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Student’s guide to choosing a career as a pharmacist or pharmacy technician

Interested in a pharmaceutical career? Here are the steps to becoming a pharmacist or pharmacy technician.

If you have a passion for helping others through pharmaceutical solutions, you may have what it takes to be a pharmacist or pharmacy technician. The education required to work in the field of pharmacy can be challenging, but a career in this field can be rewarding and lucrative. Continue reading for more pharmaceutical career info, including how to get started and what income you can earn. 

What does a pharmacist do?

Pharmacists have an important role in disease management through providing drug information and managing drug therapy. They can dispense medications to patients, offer health screenings, and administer vaccines, among other duties. Pharmacists may also work in the veterinary field, providing services in the treatment of animal diseases with medication. [L1]

Pharmacist salaries and job growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pharmaceutical career salary for a U.S. retail, clinical, or hospital pharmacist was $128,710 per year in 2020 ($61.88 per hour). There were approximately 322,200 positions in that same year, with an expected growth decline of 2% for the next decade. This is an estimated loss of 7,000 jobs from what we see available now. [L2]

What does a pharmacy technician do?

Another career within the pharmaceutical industry is a pharmacy technician, who works under the direct supervision of a pharmacist. Professionals in this position are responsible for dispensing prescription medication, managing patient data, processing payments, and handling customer service responsibilities. Pharmacy techs may also work in hospitals. Depending on the state where they work, they may mix or measure medications, as well as administer vaccines. They do not require the same level of education as a pharmacist. [L3]

Pharmacy technician salaries and job growth

Because pharmacy technicians only require a high school diploma, on-the-job training, and – in some cases – a certification, they make much less than the pharmacist. Average wages in 2020 were $35,100 per year ($16.87 per hour). However, demand for this position should rise over the next decade, with a 4% growth rate. In 2020, there were around 419,300 pharmacy technicians; 16,600 positions are expected to be added to that number. [L4]

Steps to becoming a pharmacist

The process for becoming a pharmacist is longer and more intensive than that for other jobs. Still, the higher average salary and mission to help others makes it an attractive option for those with a medical inclination. Here are the steps to get started in this job, with tasks varying slightly depending on the state where you live.

Take pre-pharmacy courses in undergrad

Before being accepted into a pharmacy program at a graduate school, you may need a bachelor’s degree with a focus in health sciences. Another option is a 6-year program. Every graduate program will have its own requirements, so check ahead to see that your undergraduate degree satisfies these requirements. 

Generally, most undergraduate degrees with a path to pharmacy school require these main courses.

  • General Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Physiology
  • Physics
  • Microbiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Statistics
  • English
  • Economics
  • Public Speaking
  • Social Sciences

Pharmacy schools will require that you not only take these courses but also excel in them. Some colleges and universities will have a specific pre-pharmacy course track. In some cases, colleges and universities can work with you on a general pre-health track to ensure you take the right courses. [L5]

Some pharmacy schools may admit students with two years of college experience, depending on the course prerequisites. Almost every student will need to take the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT) as a requirement for the next step. [L6]

Once complete, apply to graduate programs

After completing all of the required undergrad courses and getting a suitable score on the PCAT, students can apply to the pharmacy program of their choice. What is a good PCAT score? Graduate school requirements vary, but on a scale of 200 to 600, 400 is considered the median and something to try to beat. Additionally, competition for these medical school programs may be stiff, and schools typically limit the number of admissions. If you do not get in the first year, that doesn’t disqualify you from applying again the next year. 

Once accepted, most pharmacy students finish in four years though some programs may be shorter. The courses taken are more difficult than those in undergrad. Since students can choose to pursue a Pharm.D. or R.Ph. degree, they will need to choose the program that is suitable for their goals. The program coursework may include pharmacology, medical ethics, and medicinal chemistry, among other courses. Supervised internships are typically required in the latter part of the pharmacy program. [L6]

Pass licensure requirements

Two licensure exams need to be passed in order to work as a pharmacist. The North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX) is a national test required of every professional working in the U.S. A state-specific Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) for your specific state is also required. Pass both and complete a set number of intern hours to become fully licensed to work. 

If you want to be able to provide vaccinations (like flu shots), you must also pass a vaccine-specific licensure exam. The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) runs the Pharmacy-Based Immunization Delivery program for pharmacists to become certified and trained in immunization. Additional licenses that show subject matter expertise in health areas like diabetes management or research may also be pursued. 

Complete postdoctoral training

Even with a degree in hand, the training doesn’t stop. To become a clinical pharmacist or pursue a pharmaceutical research career, you may need to do a one or two-year residency. This prepares you to work in specific situations, such as with geriatric patients or in a lab. You may also choose to get a separate business degree, such as a master’s in business administration (MBA). This is useful for those who want to open their own pharmacy or pharmacy-related business. Other training opportunities are also available throughout your career. From conferences to special training courses, expect to always be learning to be at the top of your profession. [L6]

Steps to becoming a pharmacy technician

A pharmacy technician career requires less formal training than a pharmacist career. Some companies provide on-the-job training right out of high school, but specific coursework and licensure through a designated program are becoming the norm. The field may be competitive; doing more than what’s required in your state can help you stand out among the applicants. 

Apply for a pharmacy technician training program

Pharmacy tech programs offer the coursework and experience to pass state licensure exams and prepare to work in a pharmacy. Vocational schools, technical schools, and some four-year colleges and universities offer these programs as a one-year certificate program or a two-year associate’s degree program. 

Topics covered in coursework include measuring and dispensing medication, basic math and financial tasks, recordkeeping, pharmacy law, and ethics. There is typically an internship or real-life training opportunity for hands-on experience, as well. 

Before you apply, you can see if your chosen pharmacy tech program has been accredited by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). Programs consist of a minimum of 600 instruction hours and can last more than 15 weeks. It’s best to reach out to your school’s program when requesting pharmaceutical career information. [L7]

Take the PTCB test

The Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) offers a test to those with a high school diploma. Related coursework will make passing the exam easier, which is why some people choose to apply to a pharmacy tech program first. 20 hours of continuing education are needed every two years to keep your certification from the PTCB. [L7]

Register as a pharmacy technician

Contact your state Board of Pharmacy to see what’s required to register as a pharmacy tech. At a minimum, you may have to prove you have a diploma, GED, or pharmacy tech program certificate. You may also have to successfully pass a criminal background check. In states that require certain exams, you will need to pass them before continuing your career in the pharmaceutical industry.

Apply for a job as a pharmacy technician

After completing a program and becoming licensed, you may want to start applying for jobs. You can start networking with others in the field to hear about positions before they get publicly posted. Your pharmacy tech school may also have career centers to connect you with hiring managers. Job fairs in the health field often highlight pharmacy tech positions for those interested in entering the field. 

When applying, be ready to share all of the documentation from your journey including any relevant job or intern experience that may have prepared you for a pharmaceutical industry career.

Different types of pharmacist careers

What do you think of when you hear the word pharmacist? Many of us imagine the person who fills our antibiotic prescription, answering questions about how to take it and possible side effects. However, there is a big, big world that relies on pharmacists, and the person at your local drug store is just one type of pharmacist. Here are other types of pharmacist careers. 

Clinical pharmacist

Known for coordinating care with their peers and other medical professionals, clinical pharmacists work with physicians and patients to create better outcomes. An example would be a clinical pharmacist that works in the emergency room department to stabilize patients before they go to another part of the hospital. These professionals know how to work in a hospital, clinic, or care setting and dispense medications. 

Community pharmacist

This is the pharmacist you are most used to seeing in a retail store or the pharmacy located in a hospital that’s open to everyone. They may advise patients on how to take prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Patient consultations are common as a community pharmacist, whether it be questions from customers over the phone or in person. These pharmacists will check a patient’s file for any duplicate medications or drug interactions before dispensing medications to patients. They are also in charge of managing the rest of the pharmacy staff, ensuring that pharmacy technicians and support staff handle customer requests professionally and safely. 

Compounding pharmacist

Most medications from a retail pharmacist come in set, pre-packaged formulations as supplied by the drug manufacturers. That’s not the case for medications dispensed by a compounding pharmacist. They specialize in creating unique and personalized treatments, such as those for a specific allergy or medical need. Their efforts help ensure all patients receive care, even those with challenging health needs. 

Consultant pharmacist

Anytime someone takes a prescription medication, there’s a risk of side effects or drug interactions. People who take several medications, especially the elderly in nursing homes, may be at risk for increased medication problems. Consultant pharmacists watch for medication issues and help advise other health professionals in long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities.

Hospital pharmacist

As you may have guessed, hospital pharmacists work in a hospital. They work with physicians and nurses in an inpatient care setting. They can also help manage and prepare medications for patients leaving the hospital. 

Home-infusion pharmacist

Many treatments must be administered through IV methods, and this is where a home infusion pharmacist comes in handy. Home infusion pharmacists focus on medications that are administered as an injection or infusion. They should be knowledgeable on intravenous medications, parenteral nutrition, and other substances that may be given through a catheter or needle. 

Independent pharmacist

A pharmacist who doesn’t work in a big-box or chain pharmacy may be considered part of an independent pharmacy. They have to have a wider range of skills to ensure they stay competitive with larger stores and fill all their local customer’s needs. For example, they usually need to be well-versed in running a business, especially if they own the pharmacy.

Mail-order pharmacist

A mail-order pharmacist does many of the same tasks that an in-person or retail pharmacist does. Duties include checking prescriptions against patient records to ensure safe dispensing and proper dosage. They will keep patient files updated and communicate any concerns or questions to the prescribing healthcare provider before preparing the prescription for mail delivery. 

Nuclear pharmacist

The nuclear pharmacist doesn’t often work with patients. Instead, they deal with the compounds needed to complete diagnostic imaging, called radiopharmaceuticals. Nuclear pharmacists work in special enclosed labs not open to the public, wearing protective equipment to keep them safe from the radiopharmaceuticals they work with. In addition to ordering and storing these drugs, they help prepare them for transport and use, as well as help patients before and after treatments with the medications. They may also work in research, testing, or quality control of these special health treatments.

Oncology pharmacist

Cancer treatment involves specific medications that are usually given with a set schedule. An oncology pharmacist specializes in cancer treatment options, advises on the best cancer therapies, and helps follow up with patients to ensure they know how to manage their treatment plan. 

Pharmacy benefits manager

Did you know that the prescriptions covered by your health insurance plan are often negotiated as a result of a pharmacy benefits manager? This professional knows medications inside and out and can work to keep insurance companies profitable while serving customers, too. Their ability to negotiate discounts determines which drugs are paid for under a private Medicare Advantage plan, for example. 

Toxicology pharmacist 

What may be a lifesaving treatment for one person could be dangerous to another. Pharmacists with a concentration in toxicology monitor how prescription drugs or poisons negatively affect people. Pharmacists specializing in toxicology often collaborate with agencies or nonprofit organizations that work to improve public health. 

Veterinary pharmacist

Remember how we mentioned that even animals need meds? A veterinary pharmacist knows the available options for animal treatment and can consult with pet owners, zoologists, and other animal-related professionals on the best way to manage treatment, minimize pain, and improve animal health. 

Pharmaceutical sales and other types

While you don’t always need a pharmacy degree to have a career in pharmaceutical sales, the combination of a formal pharmacy education and an aptitude for business can improve your chances of success. Pharmaceutical sales reps often need to understand the product they are selling to healthcare professionals, and a robust medical background can give them an advantage. Other jobs that pharmacists do outside of the care setting include marketing, technical writing, and nonprofit leadership. If there’s a need for someone who is qualified and educated on pharmacy solutions, you may be a fit for a pharmaceutical company career.

Different types of pharmacy technician careers

There are many pharmaceutical industry career paths, and pharmacy technician jobs are one option. They require less formal training, so you can get started right away. Here are some of the environments where pharmacy techs currently work.

  • Retail 
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Mail order pharmacies
  • Research laboratories
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Hospital
  • Clinics
  • Health insurance companies

If there is a pharmacist working there, the chances are good that a pharmacy tech will work there, as well. 


Why does a career in the pharmaceutical field interest you? It may be because you love science, are fascinated by new technologies, and love being on the cutting edge of research. You may also be geared to help others, see your community thrive, and influence better health decisions people make every day. It could also be that you love business and setting goals, making you an ideal candidate for a pharmaceutical field career. Whatever the reason you’re drawn to a career in pharmacy, pharmacists are an essential part of health care. 


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