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How to Become a Pharmacist in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Pharmacists are an essential part of the healthcare system. Pharmacists have extensive knowledge about prescription medication, including how each medication works, how a patient should take them, how they interact with other drugs, and how they may affect people. As the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries continue to grow, pharmacists continue to become more in demand than ever. 

If you’re considering a career as a pharmacist, note that licensed pharmacists do much more than work in retail pharmacies and filling prescriptions. There are many careers related to that of a pharmacist, with different academic and licensing requirements. Whether you choose a career as a community pharmacist, pharmacologist, pharmacy assistant, pharmacy technician, or anything in between, a career in the growing field of pharmacy is promising and may prove to be fulfilling.

If you are interested in becoming a pharmacist, learn the steps you need to take from high school, the extent of the training you will be required to complete, your options in terms of pharmacy school, and discover the potential career possibilities for pharmacists. 

Steps to Becoming a Pharmacist

Pharmacy is a clinical health field that may carry high stakes; therefore, there are numerous steps required to become a licensed pharmacist. Before starting the journey, you will want to make sure that a career in pharmacy is right for you, and you should therefore learn the benefits of pharmacy. 

Why Become a Pharmacist?

There are many reasons to choose to become a pharmacist.

  • Working Directly With Patients: Doctors and nurses are not the only medical professionals who have extensive interactions with patients. Pharmacists are accessible in all healthcare settings, often without appointments or even notice. Beyond prescription drugs, pharmacists provide other services, including health monitoring, health screenings, disease management, consultations, and more. Pharmacy is a great career choice for those who do not want to be doctors or nurses but still want to play a part in patient care
  • Numerous Career Opportunities: Pharmacy is a diverse career. Pharmacists are not restricted to only working in retail or community pharmacies; you will be able to find pharmacists in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and even the government. Furthermore, pharmacists may also work in labs if they choose to focus their career on the research side of the field. 
  • An In-Demand Career: As with many healthcare jobs, pharmacists are in demand throughout the United States, making it a stable career choice. Demand for pharmacists continues to increase as the number of medications available, the LicensingLicensingnumber of prescriptions filled, and the aging population also increase. 
  • Flexibility: As with many healthcare professions, pharmacy is a career that often allows for a non-traditional work schedule. Pharmacists are in demand everywhere, and they may work a wide variety of shifts. 

Becoming a pharmacist may not be the right career choice for you if:

  • You do not want to take on extensive schooling. If you do not want to commit to six years or more of schooling, pharmacy may not be right for you. If you are still interested in pharmacy, consider pursuing a career as a pharmacy technician or pharmacy assistant. 

How to Become a Pharmacist

If you are in high school and have your eyes on a career in pharmacy, you have two options when it comes to your first step. Be sure to take science, math, and English courses in high school to fulfill any prerequisites needed to enter your program. 

Step 1: Option A: Pursue an Undergraduate Degree

Most pharmacy programs require previous undergraduate study but do not necessarily require a completed undergraduate degree to gain admission into the pharmacy school. Many students enter a pharmacy program after only two or three years of undergraduate study; however, completing a bachelor’s degree makes candidates more competitive and well-rounded. 

You do not necessarily need to major in a subject related to pharmacy (such as anything STEM-related) during your undergraduate study, but it does help as you will be required to fulfill prerequisites and be knowledgeable in certain subjects before entering a pharmacy program. 

No matter what you choose to major in during your undergraduate degree, be sure to take relevant courses in the following fields, as you will be required to write an entrance exam:

  • General and organic chemistry
  • Human anatomy
  • Molecular and cellular biology
  • Microbiology
  • Statistics
  • Calculus
  • English 

It’s best to have an idea early on of which school you would want to attend for pharmacy to ensure that you take all of the prerequisite courses required by that school. You will also want to spend this time gaining experience working or volunteering in a healthcare setting to become a  more competitive candidate for admission into a pharmacy program. 

Step 1: Option B: Complete a Pharmacy Program

If you are a high school student or recent graduate who knows that pharmacy what you want to pursue, you can enter a combined pharmacy program straight from high school, which will award you with both a bachelor’s and doctor of pharmacy degree. The path towards this degree option may vary, but the program typically takes a total of six years to complete, with the first two years dealing with pre-professional study, and the following four years focusing on a professional pharmacy degree program

If you choose this option, then you can skip step 2.   

Step 2: Complete a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm D)

Once you have completed your undergraduate degree (or sufficient undergraduate study), you will want to move on to complete a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD). A PharmD degree is required to practice pharmacy in the United States. Applicants to PharmD programs are usually required to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT). The PCAT consists of several different subsets and evaluates a candidate’s writing ability, verbal ability, reading comprehension, quantitative ability, and knowledge of sciences, such as biology and chemistry. 

A PharmD degree program teaches the technical knowledge required for a career as a pharmacist as well as business principles. Beyond typical science courses, pharmacy students can expect to take courses in several related subjects, such as drug design and the effect of drugs on the body.

PharmD programs usually take four years to complete. Typically, in the fourth year, pharmacy students are placed in healthcare environments under the supervision of licensed pharmacists, allowing them to gain practical and clinical experience. 

Step 3: Get Licensed

Licensing requirements for pharmacists vary depending on the state, so graduates should check with their local board to confirm requirements. For the most part, other than graduating from a doctoral program from an accredited academic institution, candidates must pass two exams: the North American Pharmacist Licensing Exam (NAPLEX) and the Muliti-State Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam.

The NAPLEX exam tests a candidate’s knowledge of the overall duties of a pharmacist, including pharmacotherapy and therapeutic outcomes, preparing and distributing medication, and optimizing the health of their patients. The Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam tests a candidate’s knowledge of federal and state laws in terms of pharmaceutical practice. Some states may also require candidates to participate in a third written and practical exam. 

After you have completed a PharmD degree and become licensed, you can officially work as a pharmacist. Although the journey to this point is long, pharmacists are expected to commit to life-long learning to stay up-to-date with their field. 

Training Required to Become a Pharmacist

Pharmacy education and licensing are the most important steps towards becoming a pharmacist, but the journey to becoming a licensed pharmacist does not have to end upon completing exams and getting a license. 

Beyond the educational requirements required to become a pharmacist, pharmacy students are usually encouraged to, if not required to partake in further training to gain additional experience. Many states require new pharmacists to complete a specific number of hours of practical experience, which may be completed while in school or after finishing your coursework. Additional training is especially important for pharmacists who are considering pursuing a specialization to receive more training in the field. 

Training Options for Pharmacists

There are a couple of different training options for pharmacists to gain more experience and possibly satisfy further requirements. 

Complete a Residency 

As with other medical careers, many students go through a residency to gain further experience or pursue a specialization. Residency programs typically last one to two years. The first year is Post Graduate Year 1 (PGY1), which builds on skills, knowledge, and abilities gained during the PharmD program. Post Graduate Year 2 (PGY2) allows participants to explore a particular field of interest. These fields may include:

  • Pharmacotherapy
  • Drug Information
  • Medication-Use Safety
  • Managed Care
  • Pharmacy Systems

Residencies or other formal training helps new pharmacists get used to their work environment under the supervision of a more experienced pharmacist. Whether a pharmacist works in a retail setting, hospital setting, or nursing home, they are on their feet most of the day. They may have to work long and varied hours and may be continuously busy throughout the day, so it is essential to become familiar with the life of a pharmacist early on. 

Whether a student does their residency before or after becoming a licensed pharmacist or whether a residency is required at all varies by state.

If you already have a degree in a healthcare or related field

A degree in a healthcare field does not generally reduce the time required to complete a PharmD degree program. Applicants with an undergraduate degree must still complete the entire PharmD program. The advantage of having a related degree is that depending on the courses you took during your associate degree or undergraduate study, the prerequisites to enter pharmacy school may be satisfied. You may already be knowledgeable enough to pass the PharmD entrance exam.

Pharmacy Schools and Pharmacist Careers

There is no one career path for pharmacists; attaining a pharmacy license opens individuals to several different career opportunities in many different settings. There are several disciplines, as well as varied jobs in pharmacy to choose from. 

Different Pharmacy Disciplines

The most common disciplines in pharmacy include:

Pharmacy Practice

Pharmacy practice is what the clinical pharmacist at your local drugstore usually does and what most people think when they think of pharmacists. These pharmacists focus on the safe and effective use of medications, dispensing prescription medication, and offering advice to patients on how to take their medication or other healthcare-related subjects. 

Pharmaceutics

Pharmaceutical sciences deal with the process of turning drugs into a medication to be used safely and effectively by patients, primarily considering dosage. Chemicals with pharmaceutical properties need special measures to make them safe and help them achieve therapeutic results in the bodies of patients. There are several additional branches of pharmaceutics, including pharmaceutical formulation and pharmaceutical manufacturing. 

Pharmacognosy

Pharmacognosy is the study of drugs derived from natural sources, such as plants, roots, or animals. The biological, chemical, biochemical, and physical properties of these natural sources are analyzed to determine their efficacy as pharmaceutical drugs.  

Pharmacology

Pharmacology is not technically a discipline of pharmacy, but an entirely different field of study within itself, although related to pharmacy. Pharmacology is the study of the effects of drugs and chemicals on living organisms. It involves analyzing how organisms handle drugs, validation of new drug action, and the development of new drugs to prevent, treat and cure diseases. Pharmacologists are primarily trained in labs and work in lab settings. Pharmacists can transition into the field of pharmacology. 

Pharmacist Careers

There are different types of pharmacists who work in different settings, and there are multiple career options that pharmacists can pursue.

Community Pharmacist

Community pharmacists work closely with their patients and are often their patient’s primary source of health information. They can discuss treatments for simple physical ailments or provide comfort for their patients. Community pharmacists often pursue additional certifications to be able to vaccinate their patients. 

Community pharmacists often work in retail chains and have the opportunity to move up into management positions. Many independent community pharmacists own their pharmacies and act as their community’s neighborhood pharmacists. 

Hospital Pharmacist

Pharmacists who work in a hospital or other health institutions are most often members of a larger healthcare team. They work with other healthcare professionals, such as physicians and nurses, to create pharmaceutical plans for patients. They can be in charge of record-keeping systems for patients as well as designing systems for dispensing medication.

Academic Pharmacists

Academic pharmacists primarily work in academic institutions as faculty members and instructors for pharmacy students. They can also engage in research, publishing, and consulting. This field is currently in demand, with many colleges reporting a shortage of people trained to work as academic pharmacists.

Pharmaceutical Researchers

Pharmacists can be indispensable resources when it comes to pharmaceutical research done by large corporations. Pharmacists are needed for many functions, including research and development, production and quality, management, and administration. 

Federal Workers

While most pharmacists work in the private sector, there are many opportunities for pharmacists in the government. Federal agencies need pharmacists for both research and patient treatment. Many states have agencies that employ pharmacists as executive officers. 

Other Careers in Pharmacy

Pharmacist is not the only career choice for those who are interested in pharmacy. There are many career choices in the field of pharmacy, many of which do not require the same extensive school that pharmacists must partake in. Two of the most popular alternative career options include becoming a pharmacy assistant and becoming a pharmacy technician.

Pharmacy Assistant

Pharmacy assistants work in pharmacies and help pharmacists with drug preparation, answering customer inquiries, inventory, and processing billing and insurance claims. A pharmacy assistant primarily deals with clerical work and customer service, interacting with the customer the most. 

Although many pharmacy assistants complete postsecondary certificates and diplomas before being hired, a pharmacy assistant does not need to be certified before finding entry-level employment. They often receive on-the-job training and may therefore work as pharmacy assistants straight out of high school.

Pharmacy Technician

Pharmacy technicians take on many of the similar tasks that pharmacy assistants do, but they may have additional responsibility and authority. Pharmacy technicians are responsible for the technical aspect of the prescription, meaning they are permitted to receive the prescription, prepare the drug and do a final check before handing it to the patient. The pharmacist is still required to step in to approve the medication and explain to the patient how to use it. 

To become a pharmacy technician, you must complete a pharmacy technician program, which can take one to two years to complete. Most programs provide students with on-the-job training and clinical experience. Students must then become certified by the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) or the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) by passing an exam. Recertification is required every two years. 

Pharmacist Salaries

Pharmacist salaries largely depend on their location, years of experience, and expertise. The setting also plays a role in salary; a pharmacist working in a retail pharmacy may have a different salary than a pharmacist working at a nursing home. 

The national average annual wage of a pharmacist is $123,670, compared to an overall national average annual wage salary of $51,960. Hourly, pharmacists make an average of $57.59. California and Alaska have the highest wages for pharmacists, at about $139,000.

In comparison, pharmacy assistants on average make $11.90 hourly, and pharmacy technicians make $15.32 hourly. 

Pharmacy Schools

Numerous pharmacy schools in the United States are accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP). Choosing the right pharmacy school depends on many factors, including:

  • The path in which you want to take your pharmacy career
  • What you would like to specialize in 
  • Whether you want to do a residency program
  • The location of the school
  • The cost of tuition for the program 

The following are some of the best pharmacy schools that offer a PharmD degree:

University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

UNC has one of the best pharmacy schools in the country. It offers three courses of study: a PharmD program (including the six-year pharmacy program), a Master of Science in pharmaceutical sciences, and a Ph.D. program. They also offer a combined PharmD/MBA program and a PharmD/Masters of Public Health option. Their Ph.D. program offers a unique research experience for advanced training in drug development, delivery, and policy. 

University of California San Francisco (UCSF)

UCSF offers various degree programs. They offer a PharmD program as well as multiple combined degrees and Ph.D. programs, including a Ph.D. in Bioengineering and a Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics.  

University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy is consistently recognized as one of the best pharmacy schools in the country. They offer a PharmD program, various graduate program options, such as Medicinal Chemistry, and a Ph.D. program. Furthermore, U of M College of Pharmacy offers a unique postgraduate residency program (PGY1), a multi-site program focused on the practice of pharmaceutical care in the ambulatory care setting. 

University of Texas – Austin

The PharmD program at the University of Texas is structured around an integrated approach towards drug therapy management. Students must complete internships consisting of 40-50 hours a week of on-site experience for six or seven weeks. The University of Texas does not offer a six-year PharmD program, requiring applicants to have completed at least two years of previous undergraduate study.  

Online Pharmacy School

Online schooling has become increasingly popular, and pharmacy school has been no exception. There are benefits of attending a pharmacy program in person, and in-person attendance may occasionally be required no matter the pharmacy program, but online pharmacy school may be more accessible and provide flexibility to those who desire to pursue a career in pharmacy but are restricted. 

Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences offers an online learning option to help students balance career advancement and other life commitments. Students learn from the same faculty who instruct on-campus students and the same subject matter, leading to a completed PharmD at the end of the program. 

Pharmacy Career Resources

For pharmacy students, there are many resources available to guide them through their PharmD and help them make decisions concerning career development. It is important to know where you want your pharmacy career to take you, and these resources help students determine their career path. 

The APhA Career Center

The American Pharmacist Association (APhA) is the first and largest national professional society of pharmacists. The APhA features a career center that provides students with the many options they have when it comes to a career in pharmacy, including residency programs and job availability. 

APhA also offers a workshop to help students choose their pharmacy career path by giving them detailed information on several areas of pharmacy practice. Moreover, their website features additional resources, such as career articles and resume tips, that may further assist pharmacists. 

NCPA Resources

The National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) is an organization that represents the interests of pharmacy owners, managers, and employees across the country. They offer information on promoting independent pharmacies, advocating legislative action, fundraising, and more. 

The NCPA website features links to pharmacy schools and information about internships, conferences, scholarships,  and student leadership opportunities. Students can download the Independent Pharmacy Career Guide, which provides information on areas of independent practice.

ASHP Resources

The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) is an organization that advocates and supports the practice of pharmacists in hospitals, health systems, and ambulatory clinics. Pharmacy students can participate in the ASHP forum, finding networking opportunities and information on residencies, learn about career options, and access further resources. The forum’s career center provides students with career planning and provides tips on writing their resumes.

These resources will help guide you in your career as a pharmacist. Whether you have aspirations of opening your pharmacy or want to be something niche like a nuclear pharmacist, it is crucial to have as much information as possible before deciding your career path. 

The Takeaway

A career in pharmacy is great for those who are interested in learning about dispensing pharmaceutical drugs and desire an in-demand job where they help patients. Although the journey to becoming a licensed pharmacist is long and requires extensive schooling, experience in pharmacy opens up many career opportunities that may prove to be fulfilling. If you are interested in becoming a pharmacist, do your research to know your options and discover why a career in pharmacy may be right for you. 

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