Author: Anna Krienert
Editor: Brentsen Wolf, PharmD
The post-graduate job market in pharmacy is continuously growing and changing. For many students, it can be challenging to navigate pharmacy outside of the classroom. Internship opportunities are fast becoming an integral part of the pharmacy experience. This article examines the pros and cons of the internship experience, as well as the ultimate question students ask, "Is an internship really a necessity?"
Before weighing the pros and cons, let's first look at common types of student internships available during pharmacy school. Arguably, the most well-known setting of pharmacy practice is a community pharmacy position. If you are looking for an internship, a community pharmacy such as Walgreens or CVS is the most readily available. As an intern, you will complete all the activities that normal pharmacy technicians are responsible for. This includes, but is not limited to, filling prescriptions, managing the front counter for checkout, and operating the drive-thru. Depending on the location, it is not uncommon to see various additional services such as covid testing, immunizations, or medication compounding that you will be able to help with as well. Community pharmacy provides great opportunities to get direct patient experience while fine-tuning the fundamental skills all pharmacists utilize in daily practice.
Another popular type of internship is in the hospital setting. Hospitals provide a space for students to develop a broad range of skills through many daily activities. Responsibilities can include filling medication machines (one of the most common brands is called "Pyxis"), running medications to different areas in the hospital, making IV solutions, or refilling medication crash carts. At many smaller hospitals, it is common to see students helping with daily reports and medication reconciliation as they continue to advance their education. Although hospital pharmacy positions tend to involve less direct patient interaction, exposure to a wider variety of patient cases, medications, and the overall work dynamic prove it just as rewarding.
In addition to hospital and community internships, there are plenty of other pathways a student can take to broaden their employment experience during school. It is important to weigh both the benefits and detriments of every position you consider throughout your career and choose the best fit for you. An important factor when choosing an internship is your postgraduation goals. If you are a student that plans to work in a community role, getting that experience early will be beneficial to your career. The same is true for hospital internships.
Now, let's break down the pros and cons of having a job while in pharmacy school!
1. Determining what you enjoy in pharmacy: While not every job you do as an intern may be as advanced as what you will see during practice or on rotations, it is important to understand how a pharmacy functions behind the scenes. Pharmacy interns can essentially shadow a pharmacist over their period of employment and get an inside look at their day-to-day life to determine if that setting of pharmacy is suitable for their future. It provides a real-world experience to help make sure this area of pharmacy is where you want to spend your career.
2. Money: Another benefit of having an internship is the most obvious one, income. Going to school full-time can be time-consuming, not to mention expensive. Although pay varies depending on the position, working as an intern allows you to generate an income while learning valuable skills and practice that can be applied later in your career. Historically, interns have been paid more in hospital settings than in community settings, with pay typically increasing with each year of schooling completed.
3. Minimal hours and high flexibility: Many pharmacists are aware of the rigorous curriculum students are put through in pharmacy school, having once done it themselves. It is important to pick an internship that understands school comes first. Some pharmacies may allow students to study when there is downtime. Most intern positions require students to work one night a week and every other weekend, not usually going over 25 hours a week unless requested by the student. Every internship uses a different scheduling system, so be sure to find a position willing to accommodate your school schedule.
4. Experiences and skills: Internships offer an opportunity to learn and practice a wide variety of valuable skills. As an intern, you will have plenty of time to practice communication skills, both with the public and your own team. You'll also work on effective time management, leadership, problem-solving, and teamwork skills all applicable outside of your internship. In addition, internships provide direct patient interactions that cannot be replicated in a classroom. These experiences can be extremely beneficial as an application of your studies in real life, and this hands-on experience can increase exam and board pass rates. Regardless of your type of internship, these experiences and skills will help further your pharmacy career and keep you up to date on current widely used medications, as well as provide a firsthand view of how the business side of healthcare works.
5. Networking: Not only will an internship expand your work experience, it will help build your professional network as well. We’ve all heard the saying that "Pharmacy is a small world." We are drilled from day one of pharmacy school that our connections can be a driving factor for job positions in the future. These connections not only allow you to learn from others around you and gain professional feedback, but they also create lifelong mentorships with the pharmacists you work with and friendships with other students and medical professionals.
As for cons, there is only one that is common in all types of internships, and that is time. It is no question that pharmacy school takes up the majority of our time as students. Adding another commitment to our calendar may prove to be too much to handle. It is important to know yourself and how much time you realistically can put aside to work without slipping behind in your studies. Recommendations that have personally helped me are to always bring your school bag to work in case there is any downtime where studying may be appropriate, and to never work the weekend before a big exam if you can help it. Sometimes those accommodations aren't possible, so it is important to plan ahead if you know you are going to be working. There are many examples of students who successfully manage an internship and a full school load, but always remember that you have to do what is best for your own future and health.
In addition to weighing the pros and cons of internships, there is one more important question, "Will obtaining a pharmacy internship put me ahead of others in my field?" Research shows that students who have an internship are 15% less likely to be unemployed and earn 6% more than students who did not. Although an internship may give you an advantage after graduation, there are plenty of pharmacy students who are successful without one.
Other valuable experiences in pharmacy, such as volunteering or working with faculty on research, offer alternate ways for students to expand their knowledge and skills in pharmacy. When pursuing post-graduate training such as residencies, it has been said that having an internship can increase your success of a match, but it is by no means a guaranteed straight line to being the best candidate. Interviewers often ask students experience-based questions to gain insight into how they would handle situations that may come up in the future. Having job experience can help you gain the real-life knowledge and stories necessary to answer those types of questions. It could easily be argued, however, that other types of experience could do the same.
Ultimately, students who do not complete an internship will be forced to find creative ways to explain why they chose not to go down that path and provide examples of how they have built experiences without it. The biggest takeaway from this is that the experiences, connections, and skills you obtain from an internship will show you a side of pharmacy that the classroom cannot provide. With many more pros than cons, it may seem like a no-brainer to go out and get a job, but ultimately, an internship is only one of many paths to help prepare you for post-graduate life.
Anna Krienert is a second-year student pharmacist at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Pharmacy. Her current interests include psychiatric and acute care pharmacy practices. She plans on completing her PharmD and moving on towards further education with a residency or fellowship in the future. In her free time, she loves to read, watch some good crime TV, and spend as much time as possible with her two cats and dog.