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The path to becoming a pharmacist is as challenging as you would expect considering the tremendous complexity of the work and the enormous responsibility it involves.
People place a lot of trust in their pharmacists, and for good reason. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, pharmacist is rated among the top three most trusted professions when it comes to honesty and ethics.
Given that there are more than 19,000 FDA-approved prescription drugs on the market, and the fact that pharmacists are expected to have a general familiarity with all of them and how they interact in combination with one another, that trust is something that is certainly hard won.
The medical community relies on the expertise of these professionals in both assessing risks, making recommendations, and in assisting in the development of drugs that will save countless lives worldwide.
With that much responsibility resting on their shoulders, the path to becoming a pharmacist always requires a couple years of pre-pharmacy undergraduate work followed by four years in a professional doctorate program. You can also expect testing both before, and often during, your doctorate program to verify you’re prepared for and keeping up with the material, and again at the end of the professional program as the final step to becoming licensed.
Pharmacy Knowledge and Competency Exams are Required to Become a Pharmacist… But Entrance Exams Like the GRE and PCAT Are Not
There is no getting through a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) degree program and into the profession without taking your fair share of pharmacological knowledge and competency exams. In fact, proving your expertise through examination is as much a part of becoming a pharmacist as earning your doctorate.
With specialized exams so engrained in the process, plenty of schools don’t see the need for additional standardized graduate entrance exams like the GRE, and instead rely on a more comprehensive vetting process that includes looking at past academic and work history, letters of recommendations, and entrance interviews and essays.
For this same reason, many also see the PCAT (Pharmacy College Admission Test) as little more than another hoop to jump through.
Depending on where you are in your undergraduate education, there are a number of different paths to becoming a well-respected, well-paid professional pharmacist without standardized entrance exams or the PCAT.
Being able to skip these exams doesn’t make the path to becoming a pharmacist any easier, it just saves you a little time and money that could be better spent on furthering your knowledge of pharmaceutics and the professional practice of pharmacology.
Step 1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree that Includes Pre-Pharmaceutical Courses OR Enroll in a 0-6 Pre-Pharm to PharmD Program
Not just anybody can expect to enroll in a Doctor of Pharmacy program without taking the PCAT. Most colleges that allow applicants to skip the PCAT either require or strongly prefer that you already have a bachelor’s degree that aligns with the requirements of a pre-pharmacy education. That means either a dedicated pre-pharmacy degree, or a degree in chemistry or other natural sciences that fulfills most of the prerequisite requirements for a PharmD program.
Since different programs may have different requirements, you can’t assume that any bachelor’s in the natural sciences – or even in pharmaceutical science – will meet the pre-pharmacy requirements of the PharmD program you might be looking at. Unless you took your bachelor’s through the same school and it was designed specifically to meet pre-pharmacy requirements, your application process will involve verifying that you’ve completed the requisite coursework, and if not, taking the necessary pre-pharmacy courses to fill any gaps.
Also, many pharmacy schools will not recognize prerequisite courses taken more than five years prior to admission, so you may have to re-take them if you wait too long.
Just Out of High School? Consider a 0-6 Program
Another path to a PharmD that avoids any exam requirements is entering what is known as a 0-6 program immediately after high school.
These programs offer high school graduates direct admission into a conditional 6-year program that takes you through all the pre-pharmacy work before seamlessly transitioning to the PharmD.
These programs do not require PCAT or other graduate-level admissions testing, and instead assess students based on their performance in the first two years of the program – that’s the conditional part. If you meet the program standards, you’re guaranteed a spot in the final four years of the program during which time you’ll earn your PharmD.
The path into a PharmD program that avoids the PCAT almost always runs through bachelor-level studies. Those studies can either come as part of an integrated program, known as a 0-6 program, designed for high-school graduates, or through a more traditional stand-alone bachelor’s program.
Step 2. Enter a Doctor of Pharmacy Program and Earn Your Professional Degree
Just because your PharmD program doesn’t require the PCAT, it doesn’t mean entry is a breeze—you’ll be assessed in a variety of ways based on your undergraduate performance, experience in the medical or pharmacy fields, work history, communications skills, and other qualifying factors before gaining admission.
Of course, anyone in a 0-6 program needs to achieve passing grades during their first two years of study to continue on to the school’s PharmD professional program.
For everyone else, you can submit your application through the PharmCAS centralized application system, which most American pharmacy schools use to manage their entrance process. PharmCAS offers an easy way to evaluate the various requirements of individual schools, as well as a quick method for submitting application materials to multiple schools. Both PharmCAS and individual school application fees may apply.
If you are accepted, you can expect an intensive 4-year course of study that will take you through the advanced mathematics, chemistry, biology, law, and ethics courses that are foundational to a career as a pharmacist.
Of course, you’ll also go through a number of practical experiential learning placements during your doctorate program that will give you a solid dose of first-hand experience in pharmacy work under the guidance of skilled practitioners.
You would also have the opportunity to undertake one or two years of post-graduate residency to further develop your practical skills in the field, though this is voluntary.
Step 3. Take and Pass The PCOA Exam
After entering a PharmD program, your no-testing days are over.
The biggest and most important exam you’ll face during your professional program is the Pharmacy Curriculum Outcomes Assessment (PCOA). Developed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the PCOA assesses your pharmacological skills against a standard set of metrics that are up-to-date with the current practices in the field.
Though it is a national exam, the test is administered by each individual school, and each has their own timing and process in place for taking it.
In some cases, you may take the PCOA multiple times to assess your understanding and skills at different points during your PharmD educational process.
Step 4. Apply for and Earn a State License to Practice Pharmacology
The last and most important step to becoming a pharmacist is in passing your state-level licensing requirements. Although each state has slightly different requirements, all include passing at least two different tests:
Take and Pass the NAPLEX
The North American Pharmacist Licensure exam is also designed and kept current by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). NAPLEX is a computerized test administered by Pearson VUE at authorized testing centers locate around the country.
You can only apply to take the exam after you have been approved by the relevant state licensing board. The test is a 250-question multiple choice exam that covers safe and effective pharmacotherapy, accurate compounding, dispensing, and drug administration.
Take and Pass a Jurisprudence Exam
Each state also requires that you pass an exam to ensure you understand and can comply with state drug laws and meet required ethical standards. Although some states offer their own individual tests on this topic, most accept NABP’s MPJE, or Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination for this purpose. The MPJE is only 120 questions in length, but covers the legal side of pharmacy work, licensure and operational requirements, and general regulatory standards and requirements.
States also frequently have other requirements for licensure, such as additional ethics or HIV training that is either completed as part of your PharmD, or otherwise taken as short online courses administered by the state licensing board.
What Kind of Salary Can I Expect As a Pharmacist?
Pharmacists are highly compensated medical professionals with many possible career paths.
With your PharmD and state-issued credential hanging on your wall, you can enter into a wide range of possible jobs and specializations in areas like pharmaceutical R&D, organ transplant pharmacy, nuclear pharmacy, commercial drug development, and psychiatric pharmacy.
There are more than 300,000 pharmacists working in the United States today, and according to 2018 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, their median salary is just over $126,000 annually. Those in the top ten percent of the profession may earn $161,250 or higher each year.
Like any other profession, pharmacists can find their pay dependent on local and regional demand, however, which can cause those numbers to shoot dramatically higher. The top three states for pharmacist pay are Alaska, California, and Vermont, each with median salary levels near $140,000 per year.
Pay rates can also vary by specialty and industry. Some pharmacists also may choose to own and operate their own pharmacy, which opens up the entire realm of small business profit potential. With increasing numbers of drugs coming onto the market each year and a strong demand for medical services and prescriptions driven by an aging population, pharmacist pay is only likely to increase further in the coming years.