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How to Become a Pharmacist: The Tell-All Guide

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Pharmacy is a highly dynamic and diverse field that often offers many more career pathways than students often initially realize. If you are considering a career in the field, this guide is a great place to start learning more about it.

We will go through the “basics” – including what students should do in undergrad if they are aiming to become a pharmacist – and then we will delve deeper into the field.

This includes tips on how to get into pharmacy school, types of pharmacists students can become, and types of places pharmacists can work.

Overview: Becoming a Pharmacist

According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 media pay for pharmacists is $126,120, which breaks down to $60.64 per hour.

The 10-year job outlook, which refers to the projected percent change in employment over 10 years, is 0%. This means that job availability is projected to remain consistent in the next decade. Relatedly, the number of jobs in the field in 2018 is 314,300.

To take the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX) and become a pharmacist, students must obtain a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (Pharm.D) first.

This degree became mandatory on July 1, 2000, and it is now the only degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) in the United States. Students may meet current practicing pharmacists who hold a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy, but this is no longer an available or viable option.

Lastly, most Doctor of Pharmacy degree programs are four years long.

Undergraduate Years: Pharmacy for Beginners

So, what should students do during their undergraduate years to set themselves up for admission into pharmacy programs?

This depends on how sure students are about pharmacy as a chosen career path, as well as what kind of undergraduate experience they are looking for.

Most pharmacy programs do not require students to have a bachelor’s degree to apply. Instead, programs require certain prerequisite courses. Usually this includes (but is not limited to) courses and labs in the sciences like biology, microbiology, chemistry and organic chemistry, physics, human anatomy; math courses like calculus and statistics; and some liberal arts courses like English and communications.

This means that students could theoretically apply to pharmacy programs after two or three years of undergrad and start their Pharm.D education early. This route may be good for students who are set on pharmacy and, therefore, will definitely be able to practice and get a job even without a bachelor degree to fall on afterwards.

It could also be for students who are not attached to having a traditional four-year undergraduate experience. One caveat for this point is that if students apply and get into a pharmacy school at their undergraduate school, they may not have to worry about missing out on four full years of undergrad with their friends, etc.

The other option is for students to complete all four years of undergrad and obtain a bachelor’s degree before applying to Pharm.D programs. There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. First, there are Pharm.D programs that give preference to students who have a bachelor’s degree.

For example, 95% of students in the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy have a bachelor degree. Second, sometimes it is possible for students to complete and obtain a bachelor degree in less than four years if they are worried about time.

Besides the potential added advantage for admission to pharmacy programs, the bachelor route is also ideal for students who would like to study other subjects outside of science or who want to have a more well-rounded educational experience in undergrad.

Pharm.D programs do not have requirements or restrictions around undergrad majors, i.e. there is no such thing as a “pre-pharmacy” major.” This means students can declare a concentration in any major they desire – music, history, engineering, English, etc. – as long as they also complete the prerequisite courses for pharmacy.

It is common for students to declare a biology or other science major, since these majors have class requirements that align with pharmacy prerequisites.

We encourage you to choose a major that aligns with your interests or passions, be it a science-based one or not, because schools often look for students who have a genuine love in learning and they value versatility in their candidates. Lastly, this route is good for students who are not certain they want to pursue pharmacy. Having a bachelor’s degree ensures other options for employment or higher education after graduation.

Whatever route students choose, they should aim to do well and achieve top marks in their prerequisite classes. Pharmacy programs also either require or highly prefer candidates that have working or ongoing volunteer experiences in pharmacies / healthcare-related settings.

The Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT)

The majority of pharmacy programs have an admission test requirement – the PCAT. There are a select few programs that don’t have this requirement. To find out if a school has this requirement, check this list here.

The PCAT consists of 192 multiple choice questions and one writing prompt. The multiple choice questions are split into four subcategories: biological processes, chemical processes, critical reasoning. Each of these subcategories have 48 questions each.

The PCAT is scored on a 200 to 600 scale. In general, students should aim to score at least above the 50th percentile. For competitive pharmacy programs, you should aim for a score above the 70% percentile. As an example, the composite PCAT percent average for the 2019 University of Michigan’s College of Pharmacy class was 86%.

It is strategic for students to take the PCAT after they complete the majority of their core prerequisite courses, like organic chemistry, so they are better prepared for it.

Lastly, the application cycle for pharmacy programs usually open around mid-July. It is generally recommended that students take the PCAT in the summer or fall of the year they apply. This means if students are applying in 2020 for 2021 admission, they should take the PCAT during the summer or fall of 2020 (or earlier). Each school will have different application deadlines, so students should be aware of that, too.

Pharm.D Acquired! 

Alright. So you’ve gotten into and graduated from your ideal pharmacy program. What now? Of course, the next step would be to take the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) / Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination (MPJE). These tests are used to assess an individual’s capabilities to ensure a minimum standard of practice. Pharm.Ds must past these tests to become licensed.

After acquiring licensure, there are a surprising number of paths individuals can still choose from. Luckily, these paths can generally be grouped into four main categories. We will go through them below.

Pharm.D to Immediate Practice

For those who wish to start their career right away after acquiring their Doctor of Pharmacy degree, they can go into Community Pharmacy. This is also known as Retail Pharmacy.

This is the most common type of pharmacy, and it does not require any additional years or education or licensure besides a Pharm.D. Retail pharmacists can work in large drugs store chains – like CVS, Walgreens, or Target – or in smaller, independently owned stores.

Their primary responsibilities include checking, preparing, and dispensing prescriptions. They also play a large role in health-care counseling or advising for patients. Retail pharmacists are an essential resource for individuals, especially those who depend on multiple drugs and may be worried about side-effects or harmful interactions between two drugs.

Those who enjoy supporting and being a resource for members of the public may enjoy a high level of job satisfaction in retail pharmacy. Individuals who prefer having a regular work schedule may also gravitate towards this career path.

Pharm.D + 1 year of Residency (PGY1)

Once an individual graduates with a Pharm.D, they have the option of acquiring more education through residencies or fellowships. Residencies provide more clinical training, while fellowships provide more research training.

If a graduate pursues one additional year of residency, they broaden their career options to include Hospital Pharmacy.

Hospital Pharmacists share many of the same responsibilities as Retail Pharmacists, but there are important distinctions. For example, Hospital Pharmacists may review and fill prescriptions, but they also order, prepare, and stock medicine for the entirety of a hospital unit.

They also primarily consult and advise a different group of people – primarily doctors, nurses, and other health care teams or members, rather than patients.

Another important distinction is that Hospital Pharmacists are more heavily involved in compounding, which is the actual mixing and preparing of drugs. For example, they may be responsible for preparing IV drugs and certain chemotherapy drugs. Overall, Hospital Pharmacy is more clinical in nature than Retail Pharmacy.

While some hospitals staff pharmacists 27/4, it is still possible for Hospital Pharmacists to keep a regular work schedule.

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Pharm.D + 2 years of Residency (PGY2)

Pharm.D graduates may choose to do a two-year residency. The second year builds upon the first, more general year of residence.

This opens up the possibility for Pharm.D graduates to choose an area of specialization or concentration. There are upwards of 15 specializations, ranging from Ambulatory Care to Emergency Medicine to Geriatric Medicine. These specializations are available for nearly any area or interest in the hospital, and the job responsibilities of each are very different from each other.

For example, Emergency Medicine / ED Pharmacy, involves attending to the care of patients who are at acute levels of trauma or stress. It may be a good fit for individuals who are flexible, quick thinking, and able to rapidly assess a situation. On the other hand, Geriatric Pharmacists focus on the clinical care of older adults, including learning about common medical states and treatments for older adults.

No matter the specialization, PGY2 is a great option for individuals who have a vested interested in working with certain populations or foci within the hospital setting. This website provides a non-exhaustive list of different types of specializations and more detailed information on them.

Matching

For both PGY1 and PGY2, Pharm.D graduates will have to apply for, and match with, pharmacy programs that offer residency in specializations they are interested in.

Pharm.D + 2-Year Fellowship

Pharm.D graduates who want to pursue a more researched-based career can apply for fellowships. These are highly specific and individualized, with the goal of training Pharm. D individuals to become independent researchers.

Fellowships are often offered by drug companies, academic health centers, healthcare institutions, or colleges of pharmacy, and they prepare individuals to work in drug companies and/or scientific settings like the ones mentioned. In other words, most Pharm.Ds who apply for fellowships intend to work in either academia or industry.

Typical responsibilities include conducting research, risk assessment, putting together clinical trials, psych analysis, etc. This career path may be good for individuals who are excited by and enjoy scientific research within pharmacy.

What Types of Students Make Great Pharmacists?

As you can tell by now, becoming a pharmacist takes a lot of time and commitment.

At a minimum, individuals will go through six to eight years of education and training. At a maximum, they go through 10 years! It is not a decision that should be made lightly.

Individuals should self-reflect on whether or not they are truly interested in the field before deciding to pursue it. Something that may help with this decision-making process is to consider what types of students make great pharmacists.

For this, we consulted with several pharmacists who have gone through the whole process and share some of their observations. This is not a prescriptive list, but we hope it can serve as a useful guide:

  • Medicine evolves very rapidly: some things you learn in school will simply not apply anymore once you have graduated and are practicing. Because of this, people who care about learning, people are willing to learn, people who are interested in staying on top of scientific literature – these are the types people who will enjoy their jobs and do well within pharmacy.
  • I have noticed that many pharmacists are detail-oriented and very much about the rules. This is because we are trained to be detail-oriented; memorization is stressed during our education. Pharmacists must know a lot of details to make sure everything is right, because there is a high risk involved in handling or advising about medicine if we don’t. Of course, this varies depending on your job or specialty. For example, in Emergency Medicine, it can be less rigid because the nature of the job requires us to be adaptive in the moment.
  • In terms of clinical work within a hospital, there is a lot more patient interaction than many people realize. Much of a pharmacist’s job involves education building and teaching clients about their medicines. For example, if a pharmacist is working with a newly diabetic patient, we have to teach them all about how to administer their drugs, what to do if they miss a dose, things like that. Depending on the clinical setting, I would say that being a good communicator and enjoying patient interactions or counseling can be beneficial.

Conclusion: How to Become a Pharmacist

We hope you enjoyed this guide on how to become a pharmacist.

This guide isn’t just for high school students but for everyone looking to become a phamacst.

We’re happy to guide students every step of the way, so if you have questions, feel free to reach out.

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