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Is Pharmacy School Hard?

Published on: Nov 6, 2022
By: Jim Herbst, PharmD, BCPPS
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How Hard is Pharmacy School?

For all the societal hype about medical school, getting into pharmacy school can be just as hard. You might be at the point where you’re ready to apply to pharmacy school or - having already been admitted - having second thoughts. Perhaps you’re considering whether or not to take the pharmacy college admission test (PCAT) or weighing whether to apply for a pharmacy program through an early assurance pathway. You’re at a crossroads because the thought of pharmacy school being too hard has infiltrated your mind. You’ve heard that medical school is hard, but what about pharmacy school?

So, is there a definitive yes or no answer to the question of “is pharmacy school hard?” To put it simply, the answer is yes. But there’s more to that. It’s hard but doesn’t have to be as hard if you avoid common pitfalls and learn to adjust.

The stakes are high because it’s one of the most important jobs across regions, states, and countries. We’re talking about a professional program that depending on where you are can be 3-4 years in length. You’ve been through the high school and college experience, taking approximately 2-4 years to get to pharmacy school and deep down you are thinking that this is the same process and if you could survive the college undergraduate years, pharmacy school will be the same.

For some, that is the reality of it; they have always excelled at school and their passion for pharmacy can guide them to their end goal with no hiccups. However, for a majority of PharmD candidates, this could be the toughest schooling they will ever have to go through.

We’re not saying you should drop a pursuit to be a pharmacist any longer because of the difficulty.

Pharmacy school is hard for the reason that the curriculum is to help mold you into the best possible pharmacist. The goal is to challenge you mentally and sometimes physically to bring out the best of you. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, the experience of progressing through pharmacy school can be enjoyable and well worth it.

It’s worth repeating: know that pharmacy school requires an additional 4 years of coursework after you have completed your prerequisite classes. 

Now depending on which PharmD program you decide to enroll in, your curriculum can be structured differently. Regardless of where you end up, the course load will be one of the most challenging parts of pharmacy school. Prior to entering pharmacy school, you most likely took some of the more basic courses such as entry levels of chemistry, biology, biochemistry, math, and physics. Throw in some more general elective courses here and there and that would round out your prerequisite requirements needed for pharmacy school.

Then you have your classes that satisfy the requirements needed for your specific major/degree. Perhaps you already have a degree in health science, public health, or pharmaceutical science. Most of the prerequisite courses give you a broad understanding of the general life sciences without having immerse yourself too deeply

Pharmacy school (you’ll quickly learn) is entirely different from previous schooling. As a PharmD candidate, you'll take more demanding courses that are comprehensive of all sciences including chemistry (physical, organic), biochemistry, human physiology, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology, etc. A pharmacist must have the knowledge to know how a certain medication functions in the body and its effects in certain situations. Additionally, you must understand the laws regulating the administration of drugs. 

You probably thought that pharmacy school was all about science, however, there are so many legal/regulatory factors in pharmacy that you must be knowledgeable in as well. It’s a topic many don’t tend to raise even though it is an important part of your curriculum. While the laws differ between states, it’s important to know that regardless of where you practice that the distribution of medications is highly regulated (controlled substances and non-controlled substances). A hospital pharmacist may need to follow a different set of regulations than a community pharmacist and an industry pharmacist. That doesn’t change the fact that the medications need to be verified multiple times before arriving in the hands of the patient.

While you aren’t pursuing a business degree (some programs offer joint PharmD/MBA), as a pharmacist you could be responsible for the growth of the pharmacy, especially in a community setting. As a pharmacist you need to understand that you will be looked up to as a leader and that the expectations of training pharmacy technicians and medication ordering will fall upon your shoulders. Remember, there are certain boundaries in which you may practice and not  practice outside of your scope. Like any profession, understand these regulations.  

You should expect the first year of pharmacy school to be an overview, with a course load that refreshes you on the prerequisite courses, general laboratory work/etiquette, introduction to law and pharmacology.  You’ll also be introduced to the practice of pharmacy through the introductory pharmacy practice experience component of the curriculum during this year.  

Your second and third years emphasize the drug therapeutics and focus in-depth on specific disease states. As you progress through the first three years, expect the number of assignments/projects to increase and the frequency of knowledge checks (quizzes and exams) to increase as well. This is not the PharmD program just throwing all of this upon you because they want to; this is for your benefit as it culminates in you being best prepared for the 4th year, your advanced pharmacy practice experience rotations.

Overcoming the Challenges of Pharmacy School Courses

So how does one overcome the challenge of a PharmD course curriculum with a high degree of difficulty load? By adopting new study methods, attending classes, and learning with others far beyond the experience you had in undergrad. Chances are that the study habits you have had during your time in undergrad won’t help as much during pharmacy school. Just like a pharmacist that needs to quickly adapt to a new situation or environment, a pharmacy student must be the same.

Actively look for and try new study methods. Remember to go to class regardless of the lecture being recorded for the future. You’re actively learning the material while having the opportunity to interact with the professor and other students during that time. Also, form a study group even if you have been a solo act during your college tenure. Being able to listen to and test each other on materials is one of the best ways to learn material and you get to be social as well. Use the first year of pharmacy school as an opportunity to explore apps, study methods, and new spaces that promote you absorbing the material faster.

Time management. It’s something people struggle with and seems to be some sort of art form that needs to be mastered. You’ve already spent a good amount of your day in class and now you’re on your way to attend the general body meetings for one or more of your student organizations, and after that you are scheduled for a part-time shift at your pharmacy job. When is there time to study for that exam or work on that paper? It does seem odd that on top of such a challenging course load, many students are still holding part-time jobs, conducting research, taking care of a family, and participating in student organizations. 

Let’s break this down. Extracurricular activities and student organizations are an investment in your own education and in yourself. As a first-year pharmacy student, you are encouraged to participate in many different organizations to find your interest in the different areas of pharmacy. There are a plethora of organizations that focus on different practices of pharmacy, so the exposure early on in your pharmacy school career allows you to narrow down which organizations you truly want to be involved in, elective courses you want to take, and what future job you may want to pursue.

That brings us to a small topic known as networking. Perhaps this may be new to you, or you may have done a little networking prior. Even if you don’t find an interest in a particular organization, talk with the members to gain insight. Make lasting impressions with those that you talk to and reach out to guest speakers. Schools will have career fairs that allow for the opportunity to speak with recruiters and employers. Even as a younger pharmacy student, you can establish relationships and connections that can help bolster your future in pharmacy. There is a classic saying, “pharmacy is a small world,” and it truly is. Your connections will start to branch out and will take you a long way.

Upon admission to pharmacy school, some students may have already held a part-time position within a pharmacy, a research lab, or another healthcare-related site. Others will have to look for new openings as the beginning of the school year is a ripe time for companies to hire. The experience you gain outside the classroom and having the opportunity to apply your knowledge in the real-world is invaluable. However, extra time spent at work means less time spent on school, making pharmacy school just that much harder. There is that fine line there; maintaining a job requires diligence and the ability to manage and adjust accordingly.

Staying organized and managing your time wisely throughout your pharmacy education ultimately prepares you for once you are out of school. You’re going to become a full-time pharmacist, potentially start a family early on, and have social outings with friends. With school, you can become easily overwhelmed, however there are tools that can help you manage. Use a calendar, whether it be physical or electronic to keep track of important meetings and work schedules. Plan for certain events such as exams and projects so that you may reschedule shifts at work. Learning to properly manage time takes time to master; give yourself the opportunity early in your pharmacy school career to explore ways to manage your time.

With any professional education, there come challenges and harder courses. For those students seeking to pursue pharmacy, you should not fear failure. While there is no doubt that the factors above can be daunting in your progression through pharmacy school; there are strategies that you can use to help overcome the hardships. Pharmacy is a profession that continues to grow and evolve and is a great opportunity for those wanting to seek a career in healthcare. 

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