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How to Become a Pharmacist
Caftor / Adobe Stock
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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The healthcare industry is host to a wide array of important professions and specialties. Physicians, nurses, therapists, health aides, lab technicians, radiologists, and other health professionals are essential personnel who help us prevent, manage and fight medical conditions and illnesses. One important healthcare provider is the pharmacist, with whom you likely interact on a regular basis. According to the Mayo Clinic, almost 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, and pharmacists are responsible for administering, regulating and helping patients manage these medications.

What are the demand and earning potential for pharmacists?

Pharmacy is a rapidly-growing field with an increasingly high demand. According to the Department of Professional Employees, as of 2016, there were 282,000 pharmacists and 397,430 pharmacy technicians employed in the United States.

Pharmacists play a vital role in helping nearly everyone with their health needs. They assist patients by administering medications to ensure that they are taking them safely and correctly. As knowledgeable and informed practitioners, they may catch errors from other healthcare professionals, such as prescribing medications that unsafely interact with one another.

In addition to being an important and fulfilling profession, pharmacy is a well-paying career option, with even entry-level pharmacists making six-figure salaries annually.

What does a pharmacist do?

Pharmacists prepare and distribute medications and drugs through a standardized process. They are also involved in providing drug information to and advising patients as well as regulating, storing, organizing and evaluating drugs.

These licensed healthcare professionals are responsible for assisting patients with their medications based on their doctors’ prescriptions and treatments, often working closely with physicians to educate patients and manage and coordinate medications. Some pharmacists specialize in working with medications that pertain to certain illnesses, disorders or areas of healthcare, such as oncology or psychiatry.

Where do pharmacists work?

Pharmacists work in a variety of healthcare settings such as:

• retail pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid

• drug manufacturers

• hospitals and clinics

• research facilities and centers

• home- or long-term care facilities

• government offices

• colleges and universities

• private companies

What degrees and education do you need to become a pharmacist?

Graduate education

In order to become a pharmacist, you must earn a Doctor of Pharmacy through a program that is accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. Universities across the country offer accredited pharmacy programs and degrees. According to The U.S. News and World Report, top pharmacy schools include the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, University of Minnesota, University of California—San Francisco, University of Michigan—Ann Arbor and University of Texas—Austin, though there are plenty of well-known and respected programs throughout the United States.

Undergraduate education

Prior to enrolling in a doctoral program, you will need to complete at least 2-3 years of your undergraduate education. Many programs require you to earn a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy. Six-year programs offered at colleges such as the University of Rhode Island, Florida A & M University, Northeastern University, University of Pittsburgh and others allow you to fast-track your degree by completing two years of undergraduate school and automatically entering a four-year doctoral program at the same school through a single admission and matriculation after you complete high school. You will also need to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) as an admissions requirement of most doctoral programs.

How much does pharmacy school cost?

As with many high-paying professions, the cost of education in order to achieve the qualifications necessary for the field can be pricey. An article by Jeff Cain, EdD, MS, et al. in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education entitled “Pharmacy Student Debt and Return on Investment of a Pharmacy Education” notes that the average tuition of $25,000 annually for pharmacy school, which generally lasts four years, often results in heavy student debt for graduates, many of whom also have student debt from their undergraduate education.

While many graduates will see a meaningful return on investment thanks to high-paying positions in the pharmacy field, this is, of course, contingent upon finding consistent employment. The good news is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment for pharmacists is expected to grow by 6 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is on par with other occupations. The BLS also notes that as demand for prescription medications increases, so will the need for pharmacists’ services. 

Scholarships for pharmacy students

One way to help offset the high cost of pharmacy school is to find and apply for a scholarship. Unlike loans, students aren’t required to pay back these awards, and with ranges in the size and amounts of the scholarships, many students can find the monetary assistance helpful in funding their tuition. 

Here are nine national scholarships provided to pharmacy students not associated with particular schools or programs:

• Allied Healthcare Scholarship Program 

• American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy Walmart Scholars Program

• American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education (AFPE) Scholarships

• American Pharmacists Association (APhA) Foundation Student Scholarship Program

• American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) Student Leadership Award

• Express Scripts Scholars Program

• National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) Foundation Scholarships

• RESpy Award

• TYLENOL® Future Care Scholarship

Pharmacist salary

Pharmacy is a high-paying profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for pharmacists in the United States was $124,170 in 2017. The salary does not vary significantly by industry, such as retail stores and hospitals, for the profession, although some facilities, such as pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing centers, physicians’ offices and outpatient care centers offer higher salaries around $128,000-130,000 annually.

Salary can also vary by location, experience and other factors, although most can expect to earn six-figure salaries throughout their careers. For example, PayScale reports that the average salary for entry-level pharmacists is $111,178 annually. U.S. News names Alaska, California, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wisconsin and as the best-paying states for pharmacists, with Alaska offering an average yearly salary of $137,650.

How to become a pharmacy technician

Another important healthcare provider who works with the dispensary of medication is the pharmacy technician. Pharmacy technicians work under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist to provide medications to and prepare medications for patients, manage the medicine supply and inventory, and provide drug information to patients and medical professionals. Like pharmacists, pharmacy technicians may work in a variety of settings, such as retail stores, hospitals, long- and short-term care facilities, and other healthcare centers.

Training for pharmacy techs

Individual states govern the licensing of pharmacy technicians in their areas, and the requirements vary. For example, in New York, you must have a high school diploma or GED and complete an ASHP-accredited pharmacy technician program, while national certification is not required. Meanwhile, in Washington state, you must complete a Board-approved pharmacy technician training program or complete on-the-job training and pass a national examination.

Even if your state does not require certification, many employers will only hire pharmacy techs who have been certified by the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB), which requires candidates to pass an exam, or the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).

Some aspiring pharmacy technicians choose to complete a postsecondary ASHP-certified pharmacy tech program, available at most community colleges or vocational schools. Certificate programs are usually a year or less, while associate degree programs last two years. Beginning in 2020, candidates will be required to complete a pharmacy technician program in order to become PTCB-certified.

Pharmacy technician salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual salary of $31,750 and a median hourly salary of $15.26 for pharmacy technicians. Again, some facilities and industries pay higher on average for this profession, such as medical and diagnostic laboratories, the federal executive branch, and colleges, universities, and professional schools, where pharmacy technicians can expect to make upwards of $40,000 annually on average.

Is pharmacy for you

Pharmacy can be a rewarding career path for many people. If you have a passion for science, medicine, and helping people, becoming a pharmacist or pharmacy technician could be the right choice for you. While you should keep in mind that becoming a pharmacist requires extensive (and often expensive) training and schooling, the reward of practicing a profession you love is often well worth the investment.

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