Written by Brit Haines
With a fast-growing senior citizen population and a rise in chronic diseases, pharmacists are needed to fill prescriptions, help educate patients, and ensure medications are taken safely. If you’re already a pharmacy tech, the next step to advancing your career may be to become a pharmacist.
Pharmacists know everything about prescription drugs, from how they work to how they’ll affect you. A doctor prescribes medication, but pharmacists show you how to take them safely. They can even administer some health screenings or vaccinations.
On this page, we’ll show you how to become a pharmacist and what the job entails.
What Does a Pharmacist Do?
Although both pharmacists and pharmacy techs can prepare prescriptions and collect information from patients, only pharmacists can answers specific questions on medications and provide health advice. They’re also the final safety check, ensuring all prescriptions are have been filled correctly before they’re given to a patient. While a pharmacy tech can prepare and package a prescription, a patient can’t be given medication until it’s reviewed by a pharmacist.
Pharmacists can choose from a variety of specialties in the field. As a pharmacy tech, you may have already worked with a pharmacist in one of these specialties. The most popular include:
A retail pharmacist is found in fast-paced locations that are open to the public, such as in a supermarket or retail store. In addition to filling prescriptions, retail pharmacists perform extensive customer service duties including:
- Answering phones
- Answering customer questions
- Finding important information on prescriptions
The positions in a retail pharmacy don’t come with much supervision, so you’ll need to handle insurance inquiries, process customer data, take prescriptions over the phone, and distribute medications on your own.
Hospitals require medication quickly and at all hours, so they keep a team of pharmacy techs and pharmacists on hand at all times. Pharmacists employed by hospitals or clinics typically:
- Consult with nurses and doctors on the use and administration of medications
- Provide health guidance to patients
- Conduct some medical tests
A closed-door pharmacy (sometimes called an independent pharmacy) is one that provides services to a defined and special group. These pharmacies are not open to the public in general. They may be found in places like jails and prisons, hospice care facilities, and rehabilitation extended care centers. Pharmacists who work in closed-door pharmacies provide less customer service than other pharmacy positions — the focus is on filling and delivering medications to patients. These pharmacists may also fill mail-order prescriptions.
Pharmacy Benefit Manager
A common career choice for former pharmacy technicians, pharmacy benefit managers oversee the entire process of buying prescription drugs. They often work for a healthcare system or third-party administrator and perform duties such as:
- Contracting pharmacies
- Negotiating rates with drug manufacturers
- Maintaining medications
Nuclear pharmacists are specially trained to handle and prepare radioactive materials for medications. In addition to preparing and labeling medications, they may:
- Consult with other medical professionals on the use of nuclear medicine and materials
- Conduct inventory
- Ensure the safe transportation of radiopharmaceuticals
- Help with medical studies
How Much Does a Pharmacist Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), pharmacists make a median annual salary of $126,120 (2018), though salaries range between just over $87,000 to over $161,000 per year. More advanced positions and experience may lead to higher salaries.
Depending on the type of pharmacist you become, your pay may also vary. For example, a clinical pharmacist in a hospital setting may earn more than a retail pharmacist who works in a grocery store.
Salaries may also vary based on your location. Some states need pharmacists to fill empty positions and entice them with higher salaries. The following states have the highest pay, according to the BLS:
What Is the Job Outlook for Pharmacists?
As the senior citizen population grows and more people are diagnosed with chronic conditions, jobs for pharmacists are expected to increase. BLS reports pharmacist positions are projected to increase 6% by between 2016 and 2026, which is on par with the national average for all positions.
The employment of pharmacists varies by state, as some locations are in greater need for people in these roles. Some states, such as California, pay pharmacists well and have more positions to serve their large population.
The five states with the highest employment rates of pharmacists include:
- New York
What Education Do I Need to Become a Pharmacist?
Becoming a pharmacist is about as far away from the standard certificate or associate degree in medical assisting required to become an MA as you can imagine.
In fact, to become a pharmacist, you need a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree. Requirements to earn this degree may vary depending on the specialty you select. All pharmacists must become licensed to practice, though the requirements to earn your licensure vary by state. If you’re advancing from a pharmacy tech position, you may be better prepared for your pharmacist education.
Getting Your Doctorate Degree
There are many different degree paths available to students looking to become a pharmacist. Many begin a program after completing at least two years of undergraduate coursework. If you already have an associate degree and work as a pharmacy tech, you may opt to take a dual degree program to earn both a bachelor’s and doctorate degree in the same program. “0-6” programs only require a high school diploma are for students with no previous pharmacy experience.
Undergraduate students take courses in human anatomy, chemistry, and biology before moving into a graduate program. Entrance requirements for most four-year pharmacy doctoral programs include:
- 3.0 or higher GPA
- High grades in chemistry and biology courses
- High school diploma/previous college coursework
- Previous transcripts
- Passing score on the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)
- Two to three letters of recommendation
- Biographical sketch
- Interview with a department faculty member
Common Pharm.D. courses include:
- Bioorganic Principles of Medicinal Chemistry — How drugs work and interact (involves a mix of biochemistry and chemistry)
- The U.S. Health Care System — How the pharmaceutical industry functions in the United States, from research to FDA approval
- Pharmacy Practice Skills — How to handle and disperse prescribed medication (may take up multiple semesters throughout your education)
- Biopharmaceutics — How the body metabolizes drugs; a foundational lecture course often taken within the first two years
- Pharmacological Measurements/Calculations — How to use math to prescribe medication; students learn about weights and measurements in the pharmacy field
- Clinical Experience — Gain experience in both clinical and pharmaceutical settings, where the average program requires seven to ten rotations (resulting in around 2,000 hours of clinical experience with the public)
In addition to coursework, you’ll also need to write a dissertation to earn a doctorate.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Pharmacist?
If you’re already a pharmacy tech, you have already earned your associate or bachelor’s degree. Earning your doctorate degree from here will take around four to seven years, depending on your experience.
Earning a hybrid or combined degree can take six to eight years if you start with an associate degree. Dual degree programs allow you to earn your bachelor’s and doctorate degrees simultaneously, which is perfect for students who know have already decided that they want to earn a doctorate.
There are also doctoral-level training programs that accept students with a bachelor’s degree in biology or chemistry interested in earning a Pharm.D. These programs take around four years to complete. Any previous work history you have as a technician could help you during the admission phase as well.
Internship hours are also required for licensure, and the number of hours you need will vary depending on your specialty and your state’s requirements. Postgraduate experience hours may also be required for some specialties, such as nuclear pharmacy.
In order to become a pharmacist, you’ll need state licensure. The process will vary based on the state you wish to practice in but typically involves taking and passing two exams: the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) and possibly the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE).
The NAPLEX is required in all states and is designed to test your knowledge of pharmacy. Passing this exam will deem you comeptent to practice. The MPJE tests a pharmacist’s knowledge of pharmacy law; it isn’t required in all states. You may be able to apply to take both exams at once. The best way to know which requirements pertain to you is to consult your state pharmacy board.
To earn your license, you may also need to:
- Pass a background check
- Submit proof of a completed internship to your state board
- Complete any additional postgraduate experience hours
- Complete additional certification or training, such as in vaccination
You also must maintain licensure and may need to take continuing education courses to do so. For example, Washington requires pharmacists to renew their license every year and complete 15 hours of continuing education during each renewal cycle. Specialty courses, such as in suicide prevention, may also be required by some states.
While earning a graduate degree can be a lengthy time commitment, advancing from a pharmacy tech to a pharmacist can lead to increased salary potential and exciting job opportunities.
Brit Haines graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a degree in English. Although, she nearly wound up with a degree in teaching. She has worked as a freelance writer for over three years. In that time, she’s written many articles on higher education. She’s also tutored children in spelling and vocabulary, taught enrichment classes, and volunteered at local elementary schools.