November 13, 2014, by James Smith
My Pre-reg Story (So Far): Applications, Interviews and Offers
For a majority of 3rd year pharmacy students nationwide, this summer has been a stressful time. For most of us, pre-registration applications have dominated our summer. Thousands of students have sent applications into community pharmacies, with thousands of others attempting the challenging feat of completing a pharmalife application without either breaking their computer out of frustration or having a mental breakdown.
Firstly, for those who do no know, the pre-reg year is effectively a 5th year of studying (with a paid salary!) that a pharmacy student has to undertake in order to become a qualified pharmacist. It involves working for a year either in a community pharmacy and/or in hospital pharmacy (or a split year of working for an industrial pharma company and a chosen hospital) under the supervision of a qualified pharmacist(s). I applied for both hospital and industrial pre-reg placements. The idea is that it allows us students to put what we have learnt into practice and further our learning in a safe setting where we aren’t simply let loose on patients (as, if we are honest, we would more than likely cause a few problems). At the end of the year, all students have to pass 2 exams (sat on the same day) in order to become a qualified pharmacist. In summary, the pre-reg year is the final hurdle a pharmacy student faces in their journey to becoming a fully qualified pharmacist.
For my hospital applications, Pharmalife was the bane of my life over the summer. It is an online system through which all applications to NHS hospitals have to go through; similar to UCAS when applying to university. The application process involves filling out personal details and a CV template, before answering 5 challenging questions that generally ask for examples from your own experience when you have displayed something or other. You can then send off your application to up to 4 hospitals.
The CV section took no time at all, but I spent hours deliberating over how to answers the pharmalife questions; querying whether the examples I had extracted from my mind were enough to make me stand out from the crowd. I tried to use examples from my limited hospital experience (1 week in a private hospital) where possible. When that was not possible, I ensured that I showed how any example I gave related or could be applied to hospital pharmacy. Finally, the number of grammar and spelling checks I made must have been in the hundreds; there was no way I was going to let a misplaced apostrophe or a missing full stop ruin my application chances!
I attended 2 hospital interviews during the whole process. The first was at the Royal Derby Hospital. I went into this completely blind. I had read up on the hospital, plus the Francis, Berwick and Keogh reports, on top of revising as much clinical knowledge as I could in preparation; but neither really helped. All the questions asked were about behaviour and clinical experiences, with a small counselling role play exercise and a mini calculations test. All in all, I felt the interview had gone well. Despite this feeling, I got put on the reserve list! My confidence was knocked; I had felt the interview went well but I still wasn’t good enough to get the place? Fortunately, Derby hospital were fantastic and rang up with feedback. They gave me some detailed and helpful feedback, including that fact that I spoke too much about certain areas of pharmacy without relating it to the pre-reg year. I took this all on board and used it to change how I answered questions in my next interviews.
My next interview was at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Here I expected a real grilling; rumours about the London hospital interviews had reached my ears and instilled a sense of fear within me. I prepared in the same way as I did for Derby, but this time was conscious of relating all my answers back to the pre-reg year, rather than being a pharmacist in general. I was asked some tough clinical questions, including having to process a drug chart with numerous mistakes on it and checking a dispensed medicine against the prescription, as well as about how I thought the Francis report affected pharmacists. Thankfully, I got a call from the hospital the next day confirming that they wanted to offer me a pre-reg with them! I finally felt that my hard work had paid off and I felt so relieved to have my pre-registration year sorted nice and early! I accepted through pharmalife and things seemed set in stone; I would be living in London for my pre-reg year! I wrote an excited, annoying facebook status (sorry to those who saw it) and relaxed for the first time in months. But things were soon to change.
Whilst my hospital applications were ongoing, my industrial-hospital split applications were being closely dissected and inspected by the respective employers. The applications for these pre-reg places were much simpler than the complex process of pharmalife. All it involved was submitting a CV and a cover letter stating why you want to work in the pharma industry and why you would be perfectly suited to a career in such an environment.
Prior to my first hospital interview, I was offered an interview with Merck (MSD), a big American pharma company, for their pre-reg placement split with Guy’s and St Thomas hospitals. Working in the pharma industry had been a goal for me from quite a young age; discovering and designing new medicines that could benefit patients worldwide was (and still is) a hugely attractive career pathway for me. It was the predominant factor in my decision to study pharmacy at university. So this opportunity was a huge moment.
I prepared for the interview by researching the company and their products, revising basic principles of pharmaceutics (the manufacturing of medicines) and reading about as much pharmaceutical news as I could. The night before the interview, I booked into a hotel and carried on preparation (ensuring to take a break to watch The Great British Bake Off). I felt confident I could myself justice, although my mind could not switch off from stressing about the next day.
On the morning of the interview, I woke up in my hotel after 3 hours of sleep, dressed up smart and headed to war, with the contrasting prospects of glory or doom tormenting my mind.
It’s safe to say that the day went awfully. I had 3 interviews. One with the formulations tutor and hospital tutor, where I was grilled on complex formulations and the names and roles of excipients. Another with the head of formulations, who tested my knowledge of the pharma industry. And finally a personality assessment with the current two pre-regs. The latter 2 I felt went well. But I became my own worst enemy in the first interview. By putting myself under immense pressure, my mind went blank and every formulation question they asked me was a mountain I could not climb. No matter how hard I racked my brains, the roles of various excipients got lost on their journey from my brain to my mouth. The panic set in, and before my day had really started I saw my dream career dissolve into nothingness.
I left dejected and that feeling was justified when I received the email the following week to confirm I hadn’t been offered a position.
Fast forward to the day after I accepted my Chelsea and Westminister hospital offer (TYPICAL), I received an email from Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), another American Pharma company, offering me an interview with them for their pre-reg, split with st Helen’s and Knowsley trust. Based up in the Wirral (near Liverpool), this was the one pharma company I had been really hoping for. With leading research into treatments for HIV and cancer, this was my dream company. The hospital trust the year was split with had also just won best trust in the country and I thought that working for the best trust could only benefit me and provide me with top quality clinical training. Plus, being based up near Liverpool meant I would be able to get to Anfield as often as tickets were available (being an avid Liverpool FC fan, this was a key pull factor for me). Despite having accepted a hospital offer already, I still wanted to interview for my dream job. So I accepted.
I prepared in the same way as I did for MSD, but this time included roles of excipients and more complex formulations into my preparation. But this time I felt less pressure. I had a fantastic pre-reg to fall back on and this job, although more desirable to me, was not the be all and end all. So I arose on the morning of my interview having had a full night of sleep.
I went to the interview and immediately felt at home. I was welcomed by an incredibly friendly scouse security officer/receptionist called George, who taught me all about life working for BMS and what I could expect. I was toured by the current pre-reg, who was very kind and gave me a true insight into what life on the industrial pre-reg was like. This lit a fire within me and made me determined to beat the interview and get the place. Unfortunately, at the end of the tour he left me in the wrong place (back with George with the security man in the reception area) and the interviewers couldn’t find me. It wasn’t a great start and the interview started 20 minutes later than planned, despite being their first interview of the day (thankfully, they blamed the pre-reg, not me!).
The interview was with the formulations tutor and the hospital tutor, with the interview being split between some clinical knowledge, formulations knowledge and combined behavioural questions (such as when have you had to deal with somebody you couldn’t stand? etc etc). As the interview went on, I grew in confidence and felt a sense that the interview was going ok (much better than the MSD one at least). As the interview ended, I found myself joking and having a bit of a chuckle with both of my interviewers. I shook them both firmly by the hand and thanked them before being escorted out of the room and out of the building by George.
That evening I got a phone call from the formulations tutor to say I had been successful and they were going to offer me a place. I couldn’t contain my excitement! But I had forgotten about my offer with Chelsea. I told him I had accepted a hospital offer via pharmalife and expected him to retract the offer, but he was incredibly helpful and gave me advice on what to do next. He explained this happens quite often and that they had been quite late with interviewing this year; many people had given up all hope on getting an industrial pre-reg and accepted hospital instead! He told me all I needed to do was to ring up/email Chelsea, explain the situation and all would be fine. So the next day I nervously rang up the tutor at Chelsea and Westminster, expecting to be blacklisted and told I was an awful human being. Initially, the tutor there was angry; she had just rejected her reserve list that morning and didn’t want to have to go through a second round of interviews! After telling me to expect her to be in contact soon, she slammed down the phone so hard that I expected her next call to be from a different number. Fortunately, less than 30 minutes later she rang me back (from the same number… clearly the slam hadn’t broken the phone) and she calmly informed me that she had found a reserve to take my place and all was well. From then on she was a delight, wishing me well for the future and even cracked out a chuckle; the best response you can expect from someone whom you effectively had just let down. At this point it was clear from how kind, patient and understanding she was with me that I would have been more than happy working there if I had accepted the full year in hospital. I also have to thank my academic tutor, Professor Barrie Kellam, who helped me through this situation, teaching me an honest and valuable life lesson on how to deal with job offers and what to do when mistakes are made.
My advice to any student who may find themselves in this positon is: don’t accept an offer on pharmalife whilst you still have industrial pre-reg applications in process (even if it’s been 6 weeks since you applied and you’ve heard nothing and you have the hospital breathing down your neck pushing you to accept!). Instead, I learnt that I should’ve put the offer on hold and rung up all the pharma companies I had applied to to see if I was still in consideration; not just assumed I had been rejected. I have to stress this point. It was a critical mistake that I made. It caused excess stress to both myself and the C&W tutor; if it wasn’t for the patience and understanding of the C&W tutor, this tale could have had a very different ending. At the end of the day, for most of us pharmacy students this is the first time where we are applying for a full-time job, which can lead on to our future career. It’s a very different scenario to applying for summer placements and is far more intense and terrifying. Mistakes will be made by most, but the best thing you can do is learn from them and ensure that they will not happen again in future.
All in all, my pre-reg story so far has been a stressful affair with numerous plot twists, mistakes and fortunate events. But I have ended up where I wanted to be, and I couldn’t be happier. Bring on the Pre-reg year!