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How to Become a Pharmacist

NurseJournal Staff
Updated April 12, 2023
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Examine the role of a pharmacist, the education and exams needed to obtain licensure, and the job outlook for those who pursue this role.
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Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)

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Pharmacists play an integral role in improving the health of their patients. As medication experts, they help others understand dosage information, administration methods, detrimental side effects, and drug interactions. The services they provide are an essential component in advancing the welfare of others.

This guide gives an overview of the responsibilities of a pharmacist, the steps on the journey of how to become a pharmacist, and the job outlook for those who pursue the role.

What Is a Pharmacist?

A pharmacist is a healthcare professional with expert knowledge of the storage, handling, preparation, distribution, and use of medication. They play a crucial role in educating patients on the uses and outcomes of their prescribed medication.

Pharmacists also ensure patients receive an accurate dosage, and avoid negative side effects.

While pharmacists can work in retail drug stores, they also work in hospitals, specialty clinics, mental health facilities, addiction centers, nursing homes, and poison control centers.

Their specific responsibilities vary based on these settings, leading to different types of pharmacists, including:

Community pharmacists

These pharmacists work in retail pharmacies. They are primarily responsible for dispensing and educating patients regarding prescribed and over-the-counter medication.

Clinical Pharmacists

You can find clinical pharmacists in healthcare settings such as hospitals and clinics, where they provide direct patient care.

Consultant Pharmacists

A consultant pharmacist works with medical facilities and insurance providers to determine ways to improve pharmacy services

Pharmaceutical Pharmacists

These pharmacists are involved with the research and development of new medications.

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Steps to Becoming a Pharmacist

Before becoming a pharmacist, you must meet certain academic and professional criteria. While specific requirements regarding education and licensure may differ depending on the institution and state, the basic prerequisites are similar from one place to the next.

The fundamental requirements prospective pharmacists must meet include earning an undergraduate, passing the pharmacy college admissions test (PCAT), earning a graduate degree, and completing a state licensure exam.

  1. 1

    Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in a Related Field

    Prospective pharmacists must first earn a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate field. Students should complete a science-related degree that provides courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, and chemistry.

    Programs that introduce material in biochemistry, pharmaceutics, pharmacology, and toxicology can benefit students pursuing a career as a pharmacist.

    Typical bachelor programs take four years to complete. While there are pre-pharmacy non-degree programs you can complete in two years, most graduate schools prefer applicants who have earned a bachelor’s degree.

  2. 2

    Pass the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT)

    Some pharmacy schools require applicants to have passed the PCAT, which the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy offers. The exam assesses the skills and abilities needed to succeed in a pharmacy program. See which schools require the exam.

    The PCAT includes sections on writing, biological and chemical processes, critical reading, and quantitative reasoning. Each section is multiple-choice, except for the writing portion. The writing section consists of one prompt that identifies a problem and requires test-takers to address the issue and propose a solution.

  3. 3

    Earn a Pharm.D. from an Accredited Pharmacy School

    After passing the PCAT, prospective pharmacists must earn their doctor of pharmacy degree (Pharm.D.) to be eligible for state licensure. These programs take around four years to complete.

    Some pharmacy schools provide 0-6 programs. These programs admit students directly after high school, allowing them to complete two years of pre-pharmacy study, followed by four years of professional study.

    To receive the best education, prospective Pharm.D. students should select a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). Most ACPE-accredited programs focus on pharmaceutical practices, such as dispensing medication and educating patients. The programs also cover business principles, as pharmacists are often responsible for managing the staff/department.

    Pharm.D. programs require candidates to take courses in areas such as pharmaceutical chemistry (study of designing and evaluating drugs), pharmacognosy (study of drugs derived from plants and animals), and pharmacology (study of the effects of drugs on the human body).

Pharmacist Education

When deciding how to become a pharmacist, there are two main educational paths. Both paths require completing a Pharm.D. program.

Prospective pharmacists can either complete a four-year bachelor’s program before applying to a graduate program, or enroll in a direct-entry/0-6 program.

Earning a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate often takes eight years — 4 for each program. A 0-6 program provides students with the information they would learn in an undergraduate program during the first two years, allowing them to earn their degree in six rather than eight.

Other educational paths exist, such as completing a non-degree pre-pharmacy program, or entering graduate school after two years of undergraduate study. However, many Pharm.D. programs and employers prefer people who have earned a bachelor’s degree.

Doctor of Pharmacy Degree

Regardless of their path, people must acquire their Pharm.D.to become licensed pharmacists. The program provides them with the necessary background knowledge and clinical skills to successfully pass the licensing exams and fulfill the role of a pharmacist.

Whether looking to work directly with patients, or in the research and development of medications, all prospective pharmacists must complete this crucial step.

  • check-circle

    Admission Requirements

    Two years of undergraduate study (bachelor’s preferred), science and math prerequisites (varies from program to program), average 3.0 GPA, interview, letters of recommendation

  • check-circle

    Program Curriculum

    Pharmaceutical calculations, biochemistry, medicinal chemistry, anatomy and physiology, drug delivery systems, pharmaceutical law and ethics, health care system, public health, applied practice

  • check-circle

    Time to Complete

    Four years

  • check-circle

    Skills Learned

    Attention to detail, communication, interpersonal, management, advocacy, multitasking, mathematical and scientific aptitude

Pharmacist Licensure and Certification

Pharmacists need a license to practice in any state. To be eligible for licensure, they need to earn a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field and complete a Pharm.D. program, the latter of which includes completing a formal internship.

After completing the academic requirements, prospective pharmacists must then pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam and either the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam or a jurisprudence exam specific to the licensing state.

To renew their license, most states require pharmacists to complete 30 hours of continuing education through the ACPE every two years.

While not required, pharmacists have the option of obtaining certification in a variety of specializations, many of which are offered by the Board of Pharmacy Specialties. Options include:

  • Cardiology — experts on medications specifically designed for people who have or are at risk for heart problems
  • Oncology — provide direct patient care for those managing cancer
  • Pediatrics — specialize in understanding the impact of medications on children from birth to age 18

Working as a Pharmacist

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), pharmacists earn an average annual salary of $128,570. There are a variety of factors that can impact the pay of a pharmacist, resulting in yearly compensation ranging from $76,840 for the bottom 10% to $164,590 for the top 10%.

Practice setting and geographic location greatly influence a pharmacist’s pay. The top-paying industries for pharmacists include scientific research and development centers (average annual wage: $159,490), outpatient care centers (average annual wage: $150,710), and company and enterprise management (average annual wage: $141,200).

Geographically, U.S. pharmacists earn the most in California, with an average annual wage of $146,140, followed by Alaska at $145,910, and Oregon with an average annual wage of $136,520.

While pharmacists benefit from a high earning potential, the BLS projects that employment will rise only 2% by 2031. BLS also predicts approximately 13,600 pharmacist openings yearly.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Pharmacist

question-mark-circleHow many years does it take to become a pharmacist?

The amount of time it takes to become a pharmacist depends upon the academic path. The typical path takes eight years to complete — four to earn an undergraduate degree and four to earn a doctorate. However, direct-entry programs, which take six years to complete, are also common.

question-mark-circleWhat is the quickest way to become a pharmacist?

The fastest ways to become a pharmacist include completing a two-year pre-pharmacy program followed by a four-year Pharm.D. program, or a direct-entry six-year program. Many employers prefer the latter option.

question-mark-circleHow hard is it to become a pharmacist?

Becoming a pharmacist can be demanding, given the various topics they need to study and the continuous evolution of new medications and medical technology. Pharmacy programs require students to understand a variety of scientific and mathematical concepts while gaining the ability to translate that information to the patients they encounter. Despite these demands, pharmacists often feel a great sense of pride in helping those in need of medical care.

question-mark-circleDo pharmacists get paid well?

According to the BLS, pharmacists earn significantly above the average annual pay for all occupations in the United States. Pharmacists earn an average salary of $128,570, compared to the $45,670 average for all other occupations. The top 10% of pharmacists earn $164,590, which is over $100,000 more than the national average for all other jobs.

Last Reviewed By: August 18, 2022

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