How to Become a Pharmacist

Can I ask you a personal question? Has anyone ever called you anal retentive? If so, were they right? If you answered yes to both questions, then you should consider a career as a pharmacist—a job in which being excessively orderly and fussy—detailed-oriented—is essential. You’ll be dealing with drugs that can cure or, if handled improperly, can kill. And while we consider whether this career is for you, do you have strong math and science skills? Do you have terrific communication skills? Do you want to help others? Are you fine with being on your feet for long hours? And one last thing: since some states require a criminal background check before granting licenses, can you stay out of trouble with the police? If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, please read on and see how you can enter the fascinating world of managing patients’ drug therapies—the world of pharmacists.

Years of Education

Minimum education requirement is 2 years of college-level pre-pharmacy coursework and 4 years in a Doctorate of Pharmacy program.

Degrees & Licenses

  • Doctorate of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.)
  • State license

Job Availability

This occupation has faster than average projected job growth.

Income

Low

$77,390

Median

$106,410

High

$131,440

Perks

  • You don’t really have to worry about which outfit to wear to work.
  • If you get a headache at work, you don’t have to hope your coworker has an aspirin in her purse.

1. Decide if a pharmacist’s life is for you.

The traditional tools of the pharmacist: mortar and pestleGet into a pre-pharmacy program. Pharmacy schools and colleges all require at least two years of college-level pre-pharmacy coursework generally consisting of math and science courses as well as social science and humanities courses. Most applicants fulfill their pre-pharmacy prerequisites in pre-pharmacy programs at four-year colleges and universities; many complete three or four years towards a major before entering Pharm.D. programs. Some community colleges offer associate degrees in pre-pharmacy.

Research pharmacy schools and colleges. There are currently 124 accredited schools and colleges of pharmacy in the country. These schools grant Doctorate of Pharmacy degrees (Pharm.D.). Programs may require slightly different prerequisites and offer slightly different courses of study, so you should research the Pharm.D. programs you are interested in to be certain that your pre-pharmacy coursework satisfies their requirements.

2. Gain some real-world experience.

In preparation for getting into a Pharm.D. program, you should gain extracurricular experience in the pharmaceutical field. This could be shadowing, interning, or even working at a retail or clinical pharmacy. You could even intern at a nonprofit health organization. Besides giving you a taste of what the profession entails, this will demonstrate to an admissions board an interest and engagement in the field.

3. Take the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT).

In addition to bolstering your extracurricular experience, you should prepare for the PCAT. This is a computer-administered test consisting of 240 multiple-choice questions and two writing topics. Joining a study group and taking practice tests will help you to do the best you can come test day.

4. Get into a Pharm.D. program.

Pile o' pillsApply to more than one pharmacy school—admission is very competitive. Once you’re in, you will take courses that instruct you in professional ethics, communication with patients and other health care providers, business management, concepts of public health and all facets of drug therapy. You will also be exposed to a variety of pharmacy practices from retail to clinical and research pharmacy. It generally takes four years to complete a Pharm.D. program.

5a. Graduate and get licensed and certified.

You have your Pharm.D. degree; now it’s time for more tests. To practice pharmacy in this country and its territories, you’ll have to pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX), and forty-four states and the District of Columbia require you to pass the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE). The NAPLEX tests your skills and knowledge of pharmacy, while as the name implies the MPJE tests your knowledge of pharmacy law. Those states and territories that don’t require the MPJE have their own pharmacy law exams. In addition to the NAPLEX and law exam, some territories and states require their own specific exams for licensure.

5b. Or graduate and become more specialized.

Postgraduate residencies and fellowships are another level of experience and specialization some graduates choose. Those graduates who want to work in a clinical setting usually seek further training in 12- to 24-month residency programs. And there are specific fellowship programs tailored to those graduates desiring to go into research pharmacy or some other specialized area of pharmacy.

6. Get a job; become a pharmacist.

With an aging population in need of your services, you’re ready to practice pharmacy. The pharmacists that most of us are familiar with work behind the counter at a drugstore or in the pharmacy at a retail outlet (in fact most pharmacists work in this kind of setting), but there are many other employment opportunities for pharmacists. Almost one quarter of all pharmacists work in hospitals. Pharmacists also work in long-term care facilities, corporations, and research laboratories. A small percentage of pharmacists work for pharmaceutical wholesalers or in Internet and mail-order pharmacies. You just have to find the right setting in which to shine.

Advance Your Career as a Pharmacist and What to Do if You Graduate from a Foreign Pharmacy School

Experience and additional training and education are the keys to advancement. After some experience, pharmacists in chain drugstores or locally owned pharmacies may be promoted to managerial or supervisory positions. In the case of chain drugstores, a pharmacist could work her way up to an executive position at the company’s headquarters. And pharmacists working in hospitals who demonstrate leadership abilities and administrative skills can move up the administrative ladder. Pharmacists with business sense and an entrepreneurial spirit (and maybe an MBA) open their own pharmacies.

If you graduate from a foreign pharmacy school, you can be licensed in all states and territories except Puerto Rico. However, you first have to apply for certification from the Foreign Pharmacy Graduate Examination Committee (FPGEC). After you’ve been certified you’ll need to pass the Foreign Pharmacy Graduate Equivalency Examination (FPGEE), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, and Test of Spoken English (TSE) exam. And once you’ve passed all of those, you’ll need to pass the NAPLEX and MJPE and any other exams required by the state or territory in which you want pursue your profession.

Further Reading for Aspiring Pharmacists

Pharmacy: An Introduction to the Profession (L. Michael Posey). Published by the American Pharmacists Association, this book will provide you with answers to most questions you have about beginning a career in pharmacy, from a history of pharmacy to an overview of pre-professional and professional coursework to outlining career paths and advancement opportunities.

Why Your Prescription Takes So Damn Long to Fill(Drugmonkey, Master of Pharmacy). Written by “Drugmonkey,” a pharmacist with nearly twenty years of experience in the profession, this is a funny, quirky, and informative account of one pharmacist’s experience working in a pharmacy in the community.