It’s Not Just Standing Around CVS: What it Takes to Become a Pharmacist

A male pharmacist is in the pharmacy looking at a tablet
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Deciding on a career can be one of the most important — and most challenging — decisions you’ll ever make. While some people are born knowing what they want to do, others go through high school, college or even decades in the workforce before they ultimately decide what will most satisfy them professionally.

Maybe you’re grappling with this choice and have considered becoming a pharmacist. If so, as with any career, take the time to research the career path and make sure it’s a good fit.

Here we have some in-depth information on how to become a pharmacist and what the job entails.

Step 1: Decide If Pharmacy Is the Right Career Path

Before determining how to become a pharmacist, let’s take a minute to make sure a career in pharmacy is right for you.

Simply put, pharmacists are responsible for getting people the correct medications in the correct dosages, as prescribed by a doctor. They are also typically available for consultation on how to administer drugs and possible side effects, according to WebMD.

While we mostly interact with pharmacists in grocery or drug stores, they can also work in private pharmacies, hospitals and long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.

Do I Have the Skills to Be a Pharmacist?

Education is the key to success in pharmacy (more on that later), but before you dive headfirst into a degree program, consider if you have the innate skills that are necessary to be a successful pharmacist.

Attention to Detail

Attention to detail is easily the most crucial skill needed, as you will spend long days looking over prescriptions to make sure they will not react dangerously with other prescribed medications. You will also need to be able to count the correct amount of pills at the right dosage in a fast and efficient manner.

Math

While pharmacists tend to be science lovers at heart, often excelling in biology and chemistry, they also need to use math everyday. It’s not just a matter of counting out 30 pills, either. Pharmacists need to be able to calculate fractions, percentages and units of measurement quickly, reports WorkItDaily.com.

Computer Literacy

The fact that you’re reading this on a computer, tablet or other smart device is probably a good sign. That’s because pharmacists are increasingly relying on computer technologies for tasks like researching drugs and receiving prescriptions, according to LearnHowToBecome.org.

People Skills

It’s not all just about your ability to solve problems on your own. After correctly dispensing pills, it’s likely that you’ll have to speak to patients about their medications. They might have crazy questions about mixing medications with certain activities, foods or beverages; they might seek health advice; they might even ask you where the restroom is. Whatever it is, you’ll need to be able to communicate with people positively when you’re on the frontline.

How Much Do Pharmacists Make?

Pharmacist salaries will vary by state, by tenure and by type of work, but the median salary for pharmacists in the United States is $110,727 as of August 2017, according to PayScale.com. Total pay can vary from around $80,000 to $140,000, based on survey data.

How Much Do Pharmacists Work?

80% of pharmacists work full-time, but that does not mean they necessarily work the typical 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-through-Friday job. People often need medicine outside those hours, which means pharmacists can work evenings, weekends and holidays. Pharmacists in hospitals and care facilities, where pharmacies are open 24/7, can even work night shifts.

If you are considering a career in pharmacy, note that you may not have the typical schedule of a businessperson. You may work longer shifts for fewer consecutive days, and you may have to sacrifice your weekends or put yourself on an alternate sleeping schedule  to accommodate your work schedule.

Step 2: Complete the Necessary Education

If the job role, skills, salary and schedule of a pharmacist sound like something you’re interested in, it’s time to get serious about your pharmacy education. There are two typical educational paths you can take to become a pharmacist: a regular Doctor of Pharmacy and a Bachelor’s/Doctor of Pharmacy hybrid.

How Many Years of School Do I Need to Become a Pharmacist?

Depending on which path you choose, studying to become a pharmacist will likely take six to eight years of schooling, according to TheBalance.com. The school itself must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.

Pharmacy Degree Programs

Doctor of Pharmacy: This is a four-year program that does not involve general education at the college level. It does, however, assume that you have already completed a two-year or four-year degree. After graduating with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, you might decide to pursue pharmacy and can apply for this program; Peterson’s does note, however, that most pharmacy school applicants hold a bachelor’s degree.

Here’s what will be required of you:

  • Coursework in general pharmacy
  • Nearly 2,000 hours of clinical experience as part of the degree
  • GPA requirements may depend on your school of choice

Bachelor’s and Doctor of Pharmacy Hybrid: The former program assumes students have completed general study and then decided to pursue pharmacy after obtaining a separate degree. The hybrid program is for students entering college for the first time who already know they want to become a pharmacist. You will spend either two or four years working on a pre-program degree before working on your Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree.

According to Study.com, undergraduate students typically major in Chemistry (General, Organic, Analytical, Medicinal or Bio) or Microbiology. Some students may major in Biology, and select schools may even offer a Pre-Pharm major.

This program is good for students who know they want to be pharmacists from the start and allows them to combine a bachelor’s degree with PharmD degree into one program at the same school.

Typical Coursework for Pharmacy Students

According to LearnHowToBecome.com, you can expect to take the following courses during your pharmacy studies: Bioorganic Principles of Medicinal Chemistry, Biopharmaceutics, Pharmacy Practice Skills, the U.S. Healthcare System and Pharmaceutical Calculations.

TheBalance.com adds Functional Human Anatomy and Histology, Organic Chemistry and Immunizations to the list, to name a few.

How Do I Get Into a PharmD Program?

Acceptance to a pharmacy program, like admission to college, is not guaranteed. If you are a high school student applying for a hybrid bachelor’s and doctor program, you’ll need to focus on your GPA and your SAT/ACT scores now. Once accepted, you’ll have to maintain your GPA during your undergraduate studies to be guaranteed your spot in the PharmD program, according to TheBalance.com.

Regardless of the educational path you select, most programs will also require you to pass the Pharmacy College Admission Test. This test includes five sections — writing, biological processes, chemical processes, critical reading and quantitative reasoning. The writing prompt is timed (30 minutes), as are the 192 multiple choice questions for the four other sections (175 minutes). Most schools require that you score within at least the 40th or 50th percentiles.

Beyond standardized testing, schools may require letters of recommendation and successful interviews for admittance.

Step 3: Pass All Licensing Requirements and Complete Training

Finishing your degree is not the final step before applying for a pharmacy job and getting hired. Before you can work in a pharmacy, you’ll have to become licensed. As if getting through school wasn’t complicated enough, the licensing process has three important exams you’ll need to pass:

1. The North American Pharmacist Licensing Exam (NAPLEX).

2. The Multi-State Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam.

3. The written and practical exam of your state.

Taking the NAPLEX

The first step is completion of the NAPLEX. You can find detailed registration information here, but below are some quick notes on the NAPLEX:

  • 185 questions about general pharmacy knowledge
  • Costs $505 to take
  • Must schedule on your own
  • Only allowed five attempts total, with 45 days between attempts

Taking the Multi-State Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam

You’ll also need to pass the Multi-State Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam, for which you can register here. Some quick notes on this exam:

  • Questions about federal/state laws
  • Costs $250 to take
  • Must schedule on your own
  • Only allowed five attempts total, with 45 days between attempts

Taking State Tests

You’ll also need to take and pass any written or practical tests that your state requires.

Step 4: Keep Up With Continued Education

Every state requires continuing education for pharmacists, but the requirements for that education vary by state. Research the requirements for your state and stay on top of all education to maintain your license.

How to Become a Pharmacist in Canada

If you are hoping to practice as a pharmacist in Canada, you’ll have to meet Canadian requirements instead of those here in the U.S. This process is just as complicated as it is in the States and deserves some detailed preparation, but here is a very brief overview of the process to become a Canadian pharmacist:

1. Get a bachelor’s or doctor of pharmacy.The catch? It has to be from one of 10 universities.

2. Pass your exams. You’ll do your board examinations through the Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada (PEBC).  

3. Complete an apprenticeship or internship

4. Become fluent–if not already–in English or French. But mastering both will take you further.

Alternatives to a Typical Pharmacy Career Path

If you have a passion for pharmacy but can’t see yourself working in a CVS everyday, there are so many alternatives to consider, such as hospital pharmacy or private pharmacies.

RXeConsult.com offers a number of other career options for pharmacists, including being a pharmacist for NASA (pretty stellar, right?), medical education, veterinary pharmacy and pharmacoeconomics, which is a fancy way of saying you’d be working on the economic side of drugs.

Becoming a pharmacist is hard work, no matter how you look at it. But if you have a passion for keeping people healthy and saving lives through proper medication dispensing and administration, then the hard work will ultimately pay off.

Timothy Moore is a full-time editor and part-time freelancer who is very grateful for all the medications he’s received from his pharmacists. As someone with seasonal allergies, poor eyesight and a sickly dog, he would be lost without their dedication.

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