How To Become a Psychiatrist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 18, 2021 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated February 18, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

A psychiatrist is a licensed medical professional who specializes in mental health and treating mental illnesses. If you are interested in becoming a psychiatrist, it is important to understand all the clinical and educational requirements, as well as what to expect upon graduation.

In this article, we'll explain the process for being a psychiatrist, focusing on all the pertinent questions for anyone aspiring to join this field, such as what courses you should take as an undergraduate, what credentials are required to begin working and what the job entails.

What does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who treats mental illnesses, mood disorders, addiction and other mental health problems. This licensed physician treats patients using a range of methods, such as psychoanalysis, counseling and medication. During treatment, the psychiatrist monitors a patient's behavior by talking to them regularly to assess their mental state and progress.

Other duties and responsibilities of a psychiatrist include:

  • Conducting initial patient assessments and taking detailed medical histories

  • Diagnosing patients based on symptoms and prior medical treatment

  • Treating psychiatric conditions using a conservative approach, which should include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

  • Explaining treatment plans to patients and their families and providing familial support during treatment

  • Prescribing medication on a conservative basis to treat verifiable mental health conditions and diseases

Average salary

The average annual salary of psychiatrists is $225,094 per year, though some salaries range from $67,000 to $475,000 per year. A psychiatrist's salary depends on their geographic location, employer and level of experience. Psychiatrists who work in public hospitals usually earn higher annual salaries, as do those who have obtained certifications.

How to become a psychiatrist

The journey to medical school begins in college, so you must graduate high school or obtain your GED before anything else. From there, the steps are as follows:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree.

  2. Take the medical college admission test.

  3. Pursue a medical degree.

  4. Join a professional organization.

  5. Complete residency training.

  6. Serve a fellowship.

  7. Get a medical license.

  8. Acquire certifications.

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

As an aspiring psychiatrist, you will need to complete undergraduate courses in chemistry, biology, physics and math to meet the requirements for entering medical school. While any bachelor's degree is acceptable, taking courses related to science or majoring in psychology or a pre-med field might provide you with the best preparation for medical school. During college, you could also volunteer at a clinic or hospital to gain hands-on experience to increase your chances of getting admitted to a medical school.

Related: When a Professional Degree Will Help You Advance in Your Career

2. Take the medical college admission test

In the U.S., you are required to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to get admitted to a medical school. Created by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the MCAT is a multiple-choice examination that covers physical science, biological science, oral reasoning and writing.

You have to take the MCAT a year before you plan on starting medical school. You can only take the MCAT up to three times in one year, four times in a span of two years and seven times in a lifetime. Medical schools usually evaluate your score on the MCAT along with your performance as an undergraduate to determine whether to offer you enrollment.

3. Pursue a medical degree

The next step in your journey to becoming a psychiatrist is to complete medical school and obtain a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). Medical school typically lasts four years. You will spend the first two years in classrooms and laboratories, studying topics like pharmacology, anatomy, chemistry, physiology, foundations of medicine, neuroscience, biochemistry, community learning and social medicine.

During your final two years of medical school, you may be required to diagnose and treat medical conditions in patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in clinics or hospitals. You may also be required to serve clinical clerkships. A clerkship is designed to give you training in a variety of specialties, such as surgery, neurology and family medicine.

4. Join a professional organization

While pursuing medical school, you might consider joining a professional organization. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is open to medical students, psychiatric residents and practicing psychiatrists. Joining the APA provides you with access to continuing education opportunities. Other professional associations for psychiatrists include the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry and the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

5. Complete residency training

After graduating from medical school, you must complete a residency program in a clinic or hospital. A psychiatric residency program usually lasts four years and consists of a combination of didactic learning and practical application.

During your residency, you will receive training in several disciplines, such as forensic psychology, neurology and chemical dependency, before focusing your electives and clinical experience in a particular field during your final year. Under supervision, you may also treat a range of mental problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, psychosis, sexual dysfunction and developmental disabilities.

6. Serve a fellowship

If you opt to seek a career in a psychiatric subspecialty, you need to take additional training. There are several psychiatric subspecialties that the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) recognizes. These include forensic psychiatry, addictions, child and youth psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine and geriatric psychiatry.

If you want to become a subspecialist, you will need to serve a one-year fellowship after completing your psychiatry residency training. Fellowships include seminars, courses, research projects and conferences as well as supervised clinical work during assigned rotations.

7. Get a medical license

To legally practice psychiatry in all states, you must obtain a license through your state's medical board. The licensure requirements vary by state, but you will usually need to pass an exam that evaluates your knowledge of medical practices and state regulations. You may also need to register with your state if you disperse medication to your patients.

8. Acquire certifications

Although not required, becoming certified demonstrates your competence in psychiatry and could improve your employment opportunities. You can obtain certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

The ABPN issues certification to psychiatrists who pass testing, complete training and meet education requirements. To be eligible to take the psychiatric certification exam, you must be an M.D. or D.O. You must also have completed an accredited psychiatric residency program and obtained a medical license.

The ABPN also offers certifications in several psychiatric subspecialties, including sleep medicine, pain medicine and addiction psychiatry. The ABPN's certification is valid for 10 years. To renew your credential, you must have a good standing in the profession and maintain an active practice in your specialty. You must also participate in self-assessment practices and continuing education.

Related: Impress Recruiters With These Desirable Professional Certifications

Frequently asked questions about psychiatrists

Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about psychiatrists:

How long does it take to become a psychiatrist?

It usually takes about eight years of post-undergraduate study to become a licensed psychiatrist—four years to complete your M.D. degree and another four years of residency. Thus, if you include the time it takes to obtain a bachelor's degree, you will spend at least 12 years studying and training to become a psychiatrist. If you want to pursue a subspecialty, you need to complete a fellowship that could take another one to two years of post-residency work.

What skills are needed to become a successful psychiatrist?

To be successful in this role, aspiring psychiatrists generally need the following qualities:

Excellent diagnostic skills

Psychiatrists must be good at analyzing a patient's symptoms, comments and test results to arrive at the right diagnosis and treatment plan. This requires a lot of information recall and the ability to reason, prioritize and categorize responses to come up with individualized solutions.

Understanding psychology, human biology, individual and group social behavior and cultural differences plays a vital part in a psychiatrist's ability to accurately diagnose a patient's illness.

Good listening skills

Psychiatrists must be good listeners to hear both what their patients say and discern what is not said. They need to carefully listen to the expression and intonation of the patient when discussing a variety of issues.

They should also be able to set aside their preconceptions, be open to what their patients are saying and understand each patient's unique needs. They should be active listeners who listen without interrupting the patient and know when to ask appropriate questions.

Good communication skills

Psychiatrists should be able to communicate well with their patients as well as with others. They may need to talk to a patient's family to get other perspectives on the problem and to evaluate family dynamics. They may also need to talk with other medical professionals to coordinate the best treatment plan for a patient.


Psychiatrists must have empathy for their patients' problems. While they may not have personally experienced the same problems themselves, they need to be able to understand them to analyze them and develop the best treatment plans.

However, they must also be able to detach themselves emotionally from their patients to avoid taking on their stress and emotional upheaval.

Related: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Where do psychiatrists work?

A psychiatrist works in a variety of settings, including the following:

  • Clinics

  • Private practices

  • General and psychiatric hospitals

  • Community agencies

  • University medical centers

  • Nursing homes

  • Courts and prisons

  • Military settings

  • Government agencies

  • Hospice programs

  • Emergency rooms

  • Rehabilitation programs

In the United States, about 50% of psychiatrists maintain private practices, and many psychiatrists provide services in multiple settings.

What treatments do psychiatrists use?

Depending on the needs of each patient, a psychiatrist may use a variety of treatments, including various types of medications, psychotherapy, psychosocial interventions and other treatments, such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

What's the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors with special training in psychiatry. They can perform psychotherapy and prescribe medications and other medical treatments. In comparison, psychologists often have an advanced degree, usually in clinical psychology. They typically have extensive training in clinical practice or research. They treat mental disorders with psychotherapy and specialize in psychological evaluation and testing.

Related: Learn About Being a Psychologist

What are the working conditions for a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists, especially those who are in private practices, usually work in a quiet, peaceful environment so their patients can feel at ease. However, their work can be stressful due to the suffering they see every day.

Their working hours can also be irregular, as they must be available to their patients whenever they need help. Psychiatrists who work in clinics and hospitals usually have more regular hours compared to private practitioners, as the staff divides the hours they must be on call.

What are the tools and technology that psychiatrists must be familiar with?

Psychiatrists must be familiar with various medical software. In addition to a variety of software that facilitates electronic health records, psychiatrists must also be familiar with software specific to mental health professions, such as Psych Advantage, SoftPsych Psychiatric Diagnosis and MEDITECH Behavioral Health Clinicals.

They must also be adept at operating medical devices used in an office setting, such as a stethoscope and blood pressure cuffs. Finally, they must be familiar with the equipment used in various medical procedures, such as CT scans and PET scans.

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