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Dr. Srikanth Kolluru’s Publication Explores Unconventional and Emerging Career Pathways for Pharmacists

As the job market for pharmacists has grown increasingly competitive due to the increased number of graduates each year while the availability of conventional positions has been steady, pharmacy programs must think outside the box to help graduates thrive in the face of change. Dr. Srikanth Kolluru, professor and associate dean of assessment and faculty development in Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (SPHS), presents some options in the publication “Rethinking the Pharmacy Workforce Crisis by Exploring Unconventional and Emerging Career Pathways and Training,” in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.

In 2019, approximately 15,000 students graduated from pharmacy programs, compared to 4,000 in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of available traditional pharmacist jobs has not grown exponentially compared to graduates.

Kolluru has been with KGI since 2013 as one of the founding faculty members of the SPHS. Over the years, he has witnessed the evolution of the market landscape.

“Traditionally, graduates would go work in a retail or hospital pharmacy, and a few of them would come back to academia as faculty,” Kolluru said. “But now that the demand for these positions is shrinking, we need to come out of this traditional mindset.”

To properly advise and equip students with the skills they need to adapt to these changes, faculty must expand their horizons and explore career pathways that may not have existed when they completed their pharmacy education.

Such career paths can include unconventional roles and roles that are more conventional but underexplored by pharmacists entering the workforce. An example of the latter would be ambulatory care, which has steadily grown over 20 years. Fifteen thousand four hundred pharmacists currently work in these settings, and this role is expected to grow as much as 20 percent to 18,600 jobs by 2029.

Another promising field is online pharmacy services, which is projected to grow from the current 5,500 jobs to 7,100 jobs (31 percent) by 2029.

Additionally, pharmacy schools should foster nontechnical or soft skills such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence. Such skills can be utilized in a broad range of unconventional yet vital fields of pharmacy practice, including medical journalism, pharmacy and health “influencer”/content creation (podcasting, product and content promotion, and analysis), medical affairs, and clinical trials management.

Students should also be prepared to take on leadership roles in nonprofit association management, administration and legislation, and public health. Government positions, in particular, provide an excellent opportunity to make an impact on a large scale.

“Pharmacists in these roles can improve healthcare by changing the legislation,” Kolluru said.

For example, pharmacists in California now have provider status, which allows them to prescribe certain medications and expands the range of services they can offer.

To help student pharmacists excel upon graduation, faculty mentors must help students uncover their unique skill sets and determine what careers would be best suited to these skills. According to Kolluru, when he speaks to students about their values, he encourages them to dig deep.

“When I first ask them questions, they’ll usually give me answers like ‘honesty’ and ‘hard work,’ which are feel-good values that people would accept,” Kolluru said.

Then he asks them what activities they enjoyed doing in childhood and what core values these activities reflect. This process helps students gain better self-awareness and understanding of their true core values so that when they are reading job descriptions, they can determine whether the job reflects their core values.

“If your career path aligns with your values, you will excel at your job and your life will be much more enjoyable,” Kolluru said. “You won’t just be living for a paycheck.”

An education that supports the growth of students across multiple dimensions will enable them to take on more entrepreneurial roles if they choose and to remain flexible as innovations sweep the industry. Technological inventions such as medication dispensers and 3D printing, pharmacy delivery services, artificial intelligence, telemedicine, and digital disruption in the form of app creation are helping make medicine safer as well as more accessible and efficient. Promising careers can be found in all these areas.

Pharmacy schools must stay abreast of these innovations by continually adjusting their curriculum to reflect the industry’s current state. KGI accomplishes this with courses such as “Introduction to the Industry” along with its certificates program, where Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) students can choose from Medication Therapy Outcomes, Healthcare Management, Pharmacy Informatics, and Medical and Clinical Affairs.

Additionally, KGI’s Biopharmaceutical Industry Fellowship Program provides PharmD graduates with in-depth, specialized training in the biopharmaceutical industry. Fellows gain significant experience in a corporate setting, enabling them to hone their business and clinical skills.

According to Kolluru, faculty development is the most crucial element in preparing graduates for success.

“Faculty are the ones who continuously interact with the students, both in the classroom setting and outside the classroom in professional settings,” Kolluru said. “Most of us graduated a long time ago, so we need to keep updating our skills and our knowledge.”

Thus, KGI has developed a formalized process for faculty development, which could incorporate educating faculty on the full spectrum of career pathways and providing them with the resources they need to prepare students. While faculty may not be able to describe exactly what a specific job looks like, they can help students see beyond the pharmaceutical industry’s perceived limitations and uncover new possibilities.