How to Become a Pharmacist

If you’re interested in working in health care, but don’t see yourself as a medical doctor or nurse, pharmacy may be a viable career option for you. In this role, you’ll collaborate with other health care professionals to improve health care outcomes. But how does one become a pharmacist? There are a number of steps you’ll have to take before you can practice, including attending pharmacy school.

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Pharmacists must earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, also called a Pharm.D. degree, from any of the pharmacy programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). After completing the degree program, aspiring pharmacists typically pursue licensure in their state, which includes passing exams, along with completing other state-specific requirements.

Pharmacists combine their unique knowledge base with a range of skills to ensure the safe use of prescription medications, among other duties. In this guide, we’ll explore the scope of this profession and what your path to becoming a pharmacist might look like.

What Does a Pharmacist Do?

Before we get into a pharmacist’s responsibilities, let’s answer this question: what is pharmacy? Quite simply, pharmacy is the practice of preparing, preserving, compounding and dispensing medical drugs.

After becoming a pharmacist, you may work in a variety of settings. You may choose to practice pharmacology by working for a chain pharmacy, a hospital pharmacy, or by joining a biopharmaceutical company where you’ll design or conduct clinical drug trials. Of course, there are other work settings. Government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employ pharmacists, as do health insurance companies and managed care organizations. Depending on where you end up, you may work alongside healthcare providers like doctors. Doctors and pharmacists work toward the common goal of improving patients’ health and quality of life. The two types of professionals are knowledgeable about pharmacological treatment. So, is a pharmacist a doctor, too?

A pharmacist is not a medical doctor. It’s not their job to diagnose and treat illnesses—and they’re not licensed to do so. Instead, they focus on verifying instructions from physicians on the proper amount of medication to give patients. Pharmacists warn of any side effects and let patients know whether a new prescription might negatively interact with other drugs they’re taking or an underlying medical condition.

Generally, pharmacists use standard dosages calculated by pharmaceutical companies (based on a variety of factors), although some pharmacists create customized medications by mixing ingredients themselves, a process known as compounding.

On the administrative side, pharmacists might oversee pharmacy technicians and interns, work with insurance companies to ensure that patients get the right medications, and keep meticulous records.

Why Study Pharmacy?

If you envision yourself helping people live healthier lives and you believe in the power of pharmaceuticals to relieve pain and treat diseases and other conditions, you may consider studying pharmacy as opposed to pursuing a nurse practitioner degree or other healthcare degree. As you prepare to embark on the journey to become a pharmacist, you may find yourself wondering, why is pharmacy important? The importance of pharmacy continues to evolve as our healthcare needs, systems and policies change.

The population is aging. By 2030, one-fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. And according to the National Council on Aging, approximately 80% of older adults have one chronic illnessPharmacists can help elderly patients navigate complicated drug requirements and regimens and try to find options that fit their budget. Because multiple medications are often available to treat one disease or medical condition, the pharmacist works with both the patient and his or her doctor to determine which medicine will have the best results.

From pharmacy analysis to pharmacy law to non-prescription therapies, pharmacy school students may take a combination of foundation and elective courses. These classes prepare them for practice beyond the traditional, product-oriented functions commonly associated with the profession. Some pharmacists work in the public health sector, sharing their unique expertise with those responsible for designing public health programs and emergency preparedness plans.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Pharmacist?

Before pursuing a pharmacy career, you’re probably wondering how many years does it take to be a pharmacist and what qualifications do you need to be a pharmacist? While the minimum degree requirement to become a pharmacist is set in stone, the journey to becoming one may look different for each person. Some people enter their desired Pharm.D. program after completing an undergraduate degree, while others may enter pharmacy school after working as a healthcare provider.

In general, it takes six to seven years following high school to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree. Pharm.D. programs are typically four years long, although some programs offer three-year options. Pharmacy school candidates start off with pre-pharmacy study, followed by professional study leading to the degree. Some pharmacy schools admit high school graduates into six-year programs, too. As part of their program, students also complete supervised work experiences—sometimes referred to as internships—in different settings, including hospitals and retail pharmacies.

If you’re interested in specializing or pursuing an advanced position in clinical pharmacy or research, for example, you may also need to complete a one- or two-year residence.

Pharmacist Education Requirements

The Pharm.D. degree, earned in a pharmacy school, is the outcome of completing a professional doctorate program that prepares graduates for a career in pharmacy. While pharmacy programs will differ slightly, students can expect to take a mix of courses in the biomedical, pharmaceutical, social-administrative and clinical sciences. This might include classes such as Metabolism and Cell Biology, Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmacy Law. Before beginning the professional phase of the Pharm.D. curriculum, students must complete all pre-pharmacy coursework. Requirements vary by institution. The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) provides a list of Doctor of Pharmacy program prerequisites by institution [PDF, 606 KB]. Familiarizing yourself with these requirements may help you as you prepare to apply to pharmacy school.

Some individuals who want to teach or conduct research at the university level may pursue a Ph.D. in pharmacy, another type of doctorate in pharmacy degree. Ph.D. in pharmacy or Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences programs may require a master’s degree, among other admission requirements. Some pharmacy schools offer dual Pharm.D./Ph.D. degree programs for students with an interest in research who also want to practice as pharmacists.

As you research pharmacist education requirements, you may come across other types of pharmacy degrees, like the Master of Pharmacy (MPharm). This degree is offered at a number of universities in the United Kingdom. It’s typically a four-year program that precedes one year of pre-registration training. Some universities offer a five-year integrated MPharm degree program that incorporates the pre-registration training into a single program.

If you’re considering pursuing a Doctor of Pharmacy, there are 141 ACPE-accredited pharmacy schools across the country to explore. So, can you study pharmacy online? Fortunately, you do have the option of earning an online Doctor of Pharmacy.

4 Common Steps to Becoming a Pharmacist

Is it hard to become a pharmacist? While everyone’s journey is different, there are typically four steps to becoming a pharmacist—and the process can be rigorous. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility, and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. Students should do their own due diligence and determine the appropriate pathway and license type for themselves.

In the following sections, we’ll walk you through each of these steps.

  1. Pharmacy Prerequisites

    Typically, to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy, which is a postgraduate professional degree, you’ll first need to earn a two-year degree or four-year bachelor’s degree online or in-person. As part of your undergraduate degree program, you may take prerequisites such as biology, biochemistry, math, physics, statistics and psychology.

    As mentioned, there are programs that accept high school graduates directly into a six-year program. In that case, you’d likely take the prerequisites within the program.

  2. Standardized Admission Test

    Some pharmacy schools require applicants to pass the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) before being admitted into a Pharm.D. degree program, though it is not required of all programs. It is up to the discretion of each individual program to set these requirements. This standardized test measures general academic ability and scientific knowledge necessary for the commencement of pharmaceutical education. The PCAT is administered in a computer-based test format.

  3. Earn a Doctor of Pharmacy

    Before you can get your pharmacist license, you’ll have to apply to and complete a Doctor of Pharmacy program that is ACPE accredited. You may choose from a number of accredited degree programs, from online options that allow you to complete coursework from the comfort of your home to on-campus doctorate in pharmacy programs. As part of your education, you’ll have to complete a number of hours as an intern, which varies by state. Be sure to verify the details with your state board.

  4. Licensing Exams and Certification

    Once you earn your Doctor of Pharmacy, you’ll need to pass at least two licensure exams—the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX), which tests pharmacy skills and knowledge, and the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) or a state-specific test on pharmacy law. Some states may require passage of additional exams.

    Students may be required to complete additional steps in order to be licensed and should complete their own research to determine the appropriate steps and pathway for the state they wish to practice in.

5 Common Skills Pharmacists Use

Pharmacists employ a range of skills in their day-to-day work. We’ve selected just five to discuss. Having these skills does not guarantee you a pharmacist job, but they may help you to work efficiently and enhance outcomes as healthcare systems and needs continue to evolve. Common skills pharmacists use include:

  • Analytical abilities.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Communication.
  • Computer expertise.
  • Managerial proficiency.

Analytical Abilities

Pharmacists must dispense medications safely. To do this, they learn how to evaluate a patient’s needs and the physician’s orders. They build an extensive knowledge base in pharmacy school, by focusing on scientific concepts and other relevant areas of pharmacology, and hone their analytical skills while completing internships.

Attention to Detail

Pharmacists are responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the prescriptions they fill. They are careful to find the information they need to make decisions about what medications are appropriate for each patient because improper use of medication can pose serious health risks.

Communication

Pharmacists do well to communicate effectively with patients, physicians and insurance companies. They may also offer clear direction to pharmacy technicians and interns. Most importantly, they tell patients how to take a particular prescription and explain any side effects. They are expected to communicate clearly and compassionately with members of the public from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and ages.

Computer Expertise

With computer skills, pharmacists can use various electronic health record (EHR) systems. This is often how they communicate with doctors and insurance companies.

Managerial Proficiency

Pharmacists—particularly those who run a retail pharmacy—often rely on managerial skills to complete daily tasks, like managing inventory and supervising staff.

Why Become a Pharmacist?

Is pharmacy a good career? Only you can determine if a career in pharmacy is worth it. Individuals become pharmacists for a number of reasons, including their desire to use their scientific, analytical and communication skills while also providing personalized patient care.

If you haven’t decided yet if a career as a pharmacist is a fit for you or what jobs in pharmacy pique your interest, you might consider factors like possible work settings and earning potential.

Pharmacy jobs are varied. Don’t see yourself working in a drugstore or grocery store pharmacy? There are a number of other healthcare settings that employ pharmacists, including hospitals, nursing homes, managed care organizations, colleges and schools, and the federal government. On top of that, pharmacists may assume leadership roles like Pharmacy Executive [PDF, 37 KB].

So, how much do these professionals earn for their important work? What’s the average pharmacist salary? While pharmacist pay depends on factors like location, employer, number of years of experience and more, pharmacists earned above-average salaries in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median annual wage for pharmacists was $128,710.

Pharmacist Careers

When you think about where pharmacists work and the types of pharmacy jobs they have, those that work as community pharmacists in drugstore chains and grocery stores may immediately come to mind. They spend the bulk of their time dispensing medications and answering questions patients have about prescriptions, over-the-counter medications or other health concerns. But there are other pharmacy careers to consider as you think about your future.

Another pharmacy career option is the consultant pharmacist. These pharmacists advise healthcare facilities or insurance providers on patient medication use or improving pharmacy services. They are also involved in direct patient interactions, such as helping seniors manage their prescriptions.

If you’re not too keen on direct patient care, then you could serve as a pharmaceutical industry pharmacist and work in marketing, sales or research and development. Some conduct clinical drug trials and help develop new drugs. They may also help establish safety regulations and ensure quality control for drugs.

If you want to work in the pharmacy field but don’t want to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree or even a college degree, you could consider becoming a pharmacy technician  or pharmacy assistant or aide. A pharmacy tech typically works closely with pharmacists to prepare medications, works with patients to obtain their medication histories, processes third-party billing claims, completes inventories of medication and maintains patient records. The median annual wage for pharmacy technicians was $35,100 in May 2020, according to BLS data, with employment of pharmacy technicians projected to grow 4% from 2019 to 2029.

To become a pharmacy assistant, you usually only need a high school diploma. Pharmacy assistants handle a pharmacy’s customer service and administrative duties such as answering phones, stocking shelves, taking inventory and establishing and maintaining customer account information. The mean annual wage for pharmacy aides was $32,250 in May 2020, according to the BLS.

Is a Career in Pharmacy Right for You?

Now that you know a little more about the pharmacy field and career choices within it, you can give some thought to whether a pharmacy career is right for you. Do you have strong scientific, analytic and people skills? Do you believe in the importance of pharmacy in the overall healthcare system? Explore all the options available to you today to become a pharmacist in the future.

Last updated April 2021