How to Become a Psychiatrist

This article provides in-depth information into What is a Psychiatrist? What Psychiatrist do? Degrees for Psychiatrist, Steps to become Psychiatrist and much more.

In layman’s language, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor specializing in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists can assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems.

What does a Psychiatrist do ?

Although psychiatrists do not treat organic or structural disorders such as epilepsy, consequences of strokes or brain cancers but these orders may also cause psychiatric symptoms and mental alteration in certain patients which requires the ability to make a differential diagnosis and apply the correct treatment.

Psychiatrists need to have an excellent understanding of basic psychology and must possess psychotherapy skills to attempt to influence the patient’s disorder with less medication. Medication in psychiatry is used only when counseling and therapy fail to produce noticeable results. Many psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and certain phobias may be effectively treated through psychotherapy. 

Psychiatrists treat a variety of mental disorders ranging from mild and temporary to severe and chronic. 

Steps for becoming a Psychiatrist


Complete A Bachelor’s Degree

Students must complete their bachelor’s degree program from an accredited institution before applying to med school. Although there is no specific major required for aspiring psychiatrists, a good choice would be to focus on pre-med, physical sciences or psychology or a combination of all the three by utilizing a double major or minor. 

Medical school admissions are very competitive. Hence maintaining high grades and an impressive list of courses during undergraduate are of utmost importance. Students may plan ahead for the next step in their journey by taking advantage of any prep classes offered for the MCA.

Step 1  Complete a Bachelor’s Degree


Take The Medical College Admission Test

Most medical schools in the United States use the standardized Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) as the eligibility criteria of a student interested to study psychiatry. MCAT comprises three multiple-choice sections covering biological science, physical science, writing, and oral reasoning. Students should take the test a year before they intend to apply for medical school. Students are allowed to take the test as many times as necessary in order to pass.

Those that need to retake the test can sign up for a new test two days after their previous exam. The evaluation process for admission into a med school is determined by the prospective student’s MCAT score and their undergraduate study performance.

Step 2  Take the Medical College Admission Test


Graduate From Med School

Students need to choose between two designations to become a psychiatrist: Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). Each degree focuses on the same methods of treatment but a DO degree also focuses on osteopathic manipulative medicine. Medical school generally lasts four years. The first two years in the medical school are spent in classrooms and labs studying courses including behavioral science, biochemistry, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, psychiatry, and pharmacology.

During the final two years of psychiatry students work in clinical settings diagnosing and treating real-time patients under the supervision of experienced doctors. Students have to serve clinical clerkships to gain experience in at least five specialized areas. Clerkship in psychiatry involves treating patients with mental disorders.

Step 3 Graduate from Med School


Complete A Residency

After graduating from medical schools, psychiatry students must complete at least 4 years in residency training. During the first year of residency a student must treat a broad range of medical illnesses in patients. The resident then trains for at least three more years diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. Residents must hone their psychotherapy abilities during their time in residency. Prospective psychiatrists work directly with patients under the supervision of experienced psychiatrists. Residents participate in didactic learning, seminars, and research. 

Step 4 Complete a Residency


Serve A Fellowship

Some psychiatrists opt for a career in a psychiatric subspecialty which requires additional training. As per the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, there are ten psychiatric subspecialties including geriatric psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine, child and youth psychiatry, addictions, and forensic psychiatry. A subspecialty fellowship involves 1 year training period after psychiatry residency training. Fellowship programs involve clinical work under the supervision of licensed doctors as well as courses, seminars, case conferences, and research projects. 

Step 5 Serve a Fellowship


Get Licensed And Board Certified

After successful completion of medical school and residency, students have to apply for their medical license and board certification to be able to practice. Those that graduate as MD take the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) while those that graduate as DO take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). Eligibility criteria for licensure include graduation from an accredited medical program, finishing residency training, and passing required licensing tests.

After receiving their medical license, students take the examination for board certification which is offered through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Students can take this test as many times as necessary in order to pass and it is optional. Certification improves job prospects and must be renewed every ten years.

Step 6 Get Licensed and Board Certified 


Continue Education

Those that opt for a board certification and get certified must enter into continuing education programs throughout their career in order to remain certified. Psychiatrists have to earn an average of 30 credits per year. Some states require more continuing medical education credits in order to continue practicing.

Step 7 Continue Education

Psychiatrist Salaries


Salary of a Psychiatrist

Salary of a psychiatrist ranges anywhere between $200,00 and $250,000. Salary ranges vary widely depending on several important factors like education, certifications, additional skills, and work experience. 

Job Growth of a Psychiatrist

According to BLS, the job growth of a psychiatrist is projected at 16.2 percent between 2012 and 2022. A psychiatrist has the highest projected growth rate than the national average for all other occupations.

Types of degrees for Psychiatry

Following are the types of degrees to be pursued if you want to be a psychiatrist. 

Undergraduate Study

The first prerequisite to becoming a psychiatrist is to complete a four years bachelor’s degree program. While there is no mandatory concentration needed to pursue psychiatry in medical school, students who take up courses including Math, Biology, Chemistry and physics have better chances of getting through their choice of medical school. Admission in medical schools is competitive and hence it is important to maintain good grades throughout bachelor’s degree programs. Students can improve their chances of acceptance by engaging in extracurricular college activities and volunteering in hospitals and other health care settings. 

Medical School

A student is eligible to apply for medical school programs after completion of four years of undergraduate studies and typically takes 4 years to complete and lead to a doctor’s degree. However, according to BLS, some colleges combined bachelor’s and medical degrees in accelerated six or seven year programs. The curriculum for psychiatry students includes classes in psychiatry, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, and neuroscience. During the first two years students engage in classroom and laboratory activities. In the final two years, students work in hospital settings diagnosing and treating patients under the supervision of experienced doctors. Some possible rotations include psychiatry, family practice, pediatrics, etc.

Residency and Fellowship

After graduating from medical school, a prospective psychiatrist must enroll in a residency program and must complete a minimum of four years. In the first year, residents usually work in general hospitals treating patients with all types of illnesses. Psychiatrist residents spend a minimum of three years treating psychiatric patients in clinics, psychiatric wards or hospitals before being eligible for taking the board certification test held by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Some psychiatrists opt to complete fellowships after residency studying subspecialties such as addiction or geriatric psychiatry. Fellowship requires a psychiatrist to work at least one year in a clinical or hospital setting under the supervision of a licensed specialist psychiatrist. 


Every state requires its psychiatrist to become licensed as physicians and the requirements vary from state to state. The basic requirements that are common for each state are an accredited medical degree and a residency training of at least four years. A psychiatrist must also fulfill state examination requirements bypassing the US Medical Licensing Examination for MDs or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination for DOs.

Concentrations to consider for a Psychiatrist

Following are the most common course concentration among others:

  • Behavioral Science:  behavioral science refers to the study of animal and human behavior. Broadly defined, the study of human habits, actions, and intentions is known as behavioral science. This is one of the most important subjects in psychiatry.

  • Psychopathology: Students study mental illnesses or mental distress or the manifestation of behaviors and experiences which may be indicative of mental illness or psychological impairments in a person. There are many different specialties involved in the study of psychopathology. The mental disorders that are classified into categories within psychopathology are developmental, anxiety, cognitive, mood, eating, sleeping, psychotic, somatoform, and personality disorders.

  • Psychiatry Clerkship: Students are provided intensive clinical exposure to the assessment and management of patients with psychiatric disorders. Under clerkship, students will be assigned to Psychiatry ER shifts and two half-days in outpatient psychiatry clinic settings.

Job Concentrations

Following are the most common Job concentrations for a psychiatrist:

  • Geriatric Psychiatry: Geriatric psychiatry revolves around the evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental and emotional disorders in the elderly and the improvement of psychiatric care for healthy and ill elderly patients. Geriatric psychiatry emphasizes the biological and psychological aspects of normal aging.

  • Forensic Psychiatry: Psychiatrist specializing in forensic psychiatry deals with the assessment and treatment of offenders in prison, secure hospitals and the community mental health problems. Forensic psychiatrists also provide specialist advice to the courts, the probation service, and the prison service.  It requires an understanding of the links between mental health and the law. 

  • Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: a child and adolescent psychiatrist specializes in the diagnosis and the treatment of disorders of thinking, feeling and / or behavior of children and adolescents and their families. The study investigates the biopsychosocial factors that influence the development and course of these disorders and treatment responses to various interventions.

  • Addiction Psychiatry: addiction psychiatrists are responsible for identifying concurrent psychiatric and substance use problems in individuals seeking treatment. Addiction psychiatry has ample job opportunities as there is a shortage of specialists in this field. 

Standout skills for a Psychiatrist

In order to be a good psychiatrist, you need to possess both hard and soft skills which are detailed below:

  • Diagnostic Skills: Psychiatry involves interaction with another human being which itself is a complicated process. It becomes even more challenging when the person is coping with emotional disruptions or even psychosis. Psychiatrists need to be able to take in complex information and analyze it to reach a conclusion. A psychiatrist must be able to understand human biology, psychology, group, and individual social behavior and cultural differences so as to correctly diagnose a patient’s problems. A psychiatrist must be able to make decisions about what exactly the patient’s needs are and then prescribe the right treatment which may involve interactive therapy, medication or a combination of the two. 

  • Up to Date Pharmaceutical Knowledge: A wide array of drugs are available in the market to treat mental disorders. These drugs range from relatively mild sedatives such as Valium all the way to heavy-duty drugs such as Thorazine. A psychiatrist must be able to understand the options that are available and be able to prescribe a particular or a combination of medications to a particular patient. There’s a constant and ongoing changes in the world of pharmaceuticals and a psychiatrist should continually educate himself about new drugs and treatments 

  • Good Listening Skills: One of the most important skills, in order to be a good psychiatrist, is to be a good listener in order to hear both what the patient says and discern what is not said. A psychiatrist must pay attention to the tone and expression the patient uses when discussing different issues and be alert to repetitive comments that may indicate strong feelings. A psychiatrist must have no preconceived notions about the patient and be open to the patient’s opinions. A psychiatrist must be an active listener who doesn’t interrupt but knows when to ask the appropriate questions

  • Empathetic: In order to be successful as a psychiatrist, they must be able to empathize with other humans and gain insight into their motivations, difficulties and sufferings. A psychiatrist must always remember the fine line between empathy and being a friend. A psychiatrist is supposed to be empathetic towards the patient so as to be able to relate with the patient’s experience maintaining professional boundaries so as to be able to avoid taking the patient's stress and emotional upheaval. Being empathetic helps a psychiatrist be able to determine the right course of action for the patient.

  • Objectivity: One of the most difficult tasks for a psychiatrist is to be able to maintain a balance between empathy and detachment. It is important that a psychiatrist remember their purpose which is to analyze the patient and decide on the right therapies, drugs and treatments. 

  • Good Communication Skills: As a psychiatrist, you will need to communicate with many people on a daily basis. In addition to the patient a psychiatrist may have to talk to family members to get other perspectives on the patient’s problems and to assess family dynamics. A psychiatrist’s job involves talking to other health care professionals to coordinate a treatment plan for the patient. A psychiatrist must be able to communicate easily with both medical professionals and laymen.