For many people, the COVID-19 crisis has instilled an extra sense of appreciation for the men and women who serve in the United States healthcare system. And pharmacists play a key role in that system.
In addition to ensuring that prescriptions are filled appropriately, pharmacists educate patients about how to take their medications and any potential drug side effects or interactions. Many pharmacists are even involved in direct patient care, including administering vaccinations and conducting medical tests.
But while the important day to day work of a pharmacist may be fulfilling, becoming one does take a lot of time, work and money. According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the average pharmacist graduates with over $172,000 in student debt.
In this guide, we’ll explain how to become a pharmacist and how the education and training requirements compare to what a pharmacist can expect to earn annually. We’ll also discuss how to save money on pharmacy school and managing student loan debt.
Average pharmacist salary
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median annual wage for all pharmacists in 2018 was $126,120. Salaries can vary slightly depending on where exactly pharmacists choose to work. Here is the average pharmacist salary for the top industries:
- General merchandise stores: $131,460
- Food and beverage stores: $130,140
- Hospitals; state, local, and private: $127,330
- Pharmacies and drug stores: $124,760
Unfortunately, the BLS estimates that the pharmacist job market is expected to see little to no growth over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, an influx of new pharmacy schools have opened their doors in recent years.
With little job growth expected and more pharmacists entering the workforce than ever before. The industry is facing a serious supply and demand problem. Job shortages could be an issue for the foreseeable future. Learn more about the pharmacist job outlook.
How to become a pharmacist
If you want to be a pharmacist, you’ll need to take these three main steps:
1. Earn your PharmaD degree
All pharmacists must earn their Doctor of Pharmacy degree from a school that’s been accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE).
Most PharmaD programs will require at least two years of undergraduate study before they’ll consider a student’s application. But, for many programs, you’ll need to complete your bachelor’s degree before applying. The school may also require you to take the Pharmacy College Admissions Test.
Most PharmaD programs take four years to complete, but there are exceptions. Some programs offer a three-year accelerated program, while others offer a six-year completion track for students who enter the program immediately after high school.
2. Complete a residency program (optional)
Unlike medical doctors, not all pharmacists are required to attend a residency or fellowship. You may need to complete one if you want to work in clinical pharmacy or research, however. Also, completing a residency program could improve your chance of landing the top jobs in your field.
Pharmacists can choose to spend one or two years in post-graduate residency. A PGY-1 program offers generalized practice and training, while a PGY-2 residency focuses more on your specific practice speciality.
So, how long does it take to become a pharmacist? If you’re able to get accepted to an accelerated program and you choose to skip residency, you could be working as a pharmacist in as little as six years. But other students could spend up to 10 years of education and training (a four-year bachelor’s degree plus a four-year PharmaD degree plus a two-year residency) before entering the workforce.
3. Pass the NAPLEX and other required licensure exams
Once you’ve completed your PharmaD program, you’ll need to pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX). You’ll also be required to pass the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) or an alternative state-licensure exam.
Technically, these are the only two exams that you must pass in order to begin your pharmacist practice. You may need to meet additional pharmacist requirements depending on the type of work you plan to do.
In order to give flu shots, for example, you’ll typically need to be certified through the Pharmacy-Based Immunization Delivery program. And if you want to earn a certification in any other specialty area, you’ll need to meet the applicable qualification guidelines of the certification board.
Pharmacist schooling options
Currently, there are 143 ACPE-accredited pharmacy schools. The average PharmaD student graduates with a huge student debt load of over $172,000.There are ways to save and reduce debt.
One of the best ways to decrease the cost of pharmacy school is to choose a public university. According to the ACCP, the median student debt for public university PharmaD grads was $140,000 while private university students graduated with a median debt load of $200,000. So, that one decision alone will save the average pharmacy school graduate $60,000.
To save even more, try to choose an in-state public university. Most pharmacy schools offer a lower tuition rate for state residents. See each school’s in-state and out-of-state tuition rates.
In-state discounts are most impressive in states that offer a lot of higher education funding, like Montana, Texas and Wyoming.
Pharmacist debt vs. job outlook
Even if you attend one of the cheapest schools, pharmacy school debt is dangerously high, while the job outlook is not nearly as positive. Travis Hornsby, founder of Student Loan Planner, said that he’s personally seen that, “Lots of people are having trouble getting jobs after graduating with a pharmacy degree.”
And that could make trying to pay off over $170,000 in student debt even more difficult and stressful. In short, if money is your main concern when it comes to your career path, becoming a pharmacist is probably not your best choice.
But as Hornsby says, “If you love pharmacy enough that, if the job market gets worse and you’re making 30% less in five years, you’ll still enjoy your job, it might be an option.”
Get help with your pharmacy school debt
Have you already graduated with a massive amount of pharmacy school debt? Don’t panic. You can save money moving forward.
If you work for a private drug store or clinic, refinancing could be a good option. But if you choose to work at a state-run or nonprofit hospital, pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness could be an excellent choice.
Student Loan Planner can help you decide which repayment strategy is best for your specific situation. Our advisors have consulted a large number of pharmacists with an average debt load of $213,000.
In total, our Student Loan Planner consultants have helped over 3,600 borrowers find an average of over $47,000 in projected savings each. And we’d love to help you too. Book a consultation today.