A pharmacist's primary job is to dispense medications prescribed by a doctor or veterinarian. Although seemingly simple, this job requires years of training. Pharmacists need to have a good understanding of biology and chemistry in addition to being familiar with every medication on the market.
Most pharmacists work at the retail end of the medical world as the "go between" between doctors who prescribe the medications and the patients who take the medications. A pharmacist is similar to a doctor in the sense that a pharmacist holds some medical responsibility over the patients to whom that pharmacist sells medications. Pharmacists need to know how substances interact with one another in order to avoid serious, perhaps deadly, side effects caused by mixing two or more medications that are contraindicated (a fancy word that means 'shouldn't be mixed'). They also need to have a good sense of what side effects are normal for particular medications and the best way in which to ingest particular medications as well as any usage rules. For example, some pills need to be taken directly after eating. A doctor may or may not make these facts clear to a patient. Also, doctors often prescribe several medications at once so it can be hard for patients to keep track of all the usage instructions. Regardless, it's a pharmacist's job to reiterate these types of instructions as a last ditch safety net.
One unique aspect of the pharmacist profession is that the demand for pharmacists is steadily growing in the United States. The pharmaceutical world is a multi billion dollar industry that's fueled by sales. More and more Americans are purchasing medications by the day. Over the past ten years, for example, the usage of SSRI's (a type of antidepressant) has increased by over 100% in the United States. That said, the number of qualified pharmacists is also rising by the day so perhaps the industry's growth isn't particularly noteworthy.
Not to mention, pharmacists get paid very well. The median salary for a pharmacist in the United States is around $120,000, and they work very modest hours.
In order to sit for the pharmacists licensing exam (called 'NAPLEX'), you'll need a high school degree, a four year undergraduate degree as well as a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from pharmacy school.
The standard path for becoming a pharmacist is attending a normal four year college and then pharmacy school which is four years long. So you'll have to put in at least eight years of formal schooling. Think of it this way: doctors go to medical school and pharmacists go to pharmacy school. Depending on which pharmacy school you'd like to attend, there will be certain courses you need to take as an undergraduate. Every legitimate pharmacy school requires applicants to have completed something similar to a pre-med curriculum. You'll have to take courses in chemistry, biology, maybe physics as well as statistics and calculus. This course of study can seem daunting if you're not a math/science geek, but once you dig in so to speak, you'll find that math and science become more digestible over time. These courses will be very important for you as a pharmacist. The science courses will help you begin to learn the biomechanics of the human body and how certain chemicals affect the human body as well as interact with one another. The math courses will be important for analyzing charts and medical readings. The statistics course in particular may also help you run a more efficient business if you one day hope to run your own pharmacy.
If you don't take all the prerequisite courses as an undergraduate, you can take what's called "post-bac" classes ("post-bac" is short for post baccalaureate). There's nothing wrong with going this route. It'll just take you a few more semesters after college (probably 3 or 4) as well as more tuition money before you can apply to pharmacy school. Many people who go the post-bac route do so because they decide after college that they want to be a pharmacist.
In order to apply to pharmacy school, you'll also have to take a standardized test called the "PCAT" (Pharmacy College Admission Test). The registration fee for the test is $200. This test is four hours long and consists of around 230 multiple choice questions as well as a writing section. The test is split into sub tests: Writing, Biological Processes, Chemical Processes, Critical Reading and Quantitative Reasoning. You'll want to do some test prep before taking this test. There are many study books available but you may also want to seek out a tutor or take a group study class. This test is conquerable if you study, it just requires familiarity with its structure as well as practicing a few techniques that will help you score higher. These are things that a class or a tutor can help you learn. PCATPrepClass.com offers a course for around $800. Tutors and classes can be expensive, but the majority of students taking the test will have had some some type of paid tutoring, so if you don't jump on the bandwagon, you may be at a disadvantage.
Many universities across the country have a Pharmacy School. Pharmacy school is four years long and covers technical topics such as biochemistry as well as practical topics such as pharmacy law. Every pharmacy school consists of both classroom study as well as clinic work/on-site work. Although you're not training to be a doctor, you'll have to do things such as give immunizations and perform cholesterol and blood pressure screening tests.
Pharmacy school is expensive just like any other grad school. Financial aid is competitive and some schools are cheaper than others. If you attend your local state school, for example, you may qualify for in state tuition which will be the cheapest degree you can find. With some financial aid, expect to drop at least $50,000 on your Doctor of Pharmacy. Realistically, you'll be spending in the neighborhood of $150,000. The median yearly tuition for pharmacy school in the U.S. is $40,000.
Pharmacy school is hard, but the light at the end of the tunnel is quite bright and lucrative.
Alternative Education Path
Some people know straight out of high school that they'd like to be a pharmacist. Most kids that young don't know for certain what they'd like to do for a living, but those who do have the unique opportunity to apply to a dual degree program. A dual degree program is a 7 or 8 year program upon completion of which you'll receive both an undergraduate degree and Doctor of Pharmacy degree. The major upside of a dual degree program is that you'll only need to go through one application process. Also right from your freshmen year in college, you'll be on track to becoming a pharmacist as quickly as possible. You'll still have to take the PCAT exam after you finish the undergraduate portion of the program, but as long as your score is above a benchmark score (normally a pretty low benchmark), you'll be allowed to complete the program.
The potential drawback to a dual degree program is that once you start, it'll be hard to change your mind about wanting to become a pharmacist.
North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination
Once you have your Doctor of Pharmacy degree, you'll have to sit for the North American licensure exam, 'NAPLEX' for short. The registration fee for the test is $600. The format is 250 multiple choice questions. You have six hours to complete the test. (Cool fact: they use palm vein verification to verify your identity. In other words, you hold your hand up to a sensor and it scans the veins in your palm!)
Yes, the test is long, but after pharmacy school and all the study hours you've logged, this test shouldn't pose a challenge. You've just got to touch up on what you've already learned and re-memorize a bunch of stuff. There are study books available. Here's a link to two sample questions.
Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam
The final step towards becoming a pharmacist is passing the MPJE (Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam). This test consists of federal and state specific questions pertaining to pharmacy law and liability. It costs $250 to register. It's a two hour test that consists of all multiple choice questions. There are study books available; maybe read one or two. But again, after all the time you've put into becoming a pharmacist, by this point you'll be running on autopilot.
Note: Certain states such as California and Virginia don't accept the MPJE but rather make you take their own personalized version of this test.
Most pharmacists work at retail pharmacies. The main job of this type of pharmacist is to dispense medications as well as keep track of all the medications patients are taking. Retail pharmacists also educate the pharmacy staff about medications as well as answer any questions that the patients have. At the end of the day it's a service job.
Another important task of retail pharmacists is closely monitoring the use of controlled narcotics such as Oxycontin and Adderall. These medications are highly addictive. If you ever suspect that patients are abusing or selling these drugs, you are required by law to either report the matter or investigate it yourself.
Some pharmacists work at medical facilities such as psychiatric hospitals. Other pharmacists work at senior centers. Once again, their main job is to dispense medications and keep track of what patients are taking.
Basically, wherever people are taking medications, pharmacists will be in demand. As the profession becomes more prestigious and tightly regulated, however, pharmacists are increasingly branching out into non-traditional career paths. Some work for pharmaceutical companies and help develop medications as well as conduct human testing trials. Some go into marketing and sales. Usually this means that they're employed by a particular pharmaceutical company to promote that companies' medications. Some serve as consultants for health insurance companies to help create prescription benefit packages. Some work for the government or the army. Some teach at pharmacy schools while conducting research. There are many paths you can take, and the options are growing by the day.
Salary and Lifestyle
Pharmacists are paid well. As noted in the introduction to this article, the median salary for pharmacists in the U.S. is around $120,000 per year, although that figure varies by state. .
As you gain more experience in the industry, you'll only get paid more and more. If you own your own pharmacy then you're technically running a business and if you scale that business so that it becomes large enough, you could make millions of dollar per year. Note that perhaps the future of the industry is online. In New York State, for example, every prescription must be an ePrescription which means that it must be filed on a computer as opposed to written out by hand. If you develop a succinct online pharmacy, you could change the world as we know it.
A pharmacist's hours are normally nine to five which isn't bad for a job that pays this much. That said, if you run your own pharmacy, you're going to be working longer hours than that. And when you're just starting out you'll likely have to pay your dues by working weekends and holidays.
A potential drawback to the profession is that you have to be very diligent when keeping track of the various medications that patients are taking. In many cases, you'll be legally liable if something goes wrong. But if you have a basic interest in medicine and enjoy helping people be healthy, then this job could be the right one for you. You'll make close to what a doctor is making, but your hours won't be nearly as hectic (especially in the training phases). Also, you'll rarely have to deal with medical emergencies so there won't be any "emergency calls" at 3 A.M. in the morning. Not a bad deal!
To finish, here's an interesting video in which a working pharmacists goes over some of the preconceptions he had before becoming a pharamcist and whether or not those preconceptions translated into reality. Enjoy!