How To Become a Doctor in Psychology (With Steps and Duties)

Updated September 30, 2022

For those who enjoy studying cognitive processes, emotions and behaviors, becoming a doctor of psychology can be an engaging and rewarding career. These professionals, also known as psychologists, apply their expert knowledge to study psychological phenomena and counsel clients seeking mental health advice. Learning about what a doctor in psychology is and how to become one can help you decide if this is the right career for you.

In this article, we outline the steps for how to become a doctor in psychology and provide details about what these professionals do, where they work and how much they earn on average.

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What is a doctor in psychology?

A doctor in psychology is a professional who has a doctorate degree that qualifies them to work as a clinician, researcher or both in the field of psychology. Psychologists have expert-level knowledge within a specific psychological discipline. They spend many years studying to earn their credentials, and they typically focus on a single specialty, such as developmental, experimental or social psychology. Some other common areas of psychological specialty include:

  • Cognitive psychology

  • Psychology of aging

  • Forensic psychology

  • Health psychology

  • Education psychology

  • Comparative psychology

Although psychologists have high-level credentials that allow them to work in both clinical and research roles, they differ from psychiatrists. A psychiatrist also has a doctoral-level degree in their field, but they need to pursue medical school to earn their credentials. Psychiatrists differ from psychologists because they're qualified to prescribe medications to treat mental health conditions.

Related: 12 Choices for a Career as a Psychologist

What does a doctor in psychology do?

A doctor of psychology may do different tasks depending on their area of specialty. In general, the four goals of psychologists are to explain, describe, predict and change behaviors based on their research and knowledge of human or animal psychology. Some doctors of psychology work exclusively in research, while others work in clinical practice, a combination of research and clinical care or even in research and education. Here are some general responsibilities for psychologists:

  • Meet with patients to evaluate their current mental health, set goals and develop treatment plans

  • Track patient progress toward health goals and adjust treatment plans as needed

  • Conduct research in their field of expertise by designing studies

  • Collect and analyze data from research studies to draw conclusions

  • Present research findings at professional conferences

  • Publish studies in academic journals

  • Attend training events and conferences to learn about the latest findings in the field

  • Teach college-level courses as an adjunct or full-time psychology professor

  • Mentor students looking to start careers in psychology

Related: A Day in the Life of a Psychologist: Job Duties and Skills

How to become a doctor in psychology

Here are five steps for how to become a doctor of psychology:

1. Define your career goals

Having a well-defined career plan can help you stay focused on your goals and track your progress. In particular, it can take many years to earn your doctorate degree in psychology. Taking time to research your career path and its requirements allows you to prepare before you start working toward your goals. When developing a career plan, determine the time and financial resources it takes to complete the educational requirements. Consider what degrees you need to earn at the bachelor's and master's levels to qualify for enrollment in a doctoral program. Also account for any post-graduate certifications you need.

Related: Should I be a Psychologist? What To Expect in a Psychology Career

2. Complete your undergraduate education

Once you've outlined your career path, start by pursuing a relevant bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree takes four years on average to complete. Although it's not required to study psychology at the undergraduate level to pursue higher education in the field, it can help to study a topic related to the natural or social sciences. This helps you gain a foundation of knowledge on these topics. For example, you can study biology, chemistry or sociology to develop skills in the sciences. These subjects may prepare you to study topics like research methods and human development at the professional level.

Related: 5 Pros and 4 Cons of Being a Psychologist

3. Pursue a master's degree

After finishing your undergraduate education, determine whether you need a master's degree. While psychologists can pursue a doctorate program after finishing their bachelor's degrees, many prefer to earn a master's degree first. Master's programs take two years on average to complete.

Choosing a master's program first has several advantages, such as allowing you to study a discipline within psychology at the professional level before moving into a doctoral program. By studying your preferred subject at the master's level, you can gain experience in research and clinical practice that can improve your skills and make your doctoral program application stand out.

Related: Mental Health Counselor vs. Psychologist: What's the Difference?

4. Complete your doctorate

Enroll in a doctorate program after you finish your undergraduate and professional degrees. Doctorate programs can take between four and seven years to complete depending on your program of study and previous level of education. For example, if you have a master's degree, it may take you less time to finish your doctorate.

It's typical for students to pursue their doctorate in a specialty subject, such as forensic or experimental psychology. Studying psychology at this level allows you to design research studies and conduct them independently. Doctoral students complete their coursework and a final research project to qualify for graduation.

Related: How Long Does It Take To Become a Psychologist? (Plus Salary)

5. Consider pursuing a subspecialty

Students become doctors in psychology after graduating with their doctoral degrees, but some choose to pursue additional education. Studying a subspecialty at the post-graduate level is a great way to get involved in a discipline that requires a high level of technical knowledge. For example, a psychologist who studies forensics may pursue further education to learn specialized techniques for counseling or rehabilitating convicted criminals with a history of mental health conditions. Students at this level study a highly specialized and technical field that combines criminal psychology and clinical practice, which they may use to develop new therapy techniques.

Related: 22 Different Types of Psychology (With Explanations)

Where does a doctor in psychology work?

A doctor of psychology can work in a variety of environments depending on their area of specialty. For example, many psychologists own independent counseling practices where they use their clinical skills to help their clients. By owning private practices, these professionals can establish their own schedules, though many of them work typical business hours. Some clinical psychologists prefer not to own an independent practice and choose to work for an established one instead.

By comparison, those who work in research typically work for colleges, though some may work for medical research laboratories. Those who work in higher education typically balance their research responsibilities alongside teaching. Their research responsibilities may involve working in a laboratory environment or conducting field research. Some medical research laboratories operate independently, while others may function as part of another medical facility, like a hospital. Knowing your preferred work environment can help you determine what type of doctor of psychology you want to become.

Related: Where Do Psychologists Work? And Other FAQs About Roles in Psychology

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Average salary for doctors in psychology

The average salary for psychologists is $125,160 per year. This salary average can vary based on your geographic location, setting of employment, years of experience and area of specialty. For example, a clinical psychologist who owns a private clinic and functions in a subspecialty like child psychology may earn a higher salary than one who works in general practice. Additionally, psychologists may earn more if they expand their careers to include roles outside of research or clinical practice. In particular, psychologists may earn more by working as consultants or teaching college courses.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

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