How to Become a Pharmacist [Step-by-Step]

How to Become a Pharmacist

Pharmacists are the person behind the counter, wearing a white coat, dispensing medication in amber colored vials. Being a pharmacist provides much more opportunity than this common picture. Pharmacists can work in the retail (community) setting at drug or grocery stores, in a hospital, as part of a team helping long-term care facilities, and a large variety of other settings. No matter the site of practice, becoming a pharmacist requires six years of intense coursework, passing of at least two rigorous state board exams, and many hours of internship training.

As a pharmacist myself, I can attest that some patients know the amount of time and effort required to become a pharmacist, and others are surprised at the amount of schooling, effort, and dedication required. Regardless of the thoughts of the public, those desiring to become a pharmacist should be prepared to invest significant time, money, and effort to complete their doctorate degree, study and pass state board exams, and complete continuing education credits for the remainder of their career. In return, new graduates can start with a six-figure salary straight out of school, with opportunities to be a respected member of the healthcare field in many different settings.

Pharmacists practice in many different areas and are not only found working in drug stores or supermarket chains, they can also be found in hospitals, working for long term care or specialty pharmacies, and nuclear pharmacies. Pharmacists may carry specializations in pharmacogenomics, geriatrics, pediatrics, cardiology and several other specialties. Pharmacists can go on after graduation to complete a residency, or immediately enter the workforce. No matter which path is chosen after graduation, the path to graduation is a long one, full of sciences and laboratory work. The effort put into becoming a pharmacist is rewarding, and pays off after graduation, with salaries often starting in the low triple figures.

How Long Does it take to Become a Pharmacist?

Students must attend school for 6 years, unless attending an accelerated program, which typically lasts 5 years. Regardless of the choice, pharmacy students must complete 2 years of undergraduate education, followed by the traditional 4 years of pharmacy education, or follow a year-round accelerated program for 3 years. Students now have options to complete some classes remotely through online programs, but the vast majority of students attend classes on campus. The intensive nature of pharmacy school requires commitment and dedication that Is often difficult to do so remotely.

There is also an option for those that have already have degrees or careers in which they are unhappy. Some universities offer a weekend program, in which already educated persons interested in pursuing a Doctor of Pharmacy degree can attend weekend classes. In this option, the work is still completed in 4 years (after having a bachelor’s degree), but only completed on weekends.

After the completion of the PharmD or Doctor of Pharmacy degree, the student has the chance to enter the workforce or do a residency or a fellowship program. This additional education is a paid position, but at a rate much less than what a pharmacist would make had they opted to find a full-time position. Residencies can be PGY-1 or PGY-2. The PGY-1 residency is a general residency, focusing on building the skills learned in school being knowledge, attitudes, abilities, and skills. The PGY-2 residency is different in that this residency focuses on a specific area. Some of the specialty areas of focus include:

  • Geriatric
  • Informatics
  • Cardiology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Nuclear
  • Psychiatric
  • Pediatric
  • Drug Information
  • Ambulatory Care
  • Nutrition Support

Pharmacists that opt for a residency must match with an open residency. ASHP (American Society of Health System Pharmacists) sponsors the match, and this pairs up the applicant with their site of residency. After the applicant completes an interview and application process, the applicant and the residency program provide rank their preferences.
Fellowships are also available, and these programs are less clinical and more research-based. After a residency, a fellowship can be completed which focuses on the specific area with more research.

Becoming a PharmacistHow Much Does It Cost to Become a Pharmacist?

As with any degree, a University education is expensive. Students can receive scholarships as well as grants and loans, as with any education. The cost of the program varies by school, as well as by program. With pharmacy school being a required 6 year program, the graduate costs factor in as well, making this degree come at a very high cost. The payoff is a median salary in the range of $111,000 starting salary. That said, the cost to become a pharmacist is often well over $100,000, ranging from $65,000 to well over $200,000, depending on the school. This is for the 4 year professional requirements of the program, and the cost for 2 years of undergraduate school is not factored into these total prices. Typically, pharmacy school tuition consists of 2 years of undergraduate school cost about $40,000 to $50,000, with the next 4 years equaling around $150,000.

Books and supplies can cost a high amount, coupled with room and board can add another $30,000 or so a year to the costs. Room and board are the most expensive cost, and some fees are optional such as parking passes if the student chooses to have a vehicle on campus. Books are typically relatively expensive, although utilizing second hand books and electronic copies can help keep costs down.

Pharmacy schools may offer areas of concentration for extra credits, also incurring more cost. At an approximate amount of 12 credits per concentration, the student can be expected to pay a significant amount more for these concentrations.

Course Requirements for Pharmacy School

Applying to Pharmacy School requires an excellent high school record with high grades, extracurricular activities, and preparing for college with essays and entrance applications.
Depending on the school, the timing of classes and the type of class can vary. There are required classes in the 2 years of pre-pharmacy school. Most pre-pharmacy coursework consists of the following:

  • 2 semesters of General Chemistry with lab
  • 2 semesters of Biology with lab
  • 2 semesters of Organic Chemistry with lab
  • 1 semester of Physiology
  • 1-2 semesters of Physics
  • 1-2 semesters of Microbiology
  • 1-2 semesters of Biochemistry
  • 1-2 semesters of Mathematics or Statistics
  • 2 semesters of English
  • 1 semester of Economics
  • 1 semester of Speech or Public Speaking
  • 1-2 semesters of Humanities

Once the 2 years of pre-pharmacy are complete, the student will enter the 4 years of the pharmacy school curriculum. Each year consists of 15-18 credits of courses such as Pharmaceutics I and II, Pharmacokinetics, Therapeutics (consisting of Endocrine, Infectious Disease, Cardiovascular, Oncology, and more), and various electives, Economic, and other courses. As pharmacy advances, classes do change and update to keep up with the evolving world of healthcare. Courses such as Pharmacogenetics were not available at pharmacy school years ago, and now they are an integral part of coursework.

The Cost of Pharmacy School vs. Medical School

Students that want to enter the health care field often consider multiple fields, two of the most common being pharmacy school and medical school. Although all majors in the medical field are typically a consideration for certain students, those that decide between pharmacy and medical school also have a cost to consider. Where pharmacy school costs high, medical school costs are even higher. There are variables in each situation, including in-state vs. out of state, housing, private vs. public, and other fees, but the average cost of medical school five years ago was approximately $250,000. This cost is after the 4 required years of undergraduate schooling. A medical student must complete a bachelor’s degree and pay the required fees associated with this degree first. Pharmacy school, while expensive, is 2 less years of schooling, 6 years of school vs. 8 with medical school. The savings on 2 years of schooling is significant, with university costs rising every year.

Difficulty and Requirements to Become a Pharmacist

Pharmacists are required to take difficult classes, and typically have more coursework than other college degrees. Finals consist of tests for not only the class, but also for the laboratory parts of the coursework, often resulting in more finals than other students.

Becoming a pharmacist requires more than just schooling. Although a pharmacist education takes a great deal of studying and focus, there are other steps to take. Pharmacy students must perform a certain number of hours working under the direct supervision of a pharmacist. This requirement varies from state to state. After graduating from pharmacy school, a person has a pharmacy degree, but is not yet able to be considered a pharmacist. Passing the NAPLEX and MPJE national pharmacy exams must be completed before being a licensed pharmacist. Pharmacists must be licensed in each state they wish to practice in. The costs of the exam can vary per state; registration fees, application fees and various paperwork must be completed to sit for the exam. The applicant must pass the exam within so many chances before being able to practice as a pharmacist in each state.

Pharmacist Career Path

Pharmacists can choose to pursue a variety of career paths after being licensed. Some pharmacists opt to receive specialized training in school such as drug information, legal practice, poison control, and consulting. These pharmacists may have more options available to them as these practice areas are becoming more and more in demand. Pharmacists in any setting can advance to management and higher positions within companies if they have adequate skills, desire, and training.

Community pharmacy is the most common practice site, especially for new graduates. Pharmacists in the community setting dispense medication, provide patient counseling, advise on OTC items, and work with other health-care professionals for the general population. Pharmacists that work community can be found in independent pharmacies as well as large chains.

Hospital Pharmacy is the second most common site for pharmacists as many hospitals have rotation sites for students, and if they do well, are sometimes offered positions after graduation. Hospital pharmacists work closely with nurses and physicians on staff. Even within hospital pharmacy, there are different aspects. Pharmacists can be involved with dispensing to patients staying in the hospital, working as a clinical pharmacist reviewing charts and making recommendations, or even working with IT to assist with updates and system changes.

The Pharmaceutical Industry offers great opportunities for those pharmacies interested in other aspects of pharmacy. Pharmacists can work in areas of research and development as well as sales and/or marketing professionals. Within the industry, there are also a variety of opportunities. Drug reps, as the sales professionals are typically called, have proved good careers for those interested in the field of sales.

Patients in long-term care homes, or those in behavioral health homes, require medications that are often quite extensive. Elderly patients in assisted living or long-term care get their medications delivered to the facility, typically from a contracted pharmacy. Pharmacists in this setting work to dispense medications in packaging required by the facility. These pharmacists review orders, contact the facility and physicians for assistance, and work as Clinical Pharmacists to review charts within the facilities. Pharmacists may also work in close conjunction with other areas of the company to improve processes, information exchange, and meet with members of the facility to deliver the best levels of patient care.

Becoming a pharmacist requires many years of schooling, high levels of expenses, and then often post-school work. Passing difficult state examinations, company interviews, and determining a field to work. The results are a high-paying, satisfying career. Pharmacists can work full-time, with some deciding to be part-time as they raise a family. Pharmacists can begin working in a community or hospital setting, and switch to a career as a consultant or clinical pharmacist as their career progresses. There are many options available to pharmacists, and the greatest benefit is being a well-respected, easily accessible, knowledgeable member of the health care team.

Berkeley University of California Career Page. Accessed May 10, 2018.
USC School of Pharmacy. Accessed May 10, 2018.
ACCP. Accessed May 12, 2018.

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Dr. Lauren Simko, PharmD, graduated from Duquesne University in 2000. Upon receipt of her Doctor of Pharmacy degree, Lauren became a pharmacist at Eckerd Drug Store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lauren is currently the Pharmacy Site Manager at CCN Pharmacy, overseeing specialty remote sites and in charge of compliance and HIPAA matters at her employer. Lauren has vast experience in retail, long term care, and specialty pharmacy, serving in various management levels throughout her career. Dr. Simko also has her license to immunize, certificate in pharmacogenomics, and is licensed to practice in two states.