How to Become a Pharmacist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for pharmacists. Get the facts about education, salary, licensing requirements and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Pharmacy Technology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Pharmacist?

Pharmacists are medical professionals who dispense prescription drugs to patients. They have extensive knowledge of drugs and must continually work to stay up to date. They ensure that each prescription is filled with the proper drug, and they advise patients on brands of medication, proper dosage, side effects, potential interactions and storage methods.

If you are considering a career as a pharmacist, you'll have a few options for the type of pharmacy you practice. You could work in retail as a community pharmacist, which often involves plenty of interaction with the public. Clinical pharmacists do much less medication filling, and much more direct patient care, as part of a healthcare team. Working in the pharmaceutical industry could mean research and development, marketing, or sales.

The following chart provides an overview about this career.

Degree Required Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D)
Key Responsibilities Fill and verify prescriptions, ascertain any patient drug interactions, counsel patients about the medications they are taking, maintain patient drug records
Licensing or Certification All states require pharmacists to be licensed; professional certification in medical specialties is available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 3%*
Median Salary (2015) $121,500*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Do Pharmacists Do?

In addition to safely dispensing prescription medications, pharmacists might also help patients manage chronic conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, or assist them in efforts to quit smoking or lower their blood pressure. Sometimes they participate in pharmaceutical research or collaborate with other professionals to evaluate the effectiveness of new treatments. Other duties may include training pharmacy student interns and maintaining drug inventories, registries of controlled substances and poisons, patient profiles and prescription records.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree or Complete a Pre-Pharmacy Program

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), you'll need a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree to become licensed as a pharmacist (www.bls.gov). A 2-year pre-pharmacy program or a 4-year bachelor's degree program in pharmacy science can both qualify you for a Pharm.D. program, although some schools prefer applicants to have a bachelor's degree. Classes in each program commonly cover topics in anatomy and physiology, biology and chemistry. Bachelor's programs also introduce you to biochemistry, pharmaceutics, pharmacology and sometimes toxicology.

Step 2: Obtain a Doctor of Pharmacy Degree

Whether you were in a pre-pharmacy or bachelor's program, the first year of a 4-year Pharm.D. program emphasizes the natural sciences - biological, chemical and physical - as they apply to pharmaceutical science. After the first or second year, depending on the program, the curriculum transitions from a science focus to a clinical focus. You'll likely study pharmacokinetics, pathology and therapeutics. In the fourth year of study, you'll gain practical experience as a pharmacist in patient-care settings. Possible environments include community clinics, outpatient care centers and hospitals.

Step 3: Acquire a Pharmacist License

You must have a license if you want to practice pharmacy in the U.S. You'll need to pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX), which is the test used by all states, after earning your Pharm.D. A 185-question, computer-based exam, the NAPLEX tests your knowledge of pharmacology and your ability to produce and supply medications, evaluate health information and measure therapeutic outcomes.

Most states also require the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE). The MPJE consists of 90 multiple-choice questions that test your knowledge of your state's pharmaceutical laws. States that don't use the MPJE have their own pharmacy law exams. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy administers both the NAPLEX and the MPJE exams (www.nabp.net). You may need to take additional exams as determined by your state.

Step 4: Consider Postgraduate Training

Upon graduating from a Pharm.D. program, you may pursue additional training through pharmacy residencies or fellowships. These 1-2 year programs can help you individualize your career. For example, you'll want to complete a residency if you're intent on working in clinical settings. The BLS says that you could benefit from a fellowship in order to work in such settings as research labs.

Step 5: Examine Possible Work Settings

You have many employment options available as a pharmacist. Retail health and personal care stores, grocery stores and department stores are your most likely employers as a pharmacist. As of 2014, around 54% of the approximately 297,100 people employed as pharmacists worked in a retail setting, the BLS reported. Private hospitals employed another 19%, while other pharmacists worked for wholesalers, federal agencies and physicians' offices. You could also work for pharmaceutical manufacturers, insurance agencies or academic institutions.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are a couple other careers in the field to consider if you're willing to tackle extensive educational requirements similar to those of pharmacists. You could work as a biophysicist or biochemist, who are researchers studying disease, heredity, the development of living organisms and other biological processes. Another option is to become a physician. Physicians must complete medical school, and they then work diagnosing, treating, and managing illness and injuries.

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