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How to Become a Pharmacist

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When doctors and other healthcare professionals prescribe medication, pharmacists not only dispense it, but explain to their patients how to use the drugs properly. They answer questions about both prescription and over-the-counter medication, help patients manage illnesses and keep track of what medications they are taking so that drug interactions can be avoided. Pharmacists also advise doctors and other health practitioners about selection, dosages and interactions.

1. Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Pharmacist?

Your ability to succeed as a pharmacy student and eventually a pharmacist depends strongly on your aptitude for science. Consider your high school classes. Did you take and do well in chemistry, biology and physics? You will need to have a strong foundation in these subjects as you will be taking advanced coursework in college. You should also have taken math classes such as algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus in high school.

Almost as important as your scientific ability are your interpersonal skills. How do you interact with others? Do you enjoy helping people? Are you good at listening to and understanding what others tell you? Can you explain things well to others? A great deal of your job will involve talking to patients and to other healthcare professionals. Should you become a pharmacist?

2. Required Education

To become a pharmacist you must earn a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD) from a school or college of pharmacy that has received accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. PharmD programs are four or six academic years long. Four year programs consist only of the professional phase of the pharmacy curriculum—students do their prerequisite coursework before they are admitted—while six year programs also include pre-professional coursework.

If you are enrolled in a "0-6 program" your school will dictate what courses you take, but if you are matriculated at another school and plan to apply to a four-year program later on, you have to make sure to take the right courses. If not you will have to take them before you can enter a professional pharmacy program. These prerequisite courses will likely include biology, general and organic chemistry, physics, math, statistics, English, history and economics.

Here are some typical classes you will take during the professional phase of your pharmacy education:

  • Functional Human Anatomy and Histology
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Introduction to Clinical Pharmacy Skills
  • Pharmacy Skills Lab
  • Principles of Pharmacology and Medicinal Chemistry
  • Immunizations
  • Oncology

 

In addition, all PharmD programs include experiential coursework. Students work in community and hospital pharmacies as well as in other pharmacy practice settings gaining hands-on training working alongside professionals.

3. Getting Into a PharmD Program

Soon-to-be high school graduates who know they want to become pharmacists can apply to "0-6 programs" or to "early assurance" ones without having taken any pre-pharmacy classes. However, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, "the majority of students enrolled [in early assurance programs] are admitted as 'transfer' students after completion of at least two years of college." Most students enrolled in "0-6 programs" come directly from high school. Each school has its own requirements as far as minimum GPAs and SAT or ACT scores are concerned. Students in "0-6" or "early assurance" programs are generally guaranteed admission into the professional phase of their school's curriculum after completing the pre-professional phase, providing they have fulfilled all requirements.

Students applying to professional programs often have to take the PCAT, a pharmacy school entrance exam. Not all schools require this test but many do. Applicants will also be evaluated based on criteria such as their college GPAs. Admissions requirements vary greatly among schools and colleges of pharmacy. You can use a tool on the AACP's website to learn about the requirements at the ones in which you are interested.

As you begin to explore admission procedures you will read about something called PharmCAS. This is an online application system that allows you to complete one application to apply to multiple schools. It is not used by all colleges and schools of pharmacy but it is used by most.

4. What You Must Do After You Graduate From a PharmD Program

Before you can practice as a pharmacist you have to get licensed. In the United States licenses are issued by individual states, the District of Columbia and by US territories such as Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Each jurisdiction's board of pharmacy sets its own requirements. Please see the National Boards of Pharmacy for a list of those boards.

Steps to Licensure for Graduates of US Pharmacy Schools

 

  • Step 1: Take the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX).
  • Step 2: Take the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE), a test of pharmacy law, if you want to practice in a state that requires it, or take the pharmacy law exam that is administered by the state in which you plan to work.
  • Step 3: Take any other tests that may be required by your state.
  • Step 4: Complete the number of hours of practical experience your jurisdiction requires. Many meet this requirement while still in school.
  • Step 5: Consent to a criminal background check if required, as it is in some states.

 

Steps to Licensure for Graduates of Foreign Pharmacy Schools

 

  • Step 1: Apply for Foreign Pharmacy Graduate Examination Committee (FPGEC) Certification and take the Foreign Pharmacy Graduate Equivalency Examination (FPGEE).
  • Step 2: Pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL iBT).
  • Step 3: Pass all exams required by the jurisdiction in which you want to practice, as discussed above.

 

If you move out of state, you can generally transfer your license. However, you may have to take additional exams. Check with the state board of pharmacy in your new state to find out what you have to do.

5. Getting Your First Professional Pharmacy Job

Between earning your degree and getting your license, it seems like it will be awhile before you have to think about finding your first professional pharmacy job. Don't be fooled. That time will be here before you could even imagine. It's a good idea to become aware of the qualities that, in addition to your professional training, prospective employers will be seeking. Of course this will vary from employer to employer, but just to give you an idea of what they are, here are specifications excerpted from job announcements found in various sources:
  • "Serve as patient advocate ..."
  • "Excellent verbal and written communications skills and computer proficiency are essential."
  • "Must possess good organizational and problem solving skills."
  • "Uphold service standards for counseling, dispensing, pricing, licensing, managing inventory and record keeping."

 

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