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An Honest Opinion About How Long It Takes to Become a Pharmacist

Published on: Nov 6, 2022
By: Hong Chen, PharmD
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If you’ve taken an interest in becoming a pharmacist, a few questions might be on your mind:  “How long will it take to become a pharmacist?” or “What are the requirements to become a pharmacist?” Considering the complications of planning your life, these valid questions deserve answers.

In this article, I'll fully explore the process of becoming a pharmacist.

Understand that this will be a series of simple steps; however, let’s first talk about the basic steps:

  1. A Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) is a four-year program through which a pharmacy student progresses to become an entry-level pharmacist.

  2. The Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education accredits these pharmacy programs.

  3. Upon graduation from the PharmD program, a national board exam is taken, and depending on which state you decide to practice in, a state law exam might also be required. 

Step 1: Review the Timelines of Different PharmD Programs

There are different pathways and timelines for becoming a pharmacist. 

Do you apply for a general four-year undergraduate experience before entering pharmacy school, or do you participate in an accelerated pharmacy school program? Both choices are good and depend on the student’s preferences and professional needs. 

6-Year PharmD Programs

If you’re confident that you'll pursue a career as a pharmacist after high school, a direct admission 6-year PharmD program may be your calling. According to schools such as Ohio Northern University (Ohio) and The University of Sciences (Pennsylvania), the first two years of the pre-professional curriculum prepare students to pursue a PharmD degree. In comparison, the next four years consist of the PharmD professional coursework. 

Accelerated PharmD Programs

Additionally, schools such as Midwestern University accept students who have completed two or four years of prerequisite work into an accelerated three-year (year-round) pharmacy program. Accelerated PharmD programs like those offered by the above schools are becoming more popular as more students want a direct guided path to becoming a pharmacist. There are a multitude of pharmacy schools not limited to the ones mentioned above that offer these accelerated programs. 

On the other hand, some students want more freedom in their coursework before becoming a pharmacist and wish to complete a four-year undergraduate degree. Unlike some accelerated PharmD programs (direct admits), you’ll need to double-check the prerequisite courses and credit requirements for the pharmacy schools you researched. 

Many schools offer bachelor’s degrees in pharmaceutical sciences (a typical pre-pharmacy program), which can be a “north star” if you are having trouble deciding on a major. A degree in biology, chemistry, or health science could also set you up for success in pharmacy school. This option allows you to explore the different pharmacy programs nationwide without committing to the program out of high school.

So, to sum up, either of these two routes is a good choice and will help you meet your end goal—albeit differently. The accelerated programs (as the name suggests) can get you to the finish line earlier, while a four-year undergraduate experience can grant you more choices in pharmacy schools that you can apply to attend. 

Step 2: Determine if your target PharmD program has a PCAT (Pharmacy College Admission Test) Requirement

Depending on which pharmacy schools you apply to, the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) may be required. Most accelerated programs won’t need this as you have already been admitted to the PharmD program pending completion of courses, GPA earned, and the interview process. Schools such as The Ohio State University recommend taking the PCAT if your science undergraduate GPA falls below 2.7. The University of Illinois Chicago labels the PCAT as optional, noting that it is considered in a holistic application review and a low score will not hurt the student’s chances. 

PCAT Timeline

I would also like to let you know about the timing.

The PCAT is generally taken after your junior year of undergrad and before the end of the fall semester of your senior year. However, it can be taken as late as February. Most students will want to take the exam earlier to begin applying to their prospective pharmacy schools. For those who want to achieve a better score, the PCAT may be taken up to five times. Depending on the pharmacy school that you apply to, all PCAT scores can be viewed, but many schools will look to your highest score.

Many pharmacy schools have priority deadlines as early as October 1st, while final deadlines can be as late as June 1st of the following year. For example, suppose student A wants to enroll for fall 2025. In that case, they can submit all application information by the early admission deadline in the fall/winter of 2024 or by the rolling admission deadline in the winter/spring of 2024.

Visit the Pharmacy College Application Service (PharmCAS) website for more information on deadlines, schools, and other requirements. PharmCAS is an all-in-one application tool for students to upload transcripts, letters of recommendation, and essays.

Step 3:  Pharmacy School Interviewing (2-6 weeks on average)

The interview process for prospective pharmacy students can be a bit daunting. However, this is an opportunity to present yourself and your passion for the career that you want to pursue. Most applicants can expect to receive an interview invitation between two and six weeks after applying. After the interview process, depending on the school, you can expect to hear back with a decision within a few weeks. 

At this point in the timeline to becoming a pharmacist, you will have completed at least two or four years of pre-professional courses before starting pharmacy school. You will finish your prerequisite courses and await the start of the pharmacy program in the fall.

Step 4: Entrance into a PharmD Program

Congratulations on entering the PharmD program! The next few years will focus on various didactic courses to strengthen your knowledge of science, medications, patient relations, and laboratory ethics. These formative years will provide you with the tools and knowledge necessary to graduate with the long-awaited pharmacy degree. The structure of each year can differ between schools; however, the goal of each PharmD program is to groom you into the best pharmacist possible.

Year 1 is a refresher of what you learned before entering the program and an introduction to standard medications and laboratory practices. As you progress into your second and third years, more stringent and specialized courses are introduced. Clinical applications, drug therapeutics, institutional laboratory work, and introductory pharmacy practice experience prepare you for the program's final year.

Year 4 is dedicated to full-time advanced pharmacy practice experience, where you will rotate in various pharmacy settings (hospital, community, clinical, administration, etc). Depending on the PharmD program, there can be 6-week- or 4-week rotations culminating in 8-10 total rotations. 

Step 5: Applying and Beginning a Pharmacy Job

You’ve done the research and know that various PharmD jobs are available. One possibility is to enter the retail pharmacy setting after graduation. In a retail pharmacy role, you are the ‘captain’ of the pharmacy ship, responsible for managing the pharmacy technician (pharmacy tech) team. Some other routes include completing a pharmacy residency program.

Specializations as a Pharmacist

A post-graduate year one residency focuses more on patient care, drug optimization, and fostering relationships with patients as a clinical pharmacist. You can pursue a residency in various settings, including community, hospital, ambulatory, research, managed care, home care, etc. Upon completion, a post-graduate year two residency can be sought for a specialty such as oncology, pediatrics, geriatric, psychiatric, critical care, etc.

Students may also pursue an industry fellowship. This is typically a joint venture between a university and a pharmaceutical company that provides a unique opportunity for PharmD graduates to work and apply their clinical knowledge in a corporate work environment. These programs are typically one to two years in length.

While these are some of the most common career paths new graduates choose, others will stray off and chase a more non-traditional role in pharmacy. These are more niche roles but are slowly growing as pharmacy continues to evolve. Roles include regulatory/medical affairs in the pharmaceutical industry, clinical research, veterinary pharmacy, life science consulting, etc. The possibilities are endless, and the pharmacy landscape will continue to change.

Regardless of your route, post-graduation, you must take the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) and the corresponding state pharmacy law exam in which you practice to earn the title of ‘pharmacist.’ These are demanding examinations, so you'll need time and effort to prepare. Studying for the NAPLEX during rotations and one to two months after graduation is sufficient.

Now, returning to your question, “How long does it take to be a pharmacist?”

The answer depends on the program/route you ultimately take. If you are up to the task, you can become a pharmacist in five or eight years after high school. Dedication and perseverance are critical to the path you take.

Conclusion: The Length of a PharmD Program is a big factor. Find the Right One for You.

Accelerated program or standard? In-person or a remote/online PharmD? We’ve made it easy to use our insights above and help you evaluate programs that fit your needs and personal standards.

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portrait of Hong Chen

My name is Hong Kui Chen and I am a graduate of The Ohio State University Pharmacy Class of 2022. I am currently working as a clinical research associate at Medpace, Inc, a contract research organization based in Cincinnati, Ohio. My work mainly consists of traveling to various sites around the country and providing protocol training on new clinical trials or monitoring data. While I enjoyed the traditional pharmacy role of working in retail or hospital, I wanted to expand and pursue this non-traditional role to see how clinical trials operate. I have a passion for being able to impact patients in a grand scale and even though I don’t have the 1-on-1 patient interaction, the work that I do can have long lasting contributions to overall patient health. 

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: Doctorate of Pharmacy (PharmD), The Ohio State University
Knowledge: Clinical Pharmacy, Digital Health