How to Become a Psychiatric Doctor: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a psychiatrist. Research the education requirements, training, licensure information, and experience you will need to start a career in psychiatry. View article »

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  • 0:03 Becoming a Psychiatrist
  • 1:44 Step 1: Bachelor's Degree
  • 3:08 Step 2: Medical School
  • 3:30 Step 3: Residency Program
  • 4:08 Step 4: Licensure &…
  • 4:52 Step 5: Fellowship & Specialty

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Video Transcript

Becoming a Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists treat patients who are living with mental health problems, emotional issues, or behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists counsel patients and analyze data, such as patients' medical history, to determine the best course of treatment.

Many psychiatrists have their own private practices; however, some are employed by group practices, hospitals, or inpatient medical clinics. Some positions allow for regular business hours, possibly set by the psychiatrist, while others are more demanding on personal time, such as for psychiatrists who work in hospitals or inpatient centers. The potential for high income is likely as a psychiatrist. The position can take an emotional toll and carries legal and medical responsibilities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job postings on, and O*Net OnLine, there are various requirements for this career. Psychiatrists must hold professional or doctoral degrees in psychiatry. Psychiatrists must also obtain state licensure, and voluntary certification is available in general psychiatry and psychiatric subspecialties. The needed work experience can be gained in a residency and a fellowship program. Key skills for psychiatrists include strong critical thinking and reasoning skills; empathy; good listening; knowledge of medical software and spreadsheet and word processing applications; knowledge of medical instruments, such as stethoscopes and blood pressure monitors; and the ability to diagnose mental illnesses using such techniques as psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. In May 2015, the BLS reported that the annual median salary for psychiatrists was $193,680.

Step 1: Bachelor's Degree

The first step towards becoming a psychiatrist is to earn a bachelor's degree. Prospective medical school students don't need to pursue a specific major; however, students who are interested in becoming psychiatrists might opt to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Psychology or a natural science, such as biology. Majoring in psychology can introduce aspiring psychiatrists to psychological concepts, theories, and research methods, while majoring in one of the natural sciences can fulfill prerequisites for medical school.

Success Tips:

  1. Complete an internship. An internship can provide aspiring psychiatrists with the opportunity to perform psychological research or work for a local mental health agency. The American Psychological Association provides a list of undergraduate internship and research opportunities. Additionally, many schools offer internships as part of their degree programs.
  2. Study for and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT is an exam that medical schools use to determine the readiness of applicants for the academic work. Topics covered on the exam include physical sciences, biological sciences, and verbal reasoning. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the organization that developed the MCAT, offers resources including practice tests and study guides. A variety of organizations also offer MCAT preparatory courses.

Step 2: Medical School

The second step towards becoming a psychiatrist is to attend medical school. Medical school takes four years to complete and consists of two years of didactic classroom work followed by two years of supervised clinical rotations. Some medical schools offer a psychiatric clerkship rotation; however, if one isn't included in the curriculum, students can participate in psychiatric rotations through electives.

Step 3: Residency Program

The third step towards becoming a psychiatrist is to complete a residency program. The real training of psychiatric doctors begins in a residency program. Psychiatric residency programs take 3-4 years to complete and immerse individuals in didactic and hands-on training in a clinical setting. The residency program can include rotations in inpatient psychiatry and neurology. Residents continue to gain more knowledge and experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral illnesses and disorders. Residency programs also instruct learners in psychopharmacology and psychotherapy systems and practices.

Step 4: Licensure & Certification

The fourth step to becoming a psychiatrist is to obtain licensure as a medical doctor and earn board certification in general psychiatry. Psychiatrists are licensed as medical doctors by the state; however, each state varies in its licensure requirements. Licensure often requires applicants to take an examination.

While board certification in general psychology isn't mandatory to practice as a psychiatric doctor, many employers require it. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) offers and oversees certification, which requires graduation from an accredited medical school, possession of a medical license, and completion of a residency program of at least three years in length. Certification candidates also must pass a certification exam.

Step 5: Fellowship & Specialty

The fifth step towards becoming a psychiatrist is to complete a fellowship program and earn certification in specialized fields. Psychiatrists can choose to specialize in a subfield of psychiatry, such as forensic, child, or geriatric psychiatry. Subspecialty training can be accomplished through a fellowship, which generally takes 1-2 years to complete.

According to the BLS, physicians looking to advance and obtain more job opportunities should consider certification. ABPN offers voluntary certification in various psychiatric specialties, including addiction psychiatry, clinical neurophysiology, and sleep medicine. Qualifications vary by specialty but typically include an active medical license, certification in general psychiatry, and specialty training of 1 or 2 years. All applicants must pass one or more exams.

The steps towards becoming a psychiatrist are to earn a bachelor's degree, attend medical school, complete a residency program, obtain licensure and board certification, and complete fellowships and earn certifications in specialized fields.

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