Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Is there a word count for that? How the habits of good students transfer to habits of good professionals

I recently assigned two essays for the first exam in a college course for upperclassmen and I keep getting emails from students asking me how long the essays have to be and how many citations they should have. After answering the seventh email with these questions, it occurred to me that the students were reducing my instruction to 'write a good essay' to a word count and a minimum amount of citations. I realized that they don’t know what it means to write a good essay. How does an instructor explain that in an email?

These students will apply for pharmacy school in the spring. Just as many of them don’t know what a good essay is, I doubt they know what a good pharmacist is. So many students believe that a ‘good student’ is one who scores high on exams and has a good GPA. And why shouldn't they? Parents and teachers, administrators and legislators have been hammering test scores as a measure of success into their consciousness for years. But those of us who have been working a while know that the high-scorers are not always the best employees.

What does it mean to be a successful employee? In the work place you won’t have grades or a GPA. You might be evaluated once a year by a supervisor. Maybe your patients or clients will tell you what a good job you are doing, but more than likely they will simply expect you to do a good job and only tell you when you are not doing a good job.

Here are ten habits of good students that transfer to as habits of good professionals

1. Communicate
Note how your instructor prefers to communicate with you and check in regularly. You don’t get to say that you prefer to be texted when your instructor communicates via email. If you are too busy to check your email, you are too busy to take the class. If you have something important to say to your instructor, don’t say it when she is busy doing something else or about to be busy doing something else because she’ll most likely forget what you said. Write down the important stuff. Send an email or text her.  Communication is one of those great transferable skills you will use throughout your entire professional life.

2. Minimize the personal drama in your life
This is really important. Instructors care about you, but not to the extent that they are alright with your personal life regularly interfering with class. Just get the work done. Stop sending emails about your girlfriend breaking up with you or how you work three jobs, have two kids, and take care of your dying grandmother. You are certainly allowed to have a personal crisis, but just one. If your life is a string of crises, you need to make changes to your life rather than expecting your teachers to make allowances for you. This goes for supervisors and colleagues in the work place. After the first couple of times it happens, people will tire of covering for you because of personal drama.

3. Try to figure things out yourself and allow yourself to fail
This goes back to “What is a good essay?” Your teachers can’t spell everything out for you. Oftentimes in life you are going to have to simply figure something out on your own, perhaps by trial and error. That’s okay. Failure is a great teacher. Students who need constant direction tend not to make good employees. Your supervisor is likely going to be a busy person who won’t have time to show you exactly how everything works.

4. Read directions
This could also translate as read the syllabus. Or the textbook or the email your teacher sent you telling you when or how to hand in your project. Asking questions of your teacher that are right in front of your face if you would have bothered to read the materials means that you are going to be the kind of employee that asks your supervisor unnecessary questions. For a pharmacist, not reading directions could lead to harming or killing a patient. Back to #3, the best way to figure something out is to read the syllabus or the directions.

5. Arrive on time
When you show up late to class, you are telling the teacher that you are a) disorganized, b) distracted, c) someone who doesn't care about the class, or d) having a crisis. As I wrote in #2, it is alright to have the rare personal crisis, but too many of these tells a teacher and an employer that you are not worth investing in because you just can’t get it together. If the bus is late one day, get an earlier one the next day. If you have trouble finding a parking space, leave earlier in the morning. If your children or roommate or other person you are driving in is making you late, you need to fix the problem rather than making your lateness your teacher’s problem. It goes without saying that the employee who is habitually late usually does not last long at that job.

6. Don’t wait to be told what to do
This goes back to #3 (figure things out yourself) and #4 (read the directions). Just because your teacher didn't mention it in class doesn't mean you are not responsible for it. You shouldn't need reminders to do what is expected of you.  Some things should be obvious. Staple your papers, put your name on assignments, email a teacher ahead of time if you are going to be absent or as soon as you stop throwing up if you are sick. Don’t wait to be told when the make-up exam is, ask. Better yet, send an email asking. The same advice holds true in the workplace. You will be expected to be a member of a team who takes initiative, not a robot who stands around waiting for instructions.

7. Be an extrovert or at least pretend to be one
Participate in class. Get to know your teachers. Don’t just sit there like an empty bowl waiting to be filled with information. You should be asking questions or making comments. Shy? That’s no excuse.  You can’t go through life saying nothing in large groups. Show your teacher that there are actual thoughts in your head and show your classmates that you’d be a good person to study with. As a pharmacist you are going to have to communicate with people all day long. Many of these people will be sick, worried, distracted, irritated, or not well-versed in drug interactions. It will be your job to talk to them, so you may as well get in some practice by learning to speak up in class.

8. Write down a semester plan with quantifiable steps to achieving your goals
Whether your goal is to simply pass your classes or to get a 4.0 GPA, write down how you are going to make that happen. Success never just happens. You have to plan it. You have to work at it. Without goals, you are just drifting through school. Without a plan to reach your goals, you don’t have a means to achieve them.  The 5-year plan is a standard method both in financial planning and career planning. If you don’t want to stay at the same job with the same pay your entire life, you will need a plan.

9. Work during the day
Students who say they do their best work at night are lying. If you are working late into the night it is because you didn't make time during the day when your brain is functioning optimally. Late night workers are more easily distracted and are not as efficient. Working at night means taking longer and getting poorer results that working during the day. Most pharmacies are open during the day. You likely will get a job with daytime hours. Just as you wouldn't trust yourself to fill prescriptions or label them at two in the morning, you shouldn't think that you can write that paper or study for an exam at that time.

10. Sleep during the night
You should test your body to see how much sleep it needs to function best. Then you should make sure you are getting the rest you need. It is a myth than you can make up sleep the next night or during a nap later in the day. If you are not getting enough sleep, you are not physically or mentally at your best. A pharmacist needs to be physically and mentally fit. Most pharmacists stand all day long and have to be attentive to details concerning drug interactions and dosing instructions. I wouldn't trust a pharmacist who filled my prescription on just five hours of sleep.


  1. Test taking is still great for the sciences and math...which pharmacists do have to master! Studies show that the standard testing is actually the best way to get results and learn in these subjects. I think another tip for writing good essays is reading loads of different essays. Also, studying before sleep can help retain information better, studies show. So, it all depends and everyone is different to an extent... your general rules are correct, but medical/pharmacy school is not easy. Anyone who has been through that path knows...and anyone who has already made it.. didn't do it schlepping! All the best!

  2. PS Still good tips for life!!! Thanks!