Becoming a Psychiatrist: Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a psychiatrist. Research the job description and education and licensing requirements to find out how to pursue a career in psychiatry.

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Should I Become a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who treat individuals living with mental illnesses and/or emotional problems. Schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse are some of the mental health challenges that psychiatrists address in patients through psychotherapy, prescribed drugs, hospitalization, and other treatments.

Aspiring psychiatrists will have completed at least 4 years of undergraduate school and then enter medical school for about 4 years. A specialty in psychiatry could then require internships and residencies of 3 to 8 years. Licensing is required and optional certification is available. These mental health physicians work in a variety of settings, including private or group practices, hospitals, schools, prisons, and community organizations. Working with patients on a daily basis who suffer from mental or emotional disorders could be draining, and some may find this work to be a negative. Others might find great reward in helping their patients work toward regaining their mental health.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
Degree Field Medicine
Licensure and Certification License required in all states; certification may also be required
Key Skills Good social awareness, communications, and active listening skills; familiarity with psychiatric and general computer software, such as SoftPsych Psychiatric Diagnosis, UnisonCare, and UniCharts
Salary $193,680 (2015 average for psychiatrists)

Sources: American Medical Association, *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Online job postings in October 2012, O*NET OnLine,

Steps to Becoming a Psychiatrist

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Students must earn a bachelor's degree before applying to medical school. There is no specific major required for aspiring psychiatrists, however, an undergraduate degree program that includes pre-med studies in biology, chemistry, math, physics, and other science-related topics can help students meet requirements for entering medical school.

Step 2: Take the Medical College Admission Test

The vast majority of medical schools in the United States use the standardized Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) as one criterion for determining which applicants to admit. The MCAT is a multiple-choice exam with sections covering biological science, physical science, oral reasoning, and writing. Undergraduates usually take the MCAT a year before they plan on starting medical school.

Step 3: Graduate from Medical School

Aspiring psychiatrists must complete medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Medical school generally lasts four years. Doctors spend the first two years in classrooms and labs studying topics including behavioral science, biochemistry, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, psychiatry, and pharmacology.

During the final two years of medical school, students diagnose and treat medical conditions in patients while supervised by experienced doctors at hospitals and clinics. Students serve clinical clerkships to gain experience in at least five specialized areas. A clerkship in psychiatry involves treating patients with mental disorders.

Psychiatry students might consider joining a professional association. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is open to practicing psychiatrists, psychiatric residents, and medical students. APA members have access to continuing education opportunities, psychiatric publications, practice management assistance, and professional networking opportunities. Examples of other professional organizations for psychiatrists include the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Step 4: Complete Residency Training

After graduating from medical school, prospective psychiatrists must complete a 4-year residency in psychiatry. A resident's first year involves treating a broad range of medical illnesses in patients. The resident then trains for at least three more years in diagnosing mental illnesses, honing psychotherapy abilities, and utilizing drug treatments and other therapies. Psychiatric residents work directly with patients under the supervision of experienced psychiatrists and participate in didactic learning, seminars, and research. Psychiatric residency training occurs in clinical settings and typically includes treating hospitalized patients and performing outpatient services.

Step 5: Serve a Fellowship

Some psychiatrists opt to seek a career in a psychiatric sub-specialty, which requires additional training. The American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) recognizes 10 psychiatric sub-specialties, including geriatric psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, child and youth psychiatry, addictions, and forensic psychiatry. Becoming a sub-specialist usually involves serving a 1-year fellowship after psychiatry residency training. Fellowships include supervised clinical work during assigned rotations as well as courses, seminars, case conferences, and research projects.

Step 6: Obtain a Medical License

All doctors need a license from their state's medical board to practice medicine in the United States. The requirements for obtaining a license depend on the individual states. Eligibility standards for licensure include graduating from an accredited medical program, finishing residency training, and passing required licensing tests. Testing requirements include successful completion of either the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination or the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.

Step 7: Get Certified

Many psychiatrists seek board certification. Certification is an optional step, but it can improve job prospects. The ABPN certifies psychiatrists who meet testing, training, and education requirements. To be eligible to take the psychiatric certification exam, applicants must have graduated from an accredited medical school, completed an accredited psychiatric residency program, and received a medical license. The ABPN also awards optional certification in 10 psychiatric sub-specialties.

Aspiring psychiatrists should first earn an undergraduate degree before moving on to medical school. After earning a medical degree, they'll need to complete four years of residency training in psychiatry, after which time an advanced fellowship in a sub-specialty could also be completed.

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