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Career Transitions Offer Excitement, Challenges

Mar 01, 2008

Lisa Gersema, Pharm.D., BCPS, was in flux, moving into a new role as phar­macy director at United Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. After nearly two decades working as a clinical pharmacy manager, she was ready for a change.

Gersema, 46, was comfortable with the familiarity of being a clinical pharmacy manager, a position she held at both United and Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. She knew that feeling would disappear once she began the director position. The thought of accountability for an entire department was daunting. And she would need to build rela­tionships with new peers. Nonetheless, when the director position opened, she went for it.

Although Gersema hasn’t been a rookie for a long time, she was surprised at how challenging the transition has been.

“It was like putting on a different set of glasses and seeing things I hadn’t seen before. I will tell you I probably have had more sleepless nights and worries since I’ve been director, but I do enjoy the challenge,” she said.

Tumultuous Career Changes

Experts say it’s common to struggle and feel isolated in a new job, and pharmacists are not immune from those feelings. Age, experience, and expertise in your field can buffer the difficulty of moving into an unfa­miliar position, but those attributes don’t fully protect you. And whether fresh out of school, mid-career, or on the verge of retire­ment, ASHP members say career changes can be tumultuous even with solid skills and knowledge gleaned from previous positions.

Job transitions are different for each pharmacist. Mid-career pharmacists may not have fully mapped their futures but are looking for promotions that fit. Others are approached for positions they didn’t necessarily expect but are glad to accept. And young pharmacists often live in the moment and opt for the right positions as they emerge.

With a multitude of different oppor­tunities, today’s retirement-age pharmacists seem to be in flux. Some aren’t sure when they’ll stop working, while others work every day toward a set retirement date. Oth­ers leave the profession only to return in a different capacity.

Take 52-year-old Alicia Miller, M.S. She may retire at age 65, but “Who knows?” she said. In a U-turn back to work this year, Miller returned as a con­sultant after retiring as associate director of pharmacy at the Ohio State University Medical Center, Columbus, and assistant professor at the university’s College of Pharmacy.

Miller pursued the consulting posi­tion because she wanted to use her skills in pharmacy for something new. The stress is now less, but the change has meant that she has had to adjust both to more travel and the fact that she is called on now to make recommendations. In her previous position, she made decisions.

“You are not there to be a decision-maker, which was one of my primary roles in my previous life,” Miller said.

Living in the Moment

Transition came easy to Jillian Foster, Pharm.D., who has experienced job changes every year since she received her pharmacy degree from the University of Mississippi in Oxford in 2004.

“You’d think that it would be tiring to change, but it’s not. It’s rejuvenating. It’s motivating, and it doesn’t get old,” Foster said. “The transitions have been a whirlwind, but every experience has built on the previ­ous one.”

Foster, 28, currently works as a phar­macy benefits manager at North Mississippi Health Services’ Acclaim, Inc., a third-party administrator in Tupelo, Miss. Her profes­sional philosophy is to not worry about reaching specific career milestones, but to stay open to possibilities.

“I just like to knock on the door. I’m up for anything,” she said. “I have to remind myself not to get caught up with the future. What is my advice to new practitioners? Live in the moment, and nothing that you learn will be wasted.”

Changing careers can mean excitement, but it can also mean a welcome change in stress levels, according to Jordan Cohen, Ph.D., 65.

“I felt the intensity go away,” he said.

Before retiring last year as dean of the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy, Iowa City, for eight years, Cohen said his busy working schedule stretched into many nights and weekends.

Now a faculty member at the college, Cohen will eventually teach part time and spend his free time working as a consultant and writing about pharmacy-related topics.

“It really is time for me to pursue some other things with a little less pressure,” he said.

A Great Sense of Accomplishment

Pharmacists in transition sometimes call upon their mentors for support and assurance that their mentees are making the right decisions.

Before Sheila Mitchell, Pharm.D., FASHP, left her position as director of pharmacy services at Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare-Germantown Hospital in Memphis last year to become the found­ing dean of the Union University School of Pharmacy in Jackson, Tenn., the mid-career pharmacist consulted Grover C. Bowles, a close friend, former ASHP president, and Whitney Award winner.

Bowles, who retired as director of pharmacy at Baptist Memo­rial Hospital in Memphis in 1984, told Mitchell that the position at Union would be a new challenge filled with hard work. But he predicted that it would also rejuvenate Mitchell, offering her the greatest sense of accomplishment she would ever know.

“He was right,” said Mitchell, who serves on the ASHP Board of Directors. “I chose the opportunity and find every day to be a brand new day full of excitement and exhilaration.”

The shift to the academic world likely was the most difficult decision Mitchell has made. “It wasn’t something I had on my career plan,” she said. But “everything is falling into place beautifully. I have never regretted a single day. It has been a joy.”

Mitchell is thankful for the variety of career and leadership posi­tions she has held, saying that they readied her for her new position.

“I would strongly encourage anyone who is considering a career change to view it as an opportunity to build upon past experiences,” she said, adding that redefining one’s career path actually helps to redefine the profession of pharmacy in new and innovative ways.

Kenn Horowitz, Pharm.D., 66, has also had a pleasant career transition. Last year, Horowitz capped a 41-year pharmacy career when he retired as a pharmacist at Hemophilia Health Services (HHS), a division of Accredo Health Group in Los Angeles. Horowitz will continue working for HHS several days a week, a move he describes as “keeping my finger in the pie,” while also working as a staff pharmacist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he also was previously employed.

Horowitz’s retirement has meant more time to travel the world to visit camps and conven­tions for one of his favorite pas­times: Lindy Hop dancing.

“That’s one of my primary plans for retirement,” he said of the type of swing dance born in New York.

Career transitions are noth­ing new for Horowitz, who has worked for many different kinds of employers, including government health agencies and health sys­tems in New York, Montana and California.

“I’ve enjoyed the many hats I’ve worn in pharmacy. Every­thing has given me experience and knowledge. I wouldn’t trade my career for any other,” he said, adding that over the years, he’s coped with change by “pouring myself into it and doing the best I can.”

Charting a Specific Career Path

Some pharmacists have fine-tuned career maps. Take Rafael Saenz, M.S., Pharm.D., 32, operations manager for the pharmacy department at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where he oversees the outpatient pharmacy. Saenz has diligently planned each step he will need to take to become a corporate or systems director.

In the meantime, Saenz is trying to learn about the many functions of the pharmacy where he works as he works toward becoming a pharmacy director one day.

“If you don’t plan out certain steps in your career, then you’re going to get tunnel vision and only see the department from one angle,” he said. “Hopefully, when the time is right, I’ll see an oppor­tunity to become director and I’ll move into that.”

Saenz admits that he struggled with his introduction to health-system work after spending so much time in pharmacy school and as a pharmacy resident, where many experiences are synthesized and mentoring is always available.

“Real-life situations come up ad hoc, and you have to respond to them as you go,” he said, crediting his success to thorough train­ing and a mindset of curiosity and openness to the perspectives of fellow healthcare professionals.

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