How to Become a Psychiatrist

April 25, 2024
7 min read


Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/25/24

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 can be time-consuming and stressful. However, passion for the field can help you excel. 

We’ll outline the requirements to be a psychiatrist. You’ll learn about the pathway to psychiatry and the experiences that will help you succeed. We’ll also answer common questions about the path to becoming a psychiatrist. 

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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.

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.

What Does a Psychiatrist Do? 

A psychiatrist’s daily work can vary. Psychiatrists meet with patients to discuss their mental health issues and offer treatment. They also learn about recent developments in the field. Psychiatrists use various methods to treat patients, such as: 

  • Psychotherapy 
  • Medication 
  • Hospitalization 

Psychotherapy involves scheduled meetings where the psychiatrist and patient discuss “troubling problems and feelings.” Psychiatrists guide patients through psychotherapy sessions to understand the root of their troubles and help them find solutions.  

The main difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist is the amount of medical training they have – psychiatrists have more schooling under their belts and can prescribe medication. In contrast, only some psychologists can prescribe specific medications. 

How Hard Is it to Become a Psychiatrist?

You must first earn a four-year bachelor’s degree, preferably one related to psychiatry. Then you must complete four 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 Becoming a Psychiatrist

To become a psychiatrist, you must 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 – let’s take an in-depth look at a psychiatrist’s educational requirements. 

Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program 

You must earn a bachelor’s degree to prepare for med school. Many 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.

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: 

  • Internal Medicine/Psychiatry
  • Family Medicine/Psychiatry
  • Pediatrics/Psychiatry/Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 
  • Neurology/Psychiatry

Many medical schools offer psychiatry-related electives you can pick from to pursue your interest areas. 

Step 4: Residency and Optional Fellowships 

Your work isn’t done once you graduate from medical school. You must complete at least a four-year psychiatric residency before practicing 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). How long it takes to become a psychiatrist depends partly on the specialization you choose. 

Subspecialty Length
Addiction Psychiatry 1 year
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2 years
Forensic Psychiatry 1 year
Geriatric Psychiatry 1 year
Hospice and Palliative Medicine 1 year
Pain Management 1 year
Psychosomatic Medicine 1 year
Sleep Medicine 1 year

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 by state.

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

Skills Needed to Be a Psychiatrist 

There are four core skills that psychiatrists must possess to perform their roles best: 

  • Excellent communication skills 
  • Comfort with managing uncertainty 
  • Emotional strength – the ability to handle difficult emotions 
  • A great understanding of illnesses 

First and foremost, communication skills are essential – psychiatrists spend much time interacting with patients. 

Dr. Ian Collings, a rehabilitation psychiatrist, states: “A thorough history is crucial when trying to diagnose our patients’ problems – and we may often have to try and support them when they have a range of communication difficulties, for example in those with physical brain disorders (such as dementia or brain damage) or intellectual disabilities.”

At the same time, the daily life of a psychiatrist is fraught with uncertainty. Even patients with identical diagnoses may not respond the same way to treatment, so psychiatrists must think on their feet and adapt to any situation. 

The last two points go hand-in-hand; you must understand how to identify and treat various mental illnesses while maintaining a strong emotional front for your patients. Physiatrists listen to their patients’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences – you will likely hear difficult, emotionally charged stories daily. 

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Psychiatrist?

Becoming a psychiatrist opens many employment opportunities, a high salary, and an excellent job outlook. Psychiatry is rewarding; your job helps people improve their mental health and treats those with life-altering conditions.

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 from med school with debt. The median debt of students was $200,000

That number makes more sense considering 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, and others:

Factors Description
School Tuition Schools have a base tuition price that doesn’t include room and board, lab fees, books, activity fees, and other costs.
School Location Students who attend school in the same state as where they live are qualified to pay in-state tuition, which is less than the cost of attending for out-of-state students.
Financial Aid Financial assistance affects your total cost of education. Students who receive scholarships, grants, or bursaries, face lower student debt upon graduation.
Personal Expenses The cost of living varies among students. Aside from school tuition, transportation, food, housing, and utilities are included in personal expenses.
Post-Graduation Success After graduation, your ability to secure employment to repay student debt ASAP is determined by the overall cost and value of a psychiatry degree.
Pain Management 1 year
Psychosomatic Medicine 1 year
Sleep Medicine 1 year

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

Salary & Job Outlook for Psychiatrists

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected 8.7% employment growth for psychiatrists between 2021 and 2031, higher than the national average. As such, the job outlook of a psychiatrist is quite good. 

Based on this projection, an estimated 2,200+ psychiatrist positions will become available to add to the current 25,520 positions. The mean annual wage of a psychiatrist is $247,350.

Although New Mexico and Wyoming are reportedly the highest-paying states for psychiatrists, the BLS did not release data on annual mean wages for these states. The following best-paying states for psychiatry are as follows: 

State Annual Mean Wage
North Dakota $390,140
California $311,950
Connecticut $308,690

Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics

Usual Careers in Psychiatry

If you’re thinking about a career in psychiatry, you should explore the typical careers in the field. Here are some of the usual careers in this field: 

  • Inpatient care psychiatry
  • Child psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Disability psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Emergency psychiatry
  • Military Psychiatrist
  • Public Health Psychiatrist

If psychiatry is a genuine field you want to get into, these are some of the usual careers in the field. 

Is Psychiatry Right for You? How to Decide

Now that you know how to become a psychiatrist, it’s time to determine whether the path is right for you. While rewarding, being a psychiatrist requires mental strength, patience, sympathy, and dexterity.

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

Psychiatry May Be Right for You If: Psychiatry May Not Be Right for You If:
You’re comfortable helping people work through serious issues/problems. You prefer to work alone.
You consider yourself a problem- solver. You don’t feel very compassionate toward others when they’re having a hard time.
You’re willing to spend years honing your skills and learning. You prefer not to navigate stressful situations.
You’re an active listener who loves to help others. You don’t want to go to medical school.

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

  • Do I like one-on-one work/situations? 
  • Do I like letting others lead conversations? 
  • Am I capable of maintaining professionalism and composure, even in stressful situations? 
  • Am I comfortable with others putting their trust in me? 
  • Do I have the patience to handle delicate situations carefully? 
  • Am I passionate about learning about the human mind and how to treat mental illnesses? 
  • Am I interested in learning more about mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, OCD, etc.?
  • Do I like to diagnose problems? 
  • Am I solution-oriented?

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 learn more!

1. Where Do Psychiatrists Work?

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

  • Hospitals
  • Long-term care homes
  • Clinics 
  • Private offices
  • Courts/prisons
  • Community health centers
  • Government agencies

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. 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 typically can’t prescribe medication, but they can provide psychotherapy.

3. 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.

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

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

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

The job outlook for psychiatrists is good; the projected employment growth rate is 8.7% between 2021 and 2031. The growth rate can vary depending on the specialization. 

6. What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Psychiatrist? 

Psychiatrists must graduate from college, attend medical school, complete a residency, and become board-certified. 

7. Is Being a Psychiatrist Stressful? 

While some may find completing the steps to become a psychiatrist stressful, the position itself also comes with an above-average level of stress. Working with patients with mental illnesses and maintaining a strong emotional front can be more challenging for some than others.

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 assess your endurance and skills and research psychiatry to learn more about the profession. The information listed can help you make the best choice for yourself. Good luck!

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