Prescription for Success

by Cathy Sivak
Prescription for Success

An introduction to pharmacy schools, education & careers

April 25, 2005

Educational Choices | Financial Considerations | Pharmacy-related Courses

Advances in medical science have led to lengthier and healthier average lifespans. Federal government healthcare plans will supply medications to seniors starting in 2006. Like many professional career paths with a full complement of veterans nearing retirement age, the field of pharmacy is seeking new devotees at a rate faster than they can be trained.

"People are living longer and as a result, are requiring more healthcare management and medication. Our students are heavily recruited," says Lori Morin, assistant dean for student affairs at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mont.

"There has never been a better time for students to consider a rewarding career in pharmacy," says Norida Torriente, director of communications for Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. "The demand for trained pharmacy professionals has exploded in recent years due the rapid growth of the health care and pharmaceutical industries, especially for the growing elderly population. The number of pharmacists in health care services is also increasing as pharmacists become more actively involved in drug therapy decision-making for patients of all ages."

The four-year Bachelor's of Science degree in pharmacy is being phased out, and currently a rigorous six- to seven-year education is required to attain the Doctorate of Pharmacy degree, typically referred to as the Pharm.D. "Every program in the nation is tough. Students need to have a certain aptitude and they need to be committed, motivated and mature. It's not easy," Morin warns.

Financial rewards are a consideration for entering any line of work, however, Jill Bates, a third-year Pharm.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), notes that it should not be the driving factor. "Successful completion of pharmacy school requires dedication, perseverance, motivation and hard-work. As such, if a person is applying to pharmacy school because they believe that a pharmacist makes a decent salary, then I would caution this person not to apply for solely that reason. Pharmacy school is too large of a commitment to be justified solely by that train of thought," she says.

Educational Choices

Two full-time student tracks to attain the Pharm.D. are common. One track requires two years of pre-pharmacy, with the coursework available at virtually any college or university; students then apply separately to enter a four-year Pharm.D program. The other track is a six-year program which students enter straight out of high school. Some universities also offer accelerated programs with varying schedules, typically five school years and a summer session.

"All of these tracks will prepare students for what are considered entry-level pharmacy career paths in a diverse field, from community pharmacists to hospitals to health insurance organizations research to industry to regulatory bodies to the military," Morin says. However, a seventh year of schooling in the form of a residency may come into play for those seeking to enter pharmaceutical research or academic careers.

Scholastic track choices aside, a license to practice pharmacy is required in all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. All states require the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX), and all states except California require the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE); pharmacists in California must pass the California Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam. Exams are administered by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP). In addition to the NAPLEX and MPJE, some states require additional exams.

In addition to common college considerations such as location and campus atmosphere, potential Pharm.D. students should research the school in areas such as graduate pass rates on the national board exam and low student/faculty ratio, Morin says. She notes that at the clinical teaching level, student/faculty ratios are often one to two students per instructor. The availability of research facilities is also a consideration, particularly for those who plan to go into non-retail pharmacy career paths.

"The curriculum is extremely important to look at," UIC's Bates notes. She also urges prospective pharmacy students to visit schools and to talk with current students to get a real feel for the campus and its offerings. A former teacher, Bates took a non-traditional route to the UIC program, first attaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology with an emphasis in Biology, then a Master of Science with a concentration in Biochemistry and Biophysics. "Ask questions: Does it have an obvious emphasis? If so, are you interested in that area of pharmacy?"

Typically those enrolled in the pre-pharmacy program are guaranteed a slot in the Pharm.D. program at the same school, notes UIC Pharm.D. student David Shapera. He is what many would term a non-traditional student - he will be 40 when he completes the program, and already holds a Bachelor's Degree as well as work towards a Master's degree in neurobiology. Like many pharmacy school students planning to enter the retail sector, he works as a pharmacy technician at a major drug store chain.

Having an assured slot in a Pharm.D. program can be very important, as competition to get into Pharm.D. programs can be so strong that schools, including UIC, are considering making a bachelor's degree mandatory for admittance, Shapera says. "At UIC, there are 161 spots available to those entering the program - three years ago, there were 640 applicants, two years ago 970 applicants and this year there were nearly 1,500 applicants," he says.

Whatever your school of choice, Pharm.D. coursework will include diverse classes including mathematics; heavily science-based such as chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, therapeutics and environmental factors; and other areas such as management, administration and public speaking. See the sidebar for a class by class description of Pharm.D. coursework required at UIC, which is typical of all accredited programs.

"You have to be comfortable with highly-technical study that requires massive amounts of memorization covering a broad spectrum of materials," Shapera says. "Most students put in a lot of hours of studying in addition to class time. I actually found grad school to be easier!"

Doctor of Pharmacy Curriculum Example

Course Topics May Include:

  • Fundamentals of Drug Action
  • Human Physiology and Pathophysiology
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Roles, Environments, and Communications
  • Human Physiology and Pathophysiology II
  • Pharmacokinetics
  • Principles of Drug Action and Therapeutics
  • Contemporary Pharmacy Practice
  • Pharmacy Systems Management
  • Drug Information and Statistics
  • Social and Behavioral Pharmacy
  • Pharmacy Law
  • Pharmacy Services and Reimbursement
  • Non-Prescription Pharmaceuticals and Herbal Medicinals
  • Principles of Pharmacoeconomics and Drug Treatment Outcomes
  • Internships/Externships*

*Covering topics areas such as ambulatory care, community practice, hospital, critical care, drug information, geriatrics, kinetics, pediatrics, and more.

One variable in choosing a school might be the actual design of the coursework, as each organizes classes differently. For example, at UIC, a 'by-disease' approach is used for exploring the physiology of the disease, drug therapies and corresponding potential interactions with other medications, Shapera notes. Other schools may separate coursework into different tracks.

"In many ways, pharmacy school is very similar to medical school. The big differences are the time commitment and educational focus: those attending medical school focus more heavily on diagnostics, while those in pharmacy school focus on therapies," Shapera says. "Generally, Pharm.D. programs are teaching more than the average person needs to know to be a retail pharmacist."

The College of Pharmacy at the University of Houston in Texas offers guidelines to high school students seeking more information on Pharm.D. programs, and suggests high school students take all of the math and science classes available, including physics and calculus, to prepare students for Pharm.D. courses.

Financial Considerations

While some Pharm.D. programs have a supplementary fee to facilitate laboratory work and the need for numerous instructors to give students close attention at the clinical teaching level, others roll the costs into the tuition. "The nature of providing a professional degree is somewhat beyond your average English degree," Morin says.

Don't let funding become an obstacle. The U.S. Department of Education will provide about 70 percent of all student aid ($67 billion) to help pay for postsecondary education this year. More than 10 million students apply for aid annually, and roughly 9 million receive a grant or loan. Since interest on federal student loans is low and additionally tax-deductible, it's an option many Pharm.D. students take advantage of. "With the wages that pharmacists make, it's fairly easy to pay back any loans," Shapera says.

Beyond traditional loans, schools also offer financial aid and scholarship information at their individual websites and through admissions and financial aid departments. Nearly every school will have some type of scholarship program, both school-wide awards and those restricted to students accepted to the Pharm.D. program.

Potential employers can also be a source of school funding. Some offer loan repayment as part of the benefits package while others offer cash signing bonuses that can then be used to pay down school debt. Others have scholarship or loan-to-work programs where the employer gives students funds while in school and then the loan is forgiven upon employment (if they choose to work somewhere else, the loan has to be repaid). Some employers additionally offer scholarships that are typically administered by the schools. For instance, Shapera reports that Chicago-area based Walgreens offers financial assistance to its retail pharmacy technicians to train to become pharmacists. Essentially a matching commitment one might liken to the armed forces, for each year the student works for the retailer, a one year loan is forgiven. If the student takes a job elsewhere, the loan must be repaid.

"Information regarding scholarship opportunities for professional students can be difficult to obtain," Bates reports. She received $2,500 as a recipient of the 2004-2005 Student Leadership Award from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). Research grants could be another source of funding, but students then must ensure that research opportunities are available to them as a student, Bates notes.

Pharmacy-related Careers

For individuals who need to get into the job market more quickly or are not ready to commit to rigorous schooling, opportunities are also available as pharmacy technicians or pharmacy aids. While such jobs do not carry high-dollar salaries, they also do not require extensive schooling and are typically available to those people with high school diplomas and a desire to learn on the job.

The U.S. Department of Labor notes the roles of pharmacy aids and pharmacy technicians often overlap. Tasks in both jobs are likely to range from fielding phone calls to working the cash register to updating records to inventory duties, as well as filling prescriptions and filing insurance claims. Typically technicians also perform more complex tasks such as answering questions about prescriptions.

In addition, for those who are ambitious, many major retailers offer financial support to pharmacy technicians who seek to further their careers by attaining a Pharm.D.

For more information on pharmacy technician careers and training visit sites including: Pharmacy Technician Certification Board; American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (list of accredited pharmacy technician training programs); or the American Association of Pharmacy Technicians (AAPT).

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