My road to pharmacy school was by no means a straight path. I had planned on working in psychology and even focused on that in college, but after graduating I realized that wasn’t the right area for me. I tried a few different jobs to see if another industry was right: publishing, commercial banking, and working for a health insurance company. That’s when I became interested in health care and pharmacy. Like medical school, if you want to be a pharmacist you have to take some classes in advance of actually attending pharmacy school. You can do this one of two ways. First, if you’re sure you want to be a pharmacist when you’re in high school you can apply to six-year pharmacy programs. The first two years you take prerequisite/required courses (two semesters of biology, two semesters of general chemistry, two semesters of organic chemistry, one or two semester of physics and calculus, and then English, history and social science classes). Then in the last four years of the program you go through the traditional pharmacy school curriculum. The second way to become a pharmacist is to first graduate from a four-year college and then apply to pharmacy school for a four-year program. That’s what I did. When I was in college I had taken a few courses that were needed for pharmacy school, but then I took some more to round out my application before taking the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT). The PCAT is a standardized test you have to take to apply to most pharmacy school programs. The test covers verbal and quantitative ability, reading comprehension, and chemistry and biology so you need to take the prerequisite classes before sitting for it. You really only have to take this exam if you apply to a four-year program. For a six-year program, you will likely only have to take the SAT or ACT.
OK, so after all the pre-pharmacy work is done you have to apply to a program. If a school likes your application and thinks you have the potential to make it through their program, they will want to get to know even more about you. They may invite you to visit them at the school for face-to-face interviews. After you have turned in all of your applications and completed any interviews you were invited to, there is nothing more to do but wait to hear where you’ve been accepted. Hopefully you wind up being accepted to multiple places so you will have some choices to make about where to go. Then comes the most important part: getting through four years of pharmacy school. I’m not going to lie, pharmacy school can be tough at times, but I began to see the silver lining of my decision to go into pharmacy as I became aware of all the career options available. Pharmacists can do a lot more than work at a local drug store (though there’s nothing wrong with that and it pays extremely well, too). But let’s talk more on career options later, let’s focus on the nuts-and-bolts of pharm school for now.
For the first three years I took about five classes a term and would be at school starting around 9 or 10 am. My first two years I took mostly science classes, such as biochemistry, pharmacology, and medicinal chemistry. In my third year these were replaced by courses with a therapeutic focus (therapeutic basically means we learned about different medicines and HOW we can us them to make people feel better when they are sick) so we would learn how drugs interact with different diseases to improve health. This was in addition to taking pharmacology (the study of how a drug makes a body work better and a person not be sick) all three years, along with completing Introductory Pharmacy Practice Experiences (IPPEs), or short internships in the field. IPPEs were important because they not only gave you real-life experience, but they also count towards the amount of intern hours you need to earn before you can officially become a pharmacist when you graduate. Each US state has a different rule for how many intern hours you need to earn, but they come from your IPPEs, your intern hours (you have to spend some of your spare time working in a pharmacy as an intern – fortunately, you get paid for this work since it’s a part-time job), and finally your Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPEs). In your fourth year of pharmacy school you have to complete your APPEs. These are five- to six-week rotations in different areas of pharmacy, such as an inpatient (hospital) rotation, ambulatory rotation (where you work in a clinic or doctor’s office), community rotation (where you work in a chain or independent pharmacy), direct patient care rotation (oftentimes in an actual hospital where you provide direct counseling and support to patients and doctors), and finally an elective. I chose to use my elective to work for a pharmacy marketing firm, but you can also work for a pharmaceutical company or wherever else interests you where a pharmacist can work.
Finally, once APPEs are over it’s time to graduate and prepare for the pharmacy board exam. Similar to medical school and law school, in order to work in certain professions, you have to pass an exam. For pharmacy you have to pass two. One exam, called the NAPLEX (the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination), is the same throughout the nation and tests your general pharmacy knowledge, while the second test is the law exam that is state-specific and tests your knowledge of the proper handling, distribution, and disposal of drugs. In addition to having to pass the boards to be a pharmacist you also need to have the required number of intern hours, but again you get those through your IPPEs, intern hours (the part-time job you can work during pharmacy school) and APPEs. And that’s it. I know it’s a lot. You definitely have to be good at managing your time– which can be a challenge– but so many people have done it before you so there’s no reason why you can’t make it through too. And don’t forget about all the career options available to you once you’re a full-fledge pharmacist—that’s the fun part and why I’m happy I decided to become a pharmacist.
Like so many people I thought being a pharmacist meant either working for CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreen’s, or whatever dug store you could think of, but pharmacists are in many other places. Aside from working in the community at a local drug store, you can find many pharmacists (and this should be no surprise) in hospitals. Like their drugstore counterparts they help make sure patients are taking a safe combination of drugs and even make suggestions or approve physician’s orders since pharmacists are considered the experts on medications. Taking this one step further, pharmacists who work in ambulatory settings, like a clinic or as part of a doctor’s office, can actually have appointments all on their own to see patients so they can monitor the side effects of medications and how well it is working.
There are even options to use your Doctorate of Pharmacy (Pharm.D) degree in roles where you don’t work directy with patients one-on-one, such as in roles where you are more on the business side of pharmaceuticals. Some pharmacists work for pharmaceutical companies (drug-makers) and explain new medications to physicians, marketing new products. Other pharmacists can work for an insurance company and set policies for which drugs the insurer should pay for because they’re the most effective for their patients. Pharmacists can get into these roles right out of school, but many go through a one-year residency program. You can apply to residency programs your last year of pharm school. Residency programs help you to specialize in a particular area of pharmacy (like the ones I’ve already mentioned), allowing more experience working in a particular pharmacy setting.
Knowing about all the places a Pharm.D can take you was the biggest perception change for me. Pharmacists are involved in a lot of health decisions and are an important part of the health care team. That’s not to say you can’t get involved in other ways. I originally became a pharmacy technician the year or two before I got into pharmacy school. A pharmacy technician is the person who actually counts the pills and labels the prescriptions we get from a community setting and makes most of the IV medicines in hospitals (the pharmacist largely checks this and speaks with patients so they know what to do). In other words, pharmacy technicians act as the hands for the pharmacists; preparing the hundreds of prescriptions that come in every day. You can become a pharmacy technician after getting a high school diploma, but usually for a job you also have to be certified by sitting for the pharmacy technician certification exam. You can even take a quick course to prepare you for the exam.
Becoming a pharmacist or pharmacy technician is a commitment. There are classes to take, tests to pass, and hours of working experience to gain. I say it’s worth it, but if you want to be sure I say talk to your local pharmacist and find out how they like it. You can ask to shadow (i.e. spend the day with) the pharmacist and pharmacy technician just to get a sense of what it’s all about before you decide to pursue it. Trying it out is the best way to see if it’s for you.
Jennifer is a pharmacist finishing up a residency program working for a pharmacy insurance company (also called pharmacy benefit management, or PBM) where she helps determine what drugs should be covered by insurance plans for certain diseases. In her spare time she loves singing, researching her family tree and spending time with friends and family.
Bureau of Labor Statistics – Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition:
This role isn’t discussed in the profile but it’s another career to consider within the world of medications: Pharmaceutical Scientist
Career One Stop:
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DITLP Training Game:
You’re a pharmacist at a community drug store. A customer who you know has been coming to the pharmacy for years arrives with a new prescription for Methimazole – a drug used to treat hyperthyroidism which is when the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormone resulting in fatigue and other symptoms. You put in the prescription and see that the patient is also on warfarin– a medication used to thin the blood to avoid clots (blood clots can lead to stroke, heart attack). You know that Methimazole interacts with warfarin: it makes warfarin less effective. What would you do?
- Call the patient’s doctor and suggest another drug to treat the hyperthyroidism that wouldn’t hurt the effectiveness of the warfarin.
- Call the patient’s doctor to suggest that the dosage of warfarin be increased so that even with the Methimazole, the higher dose of warfarin will have the same effect for the patient.