Psychiatry Majors and Undergraduate Degree Programs

Students who want to become psychiatrists start with either a bachelor's degree in psychology or a pre-med program. After completing a bachelor's degree, students need to complete four years of medical school and at least four years in a residency program to be eligible to become a psychiatrist.

Essential Information

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) recommends that pre-med students follow a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum that exposes them to the humanities as well as the sciences. However, a bachelor's or pre-med degree program is most often suggested and undergraduate students are strongly encouraged to get professional experience. Graduates will need to complete four years of medical school and at least four years in a residency program to be eligible to become a psychiatrist. Those wanting to specialize further should continue their education with fellowship options that focus on specific psychiatric disciplines.

Bachelor's Degree for Aspiring Psychiatrists

Students often begin their path toward a psychiatry career with an undergraduate major in psychology or one of the life sciences. Applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent to begin an accredited 4-year bachelor's degree program. Medical schools expect undergraduates to have performed well in challenging science and math classes in a pre-med track. Pre-med students can benefit from gaining experience in the health field by volunteering or working in a medical setting, according to the AAMC.

Students preparing for medical school partake in science-intensive coursework. They must complete several laboratory courses. Some subjects that almost all pre-med students take are:

  • Biology and Physics
  • Inorganic and organic chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Zoology
  • English
  • Math

Medical Degrees

Because medical school programs are competitive, institutions often require a minimum GPA for admission ( A bachelor's degree may not be required, but most applicants have earned one. Applicants need to demonstrate academic strength, particularly in pre-med lab science classes, such as biology, organic chemistry and physics. Students also must submit their current scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Students who have completed their bachelor's degrees but need additional science background to satisfy medical school admission requirements, or who wish to improve their science grades before applying to medical school, may enroll in a post-baccalaureate pre-medical program.

Aspiring psychiatrists must attend an accredited medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. During these challenging 4-year programs, medical school students receive classroom instruction in courses such as psychology, anatomy, microbiology and professional ethics, and obtain hands-on training in laboratory and clinical settings. The first two years offer an introduction to patient care, evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. During the second half of the program, students shadow professionals in rotations through various specialties. Aspiring psychiatrists have the opportunity to work in 6-week clerkships treating patients with a variety of mental afflictions. Prospective psychiatrists learn general medicine as they master techniques in research, diagnosis and intervention. Both theoretical study and hands-on experience are incorporated into the curriculum. Students may also carry out original research projects. Courses may include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Molecular biology
  • Histology
  • Neuroscience
  • Pathophysiology

Psychiatric Residency Program

Upon graduation from medical school, aspiring psychiatrists enter a 4-year residency program. They earn a stipend as they work under professional supervision to gain clinical experience with patients in a psychiatric hospital or other medical setting. Residents may participate in a computerized match program to find placement in an appropriate setting. Residency program requirements may vary, but prospective residents must obtain either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree as well as a license. To obtain a license, M.D.s must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while D.O.s must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX).

Residents learn interviewing and diagnostic techniques, build expertise in psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy, and treat a range of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and sexual identity issues. They may spend time working with children, older individuals or drug addicts in both inpatient and outpatient facilities. Psychiatry emergency situations are also covered. Fourth year residents typically choose electives that focus on research and specialty areas as they transition to professional practice. Residents complete didactic courses and cycle through clinical experiences. Some of the subjects commonly covered through training are:

  • Psychopharmacology
  • Neurology
  • Suicidal behavior
  • Electroconvulsive therapy
  • Psychotherapy and empathy
  • Forensic psychiatry

Continuing Education and Certification Information

Psychiatrists who have completed a residency and wish to specialize may seek a clinical, research or laboratory fellowship. They might focus on neuroscience, geriatrics, child and adolescent psychiatry, forensic psychiatry or addiction. Fellowships are typically paid and last 1-2 years.

Psychiatrists are expected to keep up with changes in the field and continually sharpen their expertise through continuing education. The ABPN encourages psychiatrists to participate in its Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program for re-certification. MOC participants follow a self-evaluation process to strengthen skills and improve their practice. Psychiatrists must become certified in their specialty by passing examinations administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc. (ABPN). The certification is valid for 10 years.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

According to the BLS, psychiatrists will see faster-than-average job growth between 2014 and 2024 at 15%. Most psychiatrists work in private practice, for psychiatric hospitals or for substance abuse treatment programs, the BLS stated.

The Association of American Medical Colleges reported that salaries for psychiatrists averaged $185,300. The BLS stated that the mean annual wage was $193,680 as of 2015, and reported a median salary of $209,101 in 2016.

A student who is interested in a psychiatry career must obtain a great amount of education in the form of undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Once students complete schooling, they must also complete residency programs, a fellowship, and certifications.

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