1. Zebra Among Horses: There's a saying in medicine attributed to Dr. Theodore Woodward, a former professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "When you hear hoof beats, you should think horses, not zebras." This means that the most common disorder is also the most likely disorder. In practice, you'll encounter countless horses and very few zebras. The same applies to interviewers. When it comes to trying to secure a pharmacy fellowship position, you need to be the zebra among horses. Dozens, if not hundreds, of highly qualified candidates will be gunning for the same position as you. The question becomes, how can you show your stripes?
Stripes can be acquired in a myriad of ways ranging from research to volunteering and don't have to include industry experiences. So, if your school doesn't offer extensive APPE options in the pharmaceutical industry, just take a deep breath.
Having a strong research background can show that you have well developed analytical skills, know how to dissect scientific content, are a capable presenter, and have expertise in a topic. Many fellowship positions are going to involve taking complex topics and translating them into digestible formats to enhance patient outcomes. Conducting research enhances these capabilities and markets your worth.
Other highly sought after stripes are leadership and involvement. Showing that you have strong leadership skills and that you can function well on a team is extremely important. Make sure that you are well involved outside of class, especially as GPA becomes less and less important to companies (many fellowships will never ask for it). Try to find a place in a committee, run for president in one of your school's organizations, or be a heavily involved member. Fellowships want to see that you have good time management skills, excelling in multiple areas while still maintaining your student workload.
Having a reputation is one indication that you're a zebra. When your peers know you as the guy who does research, the girl who always says yes to volunteering opportunities, or the person that seems to always step up and lead, you know you're on the right track. Stripes can be earned anywhere, so pick things that interest you.
2. Start Early: The sooner you conclude that being a pharmacy fellow is the next step in your career, the better. Earning your stripes takes time. It can take years to finish a research project or publish an article. It's easy to run for president of an organization, but to win means that you've probably already proven yourself reliable.
Simply put, the early bird gets the worm. Having a long history of success and showing that you've maintained a dedication to your craft over years helps ensure fellowship programs that you won't quit halfway through. This doesn't mean that starting your fellowship journey 3 months before applications are due isn't going to work out, but you're stacking the odds against you.
3. Be Yourself: You've probably seen this in every piece of interview advice that you've ever read. The truth is, people trying to be something they aren't is a real horse move. Not only is it common, but it's extremely obvious to interviewers and you won't get away with it. So don't even try. If you enjoy telling jokes, then tell some jokes! The people interviewing you for a fellowship program are looking for a coworker and need to know that you're a normal person. This means that you're able to interact, laugh, communicate, and not be the office weirdo. You should definitely read the room as some interviewers are going to be more serious than others, but coming across as someone that will be enjoyable to work with is huge.
4. Do Your Research & Know Your "Why?": The majority of fellowship programs will release a brochure, and you should read every word of it. Companies want to know that you are invested in them before they invest in you. You should be familiar with their mission statements, ideals, and flagship drugs which can all be used to answer the question, "Why us?" One of the more interesting interview questions posed to me was, "If you could be a drug, what drug would you be and why?" Hint: Pick something that they make!
This also prevents you from asking questions that you should already know the answers to. If something is clearly explained in the brochure or easily understood from a quick google search, it is off-limits for end-of-interview questions. Speaking of which, always have at least 2 questions ready to ask your interviewer. Ideally, these questions should show a desire for a deeper understanding of the company culture or inquire about any specific interests that haven't been addressed yet.
Having a deep understanding of why you are applying to these positions is crucial. This ensures that you are making this career move for the right reasons and not because other people think you should or expect this of you. It's important to the program that their fellows are personally invested in their work. You will be asked why you're pursuing a fellowship, why you want to work in medical affairs, why you want to work in the industry, etc... So before going into an interview, ask yourself, "Why?"
5. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: Applying for 20 programs is generally considered a bad idea. Becoming well informed about a program and being able to showcase that understanding is imperative. Keeping that in mind, you should be careful not to stretch yourself too thin. The application process for fellowships can feel like a blitzkrieg of informational sessions, interviews, and networking sessions. Not to mention traveling to conferences and onsite interviews. So make sure you have realistic expectations and that you put in the time for every program that you apply to. Remember that pharmacy is a small world, and word gets around.
It's okay to prefer some programs over others, but you should avoid applying somewhere that you wouldn't accept an offer from. This sounds like common sense, but many aspiring fellows and residents will receive offers to a program and actually feel disappointed. There are more than enough programs to choose from, so limiting yourself to 7-10 options that you can fully dedicate yourself to is a winning formula. You'll often hear that the process of getting into a fellowship program is more stressful than anything in pharmacy school, so don't make it worse on yourself by overextending!