There's more than one way to a career in pharmacy but if you want to become a pharmacist you'll need a degree. Learn more about the courses on offer and the routes into alternative roles
Pharmacists are experts in medicines and their use, and their work regularly crosses over with careers in healthcare. Pharmacists typically work as community pharmacists in independent or chain stores on the high street, or as hospital pharmacists. They can also work in doctor's surgeries, for pharmaceutical companies or in academia in university departments.
'Pharmacists are the experts in medicines and their use and apply their knowledge to help people with every type of medical condition,' explains Maria Christou, director - NHS Pre-registration Pharmacists Training Programme at the University of East Anglia (UEA). 'They provide public health advice to patients and routinely advise other healthcare professionals on how to optimise treatments for different patients. Many pharmacists also qualify to be independent prescribers and run their own clinics.'
'The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the pharmacist's critical role in all settings, being an integral part of the healthcare system,' says Leanne May, MPharm course director at Kingston University London. 'Community pharmacists are able to provide accessible services such as vaccinations, health screening and clinical services, as well as providing advice and medication, both over the counter and on prescription to prevent and treat illness.'
But how do you become a pharmacist? The profession is regulated by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) and you'll need specific, accredited qualifications to become registered.
Master of pharmacy (MPharm)
The first step to becoming a community or hospital pharmacist is to complete a GPhC-accredited Masters degree in pharmacy, more commonly known as an MPharm.
MPharm degrees are integrated courses, which combine undergraduate and postgraduate- study into one programme. They typically take four years to complete. Entry to the profession without a degree or with a HND is not possible.
A variety of UK institutions provide MPharm courses, to check which programmes are accredited, see GPhC accredited MPharm degrees. Accredited universities that regularly top subject rankings include:
- Cardiff University
- Kingston University London
- Liverpool John Moores University
- Robert Gordon University
- Queens University Belfast
- University of Bradford
- University College London
- University of East Anglia
- University of Nottingham
- University of Ulster.
At the University of East Anglia (UEA) core MPharm modules include 'Preparing to Become a Pharmacy Professional', 'Management of Common Conditions', 'Person Centred Medicine from Bench to Bedside' and 'Managing Complexity in Patient Care'. You'll need ABB or BBB at A-level, including chemistry and a second science for entry.
To get onto the four-year (five including a foundation year) MPharm course at Kingston University London you'll need A-level chemistry at grade B or above and either maths, physics or biology at grade B or above. Core modules include 'The Human Body', 'The Role of a Pharmacist', 'Drug Design and Medicine Development', 'Pharmacy Law, Ethics and Practice', 'Infection, Immunology and Cancer' and 'Technology to Care'. In 2021/22 tuition fees for students from the UK are £9,250.
'At Kingston the course is taught by a large team of scientists and registered pharmacists, many of whom split their time in practice as independent prescribers and hospital and community pharmacists,' explains Leanne.
'Learning is provided in many formats including lectures, simulated clinical environments, practical's in recently updated laboratories, problem-based learning and self-directed study.
Placements take place in community pharmacy, hospital pharmacy and GP practice, providing students with clinical skills and opportunities to decide on their preferred sector,' adds Leanne.
If you don't have a recognised pharmacy degree but would still like to work within the field there are a number of alternative courses you could take to work as a pharmacy technician or as part of a pharmacy's support staff.
Pharmacy technician training is provided by Buttercups and the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) - both are GPhC-accredited training providers.
All of Buttercups' pharmacy technician training courses can be studied online and they include:
- Pre-registration Pharmacist Training Programme
- Dispensing Assistant Course
- Pharmacy Technician Training Programme
- Dispensary Stock Management Course
- Medicines Counter Assistant Course.
The NPA also provide a variety of courses for people working at all levels of the profession.
If university study isn't for you, you can enter the field of pharmacy through an apprenticeship.
You can't become a registered pharmacist but you can work as a pharmacy assistant or pharmacy technician, depending on which apprenticeship you take.
Buttercups offer two different apprenticeships: The Pharmacy Technician (integrated) Apprenticeship and the Pharmacy Services Assistant Apprenticeship.
High street chain Boots also provides an intermediate (Level 2) pharmacy adviser apprenticeship.
Pharmacy support apprenticeships are also offered by individual NHS employers (such as trusts), covering intermediate (Level 2) and advanced (Level 3).
Careers in pharmacy
Maria points out that pharmacists work in a variety of settings 'you'll find pharmacists working in hospitals and in community pharmacies but many also work in GP practices. Other pharmacists choose to work in the pharmaceutical industry where they get involved with research for novel drug therapies, drug formulation and manufacturing of medicines. A small number also pursue an academic career or work with regulatory bodies.'
If you've studied a four-year course you'll need to complete a period of one-year foundation training before you can register with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) and start your career as a pharmacist. 'Graduates may select from over 3,000 training placements, mainly in community pharmacies and hospitals, with an increasing number of split posts with GP practices. There are also a few split posts with the pharmaceutical industry, but these remain outside the national recruitment process,' adds Maria.
'Pharmacists have many avenues to follow,' says Leanne. 'Industry, research, academia, GP practice, care homes, hospital and community pharmacy are all sectors that pharmacists are able practice in. Many pharmacists have portfolio careers where they work across multiple sectors, providing plenty of variety in their day-to-day jobs.
If you hold pharmacy qualifications but no longer wish to work in the field, there are a number of options open to you.
'The transferable skills you gain from a degree in pharmacy can be extended into other healthcare settings including medical writing, education and training and research and digital technology, which is essential in healthcare at the moment,’ outlines Leanne.
You could also retrain as a dietician or physician associate, as your science-based Mpharm degree will fulfil entry requirements. Alternatively, you could work within the pharmaceutical industry by undertaking a graduate scheme at one of the main pharmaceutical companies such as Astrazeneca or GSK. To find out more about science-related graduate schemes, see our overview of the science sector.
Learn more about making a career change.
Find out more
- Gain an insight into the science and pharmaceuticals sector.
- Learn more about 10 alternative science careers.