Do you dream of becoming a pharmacist? Pharmacy is a wonderful career for so many reasons. You are able to help patients get well, and work directly with them to help them understand their treatments. There are a variety of career opportunities and work environments to choose from, and the pay is wonderful. Pharmacists are needed everywhere, which means you may be able to live anywhere you want in the country or around the globe. But pharmacy is not an easy field to enter into! To become a pharmacist, you must first attend pharmacy school. Pharmacy school is traditionally four to six years in length, and you must first complete a four-year degree or a couple of years of pre-pharmacy school.
If you are thinking of becoming a pharmacist, but are unsure yet whether you are ready to take the plunge, you may be wondering what it is really like to go to one of the top pharmacy schools. Just how hard is it to learn all the skills you need to become a pharmacist? We decided to do some research and find out what real-life pharmacy students and graduates had to say about their time going to pharmacy school.
Two Main Options: Four (Eight) or Six Years
There are a few variations on program structure for pharmacy school, but one thing that is essential to know off the top is that there are two main ways that pharmacy school is structured. The first is a four-year course. In reality, though, this is actually eight full years of schooling. After high school, you go to an undergraduate university to earn a four-year degree. Only then do you apply for pharmacy school, which is another four years, for a total of eight.
The other main option is to instead go to a six-year school right out of high school. The first two years are pre-pharmacy, and the last four are the standard four years you can expect. The first three are generally conducted mostly in a classroom environment, and the last is an internship or residency.
What Will You Study?
If you go to a four-year college for an undergraduate degree, what you will study depends on your major. Note that you can get away with a two- or three-year degree at some schools, but others give a definite priority to four-year degrees. You do not have to major in “pre-pharmacy,” or even in chemistry, though this is a very common choice. Students are accepted from a wide variety of programs, however. You can study anything from biology to communications to English to astronomy. In terms of admissions, you simply need to explain why your undergraduate major was a good preparation. Consider a field like communications. This is more applicable than you might initially think. Pharmacists, after all, must not only be good at science, but also working with patients. Communication prepares you for the human end of things.
Once you begin your actual pharmacy program, you will take classes specifically designed to prepare you for work as a professional pharmacist. You will discover that the classes are biology intensive, which is one reason why biology may be a great alternative to chemistry as a “pre-pharmacy” major. Both will help prepare you for a tough curriculum. Most of your biology classes will focus on subjects like genetics, microbiology, and pharmacology, as well as general anatomy and physiology. Many pharmacy students advise that you take as many classes in subjects like these as you can before you get into pharmacy school, while you are still an undergraduate, even if it brings down your GPA. Biochemistry I and II are also highly recommended courses at the undergraduate level. Why? Courses like these may make you look like a more viable option to the admissions boards, and will better prepare you for pharmacy school. You have a much better chance of hanging in there through your first couple semesters if you have some of these classes already under your belt.
Many students report that the classes are incredibly tough right from the start. Brandy Gartman, a graduate from the University of Louisiana-Monroe College of Pharmacy, puts it like this: “Even though I consider myself a better than average student, I have had to study very hard all the time in order to keep up with everything… Each class in pharmacy school is as hard as your toughest class as an undergraduate.”
Every pharmacy program is different, and some programs may differ more in structure than others. You will spend the first couple of years taking a lot of science classes, as described above. In your third year, you may switch to a therapeutic focus. In other words, you will start learning how you can take all that scientific knowledge and put it into practice to help people heal.
In your third year, you may also begin participating in Introductory Pharmacy Practice Experiences (IPPEs). These are brief internships which will introduce you to real-world pharmaceutical practices. They also count toward your intern hours. You must accumulate a certain number of these (it varies by state) in order to become a licensed pharmacist.
During your fourth and final year at pharmacy school, you will start participating in Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPEs). Each APPE is a rotation, usually lasting around five to six weeks. During your rotations, you will spend time in different pharmaceutical environments. One might be at a hospital, another in a clinic, another at a chain store, and so on. Usually, you will be able to select at least one elective rotation on top of your required APPEs. On top of all that, you will likely be working an internship outside of your APPE residencies. Generally, this is a part-time job you get paid for, but as any pharmaceutical student will tell you, it is quite a lot to juggle.
What Are the Exams Like?
Once you manage to pass all your classes and graduate, you will need to get ready to take your board exams. There are two. The first is known as NAPLEX, which stands for the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination. This exam will cover your general knowledge.
The second is a law exam specific to your state. With this exam, you will test your knowledge of handling and distribution as well as the disposal of drugs according to your state’s laws. This is one reason it is a great idea to go to school in a state where you want to work, if you can! It makes it a lot less stressful to prepare for your second licensing exam, and you will have an easier time finding a job locally in all likelihood since you have spent your third and fourth years doing a ton of networking. Just keep in mind that the pharmaceutical career is growing at an average rate, and that means that some job markets are well-saturated. Be sure to investigate demand before you choose the city you plan to live and work in. Once you manage to pass those exams, you have done it—you have become a licensed pharmacist, and you should be ready to embark on your new career!
What will your new career be like? That depends entirely on your focus and your goals. Many students enter pharmacy school assuming that they will be working for a retail pharmacy company like Rite Aid or CVS when they graduate. But what students discover is that there is a great deal more options than that. You may be able to work at a hospital, a clinic, a lab or another setting. You may work with patients or with other businesses, or you may even work in a government bureau.
Pharmacy students who have graduated from pharmacy programs will typically tell you the same couple of things over and over again. The first is that any pharmacy program is incredibly intense, and you will have to learn outstanding time management skills in order to handle all the coursework, residency, and internship requirements. The second is that, despite those challenges, it is doable. After all, hundreds of thousands of pharmacists have done it before you. And that means that you can do it, too. For the dedicated, driven student who truly has a passion for pharmaceutical science, pharmacy school can be an intense but incredible experience, one which leads to an equally rewarding career.