How to Become a Pharmacist

by TBS Staff

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Before a pharmacist can dispense medicine, give advice, or administer vaccines, they must earn a Pharm.D. degree.

Pharmacology is the study of drugs and chemicals and their impact on living organisms, making it the foundation of western medicine. Pharmacy students study the properties of medications, their positive and negative effects, and their marketing and distribution chains. In addition to pursuing careers as pharmacists, graduates can work in medical science or biochemistry professions.

Pharmacology students can also pursue pharmacy technician positions, which require lower levels of education, working to support pharmacists without providing medical advice or filling prescriptions. This guide examines pharmacy degrees and careers in more detail, including common educational and professional pathways.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Pharmacist?

Aspiring professionals may wonder, "how long does it take to become a pharmacist?" The length of time to become a pharmacist can vary, but students usually need at least two years in undergraduate study, followed by 3-4 years pursuing a pharmacy doctorate. Some programs require a four-year bachelor's degree for admission, so the total length of time usually falls between 5-8 years.

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What Degree Does a Pharmacist Need?

Pharmacists need a doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). ACPE-approved training provides students with the essential knowledge and skills needed for the field while preparing them for national licensure and pharmacy law examinations.

After receiving licensure, graduates primarily pursue roles in community pharmacies, hospitals, and food and beverage stores, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They can also pursue pharmacology-related fields, such as research, consulting, or manufacturing. Below are some of the common workplaces for Pharm.D. graduates and their mean annual salaries.

Workplaces and Average Salaries for Pharmacists
Type of Employment Annual Mean Wage (2019)
General Merchandise Stores $129,040
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $127,370
Food and Beverage Stores $126,870
Health and Personal Care Stores $123,620
Source: BLS

Doctor of Pharmacy Degree

Students can pursue two types of doctoral degrees in pharmacy: the research-focused Ph.D. and the Pharm.D, which is the professional doctoral degree for pharmacists. The Pharm.D. typically comprises training in fundamentals, pharmacology, pharmaceutical treatments, and pharmacy systems, while a Ph.D. focuses more on research. Both programs usually have a practical learning component and a required pharmacy residency.

The Pharm.D. degree, which typically takes 3-4 years, builds on prerequisites from high school and undergraduate study, including physics, chemistry, and biology. For entry into a Pharm.D. program, most schools require a minimum of two years of undergraduate study. Some schools may require a bachelor's degree and scores from the Pharmacy College Admissions Test.

After graduating and receiving licensure, learners can pursue careers as pharmacists, biochemists, or consultants in related industries. Degree-seekers can strengthen or expand their career options with degree concentrations, such as chemical, pharmaceutical, or food and beverage specializations.

Pharm.D. Concentrations

Public Health

Public health concentrations focus on population-based healthcare, teaching students to evaluate and critique community health programs. They also learn to assess and address emerging concerns in public health, such as the effects of globalization. Some courses may delve into topics like pandemic and disaster preparedness and large-scale immunization programs.


In an education concentration, pharmacy students acquire the skills and knowledge to pursue careers as pharmacy educators. While many graduates choose careers as teachers in colleges and universities, they can also apply the leadership and research skills gained in this concentration to the pharmaceutical field.

Pharmacy Business Administration

Students who pursue this concentration are prepared for careers in pharmacy operations or manufacturing, or even to run their own pharmacies. Degree-seekers also gain leadership and administration skills that can be used in management positions.

Health Systems and Care Management

Health systems and care management specializations focus on the processes, policies, and structures used in healthcare systems. Students learn how and where pharmacists fit in the system and how they can best provide care to the community. Some programs also explore management technologies.


This concentration teaches students to analyze, critique, and expand on existing pharmaceutical knowledge. They learn advanced research methods and how to use them to examine government policy, solve industrial issues, or develop medical innovations. Research concentrations commonly lead to careers in academia or pharmaceutical development.

Licensing and Certification

After graduation, prospective pharmacists need to acquire the appropriate licensure to practice professionally. Most Pharm.D. graduates need to complete two examinations: the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination®, which covers general practice knowledge, and the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination®, which covers laws and regulations.

Licensure requirements vary by state, so some graduates may need to complete an additional examination, like the Prescription Compounding Examination for New York pharmacists. Some states also require pharmacists with immunization and vaccine responsibilities to complete Pharmacy-Based Immunization Delivery programs.

Once licensed, pharmacists need to update their training and skills regularly through continuing education courses. Every state has its own requirements, but most professionals need to complete 15-45 credits every 1-3 years to renew their licenses. Some states require training in specific fields, such as emergency disaster preparedness or drug therapy.

Pharmacists can also pursue post-licensure certifications to bolster their knowledge and credentials in a specific area. For example, the Board of Pharmacy Specialties offers certifications in cardiology, ambulatory care, and critical care pharmacy. The Certification Board for Diabetes Care and Education offers the Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist credential.

Alternative Pharmacy Degree and Career Pathways

While the Pharm.D. is usually the best degree for pharmacists, alternative educational and professional pathways can also lead to exciting opportunities. For example, a traditional Ph.D. with a focus on pharmaceuticals may better suit aspiring academic, research, and drug development professionals. Conversely, an aspiring pharmacy technician may only need to complete a postsecondary certification.

The sections below explore the various educational options for pharmacy-related careers, outlining program focuses and available professional pathways. Students should consider their career goals and choose the most appropriate route.

Associate Degree in Pharmacy

Associate degrees in pharmacy can provide students with career and educational flexibility. These programs typically focus on foundational topics, such as medicinal terminology, safe drug usage, symptoms of misuse, and the laws governing pharmaceuticals. An associate degree usually takes two years to complete, but online programs may allow learners to accelerate their training.

At this level, programs focus on the field generally, which prepares graduates for further pharmaceutical study or to pursue careers as pharmacy technicians. Some associate degree-holders pursue employment as medical administrative assistants or health information technicians.

Pharmacy Technician Certification

The certified pharmacy technician credential prepares students for the pharmacy technician certification exam and careers as pharmacy technicians.

Pharmacy technician certificate programs vary in length, but to be accredited by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, programs must run at least 15 weeks. Individual technicians can also receive certification if they have at least 500 hours of experience. Pharmacy technician certificate-holders can find employment in pharmacies, hospitals, and specialty health organizations.

Bachelor's Degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences

Because pharmacists need a Pharm.D., bachelor's degree students who don't go on to graduate programs usually pursue careers in pharmaceutical and biotechnological professions, such as clinical laboratory technologist, biological technician, or forensic science technician.

In most cases, a bachelor's degree takes four years to complete, though some programs offer accelerated options for online degrees. The training provides a thorough understanding of biology, physics, and chemistry, plus more specific courses in pharmacology and pharmaceutics. Students should check that their chosen program satisfies the prerequisites for any needed licensure in their states.

Master's Degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences

With a master's degree in pharmaceutical sciences, graduates can pursue advanced careers in pharmacology and medicinal chemistry. While some use the degree as a pathway to a Pharm.D. program, others pursue Ph.D. programs or careers in research and development, finding employment as materials scientists, biochemists and biophysicists, and natural sciences managers.

Most master's programs take approximately two years to complete, with learners focusing on research, pharmaceutical technologies, and medicinal chemistry. Courses cover topics in drug delivery, immunology, computational chemistry, and pharmacodynamics.

What Can You Do With a Pharmacy or Pharmaceutical Sciences Degree?

At all levels, pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences degrees provide career and industry options for graduates. While the pharmaceutical industry offers the most direct route, these graduates can also leverage their medical knowledge to access jobs in the medical science industry. Additionally, their chemistry and biology training equips them for positions in the life sciences.

Other career options include education or regulatory affairs, where pharmacy graduates can train the next generation of pharmacists or set research and safety policies for the industry.

Pharmacy Aide

Pharmacy aides support pharmacists by processing orders, managing drug inventory, and storing and shelving merchandise. They can work in pharmacies, health clinics, and hospitals. While candidates do not need formal education for this role, pharmaceutical sciences training can help thems better understand terminology, safety protocols, and industry regulations.

Undergraduate training in pharmaceutical sciences can lead to more meaningful employment and advancement opportunities.

Pharmacy Technician

Pharmacy technicians support pharmacists by filling prescriptions, processing and organizing inventory, and handling general information for patients and customers. Pharmaceutical science degrees equip these professionals with the knowledge and skills to better assist pharmacists.

Some states require technicians to have certification and licensure. Exact requirements vary by state, but pharmacy technicians can often qualify for certification with some postsecondary training in pharmaceutical sciences, such as a certificate or associate degree.


Pharmaceutical researchers and research scientists conduct studies to improve drug efficacy, manufacturing processes, and health outcomes. They typically hold doctorates in pharmacology, but a master's degree in pharmaceutical sciences may also qualify.

In addition to the biology and chemistry training that pharmaceutical sciences degrees provide, aspiring researchers should take courses in research and communication. These skills will help them prepare high-quality research grant applications and ensure quality in experiment designs.


Pharmaceutical consultants support pharmacists, hospitals, and other care facilities when working with drug-related issues. They may offer hospitals advice on patient medication plans, provide information for insurance providers, or work directly with patients.

Consultants may need a Pharm.D. degree and licensure, particularly if they fill prescriptions. A bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical sciences qualifies graduates for roles in the insurance and manufacturing industries, while graduate degrees lead to management-level roles.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Pharmacy Degree?

The pharmaceutical field offers a variety of salary rates, depending on level of education, career specialty, and location. Strong salaries and relatively short training times often motivate candidates to pursue this industry. However, as more patients have begun to fill their orders online, the demand for pharmacists has decreased, leading to negative job growth projections for 2019-2029.

The following data explores mean annual salaries, required education level, and projected job growth rates for pharmacy-related careers.

Pharmacy-Related Careers
Career Mean Annual Wage (2019) Projected Job Growth (2019-2029) Education Required
Pharmacists $125,510 -3% Doctoral degree (Pharm.D.)
Pharmacy Technicians $35,250 4% High school diploma or equivalent
Pharmacy Aides $30,490 -16% High school diploma or equivalent

Ask An Expert

We interviewed an expert to better understand what a career as a pharmacist looks like. Read about his experience below.

Portrait of Dr. Aaron Emmel

Dr. Aaron Emmel

Dr. Emmel has a Pharm.D. from the University of Florida and a master's from the University of North Florida, plus 10 years of experience as a clinical pharmacist. He is also program director for an online learning program for aspiring pharmacy technicians and was an associate clinical professor for UF's college of pharmacy.

Why Become a Pharmacist?

Pharmacy is a great career that allows you to play an important role in patient care. These professionals work in many different roles and settings in the field.

What are some challenges and high points in this role?

The highest point, in my opinion, is playing a direct role in patient care. The most fulfilling part of my career to date was getting to work alongside an incredible critical care team and witness the impact of our work on a daily basis. Being the medication expert is a great spot to be in when medication therapy plays such an important role in health outcomes.

Also, you have the opportunity to work in an environment that is best for you. With so many settings and roles available to pharmacists, almost anyone can find the opportunity that works best for them.

As with any career, there are challenges. One major challenge is the breadth of information, critical thinking, and communication skills that are required to be an effective pharmacist. This comes through didactic education in pharmacy school, post-school training, and on-the-job experience. Another major challenge is being an effective part of the healthcare team; you have to be skilled enough to influence decision making without prescriptive authority.

What type of person does well in this role?

Someone who loves science and has a sense of altruism, meaning that you are genuinely interested in and are gratified by helping others. You also have to be a good communicator and be willing to accept the significant responsibility that comes with the profession. Importantly, you need to be a lifelong learner. Drastic changes in scientific literature occur all the time, and you need to be dedicated enough to stay on top of current science in your particular area of work.

Who does this role help? How does this role impact others?

This role helps nearly everyone. Most individuals will need some sort of medication therapy at some point, and as the medication expert, a pharmacist plays an integral role in ensuring that patients receive optimal treatment.

Also, this role helps other healthcare providers, depending on the setting you work in. I got a lot of gratification out of collaborating with the nurses, physicians, dietitians, and other healthcare providers in my years as a critical care pharmacist. It feels good when other members of the healthcare team approach you for your expertise and guidance.

How to Get Hired

How long does it usually take graduates with a Pharm.D. degree to get hired?

This really depends on what type of employment you are seeking and whether or not you have pursued postgraduate training. The job market is continually evolving. We are in a period of time where it is very competitive for newly graduating pharmacists. That being said, there are great opportunities out there for those who excel.

What skills do employers look for?

Especially for fresh graduates, one of the most important traits is a desire to learn and grow. As I noted, this is a career where being a life-long learner is a must. Employers want to see that trait. Also, teamwork is essential when working in healthcare.

Employers will be looking for someone who can communicate well and fit in with the culture of the team. Another important trait is a genuine desire to make an impact on patients and the team. At the end of the day, that is the goal of any healthcare provider.

What can students do to make themselves look better to employees?

One major consideration is the pursuit of postgraduate training. This is especially important if you want to pursue a career in a clinical role, the pharmaceutical industry, or if you want to accelerate your career into more specialized or higher-level, administrative-type roles.

Two years of residency is becoming standard for clinical specialists, with the first year of residency being a general residency and the second year being in a specific clinical or administrative specialty. Pharmaceutical companies have fellowships that can help launch a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Also, the pursuit of an additional graduate degree can help those interested in administrator-type roles.

When job-seeking, you have to really understand the organization and the specifics of the job you are applying to. Being well prepared to discuss the company, the role, and how you are a good fit for both the organization and position are important if you land an interview.

Day in the Life

What tasks do you typically work on?

This varies substantially from position to position. I'll describe my clinical career, since that was the most standard. A normal day for me would be arriving to the ICU and beginning working up my patient list of around 25 critically ill patients.

I was responsible for ensuring that they were receiving the appropriate medications at the appropriate doses for all of their acute and chronic issues. Some things I had the authority to change on my own -- mainly drug dosing. I would complete those tasks and then bring my other recommendations to the attending physician during our daily multidisciplinary rounds.

My afternoon then consisted of documenting all of my assessments and recommendations. When I had time during the week, I'd work on quality improvement activities and protocol development. The days went by really fast.

Who do you communicate with?

Nurses, physicians, my pharmacist colleagues, dietitians, respiratory therapists, occupational and physical therapists, social workers, administrators, pharmacy technicians, patients and their families, and I'm sure I'm missing others. There are so many different members of the team who you interact with in some fashion.

What kind of hours do you keep?

Again, this is highly varied across the industry. In my clinical role, I worked 6 a.m.-3 p.m., Monday through Friday, with some weekends and holidays as needed. Most pharmacists work various shifts, though.

Who are your coworkers?

Pharmacists typically work closely with pharmacy technicians and other pharmacists. Depending on the setting, they may work closely with other professionals as well, just like I noted in my experience as a critical care pharmacist.

What knowledge do you utilize?

First and foremost: all things medications. You have to understand how they work, and how the body handles them. It takes a very thorough understanding of pharmacology and pharmacotherapy to know which medication is best at which dose, frequency, and duration for a given patient.

This also depends on other medications the patient may take, their other health conditions, and their demographics. To be a great pharmacist, you need to be knowledgeable about anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology. You also need to understand how scientific research is performed and written so you can evaluate studies. Additionally, you need to know laws and regulations. There is a lot!

Accreditation for Pharmacy Programs

Accreditation is one of the most important considerations when choosing an educational program. Students should first choose a school with regional accreditation, as financial aid and future employment can depend on the legitimacy of the school.

For aspiring pharmacists, programmatic accreditation from ACPE is equally important. When a program is accredited, that means it provides training that qualifies students for relevant certification and licensure requirements, meeting the most up-to-date industry standards.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Kind of Degree Is a Pharm.D.?

A Pharm.D. is a first professional degree that qualifies graduates for pharmacist licensure, allowing them to gain licensure, fill prescriptions, and provide medical advice.

What Is the Highest Degree in Pharmacy?

The professional Pharm.D. degree is the highest degree for practicing pharmacists, but a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences is the terminal degree for research professionals in the field.

Are Pharmacists in Demand?

According to BLS employment data, the overall projected job growth for pharmacists is -3% from 2019-2029.

Header Image Credit: SofikoS | Shutterstock

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