Explained: Making your career in pharmacy work for you
There’s no one right way to have a successful career in pharmacy, as C+D found when it spoke to pharmacists and recruitment experts about their experiences
Pharmacy is traditionally a career that offers longevity and the gambit of respect, recompense, and responsibility. By the very nature of the dedication and resilience needed to qualify as a pharmacy professional, it requires commitment.
But in today’s gig economy – where short-termism is increasingly popular – alongside the growing trend for portfolio careers, has pharmacy lost its linear legacy as a career path that provides a tried and tested job for life?
C+D spoke to pharmacists from both sides of the coin, one of whom has stepped away from working in a pharmacy day-to-day and one who has stayed the course, to find out if both are possible.
Darren Powell is the clinical lead of NHS England Transformation Directorate and the clinical infomatician and chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s (RPS) Digital Pharmacy Expert Advisory Group. He began his career in 1990 at Foster & Plumpton pharmacy based in Kingston Upon Hull. Typical of many in the industry, Mr Powell chose a career in pharmacy because of his success in sciences at school.
“I was very much into the sciences at A-level and had family friends who were in community pharmacy,” he says. “They gave me some background to the profession, and I felt drawn to the opportunity to work in communities, building relationships with regular patients, and feeling respected and valued. So that is how I started my career in pharmacy.”
It was a similar route in for Harpreet Chana, an award-winning global executive leadership and mental wellbeing keynote speaker, facilitator and coach for those in healthcare and HR, founder of The Mental Wealth Academy and co-founder of the Female Pharmacy Leaders Network.
“I qualified in hospital pharmacy and made the move over to community fairly quickly as I struggled in the hospital environment,” she explains.
Mr Powell was eventually offered a relief pharmacist role by the company he took his pre-registration training with, which additionally offered a good salary. Meanwhile, Ms Chana tried out several options. She recalls: “I went to a software development company, working with primary care pharmacists, and then from there went into national policy and finally digital healthcare before I left employment in January 2020 to pursue my own endeavour in training and coaching by setting up The Mental Wealth Academy.”
It was a big step away from the safety net of pharmacy for Ms Chana, who readily admits the choice was anything but conventional. “When I came into the profession, I always knew that it would never be community, hospital, industry or bust,” she says. “I always knew I had more about me, and I really wanted to push the parameters of what I could achieve in this profession.”
James Roberts, managing director of Quad Recruitment and The Pharma People, says that he doesn’t see many people step away from the sector entirely. But it can be done, and the important thing is to make the right choices for you. “I’d say to anyone starting out in pharmacy that it’s your career and don’t let other people control it,” he stresses.
Finding the right path for you
Mr Roberts explains that it can be harder to progress in larger organisations. Some candidates that he sees are content with this but for those that want to climb the ladder, smaller organisations can be a sensible option. “It’s about personal choice,” he says.
For Mr Powell, there was never a desire to step away from pharmacy and this has been driven by a contentment and a path to promotion that he has enjoyed along the way. “I can honestly say that I've had a very fortunate career, and met some amazing individuals and teams who encouraged or facilitated the development of my career as a pharmacist,” he says. “In the initial years, it was the traditional career path that many community pharmacists have trodden; from a relief pharmacist to the role of branch manager – I had staff and financial responsibilities and well as the clinical – of a small store.”
Mr Powell eventually oversaw the transfer of the Kingston Upon Hull branch of Foster & Plumpton to a new premises and learnt a lot about managing people, delivering on a project, and running a thriving business while he was at it.
“I continued my progression through various pharmacy branches with increasing levels of prescription volume and turnover until I was promoted to what was deemed the flagship branch in Crystal Peaks,” he remembers. “On that last move, I asked if I could be assigned that pharmacy branch. I was ready for the challenge and showed my commitment to the role. The company thankfully agreed. I think this is where I realised that the biggest barrier for advancement can sometimes be your own self-belief – you will never be 100% ready for your next role, so don't hesitate; apply, request or develop the role you aspire to!”
It's that sense of career ownership that Mr Roberts also advocates. He says: “It’s also about locality. You can be at a pharmacy that’s turning over a lot of prescriptions per month and your branch [might be] doing really well – that can increase your chances of exposure to more roles, so it’s important to think about that, too.”
Mr Powell and Ms Chana have experienced very different careers. In many ways, Mr Powell’s journey has been a straight path and Ms Chana’s has been anything but – demonstrating that you can truly be master of your own universe if you choose.
Mr Powell describes the early part of his career as “pretty linear, just moving up the management ladder and increasing levels of responsibility”. However, after a few years he was keen to expand his skillset with further training – leading to further opportunities.
“By the time I reached the flagship branch, I was involved with pre-registration student training [and] staff development and so decided that I wanted to develop myself and undertake a clinical diploma,” he recalls.
“I sought another regional company [that was] actively investing in their pharmacists by providing the clinical diploma and study time. I applied for a position, was appointed, and immediately placed on the diploma course at the University of Bradford and that was the start of a 25-year career with Weldricks Pharmacy," he explains.
“It was at this point [that] my career path changed from a straight line to a 'fractal tree'. Having a company willing to invest in people and ideas that benefitted them and the individuals concerned was the key to the many facets of my pharmacy career.”
The canopy for Mr Powell had opened and what he encountered were several avenues that he could take. In a sense, Ms Chana was doing the same, albeit within a different industry and career altogether. “I am a big believer in following my instinct,” she says. “I had to work throughout university and one of my very first managers gave me a piece of advice that I will never forget.
“He said to me, ‘If you ever wake up in the morning and dread going into work, it’s time to leave.’ I have always used that as my guide in any role. If you don’t want to be in a workplace, you probably shouldn’t be. And every time my instinct has led me to bigger and better things.”
For Mr Powell, there was enough on offer within community pharmacy to keep him stimulated, although he is a big champion of the ability to springboard into other areas. “You can use the skills and knowledge obtained to have overlapping ventures into other sectors such as law, manufacturing, coaching, development, training, education – I could go on. So you don't have to stay in the same swim lane if you have aspirations elsewhere.”
And he’s quick to point out that the career choices for up-and-coming pharmacists are likely to expand. “When we also consider that future graduates will also be independent prescribers (IPs) after graduation, the range of opportunities for these new professionals will be even greater,” he says. Mr Roberts also points to the advantage of IP training as a key turning point in the profession, with all MPharm graduates set to become IPs from 2026.
Making the most of your skills
Ms Chana is clear that pharmacists need not be one-trick ponies. “We have so many transferable skills in pharmacy that can be used elsewhere,” she points out. “I have met pharmacy professionals who are doing the most amazing roles because they understood how to make the most of their skillset.”
For both Mr Powell and Ms Chana, career success has been very much about that sense of inner happiness. For his part, Mr Powell was recently awarded a Fellowship of the RPS and is quite rightly proud of it. But, he adds, “a title is nothing if you aren't fulfilled in your role, and you lack the sense that you are making a difference. I can be truly in awe of those individuals who remain at the coalface of pharmacy and deliver exceptional care to their communities and their patients, without being in the pharmacy spotlight or having a 'senior’ job title.”
In Ms Chana’s role as a coach, she sees many pharmacists who are so wrapped up in a title equating to success that they can’t see beyond it. “Truth is, most of us get into pharmacy because we want to make a difference and we can forget that as we can get caught up chasing other determinants of success,” she says.
Pharmacy can provide a linear career path if that’s the one you choose to follow, and it can also help you develop transferrable skills that can springboard into other disciplines. What is important is that the right career path, as Mr Powell, Ms Chana and Mr Roberts all agree upon, is chosen by the person that is doing it. After all, nothing is more draining than following a path where passion and drive are extinguished.