How To Become a Psychologist

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 14, 2021 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated September 14, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you are interested in the mental health field, you might consider a career as a psychologist. It can be rewarding work understanding how people think, behave and interact. To become a psychologist, you need an advanced education and clinical training. In this article, we discuss what a psychologist does, provide the steps needed to become one and answer common questions about the position.

What does a psychologist do?

A psychologist is a healthcare professional who studies patterns of human thought, emotions and behavior. They observe and analyze patients to determine their mental health state and diagnose psychological conditions. Duties for a psychologist might include:

  • Document patient analysis to determine behavioral and emotional patterns

  • Identify symptoms of various mental health conditions to diagnose patients

  • Creating mental health plans tailored to patient needs and mental health goals

  • Conducting psychotherapy and behavioral counseling sessions with patients

  • Collaborating with physicians, nurses and social workers to provide comprehensive care

  • Perform experiments and administer tests on patients to identify patterns when in a research setting

Related: 6 Mental Health Jobs and Ways to Succeed in the Field

Average salary for a psychologist

Psychologist salaries may vary depending on a candidate's level of education and experience as well as their specialization and any relevant certifications. Employment type, industry and geographical location may also impact potential earnings.

Most psychologists are paid an annual salary. However, there are some exceptions, like consultants or freelance health professionals who may charge an hourly rate and work on an “as-needed” basis.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $86,185 per year

  • Some salaries range from $52,000 to $180,000 per year

How to become a psychologist

Psychologists are required to have a doctorate in most cases in addition to a combination of clinical training and examinations, professional certification and practice licensing. In order to become a psychologist you need to:

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree

  2. Complete a master's degree

  3. Consider gaining practice experience

  4. Pursue a doctorate degree

  5. Complete clinical training in psychology

  6. Pass the national psychology exam

  7. Obtain licensure

  8. Select a preferred work environment

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

Many aspiring psychologists pursue a psychology major during their undergraduate studies to learn the foundations of psychological theory, practice and methodology. Others may choose programs in the social sciences to develop an understanding of psychological theory in action, such as in sociology or anthropology. Coursework in the hard sciences, such as biology and chemistry, can provide a basis in using scientific research methods, which can assist in psychological research. A combination of these fields can ensure a well-rounded undergraduate education for the professionals.

Psychology majors can receive a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Sciences (BS) degree, which depends on your college or university's approach to the field. A BA may be more suitable for students who prefer a liberal arts approach of taking courses from different disciplines. A BS is likely a better fit for students who prefer the clinical elements of psychology and are more interested in data than theory.

Related: 15 Top Psychology Degree Jobs

2. Complete a master's degree

After completing a bachelor's degree, these professionals are required to pursue a master's degree. Many choose to pursue psychology or a closely related field, though doctorate programs may accept a variety of educational backgrounds.

Master's degree coursework generally takes two to three years full-time, depending on the depth and specialization of the program. Programs in psychology, behavioral science or other similar fields offer more opportunities for research projects and allow students to select a field specialty to develop their expertise in one facet of the science. In addition, classes at this level dissect more advanced topics and theories to deepen students' understanding.

Related: Master's Degree: Definition, Elements and Benefits

3. Consider gaining practice experience

While in masters-level study, it's a good idea to explore the different work environments available to psychologists. You can select a specialty or pursue an area of interest in the classroom, and you can also explore the facets of psychology through internships, mentored clinical work or volunteering.

These experiences can give you a better idea of the type of psychology that interests you. For instance, working as a school psychologist differs from working in mental health for senior citizens. Determining the type of environment that interests you can help you select valuable professional experiences to refine your skills, develop your knowledge and secure future employment.

They also provide an opportunity to get to know experienced professionals in your industry. You can observe how these professionals work with patients, and they can mentor you as you develop your career.

4. Pursue a doctorate degree

Doctoral programs in psychology offer either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. A Ph.D. is aimed at scholars who are interested in research and data, while the Psy.D prepares students for opening their own psychology practice or working in a clinical setting.

Doctorate degree programs are highly competitive, often only accepting a few students to ensure personalized and comprehensive study. Candidates can improve their application by pursuing a specialization, completing internships, volunteering in relevant settings and completing masters-level education with a high GPA.

While studying, doctoral candidates often complete research projects and a dissertation. Many programs require two years of a clinical psychology internship under a licensed clinical psychologist as well. Look for a program that is accredited by the American Psychological Association, the professional association that oversees continuing education requirements and the national exam required as part of the licensing process.

4. Complete clinical training in psychology

Clinical training hours for internships are mandated at a state level. Visit your state board of psychology, and check the requirements necessary to practice. Most states determine a specific number of hours working under a licensed clinical psychologist. Additionally, some require going before a board to present a case study.

If you're interested in a specific type of psychology, such as working with children or older adults, it may be beneficial to perform additional clinical training in these specialized areas. This step can help you demonstrate your field of interest and secure a position.

5. Pass the national psychology exam to gain licensure

In order to become licensed as a psychologist, these professionals are required to complete a doctoral degree, meet required clinical training hours and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, which is administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. This exam will be given in two parts starting in January 2020.

The first part of the exam is made up of 175 scored multiple-choice questions It tests a candidate's knowledge in:

  • Biological, cognitive and sociocultural bases of behavior

  • Cognitive, emotional and physical development

  • Assessment and diagnosis methodology

  • Treatment and prevention processes

  • Research methodology

  • Ethical, legal and professional issues of psychology

The second part of the exam is made up of 170 questions multiple-choice that determines a candidate's skill levels in:

  • Scientific orientation

  • Assessment and intervention

  • Relational competence

  • Professionalism

  • Ethical practice in psychology

  • Collaboration, consultation and supervision

In addition to these exams, those in specialized fields may be required to complete further testing to demonstrate clinical training and expertise in their discipline.

6. Maintain licensure

Psychologists also need to complete annual continuing education credits by pursuing designated professional development. The American Psychological Association maintains the standards and guidelines for the industry and keeps a list of eligible continuing education coursework opportunities. Complying with these requirements maintains licensure and ensures these professionals are up-to-date with theory, practice and developments.

FAQS about becoming a psychologist

Here are some commonly asked questions about becoming a psychologist to help you learn more about this career:

What skills are required for psychologists?

Psychologists should be adept in the following areas:

  • Communication: Psychologists must translate field terminology into easy-to-understand language to ensure the patient understands their diagnosis and treatment options. They can also adapt their communication style to help patients feel more at ease.

  • Interpersonal skills: These professionals use interpersonal skills to promote trust between them and their patients. They also use empathy and active listening to better understand what their patients are going through.

  • Research and analysis: These professionals should understand how to review and utilize research in their practice as well as conduct research processes as necessary. They should have strong statistical and analytical skills to help them assign symptoms to a specific condition.

  • Problem-solving: Psychologists must have a keen attention to detail as well as critical thinking to assess patients and determine the most appropriate treatment plan.

What is the work environment for psychologists like?

Psychologists can work in a variety of environments, but most work in office or clinical settings. They may have their own practice or work in one of the following settings:

  • Hospital or health clinic

  • Government agencies

  • Management consulting firms

  • Academia and schools

  • Market research firms

  • Law firms

  • Sports associations

  • Correctional institutions

Those in private practice can typically set their own hours, while those working for others are assigned hours or shifts depending on the employer. Most work will be indoors with hours of sitting required. Psychologists can expect to use a computer as well to log notes and conduct research.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

A psychologist is a mental health professional who focuses on observing and assessing patients as well as counseling them through their behavioral and cognitive treatments. They can provide an objective diagnosis on a variety of mental health conditions as well. Psychologists complete education with a Ph.D. or Psy.D.

A psychiatrist is a licensed medical doctor who uses psychology as a basis of their medical practice. These healthcare providers may also assess and diagnose patients, but they are also able to prescribe medication to patients whose treatment plans require it. In addition, these professionals earn their M.D. or D.O.

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