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What is a Pharmacist?

Pharmacists are responsible for dispensing medications prescribed by doctors to patients. It’s a job requiring a strong attention to detail, as a mistake in the type or amount of medication given to a patient could have serious consequences or even prove fatal. Pharmacists also answer questions patients may have about the drugs they take, their interactions with other prescription and over-the-counter medications, and potential side effects. They may work with insurance companies to help patients receive necessary medication. Pharmacists may also conduct health and wellness screenings and provide certain immunizations, such as the annual flu shot.

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Steps to Becoming a Licensed Pharmacist

A pharmacist must complete an undergraduate degree and then take on a four-year course of study to become a Doctor of Pharmacy or PharmD. Pharmacists require licensing to work in their profession, as well as continuing education credits. The amount of continuing education is set by each state board of pharmacy, but generally includes 12 to 15 hours per year. Before going to college, or while an undergraduate, consider working in a lower level job in a pharmacy to gain experience. You can also look into pharmacy internships.

  • Step 1: Receive an undergraduate degree

  • Step 2: Earn a combined degree

  • Step 3: Take the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT)

  • Step 4: Enter Pharmacy School

  • Step 5: Obtain Licensing

  • Step 6: Post-doctoral Training and Certification


Step 1: Receive an undergraduate degree

Before applying for college, take as many science courses as possible in high school and earn good grades. Potential pharmacists may major in chemistry, biology, or physics as undergraduates, much as many pre-med students do. Some colleges or universities may offer a pre-pharmacy major. Your advisor can discuss the best class selection for you to prepare for pharmacy school. While graduate pharmacy schools do not specify a major, those with a strong scientific background are more likely to gain acceptance to fiercely competitive pharmacy schools. Because the competition is so strong, the aspiring pharmacist must earn top grades to gain admittance to a pharmacy school.

Step 2: Earn a combined degree

Some schools offer combined degrees, so that a student may enter as an undergraduate and proceed through pharmacy school, shaving a year or two off the general combination of four years of undergraduate work and four years in pharmacy school obtaining a doctorate of pharmacy. A combined degree program is ideal for the student who knows as a freshman in college that they want to pursue a career as a pharmacist. The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) lists the numerous institutions of higher learning offering dual degree programs. In some cases, you can shave a year off of pharmacy school by taking classes during summer sessions.

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Step 3: Take the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT)

The PCAT is necessary to gain admittance to pharmacy school. The test covers biology, chemistry, writing, verbal ability, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning. While there is a writing component to the test, much of the PCAT consists of multiple choice questions. Test takers have 175 minutes, or 2 hours and 55 minutes, to finish the multiple-choice portion and 30 minutes to complete the written component of the PCAT.

Step 4: Enter Pharmacy School

Pharmacy school acceptance generally requires a minimum 3.0 GPA, but students should have high science class scores. Since the schools are so competitive, class ranking may also come into play. Expect to need to acquire several letters of reference as part of the application process. Once admitted to pharmacy school, expect to complete various rotations in pharmacy practice experiences, with each rotation lasting approximately six weeks. These rotations occur in both outpatient and hospital settings, and students will also spend one or two rotations with regulatory agencies or with a pharmaceutical company. Forty-nine states have pharmacy schools, with Delaware the sole exception.

Step 5: Obtain Licensing

Once a pharmacist obtains licensing, he or she may practice professionally. Candidates must take and pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX). Applying for the NAPLEX is a two-step process. When you apply for the exam, the board of pharmacy in the state in which you are applying for a license determines your eligibility for NAPLEX. If the board determines you are eligible to take the exam, you are sent instructions on purchasing the exam and make an appointment to take the NAPLEX at a test center. Of the 250 questions found in the NAPLEX, approximately one-third deal with “safe and accurate preparation, compounding, dispensing, and administration of medications and provision of health care products,” while the other two-thirds concern ensuring “safe and effective pharmacotherapy and health outcomes.” Candidates are permitted five attempts to pass the NAPLEX, with each session scheduled a minimum of 45 days apart, although exceptions do apply. Candidates must also pass a second state licensing exam, demonstrating knowledge of the pharmacy laws in that state. Most states use the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam, or MPJE. Continuing education is necessary for license renewal.

Step 6: Post-doctoral Training and Certification

Pharmacists who want to specialize in a particular pharmaceutical field, such as research, may complete a one- to two-year post-doctoral program. They may obtain specialized certifications, such as nuclear pharmacy – for those working in a nuclear medicine program preparing radioactive materials– or psychiatric, pharmacotherapy, oncology, ambulatory care, or nutritional support pharmacy. Every specialization area has its own exam and requirements.

What Does a Pharmacist Do?

Pharmacists prepare and dispense prescription medication to patients. They answer any questions the patient has about the medication, including possible interactions with other drugs or possible side effects. They may also answer questions customers have about over-the-counter medications. Pharmacists work in a variety of settings, including drugstores, hospitals, pharmacy departments in supermarkets, chain stores, and in compounding pharmacies. Hospital pharmacists create drugs based on a doctor’s precise requirements. Some pharmacists may work in pharmaceutical manufacturing, but these hospital pharmacists do not dispense drugs directly to patients.

Skills to Acquire

  • Good communication skills:
    pharmacists must answer questions patients have regarding their medication and must listen carefully to issues patients experience.
  • Attention to detail:
    this is paramount in a pharmacist. Filling out a prescription incorrectly can cause great harm or even death. Maintaining records in great detail is also a necessity.
  • Ability to work with others:
    pharmacists work with a variety of people, from doctors and nurses to pharmacy technicians and other staff. It is vital for pharmacists to possess the ability to work well with those from every background and walk of life.
  • Leadership skills:
    people look to pharmacists as authorities in a field nearly everyone will depend on. Strong leadership skills are essential.
  • Love of learning:
    the pharmacy world is ever changing, and continuing education is imperative. A good pharmacist candidate enjoys the constant learning and research required to keep abreast of new pharmacological developments. The goal is always the patient’s optimal response to prescribed medications, and that requires knowledge of the latest data on existing medications and awareness of new drugs introduced into to the market.
  • High ethical standards:
    pharmacists must always display the highest ethical standards in their work. They are charged with the handling and distribution of powerful medications, some of which may cause addiction if not used properly by the patient.
  • Math skills:
    Pharmacists use math every day. While calculators are available, a pharmacist should feel comfortable and competent working out percentages and fractions, as these numbers are often used in prescriptions and medication measurement.
  • Physical fitness:
    Pharmacy does not seem like a physically strenuous profession at first glance. However, the majority of pharmacists must remain on their feet all day. A physically fit person holds an advantage over someone with a more sedentary lifestyle. Keep in mind, pharmacist shifts are often long – up to 12 hours – so stamina is needed. Many pharmacies are open 24/7, and pharmacists are needed to cover day, night, and weekend shifts.

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Pharmacist Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for pharmacists as of May, 2018 was $126,120. However, many pharmacists earn considerably more than the median.

Pharmacists may find themselves working in drug stores, hospitals and other healthcare facilities, compounding pharmacies, the pharmacy departments of supermarkets and chain stores, or in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Some pharmacists may choose to work in academic settings or for the government.

Potential Career Paths

While dispensing medication is the primary role of a pharmacist, there are various career paths within the field. Some pharmacists may prefer a management role in pharmacy, while others would rather have a more active role with patients and healthcare providers. Pharmacists may work in a variety of retail or healthcare settings. Some pharmacists may work for the government or the armed forces, or in the pharmaceutical industry conducting research.

  • Clinical Pharmacist:
    these pharmacists work directly with doctors and other healthcare providers. The physicians with whom they work may grant them patient care privileges, so the clinical pharmacist may determine whether medications a patient is currently prescribed best suits their needs. Along with medication evaluation, the clinical pharmacist may consult with the doctor regarding medication or dosage change, and follow the patient’s progress. The average clinical pharmacist’s salary is $117,500.
  • Compounding Pharmacist:
    these pharmacists create medications based on a doctor’s specific instructions. These medications are custom-made for the individual patient and are often prescribed for rare conditions for which commercial medications are unavailable. While every licensed pharmacist has the knowledge to create compounded medications, because of the need for extensive equipment, it is generally a job performed by a pharmacist specializing in compounding. The average compounding pharmacist earns $127,000 annually.
  • Hospital Staff Pharmacist:
    Hospital staff pharmacists have the same duties as traditional pharmacists, but in the hospital setting. The setting makes a huge difference in the workload, as patients are usually sicker in the hospital setting and more likely to use IV and other forms of medication than the non-hospital patient. The average hourly pay for hospital pharmacists is $52.50.
  • Hospital Pharmacy Director:
    In this job, the hospital pharmacy director oversees all operations of the hospital’s pharmacy, including staffing, budget, inventory, order processing, and product distribution. They are responsible for business planning and ensuring compliance with all federal and state laws. The average salary for a hospital pharmacy director is $142,000.
  • Informatics Pharmacist:
    The relatively new field uses technology to make the dispensing of medication more precise, improving patient outcomes. Also known as IT pharmacists, the person may work in either the pharmacy or IT department of an organization. The average informatics pharmacist salary is $131,000.
  • Oncology Pharmacist:
    This job involves dispensing medication, especially chemotherapeutics, for cancer patients. Oncology pharmacists usually work for hospitals or cancer infusion centers and may also conduct some cancer research. The average salary for an oncology pharmacist is $120,000 per year.
  • Pharmacist-in-Charge:
    this role is similar to that of a pharmacy manager, but the exact role depends on state laws. In any state, a pharmacist signing an application for a pharmacy’s permit must be a pharmacist-in-charge. This professional then assumes full legal responsibility for that particular pharmacy’s operations. The hourly rate for a pharmacist in charge is approximately $60.
  • Pharmacy Manager:
    this job entails overseeing the daily operations of a pharmacy, including staff. A pharmacy manager must be a licensed pharmacist. Duties include advising patients, filling and checking prescriptions, and handling any emergencies. They may also consult with doctors and administer certain immunizations. The average pharmacy manager salary is $130,000.
  • Retail Pharmacist:
    A retail pharmacist practices in a retail setting, such as a drugstore, supermarket pharmacy and the like, rather than in a hospital or clinical setting. Since the retail pharmacist works with the average patient, they will often advise them on drug interactions, potential side effects, and the best ways to take the medication. The average retail pharmacist salary is $111,000.
  • Veterinary Pharmacist:
    This fairly recent branch of pharmacy focuses on animals, not people and requires specialized training. A veterinary pharmacist dispenses medications for companion animals or livestock, as per the practicing veterinarian. They may work at major veterinary practices, pharmaceutical companies, or in veterinary schools. A veterinary pharmacists earns about the same average salary as a retail pharmacist, or $111,000 annually. A veterinary pharmacist can transition back to human pharmacy without much difficulty.

Pharmacist Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Pharmacists $83,000 $115,000 $137,000
Pharmacy Technicians $24,000 $36,000 $51,000
Pharmacy Aids $24,000 $41,000 $108,000
Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians $40,000 $56,000 $79,000
Chemical Engineers $57,000 $76,000 $116,000
Medical Scientists $78,000 $93,000 $81,000
Postsecondary Teachers $54,000 $88,000 $165,000
Science Writer $44,000 $55,000 $86,000
Wholesale and Manufacturing Sales Representatives $31,000 $49,000 $81,000
Compliance Officers $54,000 $74,000 $88,000
Biological Technicians $22,000 $38,000 $64,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the demand for pharmacists to rise 6% between 2016 and 2026, about the average for all occupational growth. That’s approximately 17,400 pharmacists needed in this ten-year period. A projected increase in the number of prescription medications prescribed should increase demand for pharmacy services. As the Baby Boom generation ages, they will require more prescription medications to treat the diseases predominantly found in the elderly.

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Advancing From Here

Pharmacists earn good salaries, but for many, the nature of the job does not change that much over time. However, not all pharmacists work in pharmacy settings. Some pharmacists may opt to work for an insurance company in healthcare administration, developing guidelines for prescription medication approval or disapproval by the insurer. Other pharmacists may find jobs in government regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration. These jobs entail reviewing New Drug Applications and overseeing drug development. The pharmaceutical industry employs many pharmacists, who not only work in new drug development but can aid in marketing campaigns. Medical science liaisons employed by pharmaceutical companies are pharmacists providing doctors with information about the latest research in new drugs. Some pharmacists may become independent consultants in this field. Pharmacists with good writing skills are also in demand as medical writers.

Chain pharmacies increasingly dominate the market, but the pharmacist-owned pharmacy is not a thing of the past. A person who wants to own their own pharmacy should earn a master in business administration (MBA).

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are community pharmacists?

Community pharmacists are the most common types of pharmacists. Community pharmacists generally work in stores that offer medicine available for people with a prescription. Community pharmacists counsel patients as well as provide information to nurses, physicians, and other healthcare providers. Community pharmacists also help to identify any possible drug interactions.

What is retail pharmacy?

Retail pharmacy takes place at any drugstore that has a prescription department. People working in retail pharmacy are responsible for dispensing medications for customers to use at home. Retail pharmacies counsel patients on how to properly take medications and what the possible side effects may be.

What is the difference between a retail pharmacist and community pharmacy?

A retail pharmacy is usually found in large cities but can be found anywhere. A retail pharmacy has a prescription department and is generally owned by a corporation. Community pharmacists generally work in smaller stored that are owned by a local owner.

How much do pharmacists make?

On average pharmacists make around $126,000 annually.

What skills do pharmacists need?

A pharmacist will need attention to detail, ability to work with others, leadership skills, good communication, and high ethical standards.

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