How to Become a Pharmacist

Most people don’t know that much about what pharmacists do. They know, for instance, that they dispense medication and that they tend to make quite a bit of money, but knowledge ends there. If you’re considering becoming a pharmacist, though, you need to know a little more.

The good news is that pharmacy jobs consistently rank as among the best in the United States, and people who work as pharmacists tend to be quite happy in their professions. In addition to helping people and working in stimulating environments, pharmacists constantly face challenge in their daily lives, must know how to problem-solve, and undergo continuing education to ensure their skills are always sharp and their work as good as it can be.

If this sounds appealing to you, you might want to think seriously about becoming a pharmacist. In this mini-guide, we’ll discuss what a pharmacist is and what they do; the job outlook and sub-niches of the field; degrees, programs and internships; and how to best apply for jobs. So put on your best white lab coat and have a seat. Let’s dig in.

What Is a Pharmacist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Pharmacists dispense prescription medications to patients and offer expertise in the safe use of prescriptions. They also may conduct health and wellness screenings, provide immunizations, oversee the medications given to patients, and provide advice on healthy lifestyles.” (Note that a pharmacist is not the same as a pharmacy technician, which work under pharmacists and have considerably less responsibility.)

Pharmacists may work in a variety of settings, including pharmacies and drugstores, hospitals, grocery and department stores, and private clinics. They may also work for the government and military at home and abroad.

In addition to being able to dispense medications properly, they must be very well informed on the side effects and correct dosages of every medication they give out, as well as side effects, so that they do not accidentally fill prescriptions that interact negatively with other medications the patient is taking, which can be dangerous or even deadly. For this reason, pharmacists need a high level of schooling, which we will discuss later in this guide. First, let’s take a look at what a pharmacist’s day might look like.

A Day in the Life

Depending on where they work and for whom, pharmacists perform an array of duties beyond simply dispensing medications or giving immunizations and talking to patients. For one thing, they must keep detailed records of every medication they dispense to ensure patients are using it properly (not refilling too soon, for instance) and no meds are in conflict with others.

Many pharmacists also ring up purchases at drugstores, sell non-prescription items such as over-the-counter drugs, hire and supervise staff, and ensure the day-to-day duties of the pharmacy are fulfilled. They often work as managers in other areas of whatever facility they work in.

In hospitals, pharmacists may work as consultants to medical teams, supply sterile solutions for use in ERs and ICUs, oversee medical supply purchasing, train interns and manage paperwork. Some pharmacists, especially in research hospitals, continue their own research into new medications, drug therapy, the treatment of mental and physical disorders, drug interactions and more.

Most pharmacists work full time, though some only work part time. Additionally, many pharmacists work typical daytime hours, but in hospitals or in drugstores with late hours, they may work nights and weekends.

Pharmacy Job Outlook

No matter what your particular specialty or place of work, pharmacists have a very good job outlook in some ways. Again according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they make an average $121,500 per year, which translates to about $58.41 per hour.

However, the predicted rate of growth for pharmacy jobs between 2014 and 2024 is only about 3 percent, which is much slower than average. That means that going to pharmacy school may not be enough to net you a good job as a pharmacist, which is something to think about before applying to pharmacy programs. Despite this, many people find excellent employment once they graduate, and you can always take on internships or apprenticeships to help you advance. If this really is your passion, you shouldn’t let that stop you.

Types of Pharmacists

There are a number of types of pharmacists. These include:

  • Clinical Pharmacist: These pharmacists don’t simply dispense medications. They also visit patients, conduct interviews, and try to find the best solutions and medication combinations for the particular patients they’re working with.
  • Hospital Pharmacist: Hospital pharmacists, as the name suggests, work inside hospitals, dispensing medications and checking for possible side effects or drug interactions. They also prepare IV bags, syringes, creams and ointments.
  • Poison Control Pharmacist: Pharmacists working at Poison Control Centers take calls from doctors or parents and help them determine the possible effects of having ingested various substances, then advise on courses of action to help remediate the event.
  • Retail Pharmacist: Retail pharmacists are the most numerous, and work in drugstores or department stores helping people fill prescriptions given to them by doctors or specialists.
  • Industry Pharmacist: Some pharmacists work in the industry, conducting research, developing clinical solutions to common (and uncommon) medical problems, or working in regulatory affairs to ensure the industry maintains strict standards of operation.

Before choosing a path, you may wish to interview pharmacists who are already working in these roles to determine which seems like the best fit. Take into account factors such as working environment, hours, pay, duties and job prospects. But no matter which type of pharmacy role you see yourself fulfilling, you need the same amount of schooling.

Degrees Needed

In order to become a pharmacist, you need a bachelor’s degree and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree – which you may see abbreviated as Pharm.D. or PharmD. This is a medical degree, and therefore you can enroll in the program directly after completing your undergraduate work (as opposed to other doctoral degrees, in which you must usually complete a master’s first). It also differs from a traditional PhD in that this degree enables you to work in a medical field, whereas a PhD only qualifies you to work in an academic or research capacity.

The Doctor of Pharmacy program takes a full four years to complete, even if you have completed some of the prerequisites (which some people do if they have first earned a Master of Science in Biology or related fields). Because prerequisites usually take years to complete, it is important that you schedule your undergraduate years accordingly. Otherwise, if your undergraduate degree is in a completely unrelated field, you may have to spend an additional 1-4 years taking these undergraduate prerequisites before enrolling in a 4-year pharmacy program, which can get cumbersome and unaffordable.

There are many pharmacy programs located across the United States, and online programs exist as well. Let’s talk about these next.

Pharmacy Programs

There are two main types of programs: traditional and online. Both combine components of academic coursework and hands-on study, but in different ways. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Traditional Programs – Many 4-year colleges and universities across the nation offer traditional Doctor of Pharmacy programs. These programs take place on campus, in classrooms. Students learn anatomy, physiology, chemistry and biology in order to understand how drugs work in the human body, how they interact with one another, and how to administer medication safely. Students also learn how to monitor patients to look for possible problems, how to interpret test results, and how to communicate with patients and medical personnel.
  • Online Programs – In online programs, students learn many of the same concepts. However, they take classes in an online environment, which means they can learn and complete coursework from anywhere – including home, a library, a coffee shop or wherever they are most comfortable learning. They still complete hands-on coursework, usually in the form of clinical rotations that take place in hospitals or other medical settings. These range in length depending on the program, but are often 8 weeks long, and usually multiple rotations throughout the 4-year program.

In both programs, students who wish to specialize in a particular branch of pharmacy will take additional coursework related to that specialization, as well as complete rotations specific to it.

Internships and Residencies

This is a common question, and it’s no wonder, since the answers are often unclear. The short answer is that it varies by state, program and what type of job you’re looking for after you graduate from school.

In retail, for instance, an internship usually isn’t required. However, due to the scarcity of pharmacy jobs and the slow rate of growth, it might help you compete with other applicants to have an internship on your resume. If you work in a hospital, on the other hand, you may have to complete a “pharmacy practice” residency, although even in this case, many hospitals will let you work without one.

Many pharmacy schools include internships as part of the program. Students may complete internships over the summer months, or they may count for credits during the school year. Other programs, instead of having internships, have practicum hours, in which the student works in a retail pharmacy, hospital or clinic for a specified amount of time. This usually also fulfills credit toward the degree.

The best way to figure out which requirements are necessary for completing your program is to ask professors or administrative staff. That way you’ll know if you can expect to be set up with a practicum or internship, or need to find and apply to one yourself.

Licensure

Pharmacist hopefuls are required to pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) before they can legally work as pharmacists in the U.S. or Canada, which have a mutual accreditation program – meaning if you pass the board in one country, you can use that accreditation in the other as well.

According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, NAPLEX “measures a candidate’s knowledge of the practice of pharmacy. It is just one component of the licensure process and is used by the boards of pharmacy as part of their assessment of a candidate’s competence to practice as a pharmacist.” Most states also require the MPJE, or Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination, in order to ensure that they understand the laws and regulations that affect dispensing medication and other pharmaceutical duties.

Further requirements, such as paperwork, proof of age, additional examinations and amount of clinical hours required, vary by state. Again, your pharmacy program will most likely be able to tell you what you need in order to complete your licensure and begin working as a pharmacist, so make sure you are completely versed in these requirements before you take the exam.

Applying to Jobs

As mentioned above, the danger with getting a pharmacy degree is that it is costly and there are not a lot of jobs available. This can result in failure to find employment while student loan debt looms, especially considering most loans only offer a 6-month grace period before you must begin paying them back.

This doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams, but you should definitely put a plan in place to make yourself more appealing to employers. This includes:

  • Choosing a focus area while in school that produces unique skills that might help you beat the competition.
  • Getting additional training through an internship, apprenticeship or residency with a reputable institution.
  • Being willing to move, work long hours, work nights and weekends, pick up shifts and otherwise take on less desirable work.
  • Understand trends in the pharmacy industry that will help you look informed.

While none of the above steps can ensure you get a job, they can help you become a more attractive candidate. Also be sure to edit your resume carefully, to write a personalized cover letter and to ask employers what might make you better suited to the job – and then follow through.

If you really want to be a pharmacist, the above steps will take you a long way. Feel free to ask any questions or leave additional comments about becoming a pharmacist in the comments below. And best of luck!

Written by Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez is HealthGrad.com's Chief Editorialist. Robert Sanchez has over 10 years experience in the Healthcare field and more recently has become an avid writer advising on career and job topics in this exciting field.

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