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How to Become a Psychiatrist

November 4, 2022
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About PsychiatryHow Hard Is It to Become a Psychiatrist?Becoming A PsychiatristHow Much Does It Cost to Become a Psychiatrist?Is Psychiatry Right for You? How to DecideFAQs: Becoming a Psychiatrist


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 8/15/22

Read on to learn more about how to become a psychiatrist, how much it costs, and whether it's the right path for you. 

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats mental health conditions. Some psychiatrists treat a specific type or group of mental health conditions. Becoming a psychiatrist is as arduous as any other medical career; it can be time-consuming and stressful. However, passion for the field can help you excel. 

We’ll outline an overview of the requirements to be a psychiatrist. You’ll learn about the pathway to psychiatry, the schools you must attend, and the experiences that will help you succeed. We’ll also answer common questions and concerns about a psychiatrist’s education and career path.

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About Psychiatry

Psychiatry focuses on diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Psychiatrists also specialize in substance abuse disorders. They’re qualified to assess the physical and mental facets of psychological issues.

Psychiatrist talking to her patient.

People seek psychiatric help for numerous reasons: it could be that they are suffering from panic attacks, having hallucinations, or having difficulty coping with daily life. Psychiatrists handle patient concerns, such as depression, feelings of emptiness, anxiousness, and more. 

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How Hard Is it to Become a Psychiatrist?

Becoming a psychiatrist is rewarding, but there are challenges along the way. You must first earn a four-year bachelor’s degree, preferably one related to psychiatry. Then you must complete four to five years of medical school. 

As a medical school graduate, you must participate in a psychiatry residency for a minimum of four years, working with outpatients and inpatients and handling other duties. Whether you find becoming a psychiatrist difficult depends on your ability to handle rigorous coursework, clinical experiences, and stress.

It takes approximately 12 years of school to become a psychiatrist and become certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) if you want to work in the US.

Steps to Become a Psychiatrist

To become a psychiatrist, you’ll need to start with a bachelor’s degree. After that, you must take the MCAT and complete an MD or DO program before taking a test to become board certified. 

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program 

You must earn a bachelor’s degree to prepare for med school. It’s highly advised to focus on pre-med majors such as sciences or psychology. 

Many US colleges offer a pre-med track to help future psychiatrists get the education they need. You can talk with your academic advisor to help find the right program for you.

Step 2: Take the Medical Colleges Admissions Test

The next step is to sit for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Some medical schools have minimum requirements for MCAT scores. Achieving a high score can help you become a more competitive applicant.

Step 3: Complete an MD or DO Program

You’ll attend an allopathic (MD) or osteopathic (DO) medical school. They both have the same basic instruction, but an MD offers treatments that address the specific symptoms of a disease. 

The DO philosophy regards the body as an integrated entity and addresses the patient’s lifestyle and other factors instead of solely targeting specific symptoms. The courses you’ll take depend on the program, but you can expect to take courses such as: 

Many medical schools will offer psychiatry-related electives that you can pick and choose to pursue your interest areas. 

Step 4: Residency and Optional Fellowships 

Your work isn’t done once you graduate from medical school. You’ll need to complete at least a four-year psychiatric residency before you’re ready to practice unsupervised. 

Once you’ve completed your program, you can obtain board certification or pursue an optional fellowship in a psychiatry sub specialization. Fellowship lengths depend on the subspecialty (although most take one year): 

Table outlining the psychiatry fellowship lengths.
Source: WashU School of Medicine at St. Louis

Step 5: Earn and Maintain a Board Certified License 

Psychiatrists must get a license before they’re allowed to practice unsupervised. Requirements for maintaining and renewing a license vary from state to state.

Becoming board certified by the ABPN shows that you’re committed to expanding your knowledge, taking an exam once every decade, and participating in educational activities. Essentially, life-long learning is crucial! 

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Psychiatrist?

Becoming a psychiatrist opens the doorway to many employment opportunities, a high salary, and an excellent job outlook. Psychiatry comes with intrinsic rewards and value, as your job helps people improve their mental health and treats those with life-altering conditions and disorders.

Psychiatry can have its challenges, one of which may be finances. A study by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) concluded that 73% of students graduate medical school with debt. The median debt of students was $200,000

That number makes more sense considering that the average four-year cost of public medical school is $250,222 and $330,180 for private school. We’ll break down the cost of medical school, including tuition, location (living on campus or commuting), and others:

Table outlining the factors that affect the cost to become a psychiatrist.
Table outlining the factors that affect the cost to become a psychiatrist.

These factors can influence how expensive the education needed to become a psychiatrist is. 

Job Outlook for Psychiatrists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected 12.5% employment growth for psychiatrists between 2020 and 2030. Compared to the national average of 7% employment growth, the job outlook of a psychiatrist is quite good. 

Between 2020 and 2030, an estimated 3,500 psychiatrist positions will become available to add to the current 25,520 positions. The mean annual wage of a psychiatrist is $249,760.

Is Psychiatry Right for You? How to Decide

Being a psychiatrist, while rewarding, requires mental strength, patience, sympathy, and dexterity.

To find out if psychiatry is right for you, check out this chart:

Table with information to help you decide if psychiatry is right for you.

Here are some more questions you can ask yourself to determine whether or not you should become a psychiatrist:

If you answered yes to most of these questions, psychiatry might be right for you. 

FAQs: Becoming a Psychiatrist

Still unsure about becoming a psychiatrist? Check out our FAQs below to get a better idea of the process.

1. Where Do Psychiatrists Work?

Psychiatrists can work in many places, including but not limited to:

You’ll have diverse options when choosing where to work as a psychiatrist. 

2. How is a Psychiatrist Different From a Psychologist? 

Psychologists and psychiatrists may work together in some circumstances. However, they have different responsibilities. A psychiatrist diagnoses, treats, and prescribes medications to patients with mental health disorders. A psychologist holds an advanced degree but isn’t a physician. Psychologists cannot prescribe medication, but they can provide patients with psychotherapy.

3. What Do Psychiatrists Do? 

A psychiatrist’s daily work can vary. Psychiatrists meet with patients to discuss their mental health issues and offer treatment. A psychiatrist’s tasks include taking notes, prescribing medications, and maintaining records. Psychiatrists also learn about recent developments in the field.  

4. How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatrist?

It typically takes about 12-13 years to become a psychiatrist. That includes post-secondary education, medical school, and a psychiatry residency. How many years it takes to become a psychiatrist depends on whether you pursue a fellowship.

5. Can I Become a Psychiatrist Without Going to Medical School? 

No, you must graduate from medical school and become an MD or DO to become a psychiatrist. 

6. Are There a Lot of Job Opportunities in Psychiatry?

It’s projected that jobs for psychiatrists will grow by 12.5% between 2020 and 2030. The growth rate can vary depending on the specialization. Job opportunities will become more abundant for psychiatrists with degrees and who did residency and fellowship.

Final Thoughts 

Psychiatry is a crucial specialty. Now that you know how to become a psychiatrist, you can decide if this career path is right for you. You’ll need to do a lot of self-assessment about your endurance and skills and research psychiatry and the educational steps to take. 

The information listed can help you make the best choice for yourself. Good luck!

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