how to become a pharmacist

How to become a pharmacist

How to become a pharmacist

Dr. Swathi Varanasi, or Dr. Swathi for short, is a pharmacist specializing in integrative health and cannabis. She serves as a bilingual medical consultant for CBD/botanical companies, a natural medicines educator, a clinical researcher, a TV show co-host, and a multimedia content contributor for print & online publications. Emphasizing an evidence-based health and wellness approach, Dr. Swathi is passionate about empowering everyone to be the best, most authentic versions of themselves. 

How was your time in university and pharmacy school?

I started my higher education journey at Carleton College, a quirky, top-rated liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. Carleton was the perfect place for me where I was able to take pre-health prerequisite courses while having time to explore other departments. I majored in Spanish, and studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, and Quito, Ecuador, as well as interned at a non-profit organization in Lima, Peru; through these experiences I was able to master my language skills to be added to my tool box as a healthcare professional. Always having had an interest in holistic health and healing, I knew the versatility of the Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree would make an excellent candidate for many jobs.

For me, the highlights of pharmacy school had little to do with the classroom. I was a research assistant on a Phase II clinical trial, worked as a science consultant for a medical device start-up, and founded a diabetes education program at a free clinic, among other things. I was also elected to the national board of a pharmacy organization whose mission is to serve underserved communities. Overseeing local and national initiatives that impacted tens of thousands of patients really made it clear to me that I wanted to have widespread impact in my career. After graduation, I did not see an opportunity to specialize in integrative health as a pharmacist, so I created it. I co-founded the first and still only postdoctoral residency training program for pharmacists interested in pursuing a career in integrative health and medical cannabis. Since then, I have become an educator with a passion for spreading the message to practitioners, students, patients, and consumers, about the power of natural medicine.

What does it mean to be a pharmacist in integrative health?

Very common question many have is – What does a pharmacist do? Each practitioner in integrative health defines their practice a little differently. I define integrative health as working with the patient as a team to identify and achieve the patient’s treatment goals. This mindset takes into account their prescription drug therapy, lifestyle as well as other healing modalities; an non-exhaustive list of these modalities includes meditation, exercise, sleep, eastern & western herbs, homeopathy, and therapeutic aromatherapy. Much of this practitioner-patient relationship comes down to the understanding that each treatment plan is highly personalized and individualized to each patient. This requires time to evaluate the patient as a whole person to determine their best course of therapy. As a pharmacist, my western-trained doctorate degree has trained me to review medication lists extensively as I understand the intricacies of the metabolism of these compounds and how they can interact with one another; my education lends itself naturally to the framework of integrative medicine which lies in the intersection and use of multiple methods concurrently to achieve the best patient outcomes.   

What was one nugget from your first job that helped you get to where you are today?

One of the nuggets that I learned from my experience as a postdoctoral pharmacy resident is that done is better than perfect, and perfect does not exist. As a Type A personality, I thrive on goal-setting, but the pitfall of goal-setting is the obsession with achieving the exact goal, rendering any other accomplishments along the way as obsolete. I have learned to see the value in the little wins everyday, whether that is drafting one module of an online course, getting my email inbox down to zero, or treating myself to a cookie (or two) after a hard workout. Appreciating the journey is just as important as the destination. Letting go of the idea that things must 110% perfect for me to feel accomplished is no longer my thought process because, when it is done, there is nothing like crossing something off my list after I know I put my all into it and it turned out great.

How did you prepare for the pharmacist interview?

As you can tell, my path was less than traditional and I actually did not have formal interviews for my current roles (Refer to ‘What is your advice for someone looking for a pharmacist job?’ for more details.). That being said, before landing these amazing roles, I did go through many rounds interviews over the phone, in person, and on site for other ones. Granted these interviews were for roles that I was not absolutely passionate about, but these roles had ego-boosting reputations, stable salaries, and work that I knew I would like and would be good at. I always thought that I had to do a job for a number of years to pay back student loans and to save up money before I could move on to what I actually want to do (aka what I do now). I always thought that there was no way what I wanted to do would be lucrative until discovering opportunities that proved me wrong.

But, back to the question. In preparation for interviews, the two top things are to be prepared and be{/appear) confident. By nature, most of us humans are not overly confident and boast about our accomplishments, but that is literally the point of an interview. The company needs to know why you—among their sea of candidates—are the best fit. By researching the company, the people interviewing you, and the role itself, you can tailor your answers to align with exactly what they are looking for in a new employee. (Tip! Do a little bit of background research about who is interviewing you; it can be helpful to find something you have in common with them and weave it into one of your answers.) 

Demonstrating confidence in yourself in the way that you talk, walk, and act is a very important part of the interview. Imagine you are the company. You want to send one of your employees out to meet a client. You want to send someone there who has a great CV and skillset, but also can conduct a conversation with poise, ease, and confidence. Who would you choose? That being said, getting better at interviewing comes from practice. (Tip! Consider mock interviews with friends and family as another way to prepare for an interview.) On the whole, I think being a good interviewee is an art, so do not worry if your first few times around are not your best work, because in time, you will be an expert.

Can you provide some book recommendations?

This is a wonderful question. Quarantine has really given me the time to delve into my ever-growing book list. I am generally a tangible book person, but I would highly recommend listening to the audiobooks in Jen Sincero’s “You Are A Badass” series. Her unapologetic, blunt sense of humor paired with the many pages of notes you will inevitably take makes reading her books well-worth it. Another badass woman and one of my idols, Elaine Weltheroth, the youngest Editor-in-Chief of a Condé Nast magazine (she was only 29!), wrote an unbelievable book which, to me, when distilled into one statement would read: there is nothing better for you or for society than being the most authentic version of yourself because you are already “More Than Enough.”

Things are changing very fast in the Pharmaceutical industry; how do you keep yourself updated. 

In the natural medicines space, things are constantly changing with new research being published daily and new herbs coming to the forefront (example, one of my favorite classes of herbs: adaptogens!). I think newsletters can be a wonderful option as it is an already curated list of recent updates from a company or organization you trust. I would recommend keeping up with your professional community (more on LinkedIn later) to see what is on the tip of everyone’s tongues in your industry. Apart from that, I really enjoy listening to podcasts and attending online webinars whether they are specific to medicine or not. I think these audio/visual platforms are underrated methods of expanding your knowledge and enhancing your skill set; through this form of learning, it is possible to hear about the recent happenings from the experts themselves, whether it is on their podcast or someone else’s.

What is your advice about CVs?

When thinking about CVs, there are two most important things that come to mind are having incredible editors and having patience. When crafting your CV, it is imperative that you are tailoring it to the specific position for which you are applying. (Tip! Look at the pharmacist job postings and incorporate some of the action verbs used in the description of the role in your CV.) Your CV will go through many revisions. When I say many, I mean many, many revisions. Seeking the guidance of faculty members, mentors, colleagues, and/or professional CV writers, and having the patience for the many revisions could be the difference between you landing the job, or not. The CV is the first introduction to who you are and what you can bring to the company; if it has silly mistakes or does not make it clear why your skills fit with the role, then the odds may not be in your favor. The job market is becoming increasingly competitive and companies want the best of the best. Everyone has something extraordinary to offer, but it must be packaged in an appealing way to get to the next step: the interview.

What is your advice for someone looking for a pharmacist job?

My number #1 suggestion is networking. I would not have nearly any of the roles I have today without it. There are so amazing people out there doing amazing things that you may not have even thought about as a career. Particularly in pharmacy, I think it is easy to follow a set path and pursue a role in a retail pharmacy or hospital, however, the statistics indicate that the average pharmacist is overworked and has low job satisfaction. This is because most of them were not exposed to other less common and less conventional avenues in pharmacy, nor were given the encouragement to pursue their passions. 

Social media platforms, including LinkedIn, provide an insight into the career trajectories and current roles of people with the same degree as you. If someone is doing something you could possibly see yourself doing as a career, send them a message. I always tell students that you have nothing to lose when reaching out to people, because either the person will be excited to speak with you about their favorite topic (aka themselves!), or they simply will not respond.

Being bold is necessary in networking, especially online. Once you have connected with a number of professionals, you are opening up so many more opportunities as you are now connected to that person’s network too. In my experience, these initial discovery calls evolved into more in-depth conversations that led to roles such as being the Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of a CBD/botanical beauty and wellness brand, Element Apothec, as well as the incoming Chief Pharmacy Officer of cannabis superstores, CalEthos. When I initially reached out to these professionals, I was not looking for a job, I just genuinely wanted to learn more about how they were making an impact and changing people’s lives everyday. I cannot stress how important it is to be the person to start the conversation because you never know where it could lead.

Why do you think you were selected among other pharmacists?

Beyond taking my own advice from the ‘Advice for someone looking for a Pharmacist job?’ and ‘How did you prepare for the interview?’ questions, I think that once you have done the work and are a good fit on paper, it comes down to your personality. When you are being interviewed, the person sitting across the table is thinking about what it would be like to go to Happy Hour with you or order take out while working late hours with you. In other words, the interviewer is deciding whether they want to hang out with you. This part is generally overlooked in the interview process as interviewees tend to think that they need to be the most up tight, buttoned-up version of themselves. It is an interview after all, but work is much more than just sitting your cubicle five days a week; it also involves a lot of events, so your interviewer is trying to determine whether your personality is a good fit for their team. Walking the line of being the daily, social version of yourself and being the professional version of yourself can be difficult, however, when done correctly, it can make all the difference.

Lessons from pharmacist jobs that you couldn’t get.

One of the lessons that you would not get from a job is realizing that everyone will always have an opinion. They will have an opinion about how you dress, your chosen career path, and everything in between. As someone who firmly believes in living your purpose everyday, I believe it is essential to genuinely look forward to your work week as it is intrinsically linked to your happiness. It does not matter what anyone else has to say or thinks about what you are doing, because, at the end of the day, it is your life. Everyone’s definition of success is different; so, since there is no possible way to please everyone, why write your story according to someone else’s outline?

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