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Four Steps to Becoming a Pharmacist

Published on: Nov 6, 2022
By: Hong Chen, PharmD
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The world of pharmacy is constantly evolving and changing. The role of the pharmacist is changing as well, becoming a sought-after healthcare professional in a variety of settings, not just limited to traditional areas such as retail and hospital but now expanding to remote pharmacist jobs. Pharmacists are medication experts, patient advocates, and the bridge between many healthcare providers. Students who love science and healthcare should consider pursuing a career as a pharmacist.

While no handbook or manual lists the specific steps to becoming a pharmacist, numerous resources can guide us to earning the title. The Doctor of Pharmacy degree—as the name suggests—is a doctorate degree requiring additional years of study beyond an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

I'll cover the core steps to becoming a pharmacist in this article.

Step 1: Complete your prerequisite classes and earn a bachelor's degree

If you’ve always been a student with a knack for science in high school, perhaps a degree in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, pharmaceutical science, or health science would be appropriate for you. A strong foundation in science could give you an advantage when it comes time to apply to pharmacy schools. Don’t let an average science background discourage you from majoring in another subject. Most pharmacy programs have no specific major requirement as long as you have completed their required prerequisite courses.

Many colleges also offer a pre-pharmacy program. Each college's pre-pharmacy major differs and usually caters to its own pharmacy programs. Courses include the science prerequisites and a layout for what elective courses should be taken. The curriculum focuses on classes to help students transition seamlessly into a pharmacy program. 

Choose Wisely

The choices are endless, so take time to explore these options. Remember to research the pharmacy school requirements, as these differ between schools. Most schools require biology, chemistry, physics, math (algebra/calculus), statistics, and English and/or a writing course. The PharmCAS site is an all-encompassing resource with this type of information; I'd like to discuss its use below.

Some pharmacy schools offer an early entrance program for high school students, combining undergraduate and PharmD degrees. This could be an excellent choice for students graduating high school who are confident in their desire to pursue the path of a pharmacist. Following this path could eliminate some steps in becoming a pharmacist, but it could also pose roadblocks.

The PharmD Application process

I'll discuss the application process. One roadblock is that a six-year direct admission pharmacy program limits the student to commit to that specific school for the duration of the curriculum. Ohio Northern University offers such a program; more information is available on its site.

Additionally, some pharmacy programs admit prospective students after two years of prerequisite courses from an accredited college. You will still have to apply to the programs like the four-year undergraduate student.

Strive to do well in your courses during this step of the process. Many pharmacy programs are very competitive. Most schools like to see a higher GPA and participation in extracurricular activities.

Try to join a healthcare-related organization (e.g., pharmacy club, Doctors Without Borders) or some clubs you may find interesting (e.g., student government, university activities board, model UN).

A leadership position in one of these clubs allows the pharmacy school admission committee to know that you have a passion for what you do and that you consider yourself a leader.”

You want to make yourself look competitive and desirable.

Step 1.5: Part-time work

Working while taking classes is the classic movie trope, where college students must pay rent and other basic living expenses. However, this is the perfect opportunity for students to take on the role of a pharmacy technician (pharmacy tech) in a hospital or retail pharmacy or another pharmacy-related job. This exposes a potential pharmacy student to pharmacy work before committing to becoming a pharmacist. Working part-time in a pharmacy is also an opportunity to learn about the nuances and medications before pharmacy school, so you have a general background before transitioning into a pharmacy intern (your title is working in a pharmacy while currently enrolled in a PharmD program).

While a part-time job as a pharmacy technician is desirable, you need to be aware that each state has its own requirements for pharmacy technicians. Perhaps one state requires a pharmacy technician to take a technician exam to become certified, while another only requires a certain amount of training hours for pharmacy technicians to be reported to the state board of pharmacy. Wherever you decide to go to school, make yourself familiar with state laws before finding a job.

Some students may have done research as undergrad and would like to continue their projects if they stay at the same school for pharmacy or start a new project for a different school. Others with a passion for the pharmaceutical industry early on may pursue summer pharmacy internships. Another opportunity in a hospital setting includes being a medication historian, documenting patient information and medical history. The job opportunities are endless, and students should consider applying early on.

Step 2: The PCAT and Application Process

The Pharmacy College Admission Test, or the PCAT is just as the name sounds, an entrance exam for pharmacy programs. This computer-based test assesses the knowledge and aptitude of potential pharmacy school applicants. The test is broken into five distinct sections: writing, biological processes, chemical processes, critical reading, and quantitative reasoning. Test-takers are given 30 minutes to complete the written portion and 190 minutes to complete the 192 multiple-choice questions. 

Many pharmacy programs have made the PCAT an optional part of the application process, perhaps more so due to the current pandemic. Some schools have also eliminated the PCAT requirement altogether. Taking the PCAT is an opportunity to show that you understand the material. It is recommended for students who may have struggled with their health science prerequisite courses.

You can use the PharmCAS application portal to research the requirements for each PharmD program you'd like to apply to. Some schools require more supplemental material than others. These include several letters of recommendation, a certain number of credit hours, and additional essays. PharmCAS provides the priority/early admission deadlines and final deadline dates for each participating pharmacy program. If you apply for early admission, remember that your acceptance is binding, meaning you must attend that school. This method requires that you apply before any other deadline.

This would be a smart choice for students committed to one school, but remember that the school may not accept you. Applying for priority admission allows your application to be displayed to the admission committee early on; however, you can still apply to other schools without penalty. Applying for priority admission is an excellent option for those still deciding which program to pursue and who would like to apply to multiple programs.

Candidates will also participate in interviews to gauge communication skills and understanding of pharmacy and to learn about the applicants themselves. 

Step 3: Pharmacy School

The next step is to earn the coveted Doctor of Pharmacy or PharmD from a pharmacy program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. These four years (some schools offer accelerated programs to complete your PharmD in three years) of pharmacy school are perhaps the most important step toward becoming a pharmacist. Not that any other step leading up to this point hasn’t been important, just that now that you have made it here, you must strive to complete the program. Drill into the mind that obtaining a professional degree is challenging and lengthy. Our articles on Is Pharmacy School Hard? and How Long Does it Take to Become a Pharmacist? discuss these topics in greater detail, but I'll cover an introduction below.

Curriculum and Prior Experience

Pharmacy programs offer differently structured curriculums to prepare you to become the best pharmacist. By the end of the program's core academic/didactic years, you should have a solid understanding of medication interactions, drug therapeutics, pharmacology, law, patient advocacy, compounding, laboratory techniques, medication management, etc.

If you have had prior experience as a pharmacy tech, the transition to a pharmacy intern should be seamless. It should not be too difficult for those entering pharmacy school with no experience working in a pharmacy setting, as the PharmD programs do a great job in the first few months of prepping students. An intern will have more responsibilities than a pharmacy technician and will be the pharmacist’s right-hand man/woman.

Interns will learn to counsel patients, give immunizations, communicate with other healthcare professionals to optimize therapies, complete medication therapy management, take and transfer prescriptions, etc. As a pharmacy intern, you will complete most of the pharmacists' tasks under supervision. The real-world experience of working as an intern is as crucial to your development into a pharmacist as the knowledge you gain in the classroom.


One of the most vital aspects of the pharmacy school step is the rotations and experience you gain from them. As noted earlier, pharmacy school is challenging because the program prepares you for real-world experience. In your first three years of pharmacy school, introductory pharmacy practice experience (IPPE) rotations will be dispersed during the school year or in the summer. These are an introduction to interprofessional pharmacy practice in different settings. IPPE rotations expose students early on to help them develop a clear understanding of pharmacy practice.

These experiences are typically assigned to the student and must be completed within a specific time frame to meet hour requirements; the site preceptor may also include additional activities during that time. The final year of the PharmD program is dedicated to full-time advanced pharmacy practice experience (APPE) in various pharmacy settings. Depending on where you go to school, there can be 8-10 rotations, each being 4-6 weeks long.

Most programs will have specific required sites that students must practice at with certain hour thresholds that must be met, most commonly in hospital, community, and ambulatory settings. Programs can also allow students to rank practice sites they want to rotate at. APPE rotations are a continuum of the IPPE rotations and further integrate, apply, and reinforce the knowledge, skills, and abilities you have previously gained during your first three years.

You can use this time to learn about the different types of pharmacists and what sort of practicing pharmacist you want to become.

Step 4: Graduation and Licensure

Having gone through 5-8 years of school to graduate from pharmacy school with the coveted pharmacy degree, the PharmD, you are now ready to earn the title of a pharmacist. The last few steps include completing the North American Pharmacists Licensure Exam (NAPLEX) and Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) or the state-specific law exam. You must apply for the NAPLEX, and the state board of pharmacy will notify you with instructions on completing the next steps to take the exam. Candidates are allowed a maximum of 5 attempts to pass the NAPLEX. 

The National Boards of Pharmacy developed the NAPLEX, which consists of 250 multiple-choice questions designed to test candidates' knowledge. The three distinct sections include managing drug therapy, safely and accurately preparing and dispensing medications, providing drug information, and promoting public health. There is an allotted time of six hours to answer all questions in order. Fifty pretest questions do not affect the score. 

The MPJE, on the other hand, is a 2.5-hour exam comprising 120 questions to test knowledge of pharmacy law. After completing both exams, a pharmacist may start practicing professionally.

Depending on what pharmacy specialty you decide to practice dictates if there are any additional steps you may have to take. These different areas of practice can be saved for a separate discussion. For now, I want you to please enjoy the process of becoming a pharmacist.


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