How to Become a Pharmacist

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In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved a record 61 new drugs and recombinant therapies for general medical use – and that doesn’t include new diagnostic and imaging agents. These new drugs join the more than 19,000 FDA-approved prescription pharmaceutical products already on the market in the United States.

If that sounds like a lot for a pharmacist to be familiar with, consider that they are also responsible for not only understanding the effects, contraindications, and dosages for each of them, but also the potential combinatory effects in patients with multiple prescriptions.

The old archetype of the knowledgeable neighborhood pharmacist has long been iconic in America, and even today it reflects the trust people have in their local pharmacy. Modern pharmacists are no less knowledgeable and trusted, but as highly paid, high-tech experts of pharmaceutical science, they bring even more value to the communities they serve.

Getting there takes a real commitment, starting with two or three years of pre-pharmacy undergraduate work, followed by four years in a PharmD program.



As the person in the white coat delivering those prescriptions along with a dose of good advice, the local pharmacist is still the face of the pharmaceutical industry, but as the field becomes more nuanced and complex, a number of subspecialties have been created, including:

  • Nuclear Pharmacy
  • Compounded Sterile Preparations Pharmacy
  • Psychiatric Pharmacy
  • Solid Organ Transplant Pharmacy

Pharmacists are also key players in medical research and drug development, and may also be employed by the pharmaceutical industry in manufacturing or marketing roles, as educators, or even by regulatory agencies, namely the FDA. In fact, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, only about 45 percent of pharmacists work in community pharmacies today.

But pharmacy is still one of the most highly respected professions in the U.S. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only doctors and nurses beat out pharmacists when it comes to critical questions of honesty and ethics.

That’s important, because earning the trust of the public is an absolute must on both the individual level in neighborhood pharmacies and at the institutional level with the companies that produce drugs and the regulatory agencies that approve them.

Pharmacists are the face of the combined efforts of research and development and regulation, and the final line in ensuring the safety of consumers. As a pharmacist, you’ll be dealing with life-threatening and life-saving substances, where a single lapse puts lives at risk.

You’ll find that the process of getting an education and earning a license in pharmacy is all about reinforcing that trust by building your knowledge and expertise at every step.

4 Steps Required to Become a Pharmacist

There are a number of different starting points when it comes to earning a PharmD and preparing for a career in pharmacology.

1. Complete Pre-Pharmacy Courses and Pass The Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)

While it’s not always necessary to hold a bachelor’s degree to be accepted into a PharmD program, no matter what your situation might be you will be spending two-three years as an undergraduate taking pre-pharmacy courses before undertaking advanced doctoral study in the field.

Pre-pharmacy coursework involves a comprehensive array of courses in the natural sciences, with all the rigor and lab work that any science major would undergo. This means courses in general and organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, human anatomy and physiology, in addition to math and liberal arts credits in English, philosophy, calculus, statistics, microeconomics and psychology.

Colleges may handle this pre-pharmacy instruction in different ways, with some combining the baccalaureate and doctoral work into a single five or six year program, and others offering a pre-pharmacy minor as part of a standard four-year bachelor’s in another subject. Some schools even offer a pre-pharmacy associate of science degree as a stand-alone option.

In all cases, the pre-pharmacy period has a single major objective: serving as preparation for the PCAT, the Pharmacy College Admission Test. Administered by Pearson Education and offered three times per year, the PCAT tests prospective PharmD students in:

  • Writing
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Critical Reading
  • Quantitative Reasoning

After a marathon 3-hour and 25 minute, computer-based, multiple-choice testing session, you’ll have a score.

Around 85 percent of pharmacy programs require a PCAT score for admission, but there is no set passing score—the grade will be assessed together with your other application materials for consideration.

2. Earn a Doctor of Pharmacy Degree and Complete a Post-Graduate Residency

You’ll want to ensure that schools you apply to are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), since that is virtually always a state board requirement for earning your state license to practice.

The PharmCAS centralized application services offers one-stop-shopping to apply for many first-year professional PharmD programs, as well as offering a consolidated repository of requirements for participating schools. Although not all pharmacy schools participate, it’s an easy way to get the lay of the land for requirements and expectations of PharmD programs around the country.

Once you have been accepted into a PharmD program, you will begin an intensive 4-years of advanced study in mathematics, chemistry, biology, law and ethics, along with other requirements and electives related to pharmaceutical science and practice.

A variety of practical experience placements are typically included, while many schools also offer one or two years of post-graduate residency to hone your skills in the field under the watchful eye of experienced pharmacists.

3. Pass The Pharmacy Curriculum Outcome Assessment (PCOA) Exam

As part of your PharmD program, you’ll be assessed to determine how well you’re assimilating the curriculum.

The Pharmacy Curriculum Outcomes Assessment (PCOA) offers an independent, objective, external measure of your knowledge and performance in pharmacy curricula, and is now a required part of all ACPE accredited PharmD programs.

Developed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the exam is administered by individual schools and may be offered at different points during your training depending on where you matriculate. In some cases, you may take the PCOA at various stages in the program to test your progress. In others, it may serve as an internal requirement to ensure you know your stuff before being allowed to move on to the practical experience component of the program.

4. Pass the North American Pharmacist License Exam (NAPLEX) and Apply for Your State License

Earning your PharmD and passing the PCOA is just the warmup for the most critical test: the NAPLEX, or North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam. Just like the PCOA, the NAPLEX is administered by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, you will have to apply through your state board of pharmacy to establish eligibility, and then schedule your test with Pearson VUE at an authorized testing center.

Although the NAPLEX is key, each state licensing board will also set other requirements, which may include HIV/AIDS training, age requirements, and experiential standards you must meet in order to be awarded a license to practice.

Most states also require that you take and pass an exam specific to pharmacy law. Some states have a unique, state-specific examination, but many accept the NABP MPJE, or Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination.

Separate certifications may also be required in different states for specialized pharmacy practices such as delivering vaccinations or immunizations, and you may also go on to earn qualifications in practice areas defined by the Board of Pharmacy Specializations.

Still in High School and Want to Move Directly Into a PharmD Program?

If you’ve decided on a career in pharmacology even before you graduate high school then there’s a special option designed especially for you.

A new type of PharmD program known as a 0-6 program allows high school graduates with no other college experience to directly enter the PharmD pipeline and come out the other side with a PharmD degree and fully prepared for professional practice in just six years total.

A two-year pre-professional course of study will both assess and prepare you for the four-year final stretch to your professional degree. This allows you to skip the PCAT placement step and instead qualify for the final phase of the program by fulfilling scholastic obligations and maintaining a required GPA during the pre-professional phase.

But these programs are not easy to enter. You’ll need an excellent high school GPA and high SAT or ACT scores to even be considered for acceptance. A strong high-school level math and science education is also critical.

Just Out of High School and Want to Earn a Bachelor’s in Pharmacy Science Before Transitioning to a PharmD?

Although you’re not required to have a bachelor’s degree before applying to pharmacy school, some colleges may prefer candidates who have already earned a bachelor’s degree. If that degree is in pharmacy science, you’re also giving yourself a leg up in the critical natural sciences and analytical studies background that every successful pharmacist needs.

It’s important to plan your path ahead of time, however, because different pharmacy schools will have different preferences and requirements for applicants. You’ll want to make sure that your BS program fulfills the prerequisites of the PharmD program you’re interested in, or that you can take the electives that will be necessary to fulfill those prerequisites instead. You’ll also still have to take and pass the PCAT with acceptable scores for your selected school.

There are some schools that include a bachelor of science in pharmacy degree as part of their 6-year overall PharmD program. In these kinds of programs you will be awarded the BS after your first two years of undergraduate courses.

Already Have a Bachelor’s in Pharmacy Science and Want to Become a Pharmacist?

If you already have a BS in Pharmacy Science, you have an edge when applying to most PharmD programs due to your extensive preparation in the natural sciences.

With an in-depth understanding of the current regime of drug design, development, and regulation, you will have a more complete education in the overall pharmaceutical development cycle than most other candidates. You’ll also have insight into the legal and ethical boundaries of the pharmacy business.

Specific undergraduate courses required by different PharmD programs can vary widely, however, so simply possessing a bachelor’s in Pharmacy Science is not a guarantee that you will be accepted into any particular PharmD program. You will need to look at individual acceptance requirements to ensure that your BS program covered all the bases, or you may have to take some additional pre-pharmacy undergraduate courses to fully qualify.

It’s also worth noting that many schools will not consider any prerequisite courses taken more than five years before you apply, and you may need to re-take them if your BS is older than that.

Are You a Pharmacy Tech Interested in Becoming a Pharmacist?

As a licensed pharmacy technician, you’re already familiar with the day-to-day work that goes on in pharmacies, making you a strong candidate for acceptance into a professional PharmD program.

Since many schools look at the experience of applicants as it relates to the pharmacy field, your job has effectively served to build your resume with a body of relevant experience while getting paid. While other candidates may need to put in extensive volunteer work to log some time in the field, you’re able to check experience off your to-do list.

You will still have to take and pass the PCAT examination and complete any necessary bachelor-level classes required by the specific PharmD program you plan to enter, however.

If you already hold a bachelor’s degree in a related field, you may have already taken many of the required courses, but be sure to check with the PharmD programs you are applying with. If you need to take more undergraduate courses to fulfill the perquisites, you can do so as either the school you’re applying to or through a community college, either as stand-alone courses or as part of a pre-pharmacy associate program.

Many PharmD programs do not accept courses taken more than five years before your application, so you may have to retake them in order to qualify if you’ve been in the field for several years.

Have a Bachelor’s or Master’s in Another Field and Looking to Change Careers to Become a Pharmacist?

Because there is no set undergraduate preparation track required for PharmD programs, earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in another field is not necessarily an obstacle to becoming a pharmacist. In fact, PharmD programs are often populated with folks who have undergraduate degrees in English, business, or other entirely unrelated fields.

Of course, you will still have to take the PCAT examination and complete the undergraduate coursework required of the PharmD program.

If you’ve already applied to a PharmD program, the coursework and academic performance in your undergraduate program will be evaluated to determine what additional courses you need. You can then fill gaps in the prerequisites by taking a series of pre-pharmacy courses offered through the school where you plan to earn your PharmD.

Alternatively, you can do your own evaluation by carefully reviewing the pre-pharmacy requirements of the PharmD program you’re interested in. You can then get the prerequisite coursework out of the way on your own by taking them at a community college.

Some volunteer experience in pharmacy services is also beneficial, if not always required. This can be facilitated through the school where you’re completing your pre-pharmacy coursework.

What Salary Can I Expect When I Become a Pharmacist?

There’s a reason competition is so stiff to get into a reputable PharmD program… a licensed pharmacist can command a first-rate salary out in the job market today.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the more than 300,000 pharmacists working in the United States in 2018 enjoyed a median salary of $126,120 per year. That’s more than double the overall median household income in the U.S., which means a very comfortable living no matter where you might plan to practice as a pharmacist.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pharmacists who earn salaries at the top ten percent of the profession can make $161,250 or more in a year.

And some pharmacists still own and operate their own pharmacies, allowing them all the benefits of business ownership in addition to their salary.

Salary can also vary considerably based on the region of the country or metropolitan area where you choose to practice.

There are a lot of opportunities around the country and increasing demand for expert pharmacists dealing with increasingly complex drug regimes, which will only serve to increase the value of a PharmD degree in the coming years.

Alaska, California, and Vermont were the top three states for pharmacist pay in 2018, with mean wages approaching $140,000 annually. And the top-paying metropolitan area was Tyler, Texas, paying over $174,000 per year.

The way salaries break down in the rest of the country look like this:

Area Name
Employment
Annual mean wage
Alabama
4880
122200
Alaska
420
139880
Arizona
7420
125210
Arkansas
3270
118320
California
30950
139690
Colorado
5180
120980
Connecticut
3100
123950
Delaware
1060
125400
District of Columbia
1070
125160
Florida
20790
119710
Georgia
10530
118710
Guam
80
115030
Hawaii
1710
121780
Idaho
1410
121940
Illinois
12260
125360
Indiana
5600
117260
Iowa
3150
116160
Kansas
2990
121790
Kentucky
5010
122450
Lousiana
4520
119380
Maine
1250
133050
Maryland
5750
121210
Massachusetts
7970
116890
Michigan
9140
117680
Minnesota
6490
129080
Mississippi
2280
124120
Missouri
6180
128420
Montana
1360
112290
Nebraska
2550
119670
Nevada
2490
124430
New Hampshire
1140
127350
New Jersey
9280
120660
New Mexico
1480
125450
New York
20400
121030
North Carolina
9970
123370
North Dakota
1030
103250
Ohio
12500
116720
Oklahoma
3470
115000
Oregon
4360
130480
Pennsylvania
14610
116200
Puerto Rico
2140
87840
Rhode Island
1670
120890
South Carolina
5070
122900
South Dakota
1150
116410
Tennessee
7330
124310
Texas
21250
126800
Utah
2540
117570
Vermont
640
135420
Virgin Islands
60
126720
Virginia
6970
123920
Washington
5740
127360
West Virginia
2180
115130
Wisconsin
5390
132400
Wyoming
590
117700

Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2018 – https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_de.htm#11-9111. The data shown here represents median – 90th percentile ranges and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries.

All salary data accessed in October 2019.