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Alternative Careers for Pharmacists: The Disruption of One-Size-Fits-All

Published on: Nov 6, 2022
By: Jim Herbst, PharmD, BCPPS
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Upon graduating with a PharmD degree, you’re still not ready to practice as a pharmacist.  First, you must obtain state licensure as a pharmacist by passing a national exam (NAPLEX) and a state-specific law exam.  While completing these steps, becoming a licensed pharmacist, and entering the workforce as a practicing pharmacist in various settings is the most important career trajectory, you may venture down many other career paths with your newly-minted PharmD degree. 

In this article, I cover examples of alternative careers for pharmacists that may require a PharmD degree yet may not require licensure.

Clinical Trials Researcher

Many companies, known as contract research organizations (CROs), specialize in providing Phase I-IV clinical study and clinical trial support for large biotechnology, medical device, and pharmaceutical companies.  These companies utilize clinical research to help bring new medications, therapies, and devices to market through rigorous scientific study.  A clinical trial researcher can be a gratifying and exciting career path as you may be part of a new ground-breaking advancement for a rare disease. 

A PharmD degree makes you a very attractive candidate for companies specializing in clinical research. Many positions require a high-level life science background, keen attention to detail, strong management, and team skills. Strong clinical research candidates will also have evidence of excellent written and oral communication skills. The pharmacy school curriculum develops and emphasizes all of these attributes.

Medical Science Liaison

The medical science liaison (MSL) is a role within a pharmaceutical, biotech, or medical device company that builds rapport with key opinion leaders (KOLs) in both clinician and research roles. This individual is typically an expert in one or a handful of medications or devices under patent by a company. The role of the MSL is to network with external stakeholders to communicate scientific and medical data and to identify clinical investigation opportunities.  MSLs attend and present at national medical conferences, support new and ongoing clinical trials, and produce medical publications in scientific journals. 

This is a doctorate-level position, which typically requires either a PharmD, MD, DO, or Ph.D.  An MSL normally works in very niche therapeutic areas such as oncology (cancer), neurology (disorders and diseases affecting the brain and central nervous system), hematology (blood disorders), immunology (diseases affecting the immune system), and rare diseases (a disease or condition affecting <200,000 people in the US).  A medical science liaison position generally resides within a company’s medical affairs department. 

These positions are typically highly competitive and usually require advanced knowledge in a specific therapeutic area of clinical pharmacy. Still, with proper planning as you progress through pharmacy school, you can pursue this career path upon graduation.

Medical Writer

A medical writer is a person who specializes in creating medical content clearly and concisely.  These individuals are experts in various formatting and requirements, such as medical journals, regulatory documents, and clinical trials.  This career combines medical knowledge with writing acumen.  A medical writer may work for a large organization, such as a pharmaceutical company, or as a freelance independent contractor. 

Medical writers typically specialize in educational or regulatory (clinical) medical writing.  Educational medical writing targets healthcare professionals, and topics may include new medications, devices, or breakthroughs in diagnostics for specific conditions or diseases. 

Many education medical writers produce continuing education resources for pharmacists, physicians, and nurses.  Regulatory medical writing focuses more on clinical trial design documentation, regulatory compliance documents, prescribing information, and consent documents.  Many medical writers may collaborate with clinicians who may not have strong written communication skills to produce medical journal articles. 

Medical writers will see various therapeutic areas, and it is an excellent career for those with a curious mind and a passion for lifelong learning.

Independent Pharmacy Owner

While opening up your pharmacy can seem daunting, especially from a financial and regulatory standpoint, it is certainly possible with the right mentorship.  An independent pharmacy can create its personality to help it stand out from traditional retail pharmacies. 

Independent pharmacies often have niches or uniqueness, which helps set them apart from large chain retail pharmacies.  In the eyes of many, independent pharmacies are the true embodiment of a community pharmacy. They may be located in rural areas that do not attract larger retailers or in more affluent areas that provide a boutique service. 

Regardless of the independent pharmacy location or niche, most independent pharmacies have one thing in common: exceptional customer service.  These pharmacists and pharmacy technicians typically form strong relationships with their patients as employee turnover is usually lower, and more time can be spent communicating with patients in this setting. 

An independent pharmacy typically offers services that larger retail pharmacies don’t provide, such as medical device training, health maintenance screenings, and management and counseling of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, or dyslipidemia (high cholesterol). 

These pharmacies typically offer robust vaccine services and various dietary and herbal supplements.  Pharmacy technician staffing is generally far superior to more extensive retail settings.  A pharmacist working in this setting can tailor the pharmacy services and offerings to his or her interests, resulting in a rewarding work environment.

The Pharmacy Entrepreneur

Pharmacy school spends little time on entrepreneurship within the pharmacy industry, yet the practice of pharmacy continues to evolve and the need for ingenuity and a vision for the future are high.  Given the emphasis on pharmaceutical science and health science, many students who enter pharmacy school tend to be analytical, detail-oriented, yet risk averse.  Safety, namely drug safety, is one of the core principles of being a pharmacist, so the thought of taking a career risk by pursuing a non-traditional path is difficult for many pharmacists to consider or overcome. 

On the other side fear and risk can be success and innovation.  An injection of new and progressive thoughts into the pharmacy space can lead the profession forward.  There have been many successful entrepreneurs that have founded companies, devices, products, consulting companies, and media ventures through their expertise and experience in various arenas of pharmacy practice.  The opportunities are often only limited by your imagination.  Some entrepreneurial ideas include:

  • Optimizing home prescription delivery services

  • Blogging to strengthen and empower the pharmacist community

  • Podcasts to increase literacy in a variety of pharmacy-specific and non-pharmacy-specific (e.g., financial planning) topics with precise audiences in mind

  • Development of COVID-19 vaccine clinics, especially in underserved communities

  • Consulting companies designed to reduce drug costs or streamline logistics

A PharmD degree allows pharmacy graduates to pursue licensure and enter the workforce as practicing pharmacists. Yet, the curriculum provides a great foundation to pursue many other career paths to suit the individual interests of a new graduate. 

Alternative careers for pharmacists can be pursued years after entering a more traditional pharmacy role. The fluidity and versatility of a PharmD degree are often greater than those of other advanced medical degrees.  

portrait of Jim Herbst PharmD

Jim Herbst, PharmD, BCPPS is an advanced patient care pharmacist at a nationally ranked pediatric acute care teaching hospital.  Dr Herbst received his Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Ohio State University in 2012.  He started his clinical career as an inpatient patient care pharmacist covering the neurology and complex care services, before transitioning to a pediatric neurology ambulatory care clinic in 2019. 

Dr Herbst's areas of interest in pediatric neurology include treatment-resistant pediatric epilepsy, infantile spasms, the ketogenic diet, and neuroimmunology.  He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed pharmacy and neurology journals, including Neurology, Epilepsia, and the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.  Dr Herbst is board certified as a pediatric pharmacy specialist.

Opinions and information published by the author here on PharmDDegree.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer.

Education: Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), The Ohio State University
Knowledge: Advanced Patient Care Pharmacy, Neurology, Epilepsia