How to Become a Pharmacist

Pharmacists must attend pharmacy school and undergo rigorous training in order to dispense medication. Learn about pharmacy degrees and courses.

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Throughout the history of modern medicine, pharmacists have consistently been tasked with having a deep understanding of the drugs and treatments that have revolutionized the quality of life for millions of people. The pharmaceutical market, which is currently valued at $300 million, is steadily growing and expanding in areas of research, development, testing and distribution, creating more jobs for qualified pharmacists. The following guide highlights the extensive process of becoming a licensed pharmacist while also revealing the latest facts and figures about how the industry is expected to grow. Information about the salaries professionals in this field can expect to bring home each year is also included.

What Does a Pharmacist Do?

Pharmacist Career Basics

Pharmacists are on the front lines of ensuring individuals receive proper drug and therapeutic treatments for health issues. Working in tandem with doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the public, pharmacists are given great responsibility to ensure safe pharmacological practices. With that responsibility comes years of education to ensure they've gained the necessary skills and knowledge to work in the field. Whether coming straight from high school or already holding a postsecondary degree, there are numerous paths available to aspiring pharmacists who are ready to work hard, complete thousands of clinical hours, and pass a series of examinations.

Pharmacist Salaries & Job Growth

Pharmacist Salaries Across the US

The median salary for a pharmacist in 2016 topped $121,500, though those in advanced roles or with years of experience can expect to garner even higher wages. This is also true of pharmacists practicing in different states. Use the map below to learn about the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile salaries for pharmacists throughout the country.

US Map


Pharmacist Job Growth

While roles for pharmacists are expected to grow by three percent – or 9,100 roles – between 2014 and 2024, these figures vary throughout the country. Use the chart below to see how roles for pharmacists are expected to grow in the areas where you may want to practice.

Steps to Becoming a Pharmacist

  1. Take pre-pharmacy courses in undergrad
  2. Once complete, apply to graduate programs
  3. Pass licensure requirements
  4. Complete post-doctoral training
Step 1
Complete Relevant Degree Programs
Pharmacists in training have two different paths they may follow to complete educational requirements. The first option involves completing undergraduate coursework before moving into a graduate program, while the second is a combined option that incorporates all coursework into one program. Both are reviewed in this section.
Undergraduate + Graduate: Pre-pharmacy courses are offered as either two or four-year degrees, so students should already have an idea of which graduate program they will pursue before committing to an undergraduate program. Four-year degrees incorporate more general education and liberal arts classes, while two-year programs are focused on courses relevant to the field. To meet prerequisites for advanced study, students must take courses in general and organic chemistry; human anatomy and physiology; molecular and cellular biology; microbiology; statistics; calculus; and English. Some programs may require multiple semesters of these topics. Once completed, students apply for a four-year pharmacy doctoral program.
Graduate: Combined degrees are offered in various forms and allow the student to complete all required coursework in a shorter time frame. Six and seven-year programs are most common, and award both a bachelor's and doctor of pharmacy degree upon graduation. These programs are well-suited to students with a resolute understanding of future career goals and those who want to finish their studies earlier. Both educational paths discussed in this section require students to pass the Pharmacy College Admissions Test before being admitted to a graduate program.
Step 2
Pass Licensure Requirements
Licensing requirements for pharmacists are mandated at the state level, meaning graduates should check with their local board to learn about specific requirements. While some states may have requirements others don't, the majority include these components:
  • Graduate from a doctoral program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.
  • Pass three parts of the licensing examination series for pharmacists, including the North American Pharmacist Licensing Exam, the Multi-State Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam, and the Written and Practical exam.

The NAPLEX is comprised of 185 questions and is designed to test a candidate's knowledge of pharmacotherapy and therapeutic outcomes, preparing and distributing medication, and optimizing the health of their patients. Like other computerized exams, the NAPLEX is adaptive, meaning the test selects questions based on how the student is fairing on the exam. The fee to take this exam is $505, so students should feel well-prepared before scheduling a testing date. If you fail the NAPLEX, or one of the other required examinations, you may be able to apply to retake it. This usually entails an additional exam fee and written approval by a state or national pharmacy body. However, some states have a limit on the number of times you can retake a test.
The Multi-State Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam is focused on a student's knowledge of federal and state laws surrounding pharmaceutical practice. Participating states use this exam to ensure all pharmacists understand the legal ramifications of prescribing and distributing drugs. This exam costs $250.
The written and practical examination component is typically specific to the state. More information may be available from a local board of pharmacy.
Step 3
Complete Post-Doctoral Training
Pharmacists who plan to work in a specialized field of pharmaceutics often complete a residency program lasting one to two years. Whether interested in psychopharmacology or pharmacoepidemiology, post-doctoral training provides new pharmacists with the specialized knowledge they'll need to enter these fields. This is also a good option for those who plan on conducting research.
Step 4
Stay on Top of Continuing Education
As of 2016, all states require pharmacists to complete continuing education hours to maintain their license. Most require between 15 and 30 hours between each license renewal period, which is typically two years. Before undertaking any courses or training, pharmacists should review the individual requirements of their state. While some areas specify only that CEUs be taken from an approved provider, others require that they be approved by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy. States may also require specific courses depending on trends in the industry, including pharmacological law or mental health and pharmaceutics.

Preparing for a Pharmacist Career: Pharmacy Schools & Programs

Undergraduate Programs & Degrees


Offered as a two, three, or four-year program, pre-pharmacy students are immersed in coursework that will serve them well in advanced study of the field. Those who elect to complete the shorter programs focus exclusively on classes related to pharmaceutical topics, ranging from biology to economics. Common classes include organic chemistry, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry and pathophysiology.


Covering topics related to living organisms, this four-year degree is well suited to those who plan to work as a pharmacist. Students gain an understanding of how organisms are formed and how they grow and evolve. Whether studying cells or genes, students receive a foundation of knowledge and skills that prepare them for topics they'll encounter in a doctor of pharmacy program. Common classes include molecular cells and genetic biology, organic chemistry, biochemistry and organismic biology.


Chemistry students cover a range of topics within the field of chemistry and gain valuable experience conducting experiments and understanding chemical methods. This degree will serve future pharmacists well by instilling a thorough understanding of how chemical compounds work together in the creation of drugs and therapeutic treatments. Common courses include quantitative analysis, organic chemistry, biomedicinal chemistry and toxicology.

Pharmacy School Admission Requirements

When entering a doctor of pharmacy – frequently called a PharmD – program, students must meet an assortment of requirements to be admitted. While some departments mandate that students complete a full undergraduate program, others only want to see that all pre-requisite classes have been completed satisfactorily. Check with prospective schools to learn about their preference on this topic.

Grades are a particularly important component, especially in classes directly related to pharmacology. Most schools require at least a 3.0 overall GPA but may have higher expectations for chemistry and biology classes.

As of 2016, 85 percent of all pharmacy programs also require students to successfully pass the Pharmacy College Admission Test. The examination is comprised of five sections, including:

  • Writing – 1 prompt
  • Biological Processes – 48 items
  • Chemical Processes – 48 items
  • Critical Reading – 48 items
  • Quantitative Reasoning – 48 items

Testers are given 175 minutes to complete the 192 multiple-choice questions and 30 minutes for the writing prompt. The majority of programs require students to score between the 40th and 50th percentiles.

Other components for admission include two to three letters of recommendation, a biographical sketch, and potentially an interview with departmental faculty.

Pharmacy School Courses & Requirements

  • Doctor of Pharmacy
  • Amount of time: Four years

  • Basic Requirements

    Aside from coursework, students must complete close to 2,000 hours of clinical experience and maintain a certain GPA. Some programs require students to research and write a dissertation.

  • What makes the program different from others

    Unlike hybrid or combined programs, the PharmD prepares students without prior postsecondary coursework for roles as general pharmacists.

  • Who this program is good for

    Students who have completed undergraduate coursework in a related field and have now decided to focus their talents on a career as a pharmacist.

  • Bachelor's and Doctor of Pharmacy Hybrid Degree
  • Amount of time: Six to eight years

  • Basic Requirements

    Students must complete at least two years of relevant undergraduate coursework within the program, including studies in chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, advanced math and English. Once this work is completed, students take the PCAT examination to qualify for the advanced portion of the combined degree. Upon graduation, students hold both a bachelor's degree and a PhD.

  • What makes the program different from others

    Instead of completing coursework at different universities, the hybrid degree program allows students to settle into a program for the entirety of their academic career. It can also shorten the amount of time required to graduate.

  • Who this program is good for

    The high-school graduate who knows without question that they want to pursue a combined degree in pharmacy.

  • Doctor of Pharmacy Combined Degrees
  • Amount of time: Six to eight years

  • Basic Requirements

    Students must complete all of the requirements of a Doctor of Pharmacy degree in addition to the individual requirements of the second degree. These requirements may include a thesis or oral/written examinations.

  • Opportunities to combine degrees abound in the field of pharmaceutics, with options ranging from completing a Juris Doctor or MBA to a variety of master's degrees in topics like gerontology, public health and regulatory science.

  • Who this program is good for

    The highly motivated student who wants to combine their knowledge of pharmacology with an additional academic discipline.

Common Doctor of Pharmacy Courses

Bioorganic Principles of Medicinal Chemistry

This course introduces PharmD students to a blended approach of using organic chemistry and biochemistry, especially in relation to the macromolecular targets for drug action. Students cover topics such as interactions, inhibitors, DNA and bioactivation.

  • Foundational knowledge of energetics and stereochemics
  • Understanding of metabolic pathways
  • Awareness of the various targets for drug action


Typically taken in the first two years of study, this foundational course introduces students to the idea of ADME, or absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion. Through a variety of classroom lectures, students learn how drugs travel through the body.

  • Understanding of how drugs are distributed in the body
  • Ability to work with introductory pharmacokinetics and dynamic modeling
  • Awareness of how drugs are metabolized

Pharmacy Practice Skills

This course is taught across multiple semesters in an effort to build numerous skills required in working with drugs. Students will learn about the laws surrounding pharmacists and drug dispersion, the top medications prescribed, and proper means of providing drugs to individuals.

  • Awareness of common drugs in the field
  • Understanding of health promotion and disease prevention
  • Ability to compound medicines

The U.S. Health Care System

This course introduces students to the landscape of the American health care system, specifically in areas of pharmaceutical marketing and health economics. Students learn about the chain of command and how drugs move from the research phase to approval by the FDA.

  • Ability to make decisions based on a thorough knowledge of health care
  • Understanding of how pharmaceutical companies inform new drugs coming out
  • Awareness of how to provide pharmaceutical products in light of health economics

The U.S. Health Care System

This course introduces students to the landscape of the American health care system, specifically in areas of pharmaceutical marketing and health economics. Students learn about the chain of command and how drugs move from the research phase to approval by the FDA.

  • Ability to make decisions based on a thorough knowledge of health care
  • Understanding of how pharmaceutical companies inform new drugs coming out
  • Awareness of how to provide pharmaceutical products in light of health economics

Pharmaceutical Calculations

Covering the range of different skills needed to compound, dispense, and utilize drugs, this course provides students with the knowledge of how weights and mathematics play a critical role in prescribing medication.

  • Different types of math used in the profession
  • Using weights, measures, and scales to provide the correct dosages
  • Greater confidence in prescribing medicines

Pharmacist Career Concentrations

Although those outside the field may not be aware of the diverse array of roles within the field of pharmaceutics, there are numerous paths and career areas a prospective pharmacist may elect to pursue. The following section highlights some of the fascinating areas of work.


Professionals in this field use their understanding of patterns within and causes of diseases and apply it to uncovering how drugs are used and how they affect health issues in humans. Most pharmacists in this specialization focus on research, with topics ranging from drug safety and effectiveness to understanding drug measurements and risk management.


Pharmacoeconomists are tasked with creating studies to evaluate the clinical and economic components of the pharmaceutical industry. Their research frequently informs the work of pharmaceutical organizations and decision makers within health care, and they are well-valued within the field. Some of the topics these professionals may research include evaluating the economics of other therapies or alternative medicines outside of pharmaceutics, researching how much patients are willing to pay for drugs, and understanding the importance populations place on drugs that improve quality of life.


Individuals who wish to combine their knowledge of pharmacology with an understanding of the biological, psychological, and sociological effects of aging can find great fulfillment in this field. Numerous combined degree programs exist that allow students to study the intersection of the two areas and eventually pursue geriatric pharmaceutical practice.

Global Medicine

With a passion for providing care to underserved communities throughout the world, pharmacists with concentrated knowledge of global medicine are well-versed in how modern medicine can be used to help individuals in developing nations. Graduates of these programs learn about pharmacotherapy, medication safety, public health and ways of promoting health and discouraging disease in global health arenas.

Healthcare Decision Analysis

Pharmacists with an interest in the business side of the industry are able to concentrate their careers in healthcare decision analysis to better understand the inner workings. Typically offered as a dual degree program, graduates are equipped with not only a thorough knowledge of pharmaceutics, but also the economics and policies surrounding healthcare. Areas of work include drug access, coverage qualifiers, pricing structures and reimbursement policies.

Components of a Successful Pharmacist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools & Technology


Pharmacists put their knowledge on the line every single day of their careers, and remembering everything learned in pharmacy school is critical. Whether recalling generic vs. brand names, side effects, or possible drug interactions, the ability to remember these components each and every day is vital not only to their success, but to protecting the health of those whose prescriptions they fill.
Attention to Detail
Pharmacology allows little – if any – room for error, and being attuned to the smallest details is a nonnegotiable skill. Even the slightest difference in prescription strengths or recommended dosage can make a colossal difference. These skills are also important for research pharmacists when they are reporting findings that will influence a new drug coming on the market.
Drug Knowledge
Doctors prescribe drugs to their patients, but pharmacists are the final keepers in distributing them. Having a thorough understanding of drugs available, what they do, and how they work helps pharmacists ensure the right drugs – and the correct dosage of each – are given to patients. This is especially important when considering other factors such as allergies and prior medical histories.
Ability to Work with Others
Whether overseeing a pharmacy technician, discussing a treatment plan with a doctor, or advising someone who is picking up their prescription, pharmacists come in contact with a variety of individuals in their day-to-day work. Being able to properly answer questions while also maintaining focus on prescribing the proper medicines is a chief skill of the pharmacist.
Computer Literacy
Increasingly, the pharmaceutical industry is moving to more computerized techniques. While doctors still use their prescription pads for patients, electronic transmission of prescriptions is gaining widespread usage. Being able to research drug databases, maintain records, and receive prescriptions from doctors will become more and more important in the coming years.


In addition to licensure requirements, pharmacists may also elect to pursue an advanced certificate in specialization areas or skill development. Postgraduate programs are becoming more popular as the field widens and practitioners seek to distinguish themselves. These certificates, which can typically be completed in one to two years, are available in areas ranging from pharmaceutical economics and public health to infectious diseases and psychiatric pharmacy.

Tools & Technologies

  • Ampoule filling machines
  • Metric weights
  • Sealing machines
  • Geiger counters
  • Torsion balances
  • Syringes
  • Pill dispensers
  • Pestle and mortars
  • Tablet counters
  • Science software (TTP LabTech comPOUND)
  • Inventory Management (Cardinal Health Pyxis CII Safe)
  • Medical software (MEDITECH software)

Related Careers at a Glance:

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Pharmacy Schools & Pharmacist Career Resources

American Pharmacists Association

The APA offers members a variety of helpful tools and resources ranging from career finder applications to continuing education databases. Pharmacists can also find helpful research studies and publications to help advance their practice.

American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics

ASPET is comprised of more than 5,000 members who conduct research and work in a variety of pharmaceutical roles. Some of the benefits of membership include access to publications, local chapters, a careers board, and an annual meeting.

American Society for Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics

2,200 professionals are currently members of ASCPT, whose main mission is to advance the interests of pharmacists working in clinical and translational medicine arenas. The society hosts regular meetings, shares job postings, and offers the Knowledge Center for information about the latest research in the field.

Local Pharmacists' Associations

In addition to numerous national groups and organizations, most states have their own associations where pharmacists can get involved. A great example is the Tennessee Pharmacists Association

National Community of Pharmacists Associations

The NCPA has been existence since 1898; today is represents a variety of community pharmacists, including 22,000 owners of local pharmacies. Benefits to members include a newsroom, advocacy efforts, an annual conference, and other events.

Pharmacy Schools Search Tool

With a variety of educational offerings available to aspiring pharmacists, narrowing down the options on your own can be overwhelming. Use this powerful search tool to find programs that meet your needs in areas of location, cost, program type, and available specializations.

Related Careers at a Glance

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