Which Major Better Prepares Students for Pharmacy School: Biology or Chemistry?

Which classes best prepare students for pharmacy school?

During my undergraduate career, I heard differing opinions from fellow students regarding which major provides the best preparation for pharmacy school. The most passionate debates always seemed to happen between those who pursued biology and chemistry.

The biology students espoused the value of coursework focused on cellular processes and physiologic systems. The chemistry students, on the other hand, considered their coursework more rigorous, with a greater emphasis on mathematics and molecular interactions.

Many of my current colleagues who majored in chemistry take pride in their math-intensive coursework as a key factor that made their transition to pharmacy school more manageable. However, I believe biology majors are better prepared overall. (Full disclosure: I hold a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry, which definitely influenced this commentary.)

Research suggests performing well in advanced biology coursework is an early positive predictor of success in pharmacy school. Those who concentrate in biology have the opportunity to take more classes on human body systems, like endocrinology and neurology. These classes can also provide a better foundation for learning pathophysiology and pharmacology—2 critical pillars of pharmacy education.

Pathophysiology encompasses the physiological changes associated with a disease or abnormal state. Knowledge of basic pathophysiology is crucial for pharmacists to understand treatment plans, make pharmacotherapeutic recommendations, and effectively communicate with other health care professionals.

It’s vital for pharmacists to understand pharmacology because it’s the study of drug action. Many drugs exert their action via receptor agonism or antagonism, while others alter various processes via interaction with both cellular and noncellular components. Didactic coursework in molecular and cell biology can make pharmacology more approachable.

Undergraduates who major in biology often have more opportunities to obtain fundamental understanding of the cellular processes many drugs ultimately impact. Mechanisms of drug action—especially for newer biopharmaceuticals—can be easier to understand with more advanced background knowledge of cell biology.

Those who major in biology may also benefit from having the ability to take more advanced courses in genetics, which may allow for a more complete understanding on how genetic disposition can impact drug action (eg, pharmacogenomics).

Obviously, an undergraduate chemistry curriculum can also adequately prepare students for pharmacy school through relevant classes like pharmacokinetics and radiopharmacy. However, I’d argue that many of the classes commonly taken by chemistry majors (eg, analytical chemistry, differential equations, and thermodynamics) would benefit a future pharmaceutical scientist more than a future pharmacist.

In the end, prospective pharmacy students’ undergraduate major is less important than their commitment to academic endeavors and ability to handle a heavy workload. Success in pharmacy school really comes down to the character and abilities of the individual, rather than prior undergraduate coursework.

That said, I don’t regret having a solid background in biology prior to entering pharmacy school. I believe students who majored in either biology and chemistry can both agree that a strong science background is a great asset for any health profession.

Reference

McCall KL, et al. Predictors of academic success in a Doctor of Pharmacy program. Am J Pharm Educ. 2006;70(5):106.