Pharmacy techs work under the supervision of licensed pharmacists to dispense medication, provide information to patients, and perform administrative duties. To do their job correctly, technicians need to have the proper education and may need to be licensed by their state. There are hundreds of pharmacy tech programs available from schools across the country, including short-term certificates, career diplomas, and associate degrees. But which path makes the most sense for you? Keep reading for a step-by-step guide that reviews everything you need to know about becoming a pharmacy technician, from program prerequisites to professional certification.
Why Become a Pharmacy Technician?
Pharmacy technicians are expected to see faster-than-average growth in the coming years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Many pharmacy tech programs can have students ready to fill those jobs in a year or less. However, before you enroll, make sure the career is right for you. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you possess strong communication skills? Pharmacy techs communicate regularly with both pharmacists and customers. Technicians must be able to convey information clearly and correctly.
- Are you genuinely interested in the medical field? As with other health care occupations, pharmacy techs must have a heart for helping others.
- Do you have an understanding of fundamental math concepts? Math is used regularly in pharmacies to calculate dosing, dispense medication and order inventory.
- Are you detail-oriented? In order to meet state and insurance company requirements, pharmacy technicians must be exact in their work and recordkeeping.
- Are you comfortable working with controlled medications? Medications dispensed by pharmacies can be subject to strict government regulations, and penalties may be assessed if drugs are not dispensed or recorded properly.
If you answered “yes” to these questions, a career as a pharmacy technician may be right for you.
Pharmacy Tech Training: Explore Your Options
Once you’ve determined that being a pharmacy tech is right for you, it’s time to get the proper training. You can study on-campus or attend an online pharmacy technician school, and either option could result in a certificate, career diploma, or associate degree. Some programs are designed with working adults in mind while others may be appropriate for those who eventually want to pursue a higher education.
Regardless of which program you select, make sure it is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education. Proper accreditation not only indicates the quality of the program, but graduating from an accredited program may be necessary for some state licensure or professional certifications.
Which School Type Fits Your Needs
A few accredited pharmacy tech programs are offered by hospitals or health systems, but most students will attend either a vocational school or a community college. Either option will provide the foundation of skills needed for this career. However, each school type has its own distinct advantages.
- Vocational schools: The majority of accredited pharmacy tech programs are offered by vocational schools or technical colleges. These institutions specialize in providing workforce training, and they typically offer certificates or diplomas that can be earned in a year or less. They are a good choice for students who only want to study pharmacy tech and aren’t interested in taking general education classes as well. The downside to a vocational education is that credits may not always transfer toward a degree if you wish to go back to school later.
- Community colleges: Community colleges also offer short-term certificate programs, but they may also have associate degrees for pharmacy technicians. These degrees may include some general education classes and may take as long as two years to complete. A community college may be best for those who think they’ll eventually want to earn a bachelor’s degree or become a pharmacist. These schools often have articulation agreements in place that streamline the process of transferring credits. What’s more, a community college may be cheaper than a vocational school for those who are residents of the college’s district.
The Online Training Option
Accredited pharmacy tech programs are offered both on-campus and online. Both formats provide the same core information and both typically offer the chance for externships or other hands-on training. Which one you choose will depend largely on your current work schedule, learning preferences and class availability.
- Campus programs: Traditional programs are ideal for those who enjoy learning in a group setting and having face-to-face access to instructors. A campus-based program is best for those who have consistent schedules that will allow them to attend classes at set times. Since all courses and clinical requirements are completed in-person, students should ensure the school location is convenient. Programs offered on campus may range from certificates that can be earned in six months to associate degrees that can take two years to complete. Although some schools offer night and weekend classes, parents may have to arrange for
child careif they attend class during the day.
- Mostly online programs: For students who want more flexibility, a mostly online program allows study times to be scheduled around other obligations. Working adults can review lessons at times that are convenient for them. What’s more, since all course materials are online, students can study at home, the library or even on their work breaks. Online pharmacy tech schools often arrange for students to complete externships at local pharmacies where they can gain hands-on experience. A career diploma from these programs may be completed in as few as four months. Since online learners study independently, these programs are best for those who are motivated and self-disciplined.
- Partially online (hybrid) programs: Some schools combine online and on-campus learning. These hybrid programs may allow students to take the majority of their coursework online while completing clinical requirements on campus. A hybrid certificate may take longer to earn than one that is mostly online, but many programs can still be completed in less than two years. You may want to consider one of these blended programs if you need a flexible study schedule but still want to meet with instructors face-to-face on occasion. These can also be a good option for those who want to gain hands-on experience on campus before being placed into a work setting.
Programs that might interest you:
Understanding Degrees by Level
Regardless of whether you study online or on-campus, you will likely earn one of the following:
- Certificate/Diploma: Although going by different names, a certificate and a diploma offer a comparable level of education. These programs, which often take four months-to-a-year to complete, are focused exclusively on pharmacy tech classes. Students learn about pharmacology and pharmacy calculations while also taking part in lab simulations. A certificate or diploma is best for those who want to become pharmacy technicians quickly and don’t expect to pursue further education in the near future.
- Associate degree: An associate degree may take up to two years to complete and typically has a curriculum that combines general education requirements with pharmacy tech classes. Core courses may cover topics such as pharmacology, dosage calculations, chemistry and health care ethics. Some employers, such as institutional pharmacies, may prefer to hire technicians with a higher level of education. Credits from an associate degree may transfer to four-year schools and be applied toward a bachelor’s degree.
Finish Your Prereqs
Many pharmacy technician schools admit students so long as they are 18 years old and have a high school diploma or GED. However, there may be prerequisites before you can begin the pharmacy tech classes. Here are some prerequisites students should keep in mind:
Apply to Pharmacy Technician Programs
Now it’s time to begin the application process. Most vocational schools and community colleges use a simple form for applications, and in many cases, the entire enrollment process can be completed online.
However, that doesn’t mean all schools are the same. From application fees to deadlines, there can be some crucial differences between pharmacy tech programs. Here are the key factors to keep in mind:
Finish Your Pharmacy Tech Classes
Many pharmacy technician programs are structured in such a way that each class builds on previous courses. As a result, students start with foundational classes and then move into clinical practice before being assigned an externship.
Initial classes provide an introduction to pharmacy and pharmacology. These courses cover the following topics, among others:
- History of pharmacy
- Laws and ethics
- Anatomy and physiology
- Pharmacologic classes
- Pharmaceutical calculations
After the introductory courses are completed, students will begin clinical work. In campus programs, these clinical requirements may occur in a laboratory simulation while mostly online programs may assign students to a partnering pharmacy to gain hands-on experience.
Clinical work is intended to provide real-world practice in the following areas:
- Retail pharmacies
- Inventory management
- Health-system pharmacies
- Concentrations and dilutions
Students may take additional pharmacology classes while doing clinical work. These courses build upon the introductory lessons and lead to more advanced clinical work.
At the conclusion of the program, students are often placed in an externship. This allows them to work under supervision as a pharmacy tech. Upon graduation, students of accredited programs should have the skills and knowledge necessary to obtain professional certification.
Earn Pharmacy Tech Certification
Before you can begin working as a pharmacy technician, you need to meet any state licensure requirements. Plus, you should consider earning a professional certification which may improve your employment prospects. Both licensure and certification may involve passing an exam and meeting continuing education requirements.
Pass the Exam
Not every state licenses pharmacy technicians, but you’ll need to check with your state licensing board to be sure. Even if licensure isn’t required in your area, it may be smart to become certified. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that some employers only hire certified workers so certification may make it easier to get a job.
Two organizations offer certification programs for pharmacy technicians: the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) and the National Healthcareer Association (NHA). Both require applicants to pass a certification exam. Here are the details on each one as well as more about state regulations for pharmacy technicians.
- PTCB certification: The PTCB offers CPhT certification, which it says is the gold standard of credentialing for pharmacy technicians. Students must have a high school diploma or GED and pass the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE) to be credentialed. The exam is a two-hour, computer-based test with 90 multiple choice questions.
- NHA certification: Pharmacy technicians can also become CPhT certified by the NHA. To earn this credential, applicants must complete a pharmacy tech training program or have one year of work experience. They must also pass the Exam for the Certification of Pharmacy Technicians (ExCPT). The exam takes two hours and ten minutes to complete and includes 100 test questions and 20 pretest questions.
- State regulations: Each state regulates pharmacy technicians differently. Their requirements may include completing a pharmacy tech program, passing an exam or paying a fee. Check with your state’s licensing board to learn what’s required in your area. There are links to all U.S. and Canadian boards on the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy website.
Quick Exam Prep Resources
Both the PTCE and ExCPT test for the knowledge needed to work effectively as a pharmacy technician. The PTCE covers nine topic areas. Here they are along with the percentage of questions they represent on the exam:
- Pharmacology for Technicians: 13.75%
- Pharmacy Law and Regulations: 12.5%
- Sterile and Non-Sterile Compounding: 8.75%
- Medication Safety: 12.5%
- Pharmacy Quality Assurance: 7.5%
- Medication Order Entry and Fill Process: 17.5%
- Pharmacy Inventory Management: 8.75%
- Pharmacy Billing and Reimbursement: 8.75%
- Pharmacy Information System Usage and Application: 10%
Meanwhile, the ExCPT covers four domains, with each having the following number of questions:
- Overview and Laws: 25 questions
- Drugs and Drug Therapy: 15 questions
- Dispensing Process and Medication Safety: 45 questions
- Quality Assurance: 15 questions
While anyone with a high school diploma or GED can sit for the PTCE, only those with experience or formal education are eligible for the ExCPT. Regardless of which exam you take, you’ll want to be properly prepared.
- Gather study material: Start by looking for test prep material. The PTCB offers a detailed blueprint of the contents of the PTCE while the NHA has a similar test plan for the ExCPT. There are also study books, video courses and online guides from third parties that can help you prepare. Check with your pharmacy tech school to see if it offers exam resources or can connect you to study groups.
- Consider a PTCE or ExCPT review course: While independent review guides can be helpful, don’t overlook the practice guides and tests offered by the NHA and PTCB. The PTCB offers two practice exams. The price for one exam is $29 or you can buy both for $49. The organization also offers a free practice app in partnership with PocketPrep. The app can be upgraded to provide unlimited access to 800 practice questions for a one-time payment of $24.99. The NHA study materials for the ExCPT include $15 flashcards, a $74 online study guide, a practice test and a $199 bundle that includes online workbooks, practice assessments and more.
Keep Your Pharm Tech Certs Current
To keep your CPhT designation, recertification is required every two years. Here’s a look at how each organization handles the recertification process.
PTCB recertification: A pharmacy technician must complete 20 hours of continuing education during each two-year recertification cycle. This must include one hour in pharmacy law and one hour in patient safety. A maximum of 10 hours can be earned by completing a college course with at least a C grade. Applications can be submitted online 60 days prior to the credential’s expiration, and there is a $40 fee.
NHA recertification: NHA also requires 20 hours of continuing education to recertify as a CPhT. Of that time, at least one hour must be in pharmacy law and one hour must be in patient safety. The recertification fee is $55.
Ready that Resume
Having a polished resume can help you stand out from other job applicants. Employers are often looking for workers who can begin immediately with little to no training. That’s why it’s important to emphasize three areas on your resume:
- Professional Experience
Make sure to list your school’s accreditation, professional certifications and whether you are registered or licensed in your state. If you don’t yet have professional experience, list any externships or internships you have completed.
Here are four resources with examples and tips to help you create your resume.
Interview, Interview, Interview
The job interview is the final hurdle to clear before launching your career as a pharmacy technician. This is your chance to highlight what would make you an excellent addition to any pharmacy’s staff.
To do that, you need to prepare responses to common interview questions. Your interview will likely include general questions about your strengths and weaknesses but also inquiries specific to the work of pharmacy techs. Here are seven job-specific questions you may face and how to answer when trying to land a role as a pharmacy technician.