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Pharmacy School: Online or Traditional, It's a Good Career Move

Typically, if you have an ailment requiring treatment, your physician is the one who prescribes medication. Does that make physicians the drug experts?

Not necessarily. Understanding medications--their uses, dosages, side effects, and interactions--falls under the purview of pharmacists. In fact, one pharmacist described a t-shirt he saw at a pharmacy school that read, "I had 8 semesters of pharmacology, your physician had 1. Who do you trust?"

As highly trained medical professionals, pharmacists are playing a growing role in counseling patients and advising medical staff, in addition to dispensing medications. The changing economic landscape and shifts in health care practices are altering the profession, making it increasingly important to choose the right pharmacy education.

The Educational Pathway for Pharmacists

What is the right education? Approximately 15 years ago, medical professionals recognized the importance of advanced education for pharmacists, and began requiring all licensed pharmacists to obtain a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD). All PharmD programs must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE).

As the degree title suggests, pharmacists undergo a rigorous education. Some schools require a bachelor's degree for entry to a PharmD program. Others accept applicants who have completed a pre-pharmacy program, which usually includes two years of college-level coursework, particularly in the life sciences. The PharmD program itself usually takes four years to complete.

Trying Out the Field as a Pharmacy Technician

If you are interested in pharmacy but not certain about making the commitment to become a pharmacist, you may want to consider becoming a pharmacy technician. Technicians work directly under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist. Many programs result in an associate's degree and take one to two years to complete.

Pharmacy School Online: Is It an Option?

If you prefer the flexibility and affordability of an online learning environment, there's good news: The ACPE accredits some online pharmacy schools, including continuing education pharmacy school courses, online transition degrees for licensed pharmacists who hold bachelor's degrees, and entry-level PharmD programs.

According to an ACPE statement on distance learning, pharmacy students need more than what technology alone can offer, so pharmacy schools online need to include opportunities for face-to-face interaction as part of the curriculum.

The ACPE also notes, however, that pharmacists' practice environments are changing. Pharmacy schools online could better prepare pharmacists for future health care settings in which professionals and patients interact through distance communication.

Pharmacy School Programs: Online Requirements

Upon entering a PharmD program, you'll spend your first three years taking traditional pharmacy school classes. Online courses may include:

  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmaceutics
  • Microbiology and immunology
  • Pathology
  • Patient assessment

After you complete your coursework, you spend at least one year working as a resident, fellow, or intern. Most pharmacists agree that this professional experience is crucial for producing highly skilled pharmacists. It's also a time when pharmacists can hone their specializations. For example, a residency or internship in oncology--a particularly hot field for pharmacists at present--can be an ideal launching pad for a career after graduation.

Pharmacy Career Opportunities

While many people associate pharmacists with retail operations--behind the counter at a local drug store, for example--there are, in reality, a variety of career opportunities for licensed pharmacists. Pharmacists may work:

  • In hospitals to provide service to patients
  • For pharmaceutical companies in drug research and development
  • As consultants to medical practitioners
  • For federal agencies involved in drug regulation or health care, such as the Food and Drug Administration
  • As journalists, legal experts, and leaders of professional associations

Current Trends in Pharmacy: Where the Jobs Are

Ten years ago, employers were beating at the doors of pharmacy schools for graduates to fill vacant positions. Today, there are more pharmacists than there used to be, making jobs more competitive. Still, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for pharmacists are expected to increase 17 percent from 2008 to 2018.

A 2010 article from Pharmacy Times reports that job opportunities should be best for pharmacists working in clinical settings, remote pharmacists working during high-volume periods or night shifts, pharmacists working with mail-order companies, and pharmacists working in compounding shops.

And as in the past, pharmacy is still a lucrative career choice. According to the BLS, the mean annual wage for pharmacists in 2009 was $106,630, with the top ten percent earning more than $134,290. Pharmacy aides earned $22,330, while pharmacy technicians earned $28,940.

As the numbers of middle-aged and elderly people increase, so should the demand for medications and expert counsel regarding those medications. Pharmacy has been, and continues to be, a solid career choice for those interested in a medical profession.