Education Needed to Become a Psychiatrist

Aug 19, 2019

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

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What Degree Do You Need to be a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of disorders of the mind. Psychiatrists must hold a doctorate of medicine, or M.D. In order to become a psychiatrist, students must attend medical school. This means first completing an undergraduate degree in a science-related field or taking science-related undergraduate courses. Then students will begin medical studies focusing on psychiatry and complete a residency.

How Long Do Psychiatrists Go to School?

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. The process for how to become a psychiatrist can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Earn bachelor's degree; take prerequisite courses for medical school
  • Attend 4 years of medical school
  • Complete a residency in psychiatry
  • Obtain state licensing and certification

Psychiatrist Education

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
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