This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
I love my profession and am happy with where my career is, but there are three lies during school that I wish I had known right away.
The first, prestigious school equals a successful career.
I graduated high school at a time when everyone went to college, the oddball was the kid that didn’t and even more so if you went to a no-name school. If it wasn’t a big name, recognized by their athletics or the dynamics of the program and names of their predecessors, what was the point?
Flash forward almost ten years and guess what, those names hardly matter. Sure I still get, “Oh, that’s a great school,” but other than a compliment on school name printed on my diploma, not much else. Looking back, community school for my prerequisites and focusing on a pharmacy school that matched my style of learning and goals for a career would have saved a lot of money, and a lot of headaches.
You see, once you get into pharmacy school no one cares where you did undergraduate schooling or got your prerequisites. Once you get into residency or start your first job, no one really cares where you went to pharmacy school. What they care about is if you got the necessary education and experience to become an intricate part of their team.
Choose a school based on the opportunities and experiences they provide, as well as look at the faculty and the voice they have in the community.
Don’t be afraid to go local or small. The education you receive is only the base; it’s what you do with it that really matters. Choosing a school simply based on the name will often come with a price tag and if it doesn’t ultimately fit you as a learner, can wind up making you think was it worth it in the end?
The second lie I was told: don’t worry about the cost, you’ll be able to pay it back.
Pharmacy is a great field and you’ll always have a job. While the essence of this statement may ring true, it fails to include the rapidly changing status of the field.
Towards the end of pharmacy school, the job outlook had greatly shifted. Pharmacy schools were popping up everywhere and the market was saturated. With so many applicants and limited openings, employers could be pickier. The push was towards experience and cost, which made residency the norm. Not only did the employer get a pharmacist with more knowledge and experience, but they could also shape them into the pharmacist they needed at half the cost.
If you wanted to get into hospital you needed to do a residency. Want to work in critical care then you need a second-year residency. Ambulatory care followed suit, pushing for 1-2 years of residency. This meant making only half the salary you were expecting while also, for most, deferring loan repayment.
If I have learned anything my first few years out of pharmacy school, it’s you have to be flexible. You have to be willing to move to where the jobs are. You have to start out in an area you might not be the most found of. In this profession, any experience is better than nothing. I know too many people that turned down jobs because they weren’t in the city they wanted or didn’t allow them to work in a particular area of pharmacy that they had been dreaming of. Some people gave up on hospital work altogether because they didn’t get a residency.
I moved away from the city for my first job at a rural hospital. I didn’t get a residency and all the small hospitals in the city wanted people with more years under their belt.
I spent the first six months trying to apply to other hospitals but they all said the same thing, experience, experience, experience. I took the next six months and focused on trying to make myself the most marketable possible. I jumped on communities, I helped develop protocols, and I worked on getting published. Anything that could add value to my CV I went after it. I didn’t have a residency, but I wanted to prove to future employers that I was just as, if not more, capable without one.
The second step, tailor to their program. After a year of trying to gain any experience I could, I applied to a large hospital in the city I wanted to settle down in. The minimum requirement for applicants: three years. So how did I even get through screening? I spent a good hour with HR convincing them that just because I didn’t have a residency and only one year of experience, didn’t mean I wouldn’t be a great assess to them. This wasn’t the first time I tried this.
I applied to almost every hospital system I could to get back to the city, and they all had the same response, “check-in with us in a few years.” For whatever reason, this time it worked. HR put me through for an interview, now what?
Instead of telling them what I had done, I decided to focus on what I could do for them. I worked at a small hospital but also satellite staffed for three at a time: Different computer screens, different systems, and different formularies. Put me on your busiest floor, I can handle the volume. Want more positive exposure? I’ll work on a publication and get more pharmacists involved. The student program isn’t doing so well? Here’s how I will turn it around and help build a strong program.
Fast forward, I recently celebrated my two year anniversary at a large hospital in the heart of downtown, staffing in critical care, coordinating pharmacy student rotations, precepting residents, and writing an intradepartmental publication.
The final lie, probably the biggest one to digest and unravel: Being debt-free equals freedom.
We all know: Pay more money faster, save more and be debt-free sooner. The issue I faced was the feeling of freedom. While I worked towards PSLF for federal loans, I had six figures in private loans. I got the job with a steady income, lived in the cheapest apartment, and drove the old beater car. I worked extra shifts and pinched every penny. With an average and variable interest rate of 9%, I was stuck. I was barely making progress and stretching myself thin.
I researched everything finance related. I consolidated and refinanced. Cutting my interest rates in half at a set rate instantly cut down my overall total repaid as well as time. I laid out all my finances and budgeted, cutting back wherever I could. Anything extra went to my student loans. I did this for quite some time until it broke me. I still was stuck. I thought I was doing everything right. I was putting off a house, a family, taking dream trips. I felt stagnant, like I was putting my life on hold.
I refinanced again, this time down to 4.5% and paying extra towards principle. I had the job, time, and resources, but everything went towards loans. I felt like I was going through the motions just buying my time until one day I could start my life.
Then it hit me, I need to find the balance. Putting my life on hold for a few years to pay off my loans did not work for me. The successfulness of my life was not monetary to me. Numbers did not equate progress or happiness but experiences and quality did. I had to develop a new strategy.
I refinanced again (checking every 6 months), this time to 3.8% fixed with all my private loans under one. I revisited my finance spreadsheet. Next, I determined when I wanted my student loans to be paid off by, while still being able to enjoy life. I calculated how much extra I needed monthly to meet the goal and adjusted my budget.
As long as I stay under my overall goal, I get to start living my life instead of feeling like I’m on pause. I’m flexible with my budget month-to-month, cutting back in different areas to stay under the total monthly budget and still on track for loan payoff. I got a home within my housing budget, planned the wedding but cut back on entertainment and going out, used overtime for that relaxing weekend getaway instead of dipping into my extra payment on loans.
While some people can eat ramen every day, sell the car, and hustle for a few years to be debt-free, it doesn’t work for everyone. As for me, I have one year left but will have paid off my loans six years sooner, saved thousands, and started to enjoy the life I am working so hard for. Being comfortable financially month-to-month, happy with the target loan payoff and money saved, while also being able to stop and enjoy things is true freedom for me.