Case study

Registered pharmacist — Fiona Smith

Fiona studied a Master of Pharmacy (MPharm) at Cardiff University. She's now a PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Learn more about her role

Why did you decide on a career in pharmacy?

I always enjoyed studying sciences and knew I wanted to continue to do so at university. I also knew that I wanted a job where I would be able to apply my knowledge to help others. I found the idea of learning how medicines are made really appealing, from choosing a new drug target up to how medicines are manufactured on a large scale.

How did you get your job?

I used a website to search for a PhD and came across the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Transformative Pharmaceutical Technologies at the University of Nottingham. The PhD titles really appealed to me, so I decided to apply by sending my CV and a cover letter.

I was selected for an interview, during which I had to present a previous research project that I'd completed, for me this was my dissertation project in my pharmacy degree and answer several interview questions. Fortunately, I was offered the PhD position.

What's a typical working day like?

My days have a lot of variety, which I really enjoy. I am mostly based in the lab, completing experiments, using several different techniques, to improve the understanding of my research topic. When I'm not doing this, I am usually reading newly published literature in my field, writing up my own findings or planning some more experiments. I also assist with some of the pharmacy practice workshops and lab sessions for the pharmacy undergraduate students.

How relevant is your degree to your job?

My undergraduate degree and being a pharmacist have played a significant role in my PhD, as my PhD focusses on treatment for diabetes. It's really important to remember the effect that my research could have on patients with diabetes, and this often helps me to tailor the direction of my research. As I am studying within the School of Pharmacy, I have found my undergraduate degree to be very relevant to my own research and other research going on around me, as a lot of the underpinning research techniques and fields were introduced during my degree.

What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

I really enjoy being in the lab, setting up a new experiment and then getting results that no one else has seen before. Getting positive results is always great, but I also enjoy getting unexpected results, which can bring up the opportunity to plan new experiments to understand what has happened and why.

I have also been very lucky and have been able to travel during my PhD, including to Canada and Ireland, which has been great fun.

What are the challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is how busy completing a PhD can be. My top tip is prioritising work and communicating with those who you are collaborating with to let them know the expected timeframe for a piece of work.

I also find it helpful to try and plan the next week ahead of time to make sure I can get everything done that I need to. I even allocate an expected timeframe for experiments to avoid trying to squeeze too much into one day.

What three skills are needed for a career in pharmacy?

  • Problem-solving - No matter which sector of pharmacy you work in, you will need to have the ability to problem-solve, think flexibly and be resilient. Throughout my PhD, I have often had to troubleshoot my experiments when something doesn't work, which can involve thinking of a new protocol to get the desired experimental outcome.
  • Good communication skills - Throughout my PhD I have delivered multiple oral presentations, poster presentations, written reports and protocols. In all these cases it is important that I can communicate clearly what I have done along with my key findings, so that the intended audience has a clear understanding.
  • Attention to detail - Following protocols in the lab, I need to pay close attention to ensure that experiments are completed as planned to avoid any accidental, unexpected results. I also need to make sure that my own notes reflect exactly what has happened so that I can refer back to them and be sure about any trends/observations that I may have seen.

What are your career ambitions?

I have really enjoyed my PhD and hope to continue working in the same area, developing new formulations and drug delivery platforms.

I hope to get either a post-doctoral research position, working at a university, or as a formulation scientist in a pharmaceutical company.

Are you a member of a professional body?

Yes, I am a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) and have been since I was an undergraduate student. Being a member gives you access to a lot of resources, events and updates on current affairs that are very useful, whether a student or working as a pharmacist. I am now a member of the Early Career Pharmacist Advisory Group, helping to ensure that early career pharmacists, no matter which sector they choose to work in, are recognised.

Tell us about three issues affecting the sector today.

  • Specifically in the field of drug delivery and formulation, drug molecules are frequently becoming larger and more complex. This can mean that formulating drugs as a traditional tablet is no longer suitable yet injections, commonly used for complex drug molecules, are not favoured by patients. This gives us the opportunity to explore new drug delivery platforms.
  • The advent of 3D-printing has raised the possibility of being able to print medications personalised to the patients need, for example combining multiple drugs that the patient may need to take together, cutting down the patients tablet burden. However, for this to work 3D-printers would need to be installed in pharmacies. One issue here is how we would be able to assure the quality of 3D-printed medications in a timely manner, without compromising patient safety.
  • Alongside the drug itself, other ingredients, often referred to as excipients, are commonly added into medicines to improve manufacturing, ensure drug stability and aid handling of the medicine by patients. Excipients need to be approved as safe by the medicines regulator, which means generally only excipients with a long history of use are chosen. The concern is that those excipients may not be the most suitable for the purpose. Changes to legislation may encourage research and design into new and improved excipients.

What advice can you give to other aspiring pharmacists?

There are many different jobs that you can do as a pharmacist, and you don't necessarily have to stay in the same one for your whole career.

Pharmacists are well positioned to be involved with research. I would advise exploring this if it’s something that you're interested in, especially as the types of research that pharmacy can encompass can be so broad, one thing may really spark your interest, while others are a complete turn-off.

Finally, stay curious and always consider how as a pharmacist you can make things better for your patients. Sometimes, something that you might consider as being a small change can make a really big difference to a patient's quality of life.

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