How to Become a Psychiatrist: Your Ultimate Guide

How to Become a Psychiatrist: Your Ultimate Guide
Source: American Traveler

Are you a fan of Jung, or does Freud capture your attention? Is your favorite television show “Frasier?” Did you want to be like Lucy Van Pelt and charge a nickel to hear people’s problems when you were a kid? If you find yourself continuously drawn to psychology and analyzing human behavior, then you may discover that a career is psychiatry suits you well. But while the human mind in intriguing, it is also complex. That is why the path to how to become a psychiatrist is not an easy one.

If you are passionate about psychiatry, though, you will find every step along the way to becoming a psychiatrist is well worth it. From your undergraduate years to getting board certified, you will be able to study and do something that you truly love and build a solid career where you help others every day.

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What Is a Psychiatrist?

There are two main professions dealing with the inner workings of the human mind: psychology and psychiatry. It is rather easy to get the two mixed up. The main difference is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe medications and has a license to practice medicine. A psychologist treats patients with behavioral therapy. They usually just talk with patients and deal with the emotional aspects of a problem through behavior modification. How to become a psychiatrist and psychologist also differs, since a psychiatrist requires medical training beyond a four-year undergraduate degree.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatry is the branch of medicine that focuses on mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. As a psychiatrist, you will diagnose patients with disorders based on laboratory tests, psychological assessments, family history, and other observations based on the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). You may prescribe medications or use treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy, and use psychotherapy to help patients control their disorders.

As a psychiatrist, you may work in a variety of locations offering medical services. These include clinics, hospitals, medical centers, prisons, courts, nursing homes, businesses, and the military. You may also choose to have your own practice. Many times, psychiatrists will have a private practice and also work at other locations as well.

Psychiatrist salary and job statistics

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for a psychiatrist as of May 2018 was $220.380.

How to Become a Psychiatrist

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If you have serious ambitions toward a career in psychiatry, then you need to learn how to become a psychiatrist. There are specific requirements and steps you have to take. The law and other regulations guide the process, so it’s important that you understand every step in how to become a psychiatrist. Because you will become a medical doctor, there is little room for deviation from the standard process. Each step builds upon the last to give you the knowledge and skills you need to do a proper job in the field.


The first step in how to become a psychiatrist is to get an undergraduate degree. You need to attend college for four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree, preferably in an area related to the sciences. Many schools offer a psychology major, which is a great choice. However, you can also major in any science to give you a good basis of knowledge.

The American Medical Student Association recommends that you plan ahead for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). You must take the MCAT to get into medical school. This test covers all areas of science, including chemistry, physics, psychology, biology, biochemistry, and sociology. Your major needs to prepare you for the MCAT and medical school. Your medical school may have prerequisite classes you need to have before starting, so it is ideal to ensure you take them during your undergraduate years.

Medical school

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education sets the requirements for the medical education and training for how to become a psychiatrist. You will spend four years in medical school. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the first two years are the pre-clinical, which is when you learn about basic medical concepts and doctoring. You may take courses in biochemistry, behavioral science, psychiatry, physiology, neuroscience, and anatomy.

The last two years are clinical. This is when you do rotations and gain hands-on experience as a doctor. The third year of medical school gives you access to many specialties and can be a good time to determine if you want to specialize in a specific area of psychiatry. The last two years also give you a chance to work in other areas of medicine, so you can be sure psychiatry is the right field for you.

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Your next step for how to become a psychiatrist is a four-year residency. Residency is often at a university-affiliated hospital, which allows you to combine practical experience with academic learning. In your first year of residency, you will start to learn how to take care of patients with general psychiatric needs. The last three years, you learn to diagnose and treat patients. All your work is under a licensed doctor, so you are not on your own. But you do very much get to practice your doctoring skills and learn what is like to be a psychiatrist.


During medical school, you will also start the next stage in how to become a psychiatrist: obtaining your state medical license. You’ll begin doing this in the second year. To get your license, you have to take the United State Medical Licensing Examination. By your third year, you will complete more steps in the process. This leads to taking the final examination and obtaining your license in your first or second year of residency after you have your medical degree.

Note that licensing occurs at the state level, and the state medical board handles it. You should contact the state medical board to get a copy of the current licensing requirements. To get your license, you must provide proof of your education and residency to show you meet all state requirements. You will have to provide the board with your resume or CV and ensure your schools and employers verify your credentials.

You should wait at least 60 days after applying to follow up with the board. Once the board approves your application, you will have to pass an exam, which may be oral or written.

It is imperative to understand that you must have a license in every state where you will practice medicine. It is illegal to practice medicine without a license. So, this step is very important while learning how to become a psychiatrist. Make sure you plan far in advance and have everything in order for your application.

In addition to your state medical license, you will need a federal narcotics license and a registration number from the Drug Enforcement Administration. These allow you to prescribe certain medications to your patients.

Board certification

After you have your education, training, and licensing complete, you’ll know how to become a psychiatrist. All that’s left is becoming board certified. Board certification comes from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

To get board certified, you need you to hold a valid state medical license and have proof you completed an approved training program. You must complete an evaluation process assessing your ability to practice psychiatry and complete all specialized training requirements. Finally, you must submit an application and pass an exam at a Pearson VUE test center. The ABPN also offers board certification in specialty areas if you decide to specialize. You must recertify your certification every 10 years.


There are various specializations available within psychiatry. These are specific types of patients or specific areas of psychiatry. You could specialize in areas that include psychosomatic, child and adolescent, pain medicine, psychoanalysis, geriatric, sleep medicine, forensic, psychiatric research, and addiction. If you feel drawn to a particular area, specialization may be something to consider. You will need additional training in the area, which will add to schooling you’ll need. But if you’ve come this far, you’re already fully dedicated, so a little more isn’t going to stop you, right?


Speaking of a little more schooling, you need continuing education to maintain your license and board certification. You can get continuing education credits through the American Psychiatric Association. Continuing education also allows you to stay on top of changes in the field and to hone your skills, which helps make you a better doctor in the long run. Note that continuing education is not really a part of the initial steps in how to become a psychiatrist. You will do this once you are already practicing medicine. But it’s important to understand the process of learning never ends for a good psychiatrist.

​The Doctor Is In

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The steps to becoming a psychiatrist include getting an undergraduate degree, attending medical school, completing a residency, getting a license and seeking board certification. You also can choose to specialize, which requires more education and training. The process takes at least 12 years to become a fully licensed psychiatrist who can practice on their own.

While it is a rigorous and lengthy process, you need all the training and education to make you the best doctor possible. You want to be able to provide your patients with top-notch care, which you can only do by completing every step from beginning to the end that isn’t really an end. Just imagine that once you finish, you could one day be as well-known as Jung, Freud, or Dr. Frasier Crane! And if not, helping people who need you is a pretty good goal in life, even if you never get famous doing it.

Where Can Psychiatrists Work?

Psychiatrists can work in a number of different places—they don’t always have to work for a private practice or office setting. Here are a few other options:

  •  Mental health clinics
  • Military organization
  • Nursing homes
  • Schools
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Mental health clinics
  • Governmental Institutions

The Challenges Of Being A Psychiatrist

Being a psychiatrist is an enriching career, but it’s also a difficult one. Psychiatrists have to witness human suffering and personal trauma on a regular basis. They also have to treat mental disorders and listen to very painful stories. Being in that type of environment can become overwhelming for the therapist and make it hard to balance personal and professional emotions. Unfortunately, it can also hinder the mental health of the psychiatrist.

On the other hand, this career can be gratifying. Especially when a psychiatrist successfully treats a patient. Anytime a therapist can reduce anxiety or help a person cope with severe trauma; the satisfaction is rewarding for the psychiatrist.

The Benefits Of Being A Psychiatrist

Believe it or not, there are other benefits to being a psychiatrist other than successfully treating a patient. Here are a few of the advantages:


Most psychiatrists who work for a private practice are able to set their own hours and appointments for seeing patients. Plus, they can make their schedule around their family and personal time. Furthermore, most psychiatrists working hours are typical business hours, which allows them more freedom to do the things they enjoy. Not to mention, some therapists reduce their on-call hours and after-hours phone calls as well. Lastly, psychiatrists have the option to live and train abroad. By doing so, it expands their horizons both personally and professionally.


As previously mentioned, psychiatrists have the option to work in a number of different settings. They can choose a career in a public sector or with a private practitioner. By having so much variety, it gives the psychiatrist options to find work in different industries. Plus,  it provides them with experience working in various environments. If you choose a career as a therapist, the options are limitless, and you’ll never feel stuck or pressured to work in only one sector of the mental health industry.


Psychiatry isn’t the easiest job in the world. However, being a successful psychiatrist is about more than successfully treating a patient—it’s about impacting lives. When a therapist can improve a person’s mental health, it not only helps that person but their loved ones as well. Anytime a patient can go out into society and be the best version of themselves, they are making a positive impact on the environment around them. It’s like a domino effect— when one person is made healthier due to psychiatry, it improves the lives of everyone around them. Therefore, being a psychiatrist isn’t just about making one person better; it’s about making the world better.

Final Thoughts On How To Become A Psychiatrist

Now that you’ve learned about how to become a psychiatrist, you can see that it’s a perfect career for people who love helping others. Plus, there are plenty of medical schools in every area of the country that have training and education for those who want to become a therapist. The mental health industry is always in need of caring people who want to see the world become a better place. Of course, becoming a therapist requires years of schooling, but it’s all worth it for a rewarding career. If you think you’d be a good fit for helping people with mental challenges, being a psychiatrist is the right job choice for you. Hopefully, this article gave you more clarity on this exciting career and its pros and cons. Do you think psychiatry is the right career move for you?

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