opportunity presented itself to take this type of position, and since I'm at a place in my life where I'm not tied to living in particular area, no family or spouse yet, it was a great opportunity to take that leap, though kind of scary to move across the country to D.C. There are areas in the profession, like hospital pharmacy, that have a piece of my heart, but I couldn't pass this up. I don't know that I'm an association "lifer"; I want to be involved in patient care eventually. But right now, I have the chance to impact patient care on a different level, developing student pharmacists so they can provide better patient care.

What unique challenges and rewards come from working with student pharmacists?

One of the unique challenges that sometimes can be a blessing in disguise. The students we work with are the leaders from the different chapters on a regional and national level. They are so excited, and they want to make big changes; right now. One of the big challenges is helping guide that excitement to goals that are more realistic. You don't want to squash the excitement, but sometimes we have to redirect it to a more realistic option.

The reward is that I get to experience that excitement; I get to be around people who are excited about the profession and about making a difference, and really still think they can. Sometimes practicing pharmacists get involved in their everyday role, and they forget that it's possible to really make a difference. With students, there is so much enthusiasm, so much energy. The excitement is contagious.

What did you enjoy most about your hands-on experience as a student pharmacist?

I enjoyed the leadership role. The most special memories I have in terms of friends and experiences are tied to being involved. As far as the curriculum was concerned, I flourished and excelled once I got to my externships and began applying the three years of knowledge to actual real-life situations. It all started to come together. That was my favorite part of school.

How available are internships/externships and other hands-on training experiences? Any tips for landing?

At my school, there were a certain number of opportunities available in certain cities. My school was in a small town, so there weren't enough opportunities in that town for all of us. We dispersed during our last years. I spent I spend time in Boise, Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C. Because my rotations were flexible, I was able to complete required externships, then could go out and find other opportunities in different areas for my electives. Some schools are not as flexible, some don't allow you as many electives, or to set up your own rotations.

Internships are the same scenario, depending on where you live. If I had stayed where I went to school, there were not very many pharmacists' internship opportunities. Because I went home to Boise, and in one case moved to Phoenix for a summer, I was able to pursue other options. There are a lot opportunities for internships, it all depends on where you are willing to go and what you are willing to do.

You are the recipient of the Pfizer Outstanding Leader Award, and your APhA-ASA chapter received both regional and national honors. How important is this recognition to you, personally, and to your career?

I was part of the activities that my chapter was awarded for. I was incredibly honored to be chosen as the outstanding leader in my pharmacy class, its one of the most prestigious honors given to students as they gradate. It meant a lot personally to be recognized for all of that hard work, and it also helped me recognize that I had changed their opinions about me a little, that I was more than just a dancer. How important is it to my career? It's probably not the end all be all to getting a job, but I think it's important to have been recognized for something, as it shows you've taken the time to put yourself into your career and your profession.

You have been very active as a student and as an industry professional, with involvement in numerous activities as well as making presentations and writing articles for pharmacy-related publications. Why drives you to make this kind of effort?

It's my nature. That's true of many of the people I know that have the same type of drive. I put my absolute best effort forward, I don't do anything halfway. I want to be the best I can be at what I've chosen, beyond that I've chosen something that I feel I can make a difference in people' lives. When I look at patient care and practicing as a pharmacist, I want to make sure all of my the patients are as educated as possible, so they an make the best decision about their healthcare, help them have the kind life they can have.

In my current job, I want to be able to help students catch that vision, and understand that they have the chance to make that kind of impact for people every day throughout their careers.

Who are the biggest inspirations for your career?

The first is my family. My grandmother told me when I was six and I wanted to be an astronaut, she said, "Well, we've got a lot of work to do." She never discouraged me, but told me, "You can be anything you want to be, as long as you work for it." I know my parents are incredibly proud of me and my accomplishments. They're a big inspiration for me, because I've achieved a level they never would have imagined. That's inspiring to me.

I have a few mentors that have been incredibly inspirational, as well. A professor in my 2nd year of pharmacy school sat me down and asked "Why are you here? Why do you want to provide pharmaceutical care?" He made me come up with my own definition of pharmaceutical care, not what I'd read in a paper or learned in class, but for me, what did it mean? That impacted the rest of my pharmacy school years. My attitude changed, I knew exactly the reason I was there, and was willing to work for it.

Another inspiration was a preceptor on one of my rotations. She sat down with me, and she said "I want to know how you learn, what is important to you, and what you expect out of this rotation and out of me?" I had never had a preceptor ask me how I learned. She modified what she teaches to the way that I learned; I learned more in those six weeks than in most rotations, including how to be a good teacher. I was impressed with the way she handled situations with me and my rotation. She allowed me to excel, became a mentor and a friend. I still call her to talk through situations. I learned from her in ways that are applicable to my job now. I work with student leaders now from across the countries, and I have to adapt to their personalities and needs. I want them to be the best leaders they can be; I have taken those skills she taught me to adapt to the students' needs. It was very inspiring to me.

My last inspiration is my current boss. He works so hard for all the same reasons that I work hard - because we care about the profession and the students that we work with.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I would like to excel as much as possible in my current position, to help to provide opportunities for students. That's the most immediate goal. Eventually I'd like to go back to patient care. I had two loves, association management or to a particular area of patient care. Once I've decided I'm ready, I'll go back into patient care, which would require a residency and specialty at this point.

What are some of the trends that you see in the field of pharmacy which could help students plan for the future?

Our profession is becoming more patient focused, and less product focused, providing services for those patients. You're not going to be able to just count pills, if that's the reason you want to get into the profession, there's not going to be a lot of opportunities. The new Medicaid legislation passed in 2003, including the new prescription benefit in goes into effect Jan. 1, 2006, has the potential to revolutionize the profession. It's the first time pharmacists will be recognized as a caregiver and will be paid for cognitive services not connected to products that we have been providing as a services for free all along. That's how our profession will move to being patient centered.

Also, a current trend is that there are a lot more women in the profession than there ever used to be. It brings on a host of challenges; personalities, areas in the workplaces like maternity leave, potential for more part-time than full-time positions.

What other advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the field of pharmacy?

Look into the type of lifestyle that you want to have - make sure the requirements of the job fit with the lifestyle that you'd like to have. Look into the curriculum. Most curriculums you're going to learn the same basic concepts, take similar classes. If organic chemistry makes you want to cry, this might not be the area for you. It did make me want to cry at times, but I made it. It's not easy to go to pharmacy school. Ask yourself if you are you up for the challenge, if the classes are of interest to you. If the answers are yes, great! But it's not for everyone.

Job Information & Advice

Describe a typical day of work for you. On a basic level, what skills does your job demand? What are your key responsibilities?

There's not really a typical day. Preparing for our next meeting, providing content for session, updating patient care projects, helping guide chapters through to provide community service. I answer a lot of question, talk on the phone, answer e-mail. I go to a lot of meetings, and I learn a lot about the profession at very top levels.

I give a lot of presentations, and I talk about the profession a lot, hopefully inspiring others. Some of those skills are not skills all pharmacists are going to have. If you like to get up in front of people, if you like to effect change at a high level, if you're not afraid to disagree sometimes.this might be the path for you. I travel across the country, go to different schools and give presentations to general study body, to chapter leaders, and I talk to advisors and deans.

What are the best ways to land a job in the pharmacy field?

Get the pharmacy degree. There's still somewhat of a shortage of pharmacists across the nation; in certain states the shortage is severe. The best way to land a job is to find a job that fits you, where you will be satisfied doing what you're doing. When being interviewed for a position, I encourage students to interview the company just as much as the company is interviewing them. Ask about time spent directly with patients, pharmacy care goals. Decide what you want out of a position, and make sure you ask the right questions.

What is the current job market in the pharmacy field? Five-year outlook?

There will be opportunities, hopefully over the course of the next five years, the shortage will get better; there are new pharmacy schools opening every year. Hopefully we will be graduating more pharmacists than the industry is retiring. Five years down the road it might be a little more competitive to get the sought-after jobs.

How can the reality of a career in the field of pharmacy differ from typical expectations?

That depends on who you ask. My reality is that my job is harder than I thought. The reality is always a little less than what you make it out to be, the expectations. If you've asked the right questions before you start you should know what to expect. Are there going to be hum drum days? Sure! But there will also be days where you really make a difference, really make someone's life better.

The reality of a pharmacy career can be more difficult than you thought. When you graduate, you are so excited, you get into your job, and it's not as easy as you thought to provide that type of care you thought you could. You just do your best within your means to give the care you want to provide. That's where the leaders in the field come from. Leaders don't allow the everyday role to stop their goals. Sometimes throughout their careers, they get jaded, dealing with the insurance companies, with people who come in and yell because their prescription isn't ready. You get tired of people being mad at you all the time over things you have no control over. It's fair to feel that way. Everything isn't rainbows and sugarplums.

What are considered the hottest specialties developing over the next decade?

There are so many different areas within the field you could specialize in, such as compounding pharmacists for children or elderly patients. A few pharmacists are becoming sports pharmacists. The last Olympics was the first time that a pharmacist was on the medical team. There are different areas of patient care, consulting in a clinic setting, being the fulltime clinic pharmacists, where you are a big part of interdisciplinary healthcare team.

The biggest and hottest area in the pharmacy is the interdisciplinary team approach - physicians, the pharmacists, the nurse, the nutritionist, the physical therapist, anyone with a stake in a patient's care is part of the decision-making team. It makes sense to most people that there would be a team of people with areas of expertise to make decisions. Most pharmacists are the community pharmacists people think of. But there are so many opportunities for pharmacists to practice patient care in a community setting. That's going to be a hot specialty.

Is it important to collaborate with your colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

It's incredibly important. Pharmacy is a very small world. Every school I go to on a visit, the people there know someone from APhA, or from Idaho State where I went to school, everywhere I go, there's a connection. It's small, and it's important to not burn any bridges, to be your best self all the time, to always be on your toes. Those collaborations with your college classmates will become the most important contacts throughout your career; you can learn from each others and accomplish things together that you can't accomplish on your own.

What are some common myths about your profession?

We do a whole lot more than just count pills by fives. That's the biggest myth. When the media portrays the pharmacists, they show the counting tray and a hand counting out pills, not the pharmacists talking to a patient. I'm a pharmacist who is going to talk to patients; counting by fives is the reason we have pharmacy technicians. We're trying to change the public perception. A current common myth is that there are pharmacists that won't dispense birth control. As an association, our view is that pharmacists can step away, but they can't step in the way if it's legal for the patient to receive something. If you don't believe in providing a product, you should direct them to another pharmacist. The myth is that there are a lot of pharmacists that would step in the way, when in fact there are very, very few. There are many ethical situations you will encounter as a healthcare professional, this is just one of them.

How do you use computers in your job? Are there specialty software programs for the field? If so, what are they and what do they do?

Every pharmacy I've worked in has computers, but every one has had different software. It depends on your pharmacy and how the workflow is designed, which dictates what the software can do; most software is written specific to each pharmacy, but is pretty simple to pick up.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

It is huge for us. To truly be able to research topics, the Internet has been a blessing. You are able to find a lot of information. I've often heard it said, "How did the profession function before the Internet?" It's made a huge impact on health care in general, by providing access to research and information so that you can make the best decision, and to educate your patients. Sometimes with patients, it backfires when they look up information on the Internet - you spend a lot of time in school learning how to evaluate a study for accuracy and relevance. A patient may have a study they found on the Internet, they don't realize the study wasn't conducted in a way it should have been, that the information is dated, and the conclusions are not accurate. Because of the Internet, pharmacists spend quite a bit of time explaining why a study isn't valid; you can make educated decisions about a study and how it applies to your practice. Because the info is out there for everyone, sometimes you have to help patients navigate through it. There is a lot of inaccurate information out there.

Most of the information that pharmacists use comes from the National Institute of Health, drawn from databases of respectable peer-reviewed journals. Your average patient doesn't have the knowledge to sift though it.

On the Internet, there are many herbal products, supplemental products; many have studies, but many of those studies are not valid. These products are not regulated by the FDA, and there is very little data available that proves they can do what they say they can. It's a common thing you'll deal with. Hopefully the patients will ask you.

What other challenges will be addressed by your industry in the next five years?

The biggest challenge for our profession is in helping the public better understand the role of the pharmacists, helping them understand more about what the pharmacists can do for them.

What contributions do you feel the field of pharmacy has made in society?

Every time a patient takes their medication correctly, a pharmacist makes a contribution. They say the most expensive medications are those that are not taken correctly. There are bigger, more notable contributions, but I'll stick with the one-one level.

Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about the field of pharmacy in order to be successful?

Yes. If you're not passionate, you'll get stuck in the hum drum of every day, you'll be the pharmacist 10-15 years down the road that says, "I'm tired of this, I'm going to go sell real estate." Passion is what is going to carry you through your career.

If you have more questions about APhA-ASP, the pharmacy profession or the Pharm. D program, contact Jen or visit the APhA Student Page.

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