Real talk on the future of pharmacy jobs and pay

By Elina Schmauch, class of 2025 student pharmacist

I think every pharmacy student has asked themselves, “What the heck am I doing?”

If we aren’t fighting imposter syndrome or the fear of entering the field, we stop and think about what we want to do when we graduate pharmacy school and how it will be a reflection of the 4 years of the Doctor of Pharmacy program that we just underwent.

I am only in my second year (PY2), but I am looking ahead always—asking pharmacist how much they are making per hour at my local community pharmacy or looking into residencies and their time commitments and pay. I ask myself often, “Do I go ahead and start working right away or do I do a residency?” and after convincing myself that dropping out and opening a café is not a reasonable option, I decided to ask the master, Julie Akers, to get some answers to my questions.

Associate Dean of External Relations Julie Akers speaking to representatives from various pharmaceutical companies and health-system organizations at the college’s Industry Advisory Board in September 2022.

Julie Akers is the associate dean of external relations and an associate professor at the college. When Dr. Akers first graduated from WSU’s pharmacy school, she moved to the Seattle area and worked for Bartell Drugs. She fell in love with community pharmacy and became a pharmacy manager for multiple locations, and later was invited to work in the corporate office. She served as a district manager where she oversaw 20 stores out of Bartell’s 60 locations, and then grew to managing half of Bartell’s pharmacy locations. As a district manager she handled business management, personnel management, training new pharmacy managers, and providing resources. She then spent two years working for the Everett Clinic overseeing their outpatient pharmacies which combined both of her passions: community pharmacy and continually learning, which working for a physician clinic definitely was. In 2013, we were lucky enough to have Dr. Akers come back to WSU as a faculty member.

Basically, if you aren’t sure what a job would look like, Dr. Akers has probably either done it or has been exposed to it so she is an excellent resource to bounce ideas off of. She even said that if a student wants to connect with her on Zoom and go over job offers and career paths she would be happy to meet with you!

I hope some of the questions I asked her resonate with other students as well!

What role/need for pharmacists do you feel is appropriate in Spokane?

There is a shortage of health care workers overall, and because of this, pharmacists can fit into many different positions. One position would be traditional pharmacy practice where patients have timely access to the medications that they need to manage their chronic diseases or acute illnesses – which is the core of the pharmacy profession, but the education a pharmacist has goes beyond that. Pharmacists serve to counsel patients, collaborate with providers, give vaccinations, and serve as a resource for the community. However, pharmacy practice is changing. Due to shortages in primary care physicians, I have seen growth in ambulatory care services as well as expansion of clinical services in community pharmacies. There is more of a shift and need for appointment-based visits as you would with a physician, PA (physician’s assistant), or NP (nurse practitioner), because pharmacists have the training on the disease states, pathophysiology, disease state management, an in-depth knowledge of medication, and also when to not treat with medication. Many people think that pharmacists want to get people on as many medications as possible, when really the pharmacist’s goal is appropriate therapy.

How would you describe the way that pharmacists are taking on a more clinical role without taking over the role of a physician, and how would you handle any push-back?

This is a challenge and a huge piece of the education that needs to happen. Really the goal is to be collaborative and not competitive. Traditionally, physicians have taken on the more clinical role but now there are less physicians in practice entering the field and there is a shift in reimbursement models for care to more of a value-based care. It is not as much about how many patients a physician can see in a day, but how they keep their patients healthy. Keeping people healthy takes time, so for additional support a physician can refer  patients who are not meeting their health care goals to the pharmacist for chronic disease state management and the pharmacist will spend more time with them to improve their overall health. That will free up physicians to focus on caring for more complex pateints, overall improving the quality of care our patients are receiving. It is a win-win overall.

Applying to pharmacy school I was told the field was saturated, but now there are corporations offering pharmacists signing bonuses and most pharmacies are understaffed. What changed?

COVID. The pharmacists that were close to retiring just retired. There were less applications to pharmacy schools nationwide and therefore less people entering the field. Previously it was a requirement to have some kind of first post-graduate year (PGY1) and/or second post-graduate year (PGY2) residency to work in the hospital setting, but now I have seen job openings that have no residency requirement, and they are willing to do specialty training on the job because they need more people to fill roles and a larger applicant pool.

How am I supposed to figure out what I want to do in pharmacy?

First, I want to say that you are never stuck. Everything you do in pharmacy can give you experience to do something else, and you should have a job that brings you joy. As a student, it is really hard to really know what you want to do no matter what year you are. Be open to opportunities, and on Introductory Pharmacy Practice Experiences (IPPEs) and Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPEs) ask yourself, “Could I really see myself doing this every day?” Notice the aspects of the job that you do and don’t like, ask questions, and go to conferences and ask other pharmacists about their job and what they love about it.

Let’s talk about money. How do I negotiate a fair wage? Will I ever pay off my mountain of student loan debt as a pharmacist?

Understand the business structure you are going into. For some businesses your actual salary, whether you are hourly or on salary, may have room for negotiation, but they could also be very strict in saying that all pharmacists at that company make the exact same wage regardless of experience. However, there are other areas you can negotiate. If your base salary can be negotiated, then you need to understand the market: how many people are applying for the position? How coveted is the position? If there is a large applicant pool there might be less room to ask for a higher wage than if you are applying to a job with a small application pool. Where you have the most power is in the negotiation of benefits. If you were to come to me and say that you would like to negotiate, I would tell you that we will leave your base salary where it is, but I would ask what you want to do with more money. Is it to pay off student loans? Is it to go on vacation with family? Or do you want more free time? There are a few ways to address your wants: I would be happy to negotiate how much vacation time you get. You could also receive a signing bonus and there are ways to negotiate that as well. Some companies also have something called a deferred compensation plan. Usually as a pharmacist your wage will max you out on the total you can put into your 401k as you are putting money in and the company is matching it. With a deferred compensation plan, you could continue to put money into an account just like a 401k. The company does not match it, but it allows you to continue to set aside money while you are still working, and there is no limit for how much you can invest. For example, instead of receiving an entire $50,000 signing bonus at once, you could negotiate to receive $30,000 and put $20,000 into a deferred compensation plan which will accumulate interest as you are practicing. Look into organizations that participate in student loan forgiveness as well. Paying off your student loans IS possible. I paid off my student loans myself! It took a lot of hard work, driving the same car I had through college for several years after graduation, and being creative with access to loans that had a lower interest rate than my student loans.