Oksana Pyzik is a Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL School of Pharmacy and Global Health Advisor at the Commonwealth Pharmacists Association. Hailing from Sudbury – a small mining town in Canada – she tells Saša Jankovic about her unorthodox career path, driven by taking risks and defying convention
‘I began my studies in biochemistry at the University of Guelph before embarking on the Masters of Pharmacy degree at The School of Pharmacy, University of London. I have been a pharmacist for the past seven years and started in community pharmacy before moving on to the non-governmental organisation (NGO) space, where I conducted research on competition law and public health at the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) in The Hague.
‘In 2013, I took up my first academic post at UCL School of Pharmacy and am now a senior teaching fellow and global engagement coordinator. In addition, I am a fellow of the Higher Education Academy as well as a global health adviser and board trustee of the Commonwealth Pharmacists Association, where I advocate for over four million pharmacists to advance the profession and work with agencies such as the World Health Organization around such issues as substandard and falsified medicine, antimicrobial resistance and workforce planning.’
What attracted you to academia?
‘Upon graduation, a career in academia was not even on my radar, especially as a locum pharmacist. However, quite early on I had the opportunity to take on a research role, which not only challenged me to become a collaborative problem solver but a savvy data analyst and strong communicator to international audiences at both patient and expert level. As my network grew through my publications and presentations, I began to collaborate and strengthen relationships with academics, which led to an invitation to give a guest lecture. From that moment I was hooked.
‘The global nature of my previous research role shaped my vision of pharmacy education and I entered academia with the aim to integrate students and pharmacists into wider spheres of the political health landscape by embedding this sense of responsibility early in pharmacy education.
‘Beyond this specific issue, my interest in global health stems from my belief that as a global citizen I have an ethical, social and political responsibility to improve health for all. In 2015, I founded the UCL Fight the Fakes (FTF) Campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of substandard and falsified medicines as part of the wider FTF group.’
How would someone go about finding a job in academic pharmacy?
‘There are different avenues and all have their advantages and disadvantages. Traditionally, one would complete a PhD and apply for a postdoctoral fellowship, followed by a lectureship. While this route develops strong research skills, many positions post PhD are grant dependent and job security may fluctuate.
‘Another pathway is via the teacher practitioner track, which may appeal to candidates who are passionate about teaching and interested in research that is focused on pedagogy. However, as it is uncommon for universities to accept pharmacists with no teaching experience, a teacher practitioner role that is split between time in hospital or community is the best way to get your foot in the door and build relevant experience.
‘Alternatively, leadership roles in academic administration and management within a university are less dependent on a publication record and more tied into business development and public engagement.’
What is the expected pay?
‘Teaching fellow roles start at the approximately same payscale as that of community pharmacists. However, salaries for leadership roles such as head of department start at around £100,000, dependent on the institution.’
What are the positives of the role?
‘Academia is a highly competitive and stimulating environment that drives you to continually ask questions and seek solutions that could influence health policy at the population level as well as shed new light on current challenges in care. You are also immersed in an environment of enthusiastic and intellectually curious individuals that pushes you to learn more and stay on top of the cutting edge of the profession and pharmaceutical science development.
‘Unlike in other sectors, you have the autonomy to set your own timelines and research agenda based on your interests and strengths rather than on objectives set by shareholders of a company. As subject experts, academics are also sought out as consultants or start spin-off businesses, which can yield secondary income. And looking at the bigger picture, pharmacy practice research drives policy change that improves the health of our patients.’
And what are the negatives?
‘According to Times Higher Education surveys, it is common for academics to work more than 60 hours per week due to the all-encompassing nature of academia. However, compared to peers working in the pharmaceutical industry, academics are remunerated at a lower rate despite similar levels of expertise. In general, higher education is also constrained by strict budgets and resource scarcity, which can lead to difficult work environments and a lack of structured development programs to support career progression.’
Are there any specific qualities that academic pharmacists should possess?
‘Academia is a highly competitive sector with fewer job openings than other industries, so it is essential to be self driven and willing to deep dive into work that can stretch across years. The ability to juggle many projects simultaneously is also essential and it is important to be resilient in accepting external criticism such as peer review, journal editors rejecting research papers and proposals for funding being criticised or duplicated by competitors.’
Would you recommend an academic career to other pharmacists?
‘Yes. It has opened doors for me that I never thought possible – for example, just this February I had the great honour to address the United Nations in New York on the International Day of Women & Girls in Science, on Advancing Women in Science as Leaders.
‘If you are an independent thinker who craves autonomy and thrives in competitive and challenging environments, a career in academia might well be for you.’