[Pharmacy + Me] with Francesca Gavins: the Path to a PhD
As the study of the pharmaceutical sciences can be fairly academic, it’s natural that many pharmacy graduates will explore the world of research as their potential career path.
Research is different to a full-time job as you can’t just switch off after 5pm (in fact, you probably won’t finish by then!). But it can still be a rewarding career path if you’re truly passionate about your topic of research and you have a support network to keep you running to the finish line.
Our next interviewee is Francesca Gavins, a PhD researcher at UCL. Here, she explains her decision to move into research after training as a hospital pharmacist.
Tell us about yourself!
Hello! I am a PhD researcher and pharmacist from Surrey.
In my role as a researcher at the UCL School of Pharmacy, I’m investigating the effect of food on orally administered medicines. I’m proud to have contributed to a number of review articles on sex differences, gastrointestinal physiology and machine learning.
I completed my pre-reg training at Epsom & St Helier NHS Trust where I was exposed to a range of core clinical areas. Now I practice as a community pharmacist on Sundays, where out of hour care and provision of advice and medicines are often needed. In my free time, I enjoy cooking and being outdoors.
How has pharmacy impacted your career aspirations and goals?
I’m proud to be a pharmacist. I’ve tried to choose roles in pharmacy which impact patients and can contribute towards making the world a better place. I have also tried to work in settings where there are pharmacy role models who lead the field.
Pharmacy teaches you to work hard and reminds you of the wider world: from 12-hour shifts in community to working Christmas Eve, there are patients who will always need your help.
Pharmacy is an incredibly varied discipline and has equipped me with the fundamentals of chemistry, biology, pharmacology, therapeutics and pharmaceutics. Now I feel that I can apply this knowledge to any opportunity that interests me due to the core training I received.
What motivated you to pursue a career in research?
During my MPharm degree, I undertook an Erasmus placement at the University of Copenhagen in the field of vaccine design and delivery.
I was part of a multi-disciplinary and international team of MSc students, PhD students and postdocs. I enjoyed the collaborative environment, learning new scientific topics and problem-solving after failed experiments.
I contributed towards a research article and then I decided to apply for a PhD at the Centre for Advanced Therapeutics and Nanomedicines, where I did my undergrad. I’ve had great opportunities here including a three-month placement at Pfizer and contributing to Aulton’s Pharmaceutics. Most importantly, I am always learning.
How do you combine your pharmacy expertise/skills with your new career path?
The MPharm degree teaches you to be methodical and gather all of the evidence before choosing your next course of action.
While I have pursued an alternative pharmacy career, as pharmacists we aim to make medicines safe and efficacious, with low intra- and inter-variability, which are easier for patients to take.
When we brainstorm in our research groups for new ideas, we try to think of the bigger picture, consider real-world problems and draw experiences from clinical practices.
What aspects of your new career path are not present in pharmacy?
There is more lone-working as a researcher, but there are more opportunities to combine different roles in your daily life.
For example, this year I’ve been an examiner for OSCEs, a supervisor for Masters students, presented webinars, written articles as well as being a lab researcher.
I can flexibly plan my schedule as I balance working from home with spending time in the lab. I am very grateful for my research group, where I am surrounded by ambitious scientists.
We learn from each other, share experiences and provide advice when things aren’t going well.
Do you view a ‘career change’ as a positive or negative (or neutral), and why?
I would say positive as I believe I’ve developed a broader skillset, where science communication is a key part.
I still practice as a pharmacist and I would like to continue to help patients, in particular in pharmacist-led services such as the flu vaccination programme and other key public health services. In my role now, I hope I’m able to contribute to new knowledge to drive the world forward.
What advice would you give a pharmacy/pre-reg student who’s thinking about changing careers?
Talk to other pharmacy graduates and learn what other roles are out there. Be bold by asking for work experience through proactive emails and phone calls. Actively look for internships and note the closing dates.
Apply for pharmacy summer placements in the pharmaceutical industry, community and hospital. If you’re unable to secure a place, apply to another sector: one summer, I did an accountancy internship where I learnt a completely new range of skills and improved my business acumen.
The Academy of Pharmaceutical Sciences runs a number of webinars on careers in academia and industry.
But if you prefer to stay in the patient-facing clinical area, there are now roles in prescribing and digital pharmacy. The sector is ever-changing and the most important thing is to keep up with the times so you are not left behind.
Connect with Francesca through Twitter or LinkedIn to find out more about her work!