What's it like being a pharmacist?

​Pharmacists play a critical role in the health care field, providing patients with the medications they need to recover from illnesses and injuries.

Pharmacists play a critical role in the health care field, providing patients with the medications they need to recover from illnesses and injuries. Many pharmacists work in retail or clinical pharmacies, though you can find other potential jobs in academia, the military, research, or pharmaceutical manufacturing. While you'll need a great deal of education to start your career as a pharmacist, this career choice offers a wealth of opportunities. In fact, it appears first on Career Builder's list of top-paying jobs for women.

What does a pharmacist do? Following are all the details you need to know about a job in this field so you can start working toward your future career.

What is a pharmacist and what do they do?

Responsibilities

While your pharmacist job description might change depending on your employer's needs, your primary responsibilities will usually revolve around the management and distribution of medications, medical equipment, and other items your patients might need. Consumers visit pharmacies to fill the prescriptions their physicians write and to learn about the drugs they're supposed to take. Some of your key responsibilities might include:

  • Reviewing prescriptions and patient histories for drug contraindications and incompatibilities.
  • Packaging pharmaceuticals for distribution to patients.
  • Checking dosage levels to ensure proper therapeutic levels.
  • Monitoring the distribution of non-prescription medication that must remain behind the pharmacy counter.
  • Counseling patients on the proper use of medications.
  • Labeling pharmaceuticals with recommendations and warnings for the patient.
  • Consulting with physicians about unclear instructions.
  • Advising patients and customers about the proper over-the-counter medications for specific symptoms or issues.
  • Submitting insurance claims for reimbursement.
  • Managing and educating pharmacy employees.
  • Maintaining pristine records on each patient while ensuring those records' confidentiality.
  • Answering questions from patients about side effects, missed dosages, and other issues as they arise.
  • Administering state-approved vaccines.
  • Learning about new drugs and devices as they come on the market and educating fellow health care professionals about them.

Work Environment

Most pharmacists work in pharmacies, which means they maintain the facility's inventory and work with patients as they arrive. Some pharmacists must stand for long periods of time while they consult with patients and fill orders, though many activities can be performed while seated.

While a single pharmacist might staff a small pharmacy by his or herself, most pharmacists work with other professionals. Pharmacy technicians and assistants, for instance, might help stock the shelves, unbox pharmaceuticals, take phone calls, and perform other administrative tasks. Consequently, a pharmacist's work environment can prove quite social.

For pharmacists who work outside retail pharmacies, the work environment can vary widely. An academic pharmacist, for instance, might work in an office as well as a classroom, educating others on pharmaceuticals and other aspects of the job. Meanwhile, a home care pharmacist visits patients in their homes, advising them about their treatment regimens, assisting with their nutritional needs, and helping to administer medications. These professionals also sometimes work for nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, home care agencies, and other businesses that cater to individual patients' needs.

Schedule

Pharmacists typically work full-time jobs, though some split their time between multiple pursuits. For instance, an academic pharmacist might lecture part-time, then spend the rest of her work days in the pharmacy. Additionally, some of these professionals work significant overtime, especially in small retail venues where they alone are responsible for keeping the business open.

Since patients need prescriptions at all hours of the day and night, some pharmacies stay open 24 hours a day. At these locations, a pharmacist might work overnight, during the day, or a combination of the two. Flexibility in your schedule might open up more job opportunities, which can become beneficial, especially when "graveyard shift" positions offer better pay.

However, many pharmacists work traditional hours, such as 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. A set schedule works best for professionals who have other commitments and responsibilities.

What qualifications are required to be a pharmacist?

Education

If you want to pursue a career as a pharmacist, you'll need a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree as well as a license to practice in your state. While you can work in a pharmacy with only a high school education or bachelor's degree, you can't work autonomously as a pharmacist unless you hold this advanced professional degree.

During your undergraduate study, you can focus on a major or concentration in science or math, such as chemistry, biology, physics, or biomedical science. You'll then apply to the pharmacy education program of your choice.

It takes four years to earn your Pharm.D., during which you'll participate in a clerkship or internship under the tutelage of a licensed pharmacist. This clinical experience will prepare you for your future career and help you better understand your responsibilities in this role. After you graduate, you might consider taking a fellowship to learn a specialized skill. For instance, if you're interested in running a compounding pharmacy, a fellowship will provide you with more education in this area.

Experience

If you have your pharmacist license, you can begin practicing immediately. However, you might have better career opportunities after you gain some experience. The largest group of pharmacists (32 percent) have between six and 10 years of experience, while only 10 percent have between zero and two years' experience under their belts.

If you want an introduction to this career field, consider working as a pharmacy technician or assistant while you complete your education. This hands-on training might help you make contacts and gain experience that will help you down the road.

Skills

Pharmacists with the following skills will find it easier to gain employment and to move up in their careers.

  • EHR (electronic health record) knowledge: An increasing number of pharmacies are adopting EHRs and keeping all of their records electronically. For instance, more than 8,200 Walgreens locations use them.
  • Pill-counting machine operation: Most pharmacists use pill-counting machines to ensure that each prescription is filled accurately.
  • Communication skills: You must know how to communicate clearly and precisely so patients understand their medications.
  • Memorization skills: You'll have to memorize hundreds of medications (both their brand names and their generic names) as well as data about each.
  • Supervisory skills: Many pharmacists manage large departments and must delegate tasks, educate their staff, and manage schedules.
  • Language skills: Multilingual pharmacists might have more job opportunities because they can communicate with a wider range of patients.
  • Research skills: The ability to research drug interactions, new pharmaceuticals, and other facets of the industry will prove particularly useful.
  • Listening skills: When patients ask questions or express confusion, pharmacists must accurately identify the problem and help find a solution.
  • Stress-management skills: Pharmacies can be fast-paced and stressful environments, so pharmacists have to know how to manage their stress levels and work effectively under pressure. This is especially true in a clinical setting.

Salary expectations

If you're thinking about a career in this field, you're probably asking, "How much do pharmacists make?"

The median salary for a pharmacist is $120,950 per year in the United States, though salary expectations can vary widely depending on where you live. For instance, professionals who live in Gadsden, Alabama;, and Fresno, California, earn higher wages than those in other parts of the country. In Santa Cruz, California, the average annual salary jumps to more than $164,000.

Additionally, U.S. News and World Report indicates that the highest-paying careers for pharmacists exist in research and development. In these positions, pharmacists find new ways to use, market, package, or manufacture pharmaceuticals. However, you can still find good-paying jobs if you're more interested in a job in a retail setting. You might consider working for a chain or for an independently owned establishment.

For more info on what you can expect to make as a pharmacist, check out these insights.

Job outlook for pharmacists

Projected growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for pharmacists is projected at a three-percent rate of growth. While this is slower than average for all careers, it's possible that the growth rate will pick up as more people take advantage of new health insurance opportunities. Additionally, with the expanding population, more people will need health care as well as prescription medications.

The BLS reports that the United States will see more than 9,000 new jobs created for pharmacists between 2014 and 2024. As of 2014, there are 297,100 total jobs available in this profession.

Career trajectory

Many pharmacists find new opportunities for growth once they gain experience in clinical, academic, or research settings. For instance, you might start as a pharmacist in a large chain pharmacy, then work your way up to a management or executive position. In a research position, you could gain the opportunity to head a division or to design your own research.

Additionally, some pharmacists become consultants, helping other pharmaceutical professionals advance in their careers. Consultants often work for themselves and therefore have more control over their earning potential. This also gives you a chance to work with a wider range of professionals, from pharmaceutical sales representatives to physicians.

A career as a pharmacist allows you to help your patients live fuller, richer lives thanks to the medications you dispense. If you're thinking about a job in health care, start searching for your next job today.