You’ve nailed the first few subjects of your studies but now you see pharmacology coming up. You’ve heard rumors it’s not an easy class to pass.
So, is pharmacology hard?
Yes, pharmacology is hard. It involves a ton of memorization. It also has a difficult math component. Understanding dose-response curves and pharmacokinetics, for newcomers to the subject, is far from easy.
Despite all that, I’m confident anyone can do well in pharmacology with discipline and patience. And that goes for nursing, med or any other allied health student that’s required to take it!
I’ll explain why in this article. Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- Useful things to know before starting your pharmacology course
- What you should expect from your class
- The easiest and hardest things about it
- How you can best prepare
As a med student myself who did pretty well in pharmacology, I’m nicely placed to guide you through it.
Ready to get started? Let’s go.
Useful things to know before beginning a pharmacology course
Probably the best advice I can give anyone going into pharmacology is to be patient. You’ve got a lot of different classes of drugs to learn. And with that, mechanisms, routes of action, dosage forms and side effects (contraindications) too!
But don’t go in with the idea that you can’t learn it. That’s the first common mistake many students make.
Most of pharmacology boils down to the following:
- Understanding pathophysiology (check out this guide for tips!)
- Memorizing drugs
- Knowing what pathologies require what drugs
Get those three things right and you’ll be in a good spot.
Here’s an extra tip: a lot of pharmacology is about patterns. That makes memorizing (benzodiazepines all having an “-am” suffix for example) all the more easier.
Taking time to recognize these patterns (and the one or two exceptions) is important. Suffixes especially!
Their modes of action (as well as their therapeutic and side effects) are similar and can oftentimes help you reason out logical answers.
What to expect from a pharmacology class
Pharmacology class (both in nursing and medical school) is largely theoretical. There is little to no lab (something that’s different from studying it as a major).
Class is taught differently across institutions and levels. Some schools will make lectures mandatory, others won’t care as much.
Thankfully there are lots of well-made pharmacology learning resources (more on these later) that can help justify skipping lectures or classes.
This is useful if one of the reasons you find pharm hard is down to the way it’s taught. Choosing your own resources (in a style you like) can help make it easier.
What do you learn in pharmacology?
Pharmacology looks at how drugs work in the body and what the body does once a drug is administered. Here’s how the British Pharmacological Society describes it…
Pharmacology lies at the heart of biomedical science, linking together chemistry, physiology and pathology. Pharmacologists work closely with a wide variety of other disciplines that make up modern biomedical science, including neuroscience, molecular and cell biology, immunology and cancer biology.(Source)
Most pharmacology classes teach the following (as modules):
- General principles
- Drug forms and modes of administration
- Drug interactions
- Organ-based pharmacology (cardiovascular, renal, nervous systems etc.)
That last section is especially vast considering all the individual sub-topics and pathologies pharmacology can relate to.
What’s hard about pharmacology
Here’s what I feel are the hardest parts of pharmacology:
- Pharmacokinetics (understanding graphs, dosage calculations, ratios etc. can be tough if you’re not confident in basic math)
- Memorizing the huge array of drug types/classes
- Understanding pathways and interactions (difficult if you’re anatomy and physiology is weak)
- Application to cases/questions (something rote memorization won’t always help with!)
Obviously, depending on your background, some of these might not be a problem. For absolute beginners though they’re often intimidating things!
What’s easy about pharmacology
- Patterns (as mentioned before, a lot of pharm can be rationalized by understanding the language (suffixes) and groups drugs fit into)
- Math component is small (you won’t be tasked with calculus-style problems!)
- Builds on anatomy and physiology (if you learn these well, pharm gets a lot easier)
Pharmacology can be made easier of course if you have an effective system in place to manage it. Doing a little of it a day leads to major gains in the long run.
That’s also something that helps you gain confidence (something crucial to doing well in pharm).
How much time will you need to successfully pass pharmacology?
The time requirement involved to study pharmacology depends on the level you are studying at.
Nursing students will need less than med students, who, in turn, will need less than those studying pharmacology for undergrad (or those studying to become pharmacists).
For the first two groups of students, it’s generally recommended to do at least an hour a day outside of classes.
That’s usually the bare minimum to help you keep on top of a course, complete your assignments and work on building long term retention of the main facts.
Studying as effectively as possible can help reduce that time so make sure you use active recall (or other evidence-based study methods) in your sessions.
What’s the best way to prepare (and make pharmacology easier)?
I go a lot deeper into what I feel is the best way to study pharmacology in the following article…
Related: How To Study Pharmacology In Medical School (Ultimate Guide)
This is primarily aimed at med students but the techniques and tactics described should lend themselves well to anyone studying a general pharmacology course.
The resources I mention there can also be a massive help.
Possibly the best YouTube channel for best helping you prepare for studying pharmacology is Speed Pharmacology.
This channel covers all the major topics of the discipline and explains them in a very concise and fun way with lots of diagrams and a few jokes!
Here’s a sample video on the important topic of acne (every teenager’s nightmare)…
One of my favorite pharmacology websites is pharmacology2000.com.
Although I leaned on Sketchy Micro for learning most of the content, the quizzes and general tutorials here were an extremely useful extra.
The fact it’s categorized in a way that’ll walk you through pharm from start to finish is very nice too.
I’m not a huge advocate of learning pharm from dense textbooks but I also appreciate that your school/course might call for it (especially if they base their exams on a particular book).
One of the best beginner series (and one I recommend a lot for other subjects) are those from the Made Ridiculously Simple group.
Their book, Clinical Pharmacology Made Ridiculously Simple is an excellent intro.
It’s a lot shorter than most other books, covers all the need-to-know things and does it in its typical funny/ironic style.
I don’t think there’s any better way to prepare for pharmacology than leaning heavily on flashcards to memorize all the major drug groups/classes, side effects and everything else.
I run through all the major pre-made Anki pharmacology decks here.
Pharmacology is a tough subject simply because it can be so broad. Memorizing drugs and understanding their mechanisms of action, can take a lot of time. You’ll need to put in strong effort to pass.
Hopefully this article has helped set your mind at ease and helped show you that, although securing a pass in pharm can be a challenge, it certainly can be done.
The more question practice you do, with repeated exposure to the core material, the easier you’ll find it.
1. Is pharmacology harder than anatomy and physiology?
Pharmacology is harder than anatomy as it builds on it. You need a solid understanding of organ systems, where they are and what they do, to really understand and apply what you learn in pharmacology.
Being good at physiology really helps too. Again it’s probably easier than pharmacology but so much of it lends itself to the subject, particularly mechanisms, side effects and drug interactions.
2. Is pharmacology a hard major?
It can be a tough major, especially for pre-meds looking to earn high GPA’s and impress admissions boards. But it also has its advantages. Studying at undergrad could give you a massive advantage when it comes to covering it again later!
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Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.