Let me guess: if you read this, you may still remember that adrenaline rush from the day you received your acceptance letter into pharmacy school. That day you learned for the first time how confidence feels like and, unexpectedly, the thrill of becoming a “Doctor” made you dare to aim higher than others for the first time. Am I right? However, that only lasted until after your second exam when you checked out your score average and started wondering what in the world you did wrong. You assumed that the first exam score was just a “warm-up”, but now you got confused about what are, in fact, the expectations in the Doctor of Pharmacy program. You are wondering how to study in pharmacy school.
If this sounds like you, then you are lucky – very lucky! I am saying that because I also saw students that had this realization for the first time in their third year of the program when they entered the pharmacotherapeutics learning sequence. Such late realization comes with loads of frustration (and expense) and, unfortunately, the time left only allows for little time to strategize how to get back on track. It isn’t impossible, but it is difficult and stressful. It is certainly better to start the program on the right foot with the right mind-set.
Know what you are getting into
I prepared many pharmacy school candidates over the last decade. My latest mentee just got accepted this fall into a pharmacy school that surely is the best fit for her. I have no doubt what-so-ever that, if she continues the same she did thus far, she will rock her time through the pharmacy school. What do I mean by this? I mean “good planning”.
First of all, one must know long ahead of time what (s)he is getting into. One of the pharmacy school recruiting aspects focuses exactly on this: it ensures that all recruited candidates have “what it takes” to perform well during the program, complete it, and pass the board exams. All of these require knowing how to study in pharmacy school.
It is the job of the faculty to ensure the professional care and the patient-centered-thing, but the recruiting office is in charge of making sure that the one admitted is up to the challenge. This is normally a very established process for the vast majority of the professional programs.
Recruitment is aligned with how the graduate should be and what the market expects from that graduate. Well, a highly versatile profession, such as pharmacy, is very different; hence, the recruitment is very different allowing a highly heterogeneous population of incoming students every year. Recently, this Doctor of Pharmacy candidates’ heterogeneity increased further with the increase of the class size and the number of pharmacy schools.
Now that I helped you picture the context of what one is getting into, let me say this: the expected change in the teaching approach and exam rigour is far less than the rest of the context. I do not mean this in a bad way. It is in fact very good.
Rigorous standards are there to stay and so they should be. However, very few candidates did develop in an environment with requirements as rigorous and as rigid as the ones they will face in the pharmacy school.
I still remember a speech one of my professors gave me when I was a pharmacy student. He told us “You, guys, are getting doctorates. Don’t expect this to be easy”. And it wasn’t! If I were to describe how it felt like as I went through the process, I’d say that it hurt physically and emotionally so bad that I just cannot picture any higher stakes than what we were held up to.
Things have changed since. More pharmacy programs meant more student convenience. Today most programs tailor their curriculum to accommodate a smooth, perhaps too lengthy, transition into the high level of difficulty. Sadly, more often than not, this doesn’t work in the favor of the pharmacy students.
Based on my experience as a pharmacist and educator, such approaches work better in gymnastics than higher education. Brain performance is different than muscle performance. One can grow muscle fiber with sustained exercise, but cannot make more brain cells.
The brain cells stop dividing by the time one gets in the pharmacy school and their number only gets lower as (s)he gets older. What one needs are brain cell connections. These must be established as quickly as possible and in as highly spread of a network as possible.
The brain is “a use it or lose it” kind of tissue and, as opposed to the muscle, one can’t grow it back. Thus, high-speed brain power should be exposed to high requirements as early as possible. It will be that intense and sustained learning performance that will keep your neuron network alive and running.
Think of it as a flying airplane. What keeps an airplane flying is high-speed. Our brain works the same way. That knowledgeable highly competitive pharmacist that averaged a GPA over 3.5 throughout the program and developed into a fierce leader in his or her field had a fundamentally high performance throughout the time.
There isn’t any warm-up period. There isn’t any “oh, ok, now I know what to do”. All successful professionals have been successful students throughout their training. You should be the same if professional success is what you picture for your future.
Make use of study groups
I am not even going to mention the “last minute” study other than as a joke. This isn’t what students want, this is what programs force them into given the overloaded schedule. With an exam due every third day (I also saw two on the same day), one can literally only study at the last minute!
So how does one get through this achieving so-called “accolades”? Of course, there is hard work – period. But hard work isn’t enough. There are also a few tricks. In fact, we shouldn’t call them tricks because they are common sense.
One of them is to never approach studying alone. The ability to talk about it and cope with the expectation of what is constantly coming at you is dramatically important. Student study groups are fundamental to professional development.
Aside from the fact that as a professional you will function within a group of professional peers, your development itself should be in a peer group. Such learning eliminates quickly misunderstandings or confusions and stops one early if he or she is heading on a wrong and time-wasting path.
Such study groups usually gravitate around high-performers and often include two or even three of them that are getting well along. It is vital to gauge your compatibility with the right student study group as early as possible.
Looking back, I smile every time I remember my study group in the pharmacy school. Each of us was very good (I mean really good!) at something, no matter how small. Personally, I was very good and very fast at cooking yummy meals. Don’t laugh!
This was what they were lacking at the time I joined the group and this is how I got in! The study group bonding is vital and is directly proportional to the average score of the group on each exam. Group students will all eventually reach the max possible performance, but such group achievement is dependent on how well they are bonded in this pursuit.
Another particular feature of a successful professional is being well-oriented into the work or practice environment. That entails understanding how the place is managed, what are the expectations, how recognition is awarded, etc.
Being a successful pharmacy student is, in many ways, similar. Reach out to the students in the years ahead of you, find out how is it going to be like, what worked and what didn’t. Know who is teaching what and how.
Pick your electives mindfully and always place a higher decision weight on opportunities that provide you with a different experience or expose you to a different environment. Favor those that require completion of a team project or a number of off-site visits. Electives that require a formal presentation, a small research project, or the making of a poster are even better.
Thinking of faculty, consider joining classes taught by professionals having busy clinical services because they are likely to approach teaching more in line with their expectations in the coming years, for both in-class and experiential teaching structures. Your final grade for such elective may not end-up as shiny as you wish, but the awareness ahead of time about how next year teaching will be cannot be discounted in the least!
Of course, electives are not meant to be pre-requisites for subsequent classes in the coming years. Although unintended, they many times are, especially if taught by the same faculty. That is prime information right there, straight from the source – better have it than not! Such experience is like grandmother-computer-use literacy: a grandmother with one-hour learning on how to use a computer is sky-rocket IT comparing to another grandmother who never touched a computer.
Studying pharmacy, you’ll learn quickly the value of one question missed or a question scored. That one question is many times no less than 5% of your test score and I am willing to bet that you would rather choose to score it than miss it! The key to scoring that question may be one extra day in the clinic, one side-example during your elective group discussion, or the reading you did preparing your last assignment.
That very same information may have been as well taught in class, of course. It may have also been on the lecture’s handouts too, but somehow that precise information will (did) not catch your attention while reading the class materials, not even for the third time. This is no new discovery in teaching and learning.
Our brain requires either an experience or a motivation for everything that gets to stay (i.e. be memorized). We remember precisely hours from a trip, a whole movie story, or how to use Microsoft PowerPoint. That is because there was an experience we had, or it was something that made an emotional impression on us or it was simply something we cared about.
Yes, I know that all pharmacy students sincerely care, but that is not the kind of caring that I am talking about. The brain memorizes experiences that genuinely involve mind-heart, mind-hand, or mind-mind interaction. Thus, it is this kind of experiences that will help you memorize information that will sooner or later be on your exams.
Get involved in research projects
In line with the above, get involved early in research projects with pharmacy groups led by faculty that teach considerable portions of the courses in the coming years. This will give you a much-needed exposure to the field they teach about and help you assimilate quickly information that may otherwise take days for you to memorize.
Many times your professors have advanced experiential rotations with students from the years ahead of you. Some of the required activities for them are discussions on specific clinical topics or cases. As one could easily picture, seating at that discussion table for one hour will enable you to understand information that would otherwise require a whole week of studying alone or two days studying as a group.
You could get it all done in one hour by being in the right place, at the right time! Don’t be shy, do the same and join the medical or nursing discussions at the same site. More often than not people love having you around especially if they know you were the one that helps with the X or Y research project that is very important for the clinic but nobody has enough time for.
Be there as often as you can without getting in the way. Try to gauge quickly what works and what doesn’t. Very much the same as your study group, a research or a clinic group welcomes student volunteers that help them in a meaningful way. Be there for them too, not just for your own learning. Help them as much as they help you learn and you will turn that relationship into an exceptionally productive professional partnership. While being there, remember that you represent your future profession at all the time. Your appearance, attitude, and approach must be impeccable at all the times!