What I’m really thinking: Pharmacy students are suffering

Overworked, underpaid and at breaking point, two pharmacy students give insight into their struggles under the new unpaid internship scheme

The recent decision not to pay students on pharmacy internships has been met with widespread outrage and condemnation. Two pharmacy students from separate universities agreed to share their experiences of how the change has impacted their lives. They agreed to write on the condition of anonymity, as in the past “a student has gotten in trouble over speaking out… there is a code of conduct for pharmacy students in which we cannot put a negative light on pharmacy, the PSI (Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland), or the colleges.” Here are their words:

Student one

” I am working, I am an employee and employees get paid.”

Pharmacy is an incredibly demanding degree, and academically not many compare, however, it is the issues and obstacles us current MPharm students have been exposed to that lead it to take a toll on your health, mentally and physically. The ethos of our degree has the patient at the epicentre of everything we do, and unfortunately, some of us students have become those very patients.

In November 2017, I collapsed in the library. I went to the GP and suddenly found myself in St. James’ hospital, on my own, with a catheter in my arm. The doctor tells me I have a viral infection brought on by stress, dehydration and exhaustion. Subsequently, I received a diagnosis of Vertiginous Migraines, triggered by stress and less than 24 hours later, I’m sitting a three-hour exam drugged up to my eyeballs. By Christmas, I was back to myself. The following March, I had a three week period of intense muscle spasms; a heavy course of Valium, Diclofenac and Codeine later and, despite a relapse in April, I was back on the dancefloor.

Last September, in week four of our current placement, I woke up unable to move. It took me much longer than I’d like to admit to doing any basic task. I was back on medication which had me asleep around the clock. My quality of life was practically non-existent. Though improving drastically since that point, I am still in recovery with no light at the end of the tunnel shining just yet. I’m looking at a fibromyalgia diagnosis in the Mater Hospital in January.

It is unfair to say I’m 22 years old with two chronic diagnoses due to the degree I’m studying, but the overwhelming stress, countless hours of study, long days and even longer nights are major contributing factors. You simply don’t have enough time to look after yourself. This year, it was recommended to us to have 50 hours work a week between academic modules and placement. I also have a part-time job to be able to support myself, commute four hours a day, then have to study, eat, sleep. Where’s my time to exercise? To have a social life? To do literally anything outside the world of Pharmacy? The sad reality we find ourselves in is that a work/life balance does not apply to pharmacy students. We are incredibly overworked and most definitely underpaid.

It took me nearly a year to realise that when I thought I got “back to myself” after these periods, I never truly did. I’ve been falling down the rungs of the “I’m fine” ladder since I started this degree. I can’t remember what it’s like to live without calculating every movement before I do it, without making sure I can sit comfortably everywhere I go, without having to have a special compartment in my handbag just for all my tablets. I can’t remember what “normal” is, I haven’t lived like that for a long time.

This degree is currently running a system that isn’t sustainable, equitable or ethical. It’s time we face the facts: someone made a mistake. The time for pointing fingers and blaming is over. We deserve to be paid for the work we do, and the decision to pay us should be up to the people whom we are working for and not the PSI or our universities. There is still time for that change to be made, and I am literally begging the PSI to go through with it.

I deserve to be able to work the same hours as those around me in my placement and be rewarded as such. I am working, I am an employee and employees get paid. What would payment mean to me? I could quit my part-time job, and use that time towards my recovery and my health. It would mean everything to me to be able to put myself first, for the first time since I started college. I want to be a healthy and happy qualified pharmacist in 2020 and it seems like the powers that be are doing everything to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Student two

“The financial burden has created inequality and an elitist attitude in Pharmacy.”

I am a fourth year student studying Pharmacy in UCC. For those of you that don’t know, paid placement has been banned by the regulator for all pharmacy students in Ireland. Alongside this, the fifth year masters fee has been increased from €3,000 to €7,500-8,500, depending on the university. Pharmacy students take part in a four-month placement in fourth year and an eight-month placement in fifth year, both unpaid. This has caused severe financial strain for students, creating a deficit of €19,000-35,000, when travel and living expenses are included.

For the last four months, I have been carrying out my fourth year placement in Dublin. Fortunately, I have very supportive parents that are able to give me financial aid in order for me to carry out a placement with optimal opportunities. My parents are two civil servants on good salaries that still needed to take out a loan to support me with my education. For this to happen, I had to sublet my room in Cork to another student for the four months I was gone and move into a room in Dublin in which another student kindly offered me whilst he went home for placement. This room cost €700 per month. Weekly living expenses amounted to €100 per week as I was commuting for three hours a day in Dublin. This amounts to €4,400 approximately overall, not taking other factors into consideration. I was lucky that my parents took out a loan for me to be able to carry out my placement, as I would not have been able to undertake it otherwise, which was the case with most students. The financial burden has created inequality, and an elitist attitude in Pharmacy.

I have worked in the community pharmacy world for almost three years now. At the start of the four months, I had to give up my job at home as it was impossible to keep everything up with the travelling involved. Thankfully, I was able to enrol in the two locum pharmacy agencies in Ireland, called Clarity and Pharmaconex. A “locum” requires moving around to different pharmacies to fill in for another worker for a day or two. As I come from Waterford originally, being a locum was the only way I could work during this new integrated course if I ever wanted to see my family on the weekend. I now continue to work on random days in Waterford, Cork and Dublin in order to support myself. This work is not suited to everyone and there are only a select few within the three schools who are carrying it out. Inevitably, this makes the situation tougher.

This unjustifiable decision must be overturned. Citizens of Ireland must be paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work.