The Checkout

How to get into the pharmacy field

Avatar By | October 21, 2019
Medically reviewed by Kristi C. Torres, Pharm.D.

Why pharmacy?

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are important members of their community. They help you when you’re feeling sick and need a prescription. They work in hospitals, home health care, and assisted living facilities to make sure your medication is the right treatment, dose, and duration to help you feel better. On top of that, they work as part of your health care team to help manage chronic conditions such as asthma, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

The community pharmacist or pharmacy technician at your local pharmacy is the most visible role. But there are many other opportunities in pharmacy—working for a government agency, doing research with pharmaceutical companies, or teaching in higher education.

Pharmacist and pharmacy technician roles are stable jobs with good earning potential. “It is a great time to be a pharmacist!” says Sandra Leal, Pharm.D., CEO of SinfoníaRx. “As the population ages and the use of medication continues to rise, there will be a continued need for pharmacists to help patients achieve the best outcomes possible.” If you have an interest in science, healthcare, or customer service, it just might be the right field for you!

What do pharmacy technicians do?

Pharmacy technicians work primarily in retail pharmacies and hospitals. They work alongside pharmacists to get prescriptions ready for customers, and resolve issues along the way. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), that can include:

  • Counting, pouring, mixing, or drawing up prescriptions
  • Tracking pharmacy inventory of supplies and medication
  • Processing payment for prescriptions and insurance claims
  • Entering customer information into the computer system
  • Answering phone calls
  • Directing questions to the pharmacist

Pharmacists supervise the pharmacy technicians, and review prescriptions before they are finalized. The demand for pharmacy technicians is expected to grow over the next 10 years as pharmacy technicians take on a greater role in pharmacy operations. The median annual salary of a pharmacy technician is $32,700, according to the BLS.

RELATED: What does a pharmacy technician do?

What do pharmacists do?

Pharmacists do much more than just work behind the counter. In fact, 55 percent of pharmacists work in other settings. Pharmacists can fill a number of different roles depending on where they work and the career path they follow. According to the BLS, some common duties include:

  • Filling prescriptions
  • Verifying details with physicians
  • Checking for drug-drug interactions or drug-condition interactions
  • Educating patients on how to take medications or possible side effects
  • Understanding how medication works in the body and what to avoid while taking it
  • Giving flu shots and other vaccinations
  • Advising patients about their health
  • Working with insurance companies
  • Teaching other healthcare practitioners about medication therapies
  • Researching new drugs or applying existing drugs in new ways

There are different types of pharmacists: community pharmacists, clinical pharmacists, consultant pharmacists, and pharmaceutical industry pharmacists. You could even work in informatics, home infusion, legal practices, poison control, and veterinary pharmacy, according to Dr. Leal. The specialties are nearly endless. 

The roles and responsibilities vary based on career track. It’s important to note, when choosing your specialty, that the demand of the traditional community pharmacist role is declining, as these job markets are becoming saturated. The BLS projects some future growth in hospital and clinical settings, but the overall demand for pharmacists is flat, especially when compared to the increasing demand for other healthcare careers. The median annual salary of a pharmacist is $126,120, according to the BLS.

What degree do you need?

To become a pharmacy technician, sometimes all you need is a high school diploma and on-the-job training. There are programs at vocational schools or community colleges that award certificates within a year. The requirements for pharmacy technicians vary by state. Some states require pharmacy technicians to pass a certification exam with the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) or National Healthcareer Association (NHA). Many states now also have a state registration requirement, in addition to or in place of the certification. The registration process may include fingerprinting and a background check. If you’re interested in becoming a pharmacy technician, be sure to consult your specific state’s requirements.

To become a pharmacist, you must have a doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree and pass two state exams to get a license. Different pharmacy schools have different requirements. Most require two years of undergraduate study or a bachelor’s degree, though some schools offer six-year programs for high school graduates. You may need to score a minimum percentile on the pharmacy college admissions test (PCAT) to meet a school’s admission requirements and complete an interview as part of your application to pharmacy school. The coursework includes classes in chemistry, pharmacology, and ethics. Many schools require a background in science and math before enrollment.

Most programs include a set number of hours required in internships in work settings. To administer vaccines, or demonstrate an advanced level of knowledge in a certain area, you may need to pass a certification exam. If you want to move into a clinical role after pharmacy school, you may need to do a one or two-year residency in a specialized area such as infectious disease or geriatrics. You can also complete a fellowship or become board-certified in a certain specialty areas of practice. If you want to move into a research role, you may need to complete graduate coursework for a master’s of science or a doctorate degree in a pharmaceutical science, such as pharmaceutics or pharmacokinetics. In some institutions or job roles, these go hand in hand.

Can you earn a pharmacy degree online?

There are online associates programs and pharmacy schools, but often in-person lab experience is required. Before choosing a program, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) and American Pharmacists Association (APhA) recommend thoroughly researching the program, and asking these questions:

  • Do I prefer a small, large, new, or established program?
  • Do I have state or regional preferences because of proximity to my family and support network?
  • What are the graduation and attrition (dropout) rates of the program?
  • What are the first-time NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination) pass rates of the program?
  • What is the accreditation status of the program?
  • Is the tuition reasonable when compared to other programs in the area?

Tuition prices can vary from program, so it’s important to find the program that’s affordable for you.

Is pharmacy right for you?

If you’re not sure, it’s worth investigating further.

Try working or volunteering in your local pharmacy. It will give you insight into the role and day-to-day responsibilities of a pharmacist or pharmacy technician. 

Work as a pharmacy technician before applying to pharmacy school. “It would be great to speak to people in different practices—like academia, health systems pharmacy, managed care, community pharmacy, and research for example—to see all of the opportunities available in the field,” Dr. Leal says. You can learn if the retail environment is right for you without investing in a four-year program. Or, you could try an internship or summer program.

Talk to your local pharmacist or pharmacy technicians. Ask how they became interested in the field and what educational background they had. Find out what they like—or dislike—about their role.

Shadow a pharmacist or pharmacy tech at your local hospital. If you’re interested in a specialty role, it can help to follow someone for a day, if the health system will allow it.

Ask yourself, “What’s my motivation?” Is it the salary? Or because your parents want you to? Or are you motivated by your love of helping people, and learning new science and math? Pharmacy can be hard work, so it’s important to go into the field for the right reasons.

Contact a local pharmacy school to learn more about the pharmacy education they offer.

Take a fun quiz to see which type of pharmacy might be right for you. Then learn about the different specialties available.