Equipped with a unique blend of medical know-how, communication skills and multi-tasking abilities, pharmacists are in a respected, generally well-paid position within the healthcare industry. Extending beyond the dispensing of medication at a retail drug store, the career field also has roles for consultants, researchers, and clinical pharmacists.
On one hand, pharmacists earn an attractive salary and the profession shows high levels of career satisfaction. However, as with many medical-related professions, the overall job climate, shifts in government, and organization of work environments are constantly changing the role, salary and availability of jobs for pharmacists. Since no two graduates will experience the same ROI (Return on Investment) for a pharmacy degree, it is important to weigh the following hardships and benefits before deciding to pursue the career path of a pharmacist:
On average, the complete cost of a pharmacy school program can range from $65,000 to up to $200,000. Despite the costs, a pharmacy degree is generally viewed as having one of the most promising ROIs within the healthcare field.
ABC News cited pharmacists in fifth place out of 20 jobs that offer the best return on an investment in college. The piece stated that it would take 10.83 years for a graduate to repay student debt if the cost of their degree was roughly $90,000 and they earned the median pay of $116,670 with annual repayment terms equaling 10 percent of his or her salary ($11,667).
According to the 2014 National Pharmacist Workforce Survey, conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), pharmacists with five years or less of experience reported having repaid 30 percent of the debt incurred by student loans. The Workforce Survey also reported that these pharmacy school graduates had an average current student loan debt of $76,791 in 2014 – compared to the $108,407 average they had upon graduation. These numbers reflect a great change from 2009 figures which showed the average current debt as $61,667 versus $79,895 worth of total student loan debt, for new graduates.
The Workforce Survey also highlighted the fact that 11 percent of respondents with five years or less in practice had zero student debt upon graduation, while 32 percent reportedly erased their debt by 2014.
The average salary for pharmacists has increased, just as the cost of pharmacy education also continues to rise. According to the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education’s piece on Pharmacy Student Debt and Return on Investment of a Pharmacy Education, numbers show that the average tuition cost for pharmacy school has risen 54 percent in the last decade with the combined average yearly tuition rates to obtain training at a public or private school are roughly $25,000 .
In the end, the total cost and ROI for a pharmacy school education differs for each student, as various factors come into play that either increase or decrease the overall outcome, such as:
The time commitment associated with pursuing a degree to become a pharmacist is largely dictated by the initial career goals of a student. For the most part, every graduate completes at least 6 years of training and education. The typical pharmacy school requires an applicant to have completed a minimum of two to three years of undergraduate studies, while some schools require applicants to have already earned a bachelor’s degree by the time they apply.
Pharmacy school generally consists of four years of education, which is required for a graduate to earn a doctor of pharmacy, or Pharm.D. A degree qualifies a graduate to fulfill state license requirements before they are able to accept a position as a pharmacist.
There are a few educational paths that a student may take to receive his or her education:
Additional years of training, such as a 1-2 year residency are required for a pharmacist with an interest in obtaining an advanced position, such as working in a clinical setting or conducting research. Those with an interest in opening their own pharmacy may also take business courses to earn an MBA or pursue another health-related degree.
In addition to securing a place at a pharmacy school program and finding a way to pay for education, aspiring pharmacists may also face the following hardships during their studies and with their career upon graduation:
A pharmacy degree program involves high-level science and mathematics courses, which can be a challenge – especially for a student who did not fare well in or take advanced science classes in high school.
“You have to be prepared to work hard,” says Aaron Hartmann, Pharm.D., BCPS, assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. “With all the competition for some of these hard to come by jobs, students need to be prepared to position themselves well and promote themselves to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Increased Competition for Jobs
The U.S. Labor of Statistics states that the number of pharmacy schools has grown in recent years, which means there are more graduates competing for available positions. Pharmacists who complete a residency often gain additional skills and experience which generally creates a more-appealing job candidate that qualifies for a wider range of employment opportunities.
Patrick Finnegan, Pham.D., BCPS, assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, acknowledges the escalating competition for pharmacy jobs, and notes a significant change within the industry that could affect new pharmacy students and graduates.
“… I also see some shifts in the market,” he adds. “If you look at the long term picture you see the profession transitioning to direct patient care and more in-depth services for patients.”
New pharmacists must overcome the stress of having to be 100 percent accurate in the measurement and dispensing of drugs. The smallest of errors can lead to causing harm or negative drug reactions in patients, and in the worst cases, death. Pharmacists also witness unsettling medication trends, and must also be able to identify prescription drug addicts, and the tricks they use to get medication illegally, such as false names and double scripts.
One of the most common complaints of pharmacists related to job stress (with the exception of those that work in independent community settings) is “having so much work to do that everything cannot be done well” . Many independent community pharmacists find “doing excessive paperwork” one of the most stressful aspects of their job. Clerical and administrative work takes away the amount of time a pharmacist can spend counseling patients.
More than one-half of pharmacists employed by chain and mass merchandisers found the need to meet quotas as a leading cause of stress. Not having an adequate number of technicians to assist was identified as another on-the-job stress. Understaffed work environments also mean pharmacists experience excessive work loads.
Juggling a Multitude of Skills
Pharmacists are equipped with an extensive set of skills that they rely upon on a daily basis. In addition to having a great deal of responsibilities, pharmacists also experience varying workloads according to their work environment.
The 2014 National Pharmacist Workforce Survey cited the highest proportions of pharmacists indicating a high or extremely high workload were employed in chain (80%) and mass merchandiser (76%) pharmacy settings, such as Walmart or Rite Aid, while roughly 50 percent of respondents working in independent community- and other patient care pharmacy settings said they experienced a high workload .
On top of mixing and measuring medicine, retail pharmacists are also responsible for managing staff, delegating duties to co-workers, and counseling patients so they understand the particulars of their medication. Retail pharmacists also handle conflicts with insurance companies, and must stay knowledgeable on how to fill out the proper paperwork needed to file insurance claims.
Pharmacists working in a hospital or clinic environment must also maintain a level of sterility, in regards to certain preparations. Oftentimes, a pharmacist works directly with physicians to formulate treatment plans for patients. They also wear the hat of educator when health care workers are in need of understanding a new medication therapy, or an overview of basic drug interactions. For those running a pharmacy, additional training and a background in business and management also comes into play.
Long Hours for Retail Pharmacists
Dispensing medications at grocery stores and drug stores, a retail pharmacist can work long, demanding hours that include nights and weekends. Some pharmacists work every day of the week, while others log in overtime hours. With many retailers open 24 hours (seven days a week), pharmacists pursuing this type of job must be prepared to work at least every other weekend, as well as take on 12-hour shifts with alternating two days on and two days off when only two full-time pharmacists are employed at the same location, which is the case with many retail stores.
Pharmacists are usually on their feet for most of the day; this is not a sedentary profession. It is not uncommon to find pharmacists developing their own set of unique work-related injuries. Carpal tunnel syndrome comes from twisting off caps from prescription and medication bottles. According to Pharmacy Today, many pharmacists develop repetitive motion problems and permanent damage from stretching to reach high shelves; bending down to lower shelves; standing on concrete floors that lack cushioning or padding; and managing a phone on their shoulders while typing information into a computer.
Pharmacists are additionally exposed to harmful chemicals while on the job, especially nuclear pharmacists who are responsible for measuring and delivering the radioactive materials used in hospitals and medical offices performing CT scans, MRIs, and other digital imaging tests.
Threat of Malpractice
Although some pharmacists are covered by the liability insurance associated with their place of employment, others are not included in the business’ coverage. Pharmacists may opt to purchase additional insurance to cover themselves outside of what their employer’s insurance may or may not offer.
When a patient suffers an adverse reaction or even dies from a prescription drug error, the pharmacist may also be held liable in a malpractice suit.
Malpractice suits against pharmacists typically occur when patients experience adverse reactions to medication or dies from a prescription drug error, and have involved the following actions:
Dealing with ‘Difficult’ Customers
On a daily basis, pharmacists constantly come in contact with sick, unhappy and irritable patients. The first person to feel the wrath and confusion of denied insurance claims or high out-of-pocket costs is the pharmacist and their technicians. Individuals who prefer a quieter work environment and wish to avoid confrontations and issues associated with patients may want to consider pursuing a hospital pharmacy job.
“Through all of the advances in the profession, the patient is still always at the center of everything we do,” says Goldie Peters, Pham.D., BCPS, assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
According to the U.S. News & World Report, pharmacists are regarded as one of the top ten highest-paid occupations, ranking #8 in Best Paying Jobs for 2015.
Pharmacy program graduates have the opportunity to earn a six-figure income upon graduation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cited the median annual salary for the occupation as $116,670 in May 2012; with the top 10 percent of pharmacists earning more than $145,910, and the lowest 10 percent of graduates earning less than $89,280.
“Students come through with preconceived notions of what pharmacy is all about. I encourage them to keep an open mind,” says Hartmann. “It’s unfortunate many don’t get to see the opportunities until the end of their schooling.”
“There are opportunities to reach out and job shadow early in their schooling,” he adds.
Additional rewards and benefits associated with the pharmacy profession include:
With many jobs related to medicine, the demand for pharmacists shows no signs of slowing across the U.S., as an aging and growing population provides a constant flux of patients needing medication and preventative health care measures.
The BLS states that the employment of pharmacists (from 2012 to 2022) is anticipated to increase 14 percent. Additionally, the number of people with access to health insurance and expanded coverage translates into more prescriptions needing to be filled as the number of individuals able to see a doctor increase.
The Ability to Help Others
Not only do pharmacists provide people with life-saving medications and over-the-counter relief, but they also act as an educator and give reassurance to patients by giving helpful counsel and answering drug-related questions, and in some cases, minor medical advice which eases fears, calms concerns and/or alleviates confusion.
“I always enjoy working with the patients,” says Peters.
“That applies to working as a faculty member or working as a community pharmacist, the biggest reward comes with working with patients and helping them,” says Peters. “That interaction is the key to being happy with what I’ve done.”
An Interesting Career
The pharmaceutical industry is constantly evolving as new research, advanced technology and fresh scientific finds lead to the production of new drugs and treatments. Pharmacists are tasked with the responsibility to stay in-the-know, and the profession means that these professionals are some of the first to learn about cutting-edge approaches for satisfying the medical needs of patients.
“There’s a lot of variety for pharmacists,” says Hartmann. “It’s also nice to be a member of a patient care team with other health care professions involved where you bring a unique skill set and knowledge base as the medication expert on the team.”
Work Environment Options
Pharmacists are employed in a variety of work settings. For example, clinical pharmacists work in a hospital, and become a member of a medical care team. Patient interaction is minimal, as they work in a setting that is more isolated.
Other work environments for pharmacists include long-term care facilities, cancer treatment centers, government healthcare organization, community health clinics, prisons, research laboratories, colleges and universities, and corporations.
“The differences of community pharmacy, hospital pharmacy, and clinical pharmacy are so dramatic that you can really have a good, long career if your interests begin to change,” says Finnegan. “I’ve seen clinicians go to administration, hospital pharmacists become community pharmacists.”
Graduates with a pharmacy degree can also use their background and credentials to follow career paths that involve medical sales, policy-making, regulatory affairs, and medical writing.
Favorable Healthcare Changes
“There are a lot of opportunities for pharmacists right now,” says Hartmann. “Pharmacists are taking advantage of new health care laws and finding niches to be able to move into new areas of patient care.”
“There is a great work life balance being a pharmacist,” says Hartmann. “Working with patients is very rewarding and you also have the time to pursue a personal life to get those benefits and rewards.”
Flexibility through Contract Work
Pharmacists may pursue shift-based work on a contract basis where they are employed on an ‘as-needed’ basis. This option provides flexibility for a new graduate which allows he or she to get ‘their feet wet’ in the industry, as well as decide which work setting best fits their needs, and where they’d like to pursue a permanent position.
The legwork, research, and level of involvement within the industry that a student puts forth early on can have a profound effect on getting accepting to pharmacy school; doing well in classes; paying for their education while minimizing student debt; and finding a job upon graduation. A few suggestions include:
Research the Profession
“I advise someone considering a pharmacy career to spend time identifying and experiencing the options available in the profession, including roles in community and clinical pharmacy,” says Finnegan. “So many rewards can come from understanding how to be a clinician, how to care for patients, and how to appreciate some of the day-to-day responsibilities.”
Build a Strong Math and Science Foundation
A student who has spent time laying down a solid foundation in science and math coursework during high school and undergraduate school is generally better prepared for a pharmacy degree program’s course load and curriculum.
Build Undergraduate School Experience
Pharmacy school applicants can increase their appeal by obtaining extra training and additional experience, such as joining a professional organization (like the American Pharmacists Association), which also continues to help with networking and job searches after graduation.
“You also need to be a good independent learner,” says Hartmann. “There are always new drugs coming out on the market and new studies being published.
“Pharmacists always have to stay on top of developments in the profession; you build those skills while being a student,” he adds. “A key skill is being able to read medical literature, analyze it, and make your own opinion.”
A part-time job in a medical facility or pharmacy can provide a small boost for a student applying to pharmacy school. Admissions committees tend to pay attention to any and all related experience within the field.
For those with aspirations to pursue a residency or a PhD upon graduation, conducting research and then getting published as a single author (or as part of a team), helps make a good impression.
Offset Costs with Scholarships
With varying criteria to fulfill, it is suggested to research and apply to several pharmacy school scholarship programs to obtain financial assistance that does not have to be repaid. A few notable options include the awards given by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation (NACDS); the Student National Pharmaceutical Association; and the American Pharmacists Association Foundation, which awards 13-14 annual scholarships through the AphA Foundation Student Pharmacist Scholarships Program.
Seek Alternatives to Income-Based Repayment Terms
In the past, the benefits offered through the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) State Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) were not made available to pharmacists. However, as of 2012, states in the U.S. can now create their own loan repayment programs that involve pharmacists willing to serve in medically under served areas.
Loan Forgiveness Programs
Depending on which school or location a pharmacist dwells, various loan forgiveness programs are available to help offset student debt for graduates who provide their services to a community or health care facility experiencing a specific shortage. For instance, Minnesota’s Rural Pharmacist Loan Forgiveness Program offers funds to repay qualified educational loans of pharmacy school graduates. Applications are submitted during a student’s final year of pharmacy school or residency training. Participants are expected to practice for at least 30 hours per week, for at least 45 weeks per year, and for a minimum of three years in a designated rural area, in order to reap financial assistance to pay off educational debt.
Be Willing to Relocate:
“The Aggregate Demand Index issued by the Pharmacy Workforce Center found there is a consistent and strong demand for pharmacists in the Midwest,” says Finnegan. “The job market is a lot tighter in other areas of the country, especially the Northeast.”
When asked if he would do it all over if given the chance, Peters answered, “I would encourage my son to go into pharmacy, it’s a really good profession.”
“I am amazed at how far we’ve come as a profession since I graduated pharmacy school a decade ago,” says Finnegan. “There are so many opportunities and so much we can offer patients.”
“Being in environments where inter-professional health care teams value your opinion is great,” he adds. “That’s the part I love the most.”
Despite high levels of stress associated with the career field, U.S. News rates the profession of pharmacist above average in terms of upward mobility. Overall career and job satisfaction usually runs high among pharmacists; which is particularly noticeable in the future career plans of pharmacists surveyed for the 2014 National Pharmacist Workforce Survey :
“The cost of my time was well worth it, I don’t regret my decision at all to become a pharmacist,” says Peters.
“If you think you’re going to pharmacy school to have a high paying career, I don’t think you’ll be happy with your work,” says Finnegan. “You can still get a position, but your attitude is not in the right place and you may not enjoy yourself.”
“If you really want to be a clinician, help people, be the drug expert; the investment is minimal for the rewards you get,” says Finnegan.
As the need to treat chronic conditions grows, and pharmacies expand their patient care services, the number of roles and job opportunities for pharmacists are also likely to rise. With this anticipated change, some pharmacy practitioners (depending on work environment) are at risk for experiencing increased stress and dissatisfaction related to their job positions. Reports suggest that the most satisfied pharmacists tend to be the ones working outside of patient care areas.
The chances are high for students to benefit from a satisfying Return on Investment regarding a pharmacy school degree. New graduates tend to encounter a promising debt-to-income ratio with many pharmacists paying off their full student loan debt in a little over 10 years. The variety of loan repayment opportunities further helps pharmacists eliminate their debt at a faster rate. The range of job positions and work environments available to pharmacists is another satisfying aspect of the profession.
Over the past five years, pharmacists have also encountered significant changes to the delivery of health care and financing (such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), which has led to beneficial results. An aging population in the U.S. and more individuals with health coverage combined with increased demand for health care services bodes well for the pharmacist profession. However, competition for jobs will continue to rise as growing numbers of pharmacy school graduates enter the workforce.
Aside from job stress associated with paperwork, working with insurance companies, and becoming overburdened, the pharmacist field has an overall high level of job satisfaction. Additionally, the final report for the Workforce Survey concluded that within the past 15 years, pharmacists have displayed the highest level of commitment to the profession.
“Pharmacy is an incredibly rewarding career; I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to advance in the profession through my interactions with both patients and other health care providers,” says Hartmann. “As medication experts, pharmacists are uniquely positioned to promote health and well-being in the ever changing health care environment.”
 Pharmacy Student Debt and Return on Investment of a Pharmacy Education; American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education