Graduates of pharmacy degrees work right at the heart of human healthcare, taking on roles relating to the design and development of new treatments, prescription and care management, and advising on the range of medical options available. Read our guide to studying pharmacy at university, including an overview of common course topics, specializations and career paths.
Common skills gained from a pharmacy degree include:
If you study pharmacy at university, you will typically take modules focusing on chemistry, human biology and physiology, pharmaceutics (how medicines are made) and pharmacology (how drugs interact with the body). Most pharmacy degrees combine academic research with more vocational training and professional pharmacy skills, such as learning about legal and ethical issues, and how to interact with patients. You will learn all about prescriptions, drugs, medications and clinical practice, and practice responding to different scenarios. As you study pharmacy, you may have the opportunity to specialize in a particular type of role (such as new medicine development or patient care), or in a particular field of medical care (such as infectious diseases, or care of the elderly).
Entry requirements for pharmacy degrees vary between different institutions, but you’ll almost certainly need to have studied chemistry to a high level, preferably alongside a combination of biology, physics and mathematics. As entry to pharmacy degrees is typically very competitive, you will be expected to have excellent grades in all of these subjects, as well as a high level of proficiency in the language in which your program will be taught.
The types of pharmacy degrees available may vary depending on where you study pharmacy. In some regions of the world, a Bachelor of Pharmacy (BPharm) is offered; elsewhere, the main option is a Master of Pharmacy (MPharm). If you want to study pharmacy abroad, or would like to be able to work in different countries after graduating, it’s important to check where your qualification will be recognized. For example, in the UK, you will need at least an MPharm in order to be accepted for the year-long training course that allows you to register as a professional pharmacist.
Pharmacy degrees are typically taught using a combination of lectures, seminars and practical exercises. Most universities offer a work placement at some point during your studies. Assessment is based on theoretical and practical examinations and course work.
Some of the main pharmacy specializations you can expect to encounter include:
The field of pharmacology is the study of how drugs interact with a living body. Within pharmacology, topics could include learning about the therapeutic and toxic effects of different drugs and poisons; drug absorption and how drugs interact with different foods and nutrients; and methods of drug delivery and targeting. It’s also possible to take an entire degree program devoted to the study of pharmacology.
A major focus of most pharmacy degrees, clinical practice courses aim to prepare students to provide care directly to patients, including diagnoses, prescriptions, advice, and good all-round communication and support. As well as learning how to approach a range of different types of health issue and gaining a strong foundation in pharmaceutical care and therapeutics, students may also study current national frameworks governing the provision of pharmacy services, and may have the opportunity to gain some practical experience.
Microbiology is the study of microscopic organisms – important within pharmacy, as these microbes can cause illnesses. Within microbiology, further specializations include virology (the study of viruses), bacteriology (the study of bacteria) and mycology (the study of fungi). Microbiology is often taught alongside immunology; this is the study of the immune system, including diseases resulting from failures of the immune system, the use of immunotherapy, and the relationship between the immune system and stages of life such as pregnancy and early development.
Another important field of pharmacy is drug development – the study of the processes involved in creating new drugs and bringing them to market. This may include learning how to conduct pre-clinical research and various stages of clinical trials, as well as studying relevant manufacturing and commercial processes, regulatory issues and assessing financial viability. This field is closely aligned with pharmaceutical chemistry, which is concerned with the chemical side of new drug development.
The field of pharmaceutical technology, offered by some universities as a master’s level specialization, focuses on the various modern technologies used in the pharmaceutical sector. This is likely to include opportunities for hands-on experience of the equipment and processes used in drug development, as well as learning about the evolving demands and challenges facing the growing global pharmaceutical industry.
You could also specialize in obesity and weight management, with some universities now offering this as a separate master’s degree. Here you’ll study all aspects of obesity, from the individual level through to the problem in its large-scale social context. You’ll learn about various strategies for weight management interventions, policy formulation and implementation. This specialization could lead to a career in a governmental agency or local authority, public health body, or in the commercial sector developing new products and programs.
The most visible place you’ll encounter pharmacists is behind the counter of a pharmacy store, dispensing medicines and advising members of the public. However, pharmacy careers are in fact available in many different places, including research labs and academic institutions, hospitals and doctor’s surgeries, veterinary care, the armed forces, national regulatory bodies, and pharmaceutical companies. Popular pharmacy careers include:
If you work as a pharmacist based in a hospital, your role may include dispensing medicines which have been prescribed by doctors, advising patients on how to take the medicines and what to expect, and working alongside other healthcare professionals to suggest the most effective course of treatment. Hospital pharmacists are also responsible for purchasing and testing medicines kept in stock by the hospital.
Research-based pharmacy careers are available in a range of different organizations, including universities, hospitals, clinical research centers and pharmaceutical companies. Major research fields include drug discovery and development, medical technologies, optimizing medical prescriptions and usage, risk minimization, and national healthcare policy and regulation.
As a pharmacist working in the community, you’ll be based in a local pharmacy (also called a “chemist” or “drugstore”) or in a community healthcare practice. Community pharmacists provide advice for members of the public on how to treat minor ailments, and distribute drugs available ‘over-the-counter’ or with a doctor’s prescription. They may also offer basic health checks or contribute to community programs designed to promote better health.
If you like the idea of combining your scientific knowledge with legal and business skills, then maybe a career in legal compliance is suitable for you. As a regulatory affairs officer, you will strive to ensure the safety and efficacy of different types of drugs and medical products. Your role may include overseeing the licensing, marketing and legal compliance of pharmaceuticals. Your main goal will be to make sure that new and existing medical products meet legal and scientific requirements, contributing to public safety.
Within each of these pharmacy careers, there’s scope for career progression by taking on a managerial role, and/or by pursuing further expertise within a particular field of medicine. All pharmacy careers require pharmacists to continually update their knowledge of the latest research, products, discoveries and regulations; it’s common to undertake additional training courses at fairly regular intervals.