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How to Become a Pharmacist

Shot of two pharmacists doing inventory in a pharmacy with a digital tablet
Shot of two pharmacists doing inventory in a pharmacy with a digital tablet

Quality healthcare is essential for overall health. While doctors and nurses are often at the forefront, pharmacists are an important part of our overall wellbeing. Trained in some of the most complex scientific principles, pharmacists help research, distribute, and select medications.

If you want to contribute to the health, comfort, and happiness of people from all walks of life, one of the best ways is to become a pharmacist. But to work in this career, you need the right education, including a pre-pharmacy degree or bachelor’s degree, and a doctorate in pharmacy.

Become a Pharmacist

To become a pharmacist, you need to follow a specific path for education, training, and experience. There are generally five steps:

  1. Complete a bachelor's degree in a healthcare field, which takes about four years, or pre-pharmacy program, which generally takes two years to complete and is an associate’s level degree.
  2. Complete a doctorate-level pharmacy degree. This advanced level of education will give you a deep understanding of biology and chemistry, and will eventually cover pharmacy-specific topics, such as pharmacokinetics, pathology, and therapeutics.
  3. Gain experience in real-world settings, such as a pharmacy, clinic, or hospital. Experiential training may be built into your doctorate program or may be earned elsewhere.
  4. Pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX). This exam is required by all states to earn a pharmacist license. If you want to practice in the U.S., this is a must-have part of your career.
  5. Complete licensing in your home state (or the state you wish to work in). This will require a certain number of supervised practice hours that vary state-by-state. Once national and state licensing are complete, you will be ready to work as a pharmacist in virtually any setting.

Pharmacist Education

Compared to many careers, the path to becoming a pharmacist involves lots of education, years of experience, and the completion of extensive tests. Once complete, however, you get to work in a rewarding career.

In total, you can expect six to eight years of college education. You can also expect to be mentally challenged in every course, as pharmacy involves many complex, detailed subjects that are difficult to learn, let alone master. But like all things in life, a massive endeavor is best accomplished by taking it one step at a time…

Step 1: Bachelor’s Degree or Pre-Pharmacy Program

The first step to becoming a pharmacist (after a high school diploma, that is) is to enroll in either a pharmacy-related bachelor’s degree, which usually takes four years to complete, or a pre-pharmacy program, an associate’s-level degree that takes about two years.

Bachelor’s Degree

The specific pharmacy degree you complete can take many forms. In fact, to be accepted into a post-graduate pharmacy program, you don’t necessarily need to have a bachelor’s in pharmacy, as a related field will do.

However, if a pharmacist career is your end goal, a bachelor of science degree in pharmaceuticals is a good option. In this program, you will likely study multiple forms of chemistry, microbiology, anatomy, and numerous other science-related topics. All of these classes will require an aptitude in math, basic biology, and other important topics.

When studying for your bachelor’s degree, you will likely have the chance to supplement your major with a minor. This gives you the chance to discover more about science, anatomy, chemistry, and other related subjects, and creates the opportunity to focus your career in a specific direction. Selecting a minor should be a personal choice, but options include chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, biotechnology, and other sciences. However, you can also enhance your career and “hire-ability” by studying useful subjects like foreign languages, accounting, business, management, or sociology.

Pre-Pharmacy Programs

Many doctorate-level programs accept students who do not have a four-year bachelor’s degree, but have instead completed a two-year pre-pharmacy program. These programs allows students to focus specifically on pharmacy-related topics, creating a faster, more-direct path to pharmacy schools. (For more on pre-pharmacy programs, see “Best Online Pre-Pharmacy Programs” below.)

Step 2: Doctor of Pharmacy Degree

Whether you completed a bachelor’s degree or a pre-pharmacy program, the next step is to enroll in a pharmacy school, where you will earn your doctor of pharmacy degree. These programs are structured differently depending on the specific school and the program itself (online vs in-person, for example), but the first year will generally cover natural sciences, including biology and chemistry, building on your already-established knowledge.

Eventually, the program will transition from a focus on science to a hard focus on clinical issues. When this transition occurs, you’ll study topics like pharmacokinetics, pathology, and therapeutics, as well as pharmacy sciences.

Starting around the final year, you will begin to work in patient-care settings and clinics, gaining real-world experience and gaining a first-person understanding of the pharmaceutical industry. You may be placed in drug stores, pharmacies, care centers, clinics, or hospitals.

Once your doctorate program is complete, you’ll be eligible for certification testing and licensing.

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Step 3: Certification & Licensing

Once pharmacy school is complete, you will need to become properly licensed. This applies to all pharmacists in all states. To get a license, you will need to complete two exams, starting with the NAPLEX that we discussed above. Once this is complete, prospective pharmacists need to complete either the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) or a state-specific test. Applicants will also need to complete a specific number of hours as an intern, but the hourly requirements will change depending on the state.

Any pharmacist who administers vaccinations or immunizations also need to be specially certified. Most states use the Pharmacy-Based Immunization Delivery Program, which is administered through the American Pharmacist’s Association.

There are also certifications that demonstrate your advanced knowledge in specific pharmacy topics. Pharmacist can become certified as a Certified Diabetes Educator, or complete specific training and certification in nutrition, oncology, and more.

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Best Online PrePharmacy Programs

While a bachelor’s degree in a related field can set you up for a doctorate-level pharmacy education, a pre-pharmacy program offers a faster path. Assuming a typical class load, a bachelor’s degree takes about four years; a pre-pharmacy program takes roughly two. Not only is the program faster, but it is often combined with a pharmacy degree program at the same college, allowing for seamless transition from one program to another. Many pre-pharmacy programs are also offered online, allowing busy professionals, parents, and other non-traditional students to complete their degrees with greater convenience and accessibility.

Essentially, an online pre-pharmacy degree sets the groundwork for your eventual education in a pharmacy school. Classes will cover various topics that may not be directly tied to pharmaceutical science, but will be applied to the field. Calculus, statistics, psychology, and even economics are topics covered throughout a pre-pharmacy degree.

If you choose the faster route of a pre-pharmacy program, you should research what pharmacy schools accept this education as a prerequisite to their doctorate-level education.

Founded in 1882 in Knoxville, Tennesse, the school that is now known as South College has a long tradition of educating students to the highest level of achievement. They currently have physical campuses in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, but also offer a high-quality online school that is available across the country and the globe.

The pre-pharmacy program from South College is a full-online program that allows for a swift education without neglecting quality and attention to detail. The program covers important topics like prescription data entry, drug safety, pharmacy law, and medication names. This provides the educational foundation for a seamless transition into their pharmacy program, although the degree is accepted by other colleges across the country. It can also help prepare students for a career in biology or health sciences.

While most people enter a pre-pharmacy program with the intention of moving into a doctorate degree, this program from South College can act as a complete education in and of itself. Graduates are prepared for numerous careers, including pharmacy assistant, clinical lab technician, food science professional, and pharmaceutical sales representative.

Accredited by the SACSCOC, this program is a high-quality start to your pharmacist education. Because the program is offered entirely online, it makes a great option for many different students. While traditional students will certainly realize the benefits of 100%-online coursework, parents, professionals, and people who simply want to jumpstart their careers are well suited to this program from South College.

Barton County Community College

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Another excellent pre-pharmacy degree comes from Barton County Community College. This is another degree program that is offered 100% online, making it an ideal choice for busy students and professionals who already have a full-time job. Accredited by the HLC, this program gives students access to convenient classes while developing their knowledge in numerous pharmacy-related subjects.

This program covers a wide variety of topics, many of which are not directly related to pharmacy careers, but help you become a stronger working professional. Early in the program, you will complete classes on English composition, interpersonal communication, and college-level mathematics. You will also have to complete course in the arts and humanities, social sciences, and personal wellbeing. Eventually, you will also take introductory classes in chemistry and biology, as well as classes that cover microbiology, anatomy, and organic chemistry.

This program is part of a series of academic courses designed for pre-professionals, but it can be applied to a specific career right after graduation, with taking further classes. (In other words, you don’t need to be a doctor to benefit from this program.)

Barton County Community College is located in Kansas and has served motivated students since 1969. It offers technical training, career advancement, GED course, and many other important educational services. It was originally conceived as a way to educate local Kansas students, but has now evolved into a leader in the online-education sphere.

Pharmacy Tech vs Pharmacist Training

At this point, we’d like to branch off to discuss a different topic. There is an important difference between pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, but these two careers are often confused. Understanding the differences is important, especially if you plan on going into a pharmacy school.

Pharmacy technicians work in a pharmacies, performing many administrative and organizational tasks, which a pharmacist may be too busy to perform. Essentially, they serve a supportive role by taking phone calls, collecting information, monitoring inventory, labeling prescriptions, and entering patient information into databases.

The biggest difference between pharmacist and pharmacist technician is the education requirements. While a pharmacist is required to have a doctorate-level degree, with roughly eight years of post-high-school education and numerous internships and certifications, a pharmacy tech only needs, at the very most, a two-year education. In fact, many pharmacy technicians only have high school degrees supplemented by training in the career field. View the top online pharmacy tech programs.

So while both of these careers work in pharmacies and related settings, there is a huge difference in education and training, as well as pay. However, working as a pharmacy technician is a great job for aspiring pharmacists, and it may be an excellent job for students currently enrolled in a pharmacy school.

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Types of Pharmacist Jobs

Whether you decide to focus your career immediately after earning a doctorate, or you want to make a shift in careers later in life, there are many different types of pharmacists, and numerous careers that are related to this profession.

  • Clinical Pharmacist: These pharmacists work in hospitals and clinics, often working side-by-side with physicians to provide advice on effective treatment plans.
  • Poison Control Expert: By providing advice on avoiding and dealing with poisons, these professionals are experts in toxicology and are often hired by emergency-call centers.
  • Industry Pharmacist: From research to market testing, the pharmaceutical industry often hires licensed and trained pharmacists.
  • Retail Pharmacist: Working in drug stores and grocery stores, retail pharmacists provide advice and guidance while supplying patients with their required prescription medication.
  • Long-Term-Care Pharmacist: Working with long-term-care facilities, these pharmacists often provide guidance to doctors working with elderly patients or disabled individuals.
  • Chemotherapy Pharmacist: Cancer patients have a lot of different needs, including medication. A chemotherapy pharmacist provides guidance on safe drugs that will assist in recovery and comfort during chemotherapy.

Specific education, training, and experience for these careers will vary, but all will require the advanced training of pharmacy school.

Pharmacist Salary & Job Outlook

If you complete a full education and become a pharmacist, you can expect a top-quality career that is both emotionally and financially rewarding. Finances alone won’t keep you motivated for long, so it’s important to understand the emotional rewards of this career. As a pharmacist, your work helps people feel better, deal with or even overcome illnesses, and live their lives in a more positive, pain-free manner. Knowing that your expertise helps people go to work, spend time with family, and live each day to the fullest can go far beyond any financial rewards.

But the financial reward should not be ignored. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May of 2020 pharmacists enjoyed a median annual salary of $128,710. Certainly a strong income, but if you are at the top of your field you can expect even more, as the 10% of all pharmacists earn over $164,900.

Across the country, it appears that the highest-paid pharmacists are in California, where these professionals earn around $146,000. (Which of course needs to be considered against the cost of living.) Other states with high-paid pharmacists include Texas, New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

While the pay is strong, job growth appears to be declining. Nationally, job growth among all occupations is expected to be 5-8%. For pharmacists, however, career growth is expected to be -2%. Demand may increase in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and clinics, where pharmacists are needed to oversee medications. This projection will be countered by reductions in pharmacists at drug stores and pharmacies, largely due to a shift to online ordering.

Start Becoming a Pharmacist Today!

If you are ready for a rewarding, fulfilling career as a pharmacist, there’s no better time to start now. Comparing your options carefully can save you both time and money!

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