How to Become a Psychiatrist

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Psychiatry focuses on mental health. Psychiatrists diagnose, treat, and help prevent emotional and behavioral disorders such as anxiety attacks, depression, and hallucinations. Psychiatrists employ a variety of treatment modalities including psychotherapy, psychosocial interventions, and medication.

This guide includes information on how to become a psychiatrist, including educational requirements, licensure, salary expectations, specialty areas, and much more. Although many psychiatrists establish a private practice, they work in a variety of settings, depending on their area of expertise.

Becoming a psychiatrist takes years of rigorous study. Psychiatrists are medical doctors, which means they go to medical school after earning their undergraduate degree. They have to complete a residency, undergo two or more years of supervised practice, and meet other requirements for licensure, which vary among states.

What Does a Psychiatrist Do?

Psychiatry Career Basics

Psychiatrists spend much of their working day with patients. Away from patients, they review treatment protocols and maintain meticulous notes on their patients' progress.

Psychiatrists working in medical hospitals routinely consult with other professionals to ensure a patient's treatment plan is being followed, or to adjust the plan as needed. Psychiatrists in rehabilitation clinics often meet with a patient's family members and support group to keep them apprised and to actively involve them in treatment.

Did you know?

Psychiatry, from Medieval Latin psychiatria, literally means “a healing of the soul.” The practice of psychiatry can be traced to ancient India.

Psychiatrist Salary and Job Growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatrists earned a mean annual salary of $220,430 in 2019. However, several factors impact salary levels.

Psychiatrists who work for local governments (excluding schools and hospitals) receive the highest compensation ($255,070). Other top-paying industries include home health care services ($253,090), outpatient care centers ($250,230), and residential care facilities ($240,630).

Experience greatly influences a professional's earning potential. PayScale reports that early career psychiatrists (less than one year of experience) typically earn an average salary of $194,486. More experienced practitioners (5-9 years of experience) earn $205,504. Seasoned professionals (over 20 years of experience) earn significantly higher salaries, pegged in 2019 at $237,315.

The state where a psychiatrist practices also influences their annual compensation. The following states pay the highest annual mean salaries for psychiatrists:

State Wage
Maine $273,900
Arizona $270,890
North Dakota $264,770
Indiana $264,260
Nebraska $262,570

4 Steps to Becoming a Psychiatrist

Becoming a psychiatrist involves several steps. The profession requires a significant investment of time and money, considerable planning, and an ongoing commitment to continuing education. Read the steps below for a realistic perspective on how to become a psychiatrist.

Step 1
Complete a Bachelor's Degree Program
The first step to becoming a psychiatrist is to earn a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution. In preparation for medical school, a good choice would be to focus on pre-med, physical sciences or psychology — or a combination of the three by utilizing a double major or minor.
To date, no U.S. college or university offers a pre-med major, per se. However, several institutions do offer a pre-med track, including New York City College of Technology, Pepperdine, and Georgetown. In lieu of a pre-med track, popular undergraduate majors for would-be psychiatrists include psychology, biology, and chemistry. Academic advisors typically suggest a program with intensive laboratory sessions, relevant internship opportunities, and comprehensive classroom instruction in subjects like human anatomy, the neurological system, and pharmacology.
Step 2
Take the Medical Colleges Admissions Test
Next, students have to sit for the medical college admission test (MCAT). Although medical schools evaluate the merits of a student's total application, a passing MCAT score is a basic requirement for consideration. Most schools consider a score of 511 points (out of a total of 528 points) to be acceptable.
Step 3
Complete an M.D. or D.O. Program
Students accepted to medical school typically receive the same basic instruction whether they opt to become an M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy). An M.D. typically offers allopathic treatments that address the specific symptoms of a disease. A D.O. regards the body as an integrated entity and addresses conditions from lifestyle and medical perspectives, instead of treating specific symptoms. After medical school, students begin a residency in a specialty of their choice. A residency program in psychiatry typically takes another four years.
Courses taken during medical school vary widely depending upon the program, but students studying psychiatry can expect to take the following, among others:
Step 4
Earn and Maintain Licensed and Board Certified
All states require doctors, including psychiatrists, to obtain a license before they can practice unsupervised. Additionally, psychiatrists must obtain certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Requirements for maintaining and renewing a license vary by state, but most require doctors to earn a minimum number of continuing education credits to maintain the licensure. Renewal conditions of an ABPN certification depend on a psychiatrist's area of specialty, but are generally required every 10 years.

Preparing to Become a Psychiatrist:
Schools and Programs

Lists from reputable websites typically evaluate key factors such as accreditation, acceptance rates, MCAT scores, and specialty areas. Many students begin their search for the ideal psychiatry program by investigating the schools included in such a list.

The cost for attending medical school continues to climb, and many students need some type of financial assistance to afford enrollment. Several universities administer financial assistance programs including fellowships, scholarships, and research grants. For example, the University of Florida awards a forensic psychiatry fellowship, giving recipients the opportunity to conduct forensic evaluations involving competency, guardianship, and criminal responsibility. Professional medical organizations also award financial assistance packages such as the American Medical Association's Physicians of Tomorrow Awards.

Courses in Psychiatry Programs

Medical students typically focus on a specific field of practice in their third or fourth year of residency. Residents who opt to pursue a specialization in psychiatry can expect to enroll in classes such as the ones described below. Keep in mind, however, that each curriculum is crafted to support specific educational objectives for students. Because of this, course offerings can vary greatly among schools. Psychiatry residents with a clear idea of the specialization they wish to pursue should examine a school's roster of courses closely to make sure it offers the coursework that supports their area of specialization.

  • Behavioral Science

    In this course students learn about the biochemical, pharmacological, and physiological aspects of behavior. Students gain a broad perspective on human behavior based on various factors such as emotions, personality, and social interactions. The course gives students the chance to examine specific problems from a biobehavioral standpoint.

  • Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience

    Through class lectures and laboratory sessions, students gain an in-depth understanding of recent developments in neuroscience. The course gives students the chance to examine the underlying neurological components of cognition and affect: how humans think, remember, process emotions, and make decisions.

  • Psychopathology

    This course introduces students to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Students examine the complexity of various psychological disorders and the conditions of psychopathology, with an emphasis on modern treatment. The material further explores the ethical, legal, and multicultural factors typically present in abnormal psychology.

  • Social Context of Mental Health and Illness

    The course provides a historical context behind contemporary mental health attitudes and practices. Students learn how social factors influence the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They also examine the availability and quality of mental health services in different social environments.

  • Understanding the Brain (Neurobiology)

    In this course, students explore functional neuroanatomy in order to develop a clear understanding of how humans perceive and process information from the environment. The course demonstrates the relationship between the nervous system and behavior. Students learn how the human brain functions and the behavioral implications of neural malfunctions.

Accreditation for a Psychiatry Program

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee the school and programmatic accreditation process. Accreditation refers to the process of evaluating an institution's educational programs to determine its quality and adherence to established academic standards. Accreditation is a voluntary process in the U.S.

Nonprofit public and private colleges and universities typically seek regional accreditation. Vocational for-profit schools (including sectarian institutions) often seek national accreditation. Accreditation not only attests to the quality of education, it also plays an important role when applying for student aid. Federal financial assistance is only through accredited institutions.

ED and CHEA recognize the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) as the primary accrediting body for medical programs. ACGME accredits institutions, residency and fellowship programs, and specific sub-specialties under general medical practice.

Psychiatry Specialties

Psychiatry students can select a subspecialty after completing their residency. Most subspecialties require an additional year of fellowship, although some require longer. For example, fellowships in child/adolescent psychiatry typically require the completion of a two-year fellowship. At the end of a fellowship program, graduates earn a certificate in their subspecialty.

ACGME currently recognizes eight psychiatric subspecialties, including addiction medicine, child and adolescent psychiatry, consultation liaison psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, and hospice and palliative medicine. Although psychiatrists can practice without a sub-specialty, many choose to invest an additional year or two of study and training into a subfield that holds their professional interest.

A subspecialty allows psychiatrists to work with a specific population or in a particular work environment. They keep up with the latest advances in treatment options and pharmacological solutions that work best with patients within their field of specialization. Psychiatrists with a subspecialty can still treat patients outside their specialized arena, which enhances their employability and expands their client base.

Components of a Successful Psychiatrist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Psychiatrist Required Skills

Psychiatrists need the ability to show genuine empathy and compassion toward their patients while maintaining a professional demeanor and objectivity. They must also be able to create a non-threatening physical and emotional space that elicits trust and openness from their patients. Psychiatrists need well-developed critical and analytical thinking skills to help patients through their mental, emotional, and sometimes physical struggles.

Recent advances in the study of the human brain and its functions have contributed to the practice of psychiatry, including the enhancement of treatment protocols and increasing pharmacological options. States require psychiatrists to enroll in continuing education courses to maintain or renew their license. This ensures that psychiatrists are well aware of the most recent developments and applications in their field.

Psychiatrists can now take advantage of advanced medical software developed specifically for the mental health profession. For example, the SoftPsych Psychiatric Diagnosis helps psychiatrists compile a thorough psychiatric history, formulate a diagnosis, craft treatment options, and maintain accurate medical records.

Spotlight Career Interview
David M. Reiss, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice. This is part of his detailed journey from aspiring engineer to psychiatrist.

Please describe your educational path to becoming a psychiatrist.

In high school, my interests were always more intellectual than physical. My deepest curiosities tended to be more philosophical, but my practical abilities showed most promise in the applied sciences. I was told, and it made sense to me, that I should become an engineer.

I entered the Northwestern University Technological Institute. At that time, there was no Department of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern, but I was able to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering with an option in biomedical engineering. Having moved into biomedical engineering, in my last years in college I took courses in physiology and biochemistry such that I ended up having sufficient prerequisites to apply to medical school.

I was formally accepted to Northwestern Medical School. Arriving at NUMS, not having been “a pre-med” I was a fish out of water – and I absolutely hated my first year. Memorizing Latin terms in anatomy class was the furthest thing from taking on challenging engineering problems. The more I learned about psychiatry, the more interested I became. I had the good fortune to be able to work with excellent teachers and mentors in psychiatry.

What does your day-to-day work entail?

Currently, my time is split between three areas. I have been involved in the California workers' compensation system as a qualified medical examiner for over 25 years, performing medical-legal evaluations and providing treatment.

Roughly one-third of my time has been spent staying active in frontline treatment in other milieu, providing both psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological intervention, mostly in psychiatric hospitals. As at this point in my career I am not seeking a full hospital practice, I have done “locum tenens” [temporary] assignments ranging from two weeks to four months. The remainder of my time is spent on personal projects related to my practice of psychiatry.

Do you have any advice for students interested in becoming a psychiatrist?

Observe. Study. Question. Challenge. Integrate the best of “old” ideas with the advantages of new theories and understanding. But most importantly – discover how to talk to patients — all patients — even those who are psychotic. Explore, respect and honor the opportunity to get to know and relate to people from every walk of life with every type of circumstance and challenge, and through that process, making a positive difference in the person's life. It is an opportunity that is available in few if any fields other than psychiatry.

Psychiatrist Professional Organizations

Professional organizations give psychiatrists the chance to learn the most recent research findings and developments in the field. They also provide excellent networking and mentoring opportunities. Through membership in professional organizations, psychiatrists provide and receive support to and from colleagues locally, nationally, and globally.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry AACAP members benefit from the organization's extensive resources, including an online learning portal, continuing medical education opportunities, and malpractice insurance information. Members can also access the AACAP Toolbox for Clinical Practice and Outcomes, which includes downloadable instruments such as medical history, record requests, and medication monitoring.
American Association of Suicidology AAS members include mental health professionals, crisis center volunteers, researchers, and other lay members with an interest in suicide prevention. The organization offers certifications in forensic suicidology, psychological autopsy, and crisis intervention. AAS works closely with national organizations sharing the same advocacy to provide training and volunteer opportunities to members.
American Psychiatric Association APA provides a variety of resources for practicing psychiatrists, residents, and fellows. These resources include continuing education courses, review and exam preparation, residency training programs, and fellowship opportunities and application requirements. Members can also access APA's Learning Center, which contains books and journals on the latest research findings in the field.
National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors Members include psychiatrists, social workers, rehabilitation center administrators, and other professionals whose work revolves around helping clients living with an addiction. Now known as The Association for Addiction Professionals, the organization provides industry-recognized certifications, clinical training, and educational opportunities for mental health practitioners.
National Association for Rural Mental Health NARMH provides a forum for psychiatrists committed to the promotion of rural mental health. The organization sponsors an annual conference and several regional workshops throughout the year. NARMH maintains a strong advocacy focus to influence state and national policies regarding rural mental health.

FAQ on Becoming a Psychiatrist

What do psychiatrists do?

Psychiatrists specialize in diagnosing and treating a range of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As medical doctors, psychiatrists can prescribe medication and offer a variety of treatment options, including psychotherapy and electroconvulsive therapy.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist?

Psychologists do not have medical school training like psychiatrists. They typically address psychological problems such as learning difficulties and behavioral problems. Psychiatrists often address more complex conditions with physiological and mental components such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and severe depression.

Is a psychiatrist a therapist?

A therapist refers to a mental health professional who practices mainly talk therapy. A therapist can be a counselor, psychologist, or psychotherapist. For psychiatrists, talk therapy is only one of several treatment tools at their disposal.

What do psychiatrists do in a day?

Psychiatrists gather information on new patients, maintain detailed records on existing ones, and craft individualized treatment protocols that can include psychotherapy, medication, or behavior modification techniques.

Resources for Psychiatrists

American Journal of Psychiatry

AJP is the official journal of the American Psychiatric Association. A peer-reviewed monthly publication, AJP contains the latest developments and research findings in the field. The journal covers topics that impact psychiatric practice throughout the country and around the world.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

Among the many resources freely available on the ANAD website is a comprehensive list of national and international organizations that focus on eating disorders. Mental health practitioners can also access online support groups, a series about eating disorders, and informative webinars on this issue.

National Association of Behavioral Healthcare

NABH represents more than 1,800 inpatient behavioral hospitals, outpatient care programs, and residential mental health facilities throughout the United States. Mental health professionals can access their membership directory to find current contact information for key personnel in behavioral healthcare systems throughout the country. The information can assist them in making appropriate and timely referrals.

National Institute of Mental Health

As the leading federal agency for research on mental disorders, NIMH provides a variety of resources and information for mental health professionals. Psychiatrists can find funding opportunities for clinical research and training in their subspecialty, current data on treatment facilities, and take part in a study or initiative that can inform and improve their practice.

Related Careers at a Glance

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