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Education Needed to Become a Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists require a significant amount of formal education. Learn about the undergraduate and medical school education, job duties and state licensing and board certification requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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In order to become a psychiatrist, students must first aspire to enter a medical school program. This means completing an undergraduate degree in a science-related field or taking science-related undergraduate courses. Eventually, medical school studies will lead to studies in psychiatry and a residency in psychiatry, which will culminate in the doctorate in medicine that is required to practice psychiatry.

Essential Information

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of disorders of the mind. Psychiatrists spend twelve or more years studying at the postsecondary and postgraduate levels to acquire the education and training necessary to start a career. After graduation, psychiatrists must be licensed in their state before they can legally treat patients. Many psychiatrists also become board certified in their specialties.

Required Education M.D.
Other Requirements State license, board certification
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 14% for all physicians and surgeons*
Median Salary (2015) $187,200 or more*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Psychiatrist Education Requirements

Bachelor's Degree

During undergraduate study, aspiring psychiatrists can begin their preparation for medical school. The Association of American Medical Colleges indicated that many medical schools require applicants to have completed undergraduate coursework in such fields as organic chemistry, physics and other scientific disciplines as well as humanities and liberal arts (www.aamc.org). A bachelor's degree program in chemistry or biology can help students to reach these requirements; however, as long as students complete all prerequisite coursework, a bachelor's degree in any discipline is usually sufficient. In addition, students should complete classes in advanced mathematics, communications, anatomy and related fields.

Doctor of Medicine

Medical school applicants are required to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). This standardized exam measures writing, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as well as knowledge of the scientific concepts needed to succeed in medical school. Medical school admissions committees consider MCAT scores in addition to undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, extracurricular participation, life experience and personal character.

A Doctor of Medicine degree program is a 4-year education and training program. During medical school, aspiring psychiatrists receive the same training as students interested in studying other branches of medicine. Common courses taken during the first two years of study include:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Psychology
  • Medical ethics

During the final two years of the program, students work in clinical settings. There they are exposed to various fields of medicine, including family practice, obstetrics, surgery, pediatrics and psychiatry.

Clinical Residency in Psychiatry

During completion of a psychiatric residency program, medical school graduates receive the additional training and education needed to work as a psychiatrist. Admission to residency programs can be competitive and is based on performance in medical school and scores received on medical board exams.

Residents are typically paid salaries to work in hospitals and clinics. In addition to practical work, residents complete further academic study and attend lectures and seminars in order to keep abreast of advancements in the field. During the first year of the program, psychiatric residents could engage in foundational study in medicine, neurology, psychiatric emergencies and substance abuse.

The second year introduces practice in psychotherapy with actual patients under the supervision of a licensed physician or psychiatrist. During the third year, they might focus on specific topics, such as child, adolescent or geriatric psychiatry. The final year is often devoted to developing additional areas of professional interest.

Licensing and Certification

Psychiatrists, like all medical doctors, must be licensed by the medical board of the state in which they plan to work. Once licensed, they can become board certified by taking certification exams through organizations, such as the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology or the American Board of Physician Specialties. Psychiatrists can earn certification in general psychiatry or choose a subspecialty, such as addiction, forensic, geriatric or adolescent psychiatry. The tests cover general psychiatric topics including:

  • Developmental psychology
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Public policy
  • Diagnostic procedures
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Child abuse

Psychiatrist Salary and Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2015 that psychiatrists earned median salaries of $187,200, or more, annually. In job projections, the BLS does not differentiate psychiatrists from the broader occupations of physicians and surgeons. Instead, it predicts a 14% job growth for all surgeons and physicians in the years 2014 through 2024. This employment growth is considered faster than average.

Psychiatrists work with patients with mental disorders. They, like most medical professions, require extensive education in order to reach their goals of becoming licensed practicing psychiatrists. After achieving M.D. status, psychiatrists still require licensing and board certification to practice in their state of preference.

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