The stereotype of a pharmacist is thus: a person who stands behind a counter and dispenses medicine according to the instructions scribbled across the patient’s prescription-slip.

While technically accurate, this definition ignores the expertise and diligence this profession requires.

By becoming a pharmacist, you’ll play an important role in determining patient outcomes – and you’ll be a member of the UK’s third largest medical profession, behind doctors and nurses. So how do you get there?

What does a pharmacist do?

Most pharmacists work in high-street stores, though a minority operate from within medical practices. They’re qualified not only to read slips and hand out paper bags filled with drugs, but also to offer advice to customers.

As such, they take the strain off GPs, who would otherwise have to deal with an avalanche of common questions that could be easily dealt with across the pharmacy counter.

The storage and disposal of medicine must follow strict procedures and guidelines, and thus pharmacists have far greater responsibilities than the average shelf-stacker. On top of this, they’ll also need to provide training to new workers in the practical elements of the job.

What skills do I need to become a pharmacist?

Not everyone is suited to a career in a pharmacy. Given that there’s so much study involved, it’s worth sitting back and considering whether you’re a good match for the profession before proceeding. You’ll need:

Numeracy

You’ll need to be numerate, with a logical and analytical disposition.

Organisation Skills

Being able to multitask and organise your time effectively is crucial in a pharmacy – particularly one that’s temporarily short-staffed. You’ll need to be able to do this while still retaining your composure.

Communication Skills

While you’re not expected to maintain the same bedside manner as a doctor or nurse, as a pharmacist you’ll need to take on board what people are saying to you and question them while still being polite. This isn’t always straightforward, and some customers will require a different approach than others.

Contrary to popular belief, being a ‘people person’ is something you can learn – but you’ll need to do it outside of the lecture hall. As such, work experience in a retail environment, perhaps alongside your studies, will provide a wealth of useful training.

What qualifications do I need to become a pharmacist?

In the UK, practising pharmacists must have completed a master’s degree in the subject at an approved school. This is a four-year full-time course (though it can be divided into chunks, as we’ll get to). You’ll be able to track down a suitable school via the NHS’s careers site.

Degree in hand, you’ll need to become accredited with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), a body whose role is to keep a database of practising pharmacists in the UK. You’ll complete a year’s worth of on-site training before registering, after which you’ll submit a ‘fitness to practice’ declaration. This declaration is re-submitted yearly, and can be revoked by the GPhC, should they decide that the pharmacist in question is no longer fit to practice.

How do I obtain my degree?

Though different universities will stipulate different entry requirements, generally speaking applicants will need A levels at A or B, including one in chemistry, plug another in biology, physics or maths.

During the course, you’ll learn about the underlying science, as well as how a practice is actually run. Among the most essential skills you’ll learn will be how doses are calculated and prepared. This is where numeracy becomes especially important.

You can either go straight into four years of university or opt for a five-year ‘sandwich’ course which incorporates a year of work experience. If you’re unsure whether the course is for you, or you’ve missed out on a place, then you can always opt for a two-year foundation degree, from which you can ‘top up’ to the full qualification.

What else can I do with my degree?

Once you’ve picked up your master’s, you’ll have several career options ahead of you. You could work in primary care in the NHS, preventing people from becoming ill rather than treating them afterwards. You might also work in the R&D side of things, helping pharmaceutical companies to develop and manufacture new drugs.

If you’re looking for greater variety, you might even pursue a role in academia – which you’re free to combine with more traditional pharmaceutical work.

Is it easy to find work as a pharmacist?

One of the biggest appeals of this sort of career is that the demand for the work is high; nearly nine-tenths of all graduates find employment within six months of registering. The majority of the work on offer is in local or hospital pharmacies, with just a minority of graduates going on to work in industrial settings.

These aren’t the only places in need of pharmacists, however: careers in the military, veterinary medicine, and care homes are all available.

Is being a pharmacist rewarding?

If you’re the kind of person who can glean satisfaction from helping others and preventing suffering, then a career in medicine is sure to appeal. Pharmacists tend to enjoy more sociable hours than doctors and nurses, and thus the job is considered less demanding.

Hospital pharmacists might occasionally find themselves on call, but for high-street ones, the hours are broadly similar to other retail careers, with a rota in place for weekend work. As such, you’ll be able to help others without suffering from poor sleep.

Being a local pharmacist, you’ll become a part of the local community. Provide returning customers with good service, and they’ll learn to trust you and eventually come to you for advice.

If you’re the sort of person who would find that rewarding, then you’ll surely draw immense satisfaction from a career in a pharmacy.

How much do pharmacists earn?

Of course, money is a big motivator for many of us. Newly-qualified pharmacists can expect to pick up anywhere between £25,000 and £35,000. Privately-run pharmacies will offer different salaries to NHS ones.

You can earn more as you gain experience and pick up specialist training; some senior pharmacists are on six figures.

Forging a career in pharmacy requires considerable intelligence and perseverance.

It’s not for everyone. With that said, those that do persevere often find the work tremendously rewarding – and the financial incentives aren’t bad, either!

Written By
Jonathon Clarke, a founder of the Locate a Locum platform, graduated from Queen's University and went on to be a full-time locum pharmacist. From this experience, he has put together a guide on doing the best in your pharmaceutical career, from what to study, where to find work and how you can advance.