The health care industry is home to several of the nation's fastest growing and most rewarding jobs. Pharmacy technicians may not ride in ambulances or work directly with hospital patients, but they do serve as an important part of an expanding field that offers a solid launching pad for a career in health care.
But what does a pharmacy technician do, exactly? How much does pharmacy technician school cost? We'll do our best to answer these questions on this page, as well as providing you with general information about pharmaceutical schools and how they can prepare you to enter the health care work force.
What Does a Pharmacy Technician Do?
Pharmacy technicians may be called upon to assist pharmacists with whatever occupational duties may arise, but they typically perform a similar set of tasks from day to day. Here's a quick list of common responsibilities for a pharmacy tech:
- Collecting prescription information from patients, customers or health care personnel
- Measuring, filling, packaging and labeling medications to be dispensed
- Organizing and taking inventory of medications and pharmacy supplies
- Answering phone calls from customers and care partners
- Accepting payment for prescriptions and entering customer information into a database
In most states, pharmacy techs may be allowed to compound or otherwise prepare certain medications. Around 52 percent of working pharmacy techs in 2016 had jobs in pharmacies and drug stores, while around 16 percent worked in hospitals.
How to Become a Pharmacy Technician
There's no guaranteed path to a pharmacy technician career, but there are ways that you can set yourself up for success on the job market. For example, here's a list of steps that many pharmacy techs follow before they land their first position:
- Finish your high school diploma or earn an equivalency degree
- Enroll in a college program for pharmacy technicians
- Look into campus clubs or other activities for aspiring health care professionals
- Graduate and apply for open jobs in your area
Although the exact curriculum you'll need to complete depends on the individual institution where you choose to study, pharmacy technician degree programs tend to feature a core set of similar courses. Take a look at this list of the subjects you might study in your pharmacy tech program:
- History of pharmacy
- Pharmaceutical terminology
- Pharmacy operations
- Pharmacy billing and reimbursement
- Sterile and non-sterile compounding
- Pharmacy law and ethics
Pharmacy Technician Degree and Certificate Programs
Although pharmacy techs may not be officially required to complete a formal education program, employers often prefer candidates who have already learned the ropes. Here's a rundown of the levels of training available:
- Undergraduate certificate. Pharmacy technician certificate programs are usually the shortest training plans available and traditionally focus on specific, role-based skills and fundamentals. These programs can be a great choice if you're planning on finding a job that will continue to teach you the business while you work.
- Diploma program. Diploma programs tend to cover the field in greater depth than certificate plans but stop short of providing the extensive training available in a pharmacy technician associate degree program. The number of credits necessary to complete a diploma program can vary quite a bit, from as few as 30 to as many as 48, with a few outliers.
- Associate degree. A pharmacy technician associate degree typically takes a broader approach to the discipline than the other two program types, providing students with a more comprehensive education. Associate programs also have the advantage of including general education courses, which can often be transferred to a university if you decide to continue your education.
It's also possible to earn a four-year bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical sciences before starting your career as a pharmacy tech, but that degree is likely to train you far above and beyond what's required for the role. If you're looking for a thorough pharmacy tech education, the associate degree is probably your best choice.
Hands-On Training for Pharmacy Technicians
Some pharmacy tech programs, particularly those that lead to a diploma or associate degree, may include a hands-on training section called an externship during your final term in school. The lengths of externships vary, but the experience of processing medications, performing billing tasks and managing inventory in a retail pharmacy or health care center is a common thread that unites them.
Pharmacy Technician School Online
If you're concerned about the time commitment that usually comes with attending a traditional degree program, finding a pharmacy technician school with online courses can be a great way to get the training you need without causing too much of a disruption to your existing schedule. Most online pharmacy tech programs are nearly identical to campus-based plans, although completing your requirements without direct classroom supervision can take some getting used to.
Online pharmacy technician schools also offer externships in many cases. If you're anxious about applying for pharmacy tech jobs without having physically performed the work, look for online programs with a hands-on capstone section.
Pharmacy Technician Certifications and Licensure
Pharmacy technician jobs are regulated in one way or another by most U.S. states. Depending on where you live, you may be required to earn a Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT) credential and a license before you can officially begin your career.
According to the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB), 23 states include national certification in their regulations for pharmacy techs. At least five of those states -- Wyoming, Louisiana, North Dakota, Arizona and Texas -- require that aspiring pharmacy techs pass the Board's proprietary Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE).
The National Healthcareer Association (NHA) also provides a pathway to CPhT status through their Exam for the Certification of Pharmacy Technicians (ExCPT). Make sure to check with your state board of pharmacy to find out your certification and licensure requirements.
Career Advancement Options for Pharmacy Technicians
Along with crafting a reputation for quick, accurate work, returning to school and learning more about the pharmacy trade is a great way to put your best foot forward if you're hoping to advance in your career. Upgrading your certificate education to a diploma or associate degree might qualify you for positions higher up the employment ladder.
Not only that, but you can also enhance your career by working toward becoming a full-fledged pharmacist. The Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree requires several years in school, but the major difference in salary and opportunity could be worth the investment.
Program Costs and Financial Aid
Skills and Abilities for Pharmacy Technicians
There are certain traits that can make a person especially suited to pharmacy technician work, according to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). Here's a look at some of the top skills in the field:
- Active listening is helpful when receiving instructions from pharmacists or asking questions of patients over the phone
- Reading comprehension can help you ensure that you're filling the right prescription for the right patient
- Near vision is essential when trying to tell the difference between similar looking pills, capsules and other medications
- Manual dexterity can make it easier to count individual doses of a medication and fill their containers without spilling
- Service orientation, or the tendency to look for ways to help people, can make you a valuable asset behind the pharmacy counter
Pharmacy Technician Salary and Career Outlook
The salary that pharmacy technicians earn can be affected by a range of factors. Different states might have different salary averages, for one, and hospitals and other full-fledged health care centers might be able to afford to pay a better pharmacy technician salary than retail pharmacies.
Even though there's some variation in the field, knowing the national numbers for pharmacy technician salary and job growth can give you an idea of what to expect once you hit the workforce. Check out these averages and projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Projected Job Growth
Professional Resources for Pharmacy Technicians
Membership in a professional association can bring a range of benefits to just about any working person, and pharmacy technicians are no exception. Here are a couple of professional associations you might consider joining to stay on the leading edge of your field:
- The National Pharmacy Technician Association (NPTA) provides members with a resource and support network, members-only discounts on products and publications and access to technician-specific continuing education (CE) programs.
- The American Association of Pharmacy Technicians (AAPT) gives members access to professional networking opportunities and free and discounted CE programs, as well as providing discounted rates for students and first-year professionals.