Whether you want to work as a pharmacist or support staff, learn about available courses and apprenticeships

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.

'Pharmacy is a very rewarding career,' says Simon Tweddell, senior lecturer in pharmacy practice at the University of Bradford. 'Pharmacists are the experts in medicines and use their knowledge to help educate patients and other healthcare professionals on their safe and effective use.'

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.

To get onto the University of Bradford's five-year MPharm degree, also accredited by the GPhC, you'll need ABB grades at A-level, two of which must be in science-based subjects. 'This course is unique as it includes the pre-registration year as two six month paid placements. This gives students the opportunity to earn while they learn and to apply their knowledge to the workplace during their undergraduate studies,' explains Simon.

Core modules include 'Molecules to Systems', 'Lifecycle of a Medicine', 'Medicines and Health', 'Developing Professional Practice 1-4', 'Pharmacy Science and Practice 1-2' and 'Patient Safety and Decision Making'.

'Bradford's innovative and award winning MPharm programme uses team-based learning and has been designed by pharmacists, educators, students and employers to ensure that students graduate not only with the necessary knowledge and skills, but with the confidence, communication, teamworking and problem-solving skills needed to secure employment,' adds Simon.

At the University of Nottingham, core Mpharm modules include 'Being a pharmacist' and 'Essential skills for pharmacists' (year one), 'Pain' and 'Asthma, allergies and immune diseases' (year two), 'Viral and parasitic infections' and 'Central nervous system disorders' (year three) and 'Future medicines' and 'Advanced drug discovery' (year four). You'll need AAB at A-level, including chemistry and one other science-related subject for entry. The programme also gives all second year students the chance to study abroad in Malaysia.

Discover what you can do with a pharmacy degree and search for postgraduate pharmacy courses.

If you've studied a four-year course you'll need to complete a period of one-year pre-registration training in a community pharmacy or hospital setting. After this training, you'll then need to pass the GPhC registration exam before you can apply to register with the GPhC as a pharmacist.

Online learning

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
  • Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Pharmacy Service Skills
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Pharmaceutical Science
  • Accuracy Checking Pharmacy Technician Course
  • Pharmacy Technician Training Programme
  • Dispensing Assistant Course
  • Dispenser Development Programme for Dispensing Doctors
  • 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.

Pharmacy apprenticeships

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 apprenticeship in pharmacy is aimed at aspiring pharmacy support staff. This Level 2 (intermediate) scheme takes one year to complete. The Level 3 advanced apprenticeship in pharmacy is aimed at those wanting to become pharmacy technicians and takes 18 months to complete.

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) programmes.

Learn more about what an apprenticeship involves and find out how to apply for an apprenticeship.

Careers in pharmacy

'Pharmacists can work in many settings from designing, researching and developing new medicines in the pharmaceutical industry, supplying medicines to patients and providing advice on how to take them in community pharmacy, to being part of a ward team in a hospital,' says Simon.

'Some pharmacists are also prescribers, writing their own prescriptions. These pharmacists increasingly work in GP practices and run their own clinics. Pharmacists can work in roles that have less contact with patients such as in universities, research, publishing, government organisations and in the military.'

If you hold pharmacy qualifications but no longer wish to work in the field, there are a number of options open to you.

If you wish to remain in healthcare you could 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.

You could also move in to roles such as a medical sales representative or science writer.

Find out more

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