How To Become a Pharmacist

What is a Pharmacist?

A pharmacist is a healthcare professional specializing in all things related to medications, including preparing, compounding, maintaining, dispensing, advising on safety, teaching proper usage, and counseling on dosage.

What does a Pharmacist do?

Anywhere medications are dispensed or drug decisions are being made, a pharmacist will be a vital part of the team, providing expertise on available treatment options. In a healthcare setting, the role of a pharmacist is to be the ultimate drug resource and expert to help mitigate drug-related issues for physicians, nurses, and patients. In a community (retail) setting, the pharmacist is the most accessible healthcare professional to patients; therefore, pharmacists are tasked with triaging everyday ailments and concerns by recommending over-the-counter medications or referring patients to a physician when necessary.

You could think of the pharmacist as the guardian or gatekeeper of processes involving drugs. With few exceptions, the pharmacist is the healthcare professional ultimately responsible for dispensing medications to patients. The pharmacist does so much more than that, however. They also:

Most pharmacists work with the help of pharmacy technicians in a retail pharmacy setting, such as independent pharmacies, drug stores, or a pharmacy within a larger grocery or department store chain (eg, Publix, Target). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics1, half of all pharmacists work in a retail pharmacy setting.

Retail pharmacy is not the only career option for a pharmacist. Pharmacy offers diverse career opportunities, with some pharmacists choosing to work in settings such as:
  • Hospitals and other inpatient facilities.
  • Clinics and other outpatient facilities.
  • Pharmaceutical companies.
  • Nonprofit community health organizations.
  • Government agencies (eg, FDA, DEA).
  • Academia (teaching, often within a school of pharmacy).

Education Qualifications

The journey to becoming a pharmacist involves several years of rigorous study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Requirements for admission to pharmacy school vary from one school to another; it is important to research the schools you are interested in to ensure that you meet their specific application requirements. While they may differ, some common pharmacy school application requirements are listed below.

Complete pre-pharmacy coursework.

All pharmacy schools will have prerequisite requirements. For some schools, the requirement may be the completion of a bachelor’s degree, though for most, it is a certain number of credit hours, often amounting to two to three years of undergraduate study.
Be sure to read all the application requirements in detail. Some pharmacy schools may require all your prerequisite classes to be completed within a certain time frame of applying (eg, completed courses cannot be more than five years old). Most programs, if not all, have minimum grade point averages (GPAs) that applicants must meet to be considered for admission. Listed below are some commonly required prerequisites for pharmacy schools across the U.S.:
  • Biochemistry
  • Calculus
  • General biology with labs
  • General chemistry with labs
  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Organic chemistry with labs
  • Statistics

Achieve a desired score on the PCAT

Many pharmacy programs require you to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT®) and submit your scores as part of the application process. The PCAT is a standardized test similar to the SAT but geared toward pharmacy. If the program requires PCAT scores as part of their application, you should take the test as soon as you are ready. It is offered multiple times per year, and if you do not achieve your desired scores, taking the test early will allow you enough time to review and retake the test before the application deadline.

Build a strong application for Pharmacy School Admissions

Other factors that will improve your candidacy for pharmacy school include:
  • Impressive pharmacy school letters of recommendation.
  • A well-written admissions essay explaining why you want to be a pharmacist (if required).
  • Demonstrated leadership in school or community organizations.
  • Volunteer efforts in your local community.
  • Pharmacy experience, such as working as a pharmacy technician or even. spending some time shadowing your local pharmacist.
  • Excellent communication skills so you can make a good impression on your pharmacy school interviews.
After completing your prerequisite coursework or bachelor’s degree, you will apply to pharmacy school, where you will have the opportunity to earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD). The PharmD usually requires four additional years of postgraduate studies at a pharmacy school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE).

How long does it take to become a pharmacist?

The time it takes to become a pharmacist varies depending on how long it takes to complete prerequisite coursework and the pharmacy program you choose. It could take five years at minimum—if you complete all prerequisites in two years and choose to attend a three-year (“accelerated”) PharmD program. It takes most people six to seven years to become a pharmacist (two to three years of undergraduate coursework plus four years in the professional PharmD program). Those who obtain a four or five-year bachelor’s degree first can take eight to nine years to get their PharmD.

What kind of training is required to become a pharmacist?

Pharmacists undergo intensive academic and experiential training across many pharmacy disciplines during their academic curriculum and clinical rotations.

Student pharmacists are required to complete a minimum number of practical training hours (often referred to as “internship,” “externship,” or both) as part of their degree program. In addition, each state requires completing a specific number of practice hours to be eligible for licensure exams. In some states, the hours completed as part of a PharmD program completely fulfill the requirements, while others require additional practical experience.
Most states require students to apply with the Board of Pharmacy (or other governing body) for an intern license or permit. A license or permit is required to participate in clinical rotations. Once you have been granted this license, you may work as a pharmacist intern. In some cases, your work as an intern may be paid, while in others, you will not be paid but will earn credit towards the required practice hours for your degree.

Upon completion of your pharmacy program and attaining your PharmD, you will need to take and pass licensure exams. All states require candidates to pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination® (NAPLEX®). In addition, most states require candidates to pass a pharmacy law exam called the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination® (MPJE®). A few states have other requirements in addition to or in place of the MPJE. For example, in California, candidates for licensure are required to pass the California Practice Standards and Jurisprudence Examination (CPJE) instead of the MPJE.

Finally, beyond the specialized knowledge that you gain throughout your pharmacy school curriculum, you also have the option of pursuing postgraduate training. This usually takes place by completing a pharmacy residency or fellowship. While residency and fellowship are not mandatory, many pharmacists elect to complete one of these types of training to become specialists in one or more areas of pharmacy practice or research.
Whether or not you choose to participate in postgraduate training, you must pursue continuing pharmacy education and continuing training and professional development opportunities throughout your career to maintain your pharmacist license. Each state varies in the number and type of continuing education hours required, but all states require continuing education for each license renewal. Pharmacist licenses are renewed every one to three years, depending on the state.

Career Prospects

Pharmacy offers a wide variety of career paths you can pursue. Below is a list of some of the careers you may choose upon obtaining your PharmD and fulfilling all of your licensure requirements.
  1. Hospitals and clinics

    It should be no surprise that pharmacists work in pharmacies within hospitals and clinics. Some pharmacists prefer to work in this clinical setting in collaboration with teams of medical doctors, nurses, physician assistants (PAs), nurse practitioners (NPs), and other healthcare professionals, developing and delivering patients’ treatment plans.
  2. Commercial or retail pharmacies

    This type of pharmacy is what most people associate with a pharmacist’s job. In this setting, pharmacists work in a pharmacy that is directly accessible to patients. The pharmacy may be independent or part of a chain (eg, Walgreens, CVS) or located within a larger grocery or department store (eg, Kroger, Walmart). In this setting, pharmacists are responsible for assisting patients and customers in the community with prescription dispensing, coordinating refills, medication counseling, making recommendations regarding non-prescription products, and basic health screenings. In recent years, the role of pharmacists has evolved to include other tasks such as administering tests and vaccines (eg, COVID-19) and educating patients on the latest news, updates, and guidelines.
  3. Nonprofits and government agencies

    Some pharmacists prefer to work in the service of the general public through nonprofit organizations or government agencies focused on public health and safety. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) all offer desirable career opportunities for pharmacists to render their talents in service of the greater good. Similarly, organizations such as the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy® (NABP®) and state boards of pharmacy offer opportunities for pharmacists to protect public health by creating uniform education and licensure standards via the NAPLEX and MPJE.
  4. Pharmaceutical companies

    Commonly known as “Big Pharma,” pharmaceutical companies offer a range of options for pharmacists to work in the private sector. Pharmacists who tend to be more inventive, innovative, or research-oriented can find fulfilling work in developing, testing, and distributing new drugs, tests, vaccines, etc.
  5. Academic institutions and education companies

    Some pharmacists want to educate and train the next generation of pharmacists either as pharmacy school administrators or professors, curriculum developers, or specialized content authors (eg, textbooks). Others even pursue careers as content developers or clinical pharmacist educators at education technology companies that prepare students for the NAPLEX, MPJE, and CPJE.


Is it hard to become a pharmacist?

It is certainly not easy to become a pharmacist. There are many steps that you must follow, including:
  • Enrolling in and passing prerequisite courses.
  • Maintaining a GPA that satisfies your desired pharmacy program’s admissions criteria.
  • Taking the PCAT (in some cases), and achieving at least the minimum required scores.
  • Securing strong letters of recommendation.
  • Applying to one or more pharmacy schools.
  • Making a good impression on your interviews.
  • Getting admitted to a program.
Once enrolled in an accredited pharmacy program, you must pass all your courses (usually with a minimum GPA requirement), perform well in your clinical rotations, graduate, and take and pass rigorous licensure exams in the NAPLEX (and MPJE, in most states) before you can practice as a pharmacist.

Do pharmacists go to med school?

Medical school and pharmacy school are two different programs, though there is some content overlap. Students who attend and complete medical school earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, while students who attend and complete pharmacy school earn a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree.
Pharmacists can choose to go to medical school after completing their PharmD degree, though this is not a common occurrence due to the cost and the number of years of schooling required for each program.

What is the fastest way to become a pharmacist?

A highly motivated individual could potentially complete a PharmD program in a total of five years, though this is extremely rare. Most pharmacy programs are four years long, but some three-year (“accelerated”) PharmD programs are available.
Completing a three-year program makes it possible to finish in five years (keeping in mind that most pharmacy schools require at least two years’ worth of undergraduate coursework for admission). The most common timeline is six to eight years (two to four years of undergraduate coursework plus three to four years in a PharmD program).
Ultimately, there’s no shortcut to a program as intensive as pharmacy school, but the time you will have invested by the end of your journey will be well worth it with the many diverse career opportunities for gainful employment at your disposal.
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