Psychology is an exciting, challenging, and rewarding field of study, and for those interested in learning how to become a psychologist, this piece lights the way.
With training as a psychologist, many avenues for employment are open, from working with children in a school setting to starting one’s own private practice. Occupations in research, education, business and marketing, and, of course, mental health, can be had with an education in psychology.
In this guide, we offer a look at how to become a psychologist step-by-step.
What is a Psychologist?
The question, “what is a psychologist?” is more difficult to answer than one might think.
Naturally, the short answer to this question is “someone that is an expert in psychology.” However, this is an inadequate explanation that fails to get at the heart of psychology and what psychologists do in practice.
Psychology is a widely varied field of study with many different specializations. As such, psychologists can pursue many different career paths. This is part of the reason why explaining what a psychologist is can be such a difficult undertaking.
A good general definition for “what is a psychologist?” is as follows, from the American Psychological Association:
Practicing psychologists can help with a range of health problems and use an assortment of evidence-based treatments to help people improve their lives.
There are a couple of important components in this definition.
First, psychologists can help people cope with a range of health problems – they do not just offer assistance in treating mental health conditions. Instead, a psychologist might work with a client that has a chronic illness, such as cancer.
In that capacity, the psychologist might help the client with very practical matters, like learning how to undertake activities of daily living as they lose their strength to do so on their own.
As another example, a psychologist might work with the family of a cancer patient to help them acquire healthy coping skills to address the stress of having a loved one with a serious illness.
Of course, these are just two of many examples to illustrate what a psychologist is. But perhaps the most well-known type of psychologist is one who offers therapy to individuals, couples, families, and groups of people to help them cope more effectively with mental health conditions.
The second aspect of the definition above has to do with research. Psychologists don’t just make up techniques or design programs of treatment on the fly. Instead, psychologists of all stripes utilize evidence-based treatments to approach their work.
For example, a clinical psychologist might utilize hypnosis as a treatment for an anxiety disorder. Likewise, they might use cognitive restructuring techniques to help a client identify negative thinking patterns and change them to more positive thinking patterns as a means of facilitating an improved outlook on life.
Furthermore, an industrial-organizational psychologist would use evidence-based practices to devise programs that help motivate the workers of a company whose production efficiency has declined in recent years.
The point here is that no matter the context in which a psychologist is working, they use a variety of techniques to accomplish their goal of improving the quality of life of their clients.
With a broad explanation of “what is a psychologist?” out of the way, let’s now move on and explore in more detail what a psychologist does.
What Does a Psychologist Do?
As explained in the previous section, what a psychologist does varies from one subfield to the next.
Below is an overview of different types of psychologists and their primary job responsibilities. While this is not a comprehensive list of every type of psychologist, it will give you a good idea of the variation between different subfields of psychology and the job duties associated with them.
The primary role of a clinical psychologist is to assess, diagnose, and treat mental disorders.
Clinical psychologists often administer tests (i.e., a personality test) to assess an individual, utilize interviewing techniques to develop a better understanding of the person’s mental state in order to render a diagnosis and develop treatment plans with specific interventions (i.e., psychotherapy) as part of the treatment phase.
Many clinical psychologists specialize in a certain field, such as working with children or treating people with an addiction.
For a forensic psychologist, the job is all about applying psychological principles to the realm of law enforcement. This can take many forms, from providing therapy to victims of domestic violence to creating a psychological profile of a serial criminal.
Some forensic psychologists are employed by law enforcement agencies, like a local sheriff’s department or a national agency like the FBI, while others are self-employed and are contracted to work for law enforcement agencies.
Though TV and movies have romanticized forensic psychologists as being gun-toting fortune tellers, the reality is that most psychologists that work in this field conduct research, assess and evaluate clients, and provide expert testimony in court.
Typically, developmental psychologists work in a research capacity in which they focus their studies on human development across the lifespan.
In many cases, developmental psychologists have a specialty and spend much of their professional careers seeking to answer questions about a particular phase of life. For example, a developmental psychologist that has specialized in studying aging might explore how the loss of physical strength in old age is associated with the onset of psychological disorders, such as anxiety or depression.
By and large, school psychologists are tasked with assisting children with school-related issues. This might include working with a student that has a developmental disability to acquire skills that allow them to be more successful in academics. This might also involve working with teachers to design classroom programs that foster connections between different social groups.
Likewise, school psychologists often design and implement interventions to address specific issues, like alcohol use among high schoolers or poor hygiene among junior high students. Regardless of the age of students or the types of interventions, the common thread is that school psychologists do so with the end goal of improving the learning environment for all students.
Industrial-organizational psychologists study behavior as it pertains specifically to the workplace. In this regard, their job duties revolve around one primary task – making the workplace function better. This is done in a number of ways.
For example, an industrial-organizational psychologist might utilize their understanding of human behavior to develop screening tests that can be used to determine which job candidates are best equipped for the job.
As another example, a psychologist working in this field might examine how a business is run and design strategies for improving efficiency while also lowering costs.
Common Job Duties of Psychologists
Despite their many different job duties, all psychologists, whether they work directly with clients with mental health issues, in a lab conducting research, or somewhere in between, share a couple of commonalities.
First, when considering what a psychologist does, one must recognize their interest in developing a better understanding of the mental, emotional, and behavioral problems that people experience.
In this regard, a research psychologist seeking to understand why autism is more prevalent today than it was 20 years ago has the same basic goal as the clinical psychologist working with a patient with bipolar disorder. In both cases, they seek to determine the root cause of the problem, devise insights into how to treat the problem, and strive to come up with methodologies that allow people to overcome those problems.
Granted, the processes by which psychologists in such different fields go about their business is quite different.
For a research psychologist, it’s very much a scientific approach, such as forming a hypothesis, designing experiments to test the hypothesis, collecting and analyzing data, and so forth. Then, based on their findings, research psychologists can accept or reject their hypothesis and utilize the knowledge they’ve gleaned to better inform the psychology community about autism.
On the other hand, the clinical psychologist would rely on research-based techniques for treating bipolar disorder. This might involve a mixture of cognitive-behavioral therapy and drug treatments (i.e., Risperidone), both of which have been determined to be effective in treating this particular disorder.
Despite the different approaches, in both cases, psychologists are focused on improving the lives of people that have an emotional, mental, or behavioral condition that adversely affects their life.
A second commonality among psychologists regarding what they do is that they collect information. Again, the setting in which they work has a significant impact on how information is gleaned.
For example, a social psychologist studying the effects of bullying on high school students might collect information from students using an online survey. The survey might ask specific questions regarding bullying, such as if students have been bullied, if they have bullied other students, and so on.
Conversely, an industrial-organizational psychologist seeking to understand why morale amongst workers at a company is low might utilize personal interviews in which they talk with workers face-to-face and explore each individual’s experience as an employee of the company.
Thirdly, since psychologists rely so heavily on gathering information, record-keeping is of significant importance no matter the focus of their work.
For example, practicing psychologists (i.e., a clinical psychologist) have to keep detailed notes of their interactions with their clients. This is done for multiple reasons, perhaps most importantly to keep track of important themes the client brings up during the therapeutic session. In that regard, note-taking can help organize the therapist’s thoughts and inform them of potential directions to take in future sessions with the client.
A health psychologist, on the other hand, would keep different kinds of records.
For example, if the focus of their work was on health promotion programs in underserved communities, their record-keeping might track the number of participants in each program, the specific goals for each program, and an analysis of how effective the program is in terms of improving the health of community members.
Often this kind of record-keeping isn’t just for the benefit of the psychologist, but is also intended to inform the psychological community about current research and how that research is being implemented. Likewise, psychologists sometimes receive grants to conduct this kind of work and must deliver specific analyses to the source of the grant.
Again, though the methods are different, the ultimate goal remains the same – to glean information about a problem and use that information to formulate strategies for helping others overcome that particular issue.
How to Become a Psychologist
Generally speaking, to become a psychologist, one must have at least a master’s degree in psychology. This is standard practice for the vast majority of subfields within psychology, with a few exceptions.
As an example, some careers in industrial-organizational psychology require only a bachelor’s degree. This, however, is the exception rather than the rule. Not only do the vast majority of employers require an advanced degree, but most states also require an advanced degree for a person to call themselves a psychologist – in some states, psychologists need a master’s degree to practice while in others psychologists can practice with a master’s degree but must have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. to call themselves a psychologist.
In any case, the general roadmap for how to become a psychologist is as follows:
- Complete a bachelor’s degree program (either B.A. or B.S.) in psychology or a closely related field. Bachelor’s degrees are usually 120 credits in length and take around four years to complete.
- Complete a master’s degree program (usually an M.A., M.S., or M.Ed.) in psychology or a closely related field. Most psychology master’s programs require coursework in the classroom, practicum and/or internship experiences in the field, and conduct psychological research.
- Complete a doctoral program (a Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology or a closely related field. Doctoral programs are usually very heavily oriented toward research and practice. Though classroom experiences are included, students spend much more time applying what they’ve learned in laboratory and field experiences.
Below you’ll find more details about how to become a psychologist, broken down by the steps students need to take at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels.
Undergraduate Degrees for Becoming a Psychologist
Since being a psychologist typically requires an advanced degree, there are many different undergraduate degrees that can lead to a career as a psychologist.
Most commonly, becoming a psychologist begins with a major in psychology for one’s undergraduate studies. As noted earlier, bachelor’s degrees in psychology can be obtained in B.A. or B.S. form, with the former having more coursework emphasis on psychology itself and the latter having more coursework in other sciences, like biology, as well as math and statistics.
Some colleges and universities offer both B.A. and B.S. options for undergraduate studies while others offer one or the other. Ultimately, the type of bachelor’s degree is not a critical factor for moving forward with one’s studies, so if the institution you wish to attend only offers one type of bachelor’s degree in psychology, you will still be able to move forward with advanced studies in this field.
Another popular undergraduate degree for psychologists is a BSW, or Bachelor of Social Work.
Though social work is a different field of study, it is closely related to psychology, which is why many graduate students in psychology begin their studies in social work.
Commonalities include a focus on human behavior, lifespan development, research, and statistics. Likewise, there is extensive coursework in theory and the application of social work theories to real-life situations.
However, where psychology emphasizes learning about human behavior and providing therapeutic services to clients, social work focuses much more on providing practical assistance to clients.
For example, BSW curricula teach students about social services and programs that exist to help people get back on their feet. So, a social worker might help a client obtain food stamps to feed their family and assist with arranging job training to help their client become more employable.
Additionally, most BSW programs have a practicum and/or internship component that many undergraduate psychology programs lack.
There are many other degree options at the undergraduate level that prepare students for advanced studies in psychology. A popular option is a bachelor’s degree in human services, which is offered in B.A. and B.S. forms.
Human services is a very broad field of study, so unlike a BSW or a B.A. or B.S. in psychology, this degree is more of an entry-level overview of the helping professions.
In many cases, undergraduate studies in human services involve coursework in both psychology and social work, as well as a variety of other related courses, such as health and human services, ethics, statistics, and sociology. In some cases, areas of concentration are offered, so you can direct your studies more narrowly onto a field that interests you the most.
If you’re interested in pursuing a master’s degree in psychology and specializing as a child psychologist, you might seek a concentration in counseling in your human services studies. As another example, if forensic psychology is of particular interest to you, you can concentrate your human services studies on criminal justice.
In many cases, colleges and universities will accept students into master’s degree programs in psychology with bachelor’s degrees in many other fields, among them, sociology, criminal justice, biology, child development, and education.
Naturally, an undergraduate degree in psychology would be the best course of action if you wish to become a psychologist, but if you already have an undergraduate degree in a related field, you might be able to continue your studies in a psychology graduate program with little or no need to make up prerequisite courses.
As always, it’s best to inquire with the institution you wish to attend to get their specific requirements for admission to the psychology program.
Graduate Degrees for Becoming a Psychologist
As with undergraduate studies, there are many different pathways a prospective psychologist can take for their graduate studies. Also like undergraduate studies, there are arts and science-based options in the form of an M.A. or M.S. degree.
One of the differences between undergraduate and graduate studies is that at the master’s level, one must major in psychology. For instance, while a BSW might be considered good preparation for continuing one’s education in the field of psychology, a Master of Social Work is not an acceptable degree for being a licensed psychologist.
This isn’t to say that an MSW is a poor degree. Quite the contrary. But because master’s-level studies are so much more specific in their scope, future psychologists need to concentrate their studies on the field of psychology and not a related field.
Fortunately, when considering how to become a psychologist, there are many different areas of specialization one can consider when getting a master’s degree.
If a clinical route is desired, one of the basic clinical psychologist requirements is to get an M.A. or M.S. in psychology with an emphasis on clinical practice. While the type of degree – M.A. or M.S. – would be the same as another student with a different area of concentration, the courses required to graduate might be vastly different.
For example, students in a graduate program with a clinical focus would have much more coursework in psychological theory than one in a program with a research focus. Likewise, students with a concentration in child psychology would have more coursework related to developmental psychology than one in a program whose emphasis is on forensic psychology.
It’s important to note that not every possible area of concentration is offered by each psychology graduate program. Typically, colleges and universities might offer one to three areas of concentration.
Whatever the area of concentration, master’s programs in psychology can take anywhere from two to four years to complete. As noted earlier, master’s programs in this field usually involve coursework as well as field experiences, like practica or internships.
There are also specialist degrees for some types of psychology that extend graduate studies beyond the norm, yet aren’t to the extent of doctoral studies.
The first is an Educational Specialist (EdS), which is a specialty offered for school psychologists and school counselors. It is an education degree, not a psychology degree. And while it has deep roots in psychology, it is typically more appropriate for someone with a graduate degree in education to pursue this track.
The second area of specialty is as a Psychology Specialist (PsyS). With a greater focus on the science of psychology, this degree is more appropriate for students who wish to continue their study of psychology and put it into practice in the educational sector as a school psychologist or school counselor.
School psychologists often work with at-risk or disabled students, provide testing and screening for students, and develop interventions for students that have emotional, mental, or behavioral disorders. School counselors, on the other hand, tend to work more with the general population of students and might fulfill a variety of roles, from guidance counseling duties to providing support for teachers to develop age-appropriate lesson plans to providing counseling services to students.
In any case, the EdS and PsyS specialties usually take at least three years to complete, with two years of coursework and a full-year internship. Though these programs have more in-depth studies than a typical master’s degree in psychology, the degree conferred is not a doctorate, but a specialist master’s degree.
Doctoral Degrees for Becoming a Psychologist
The terminal degree for psychologists is a doctorate, which usually takes one of two forms – a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).
It is important to note that while graduates of a Ph.D. or PsyD program are referred to as doctors, they are not doctors of medicine. Doctors of medicine are conferred with a Medical Doctorate, or MD, which is the terminal degree in the field of medicine.
Of the two primary types of doctorates in psychology, the Ph.D. is far more common.
Ph.D. programs in psychology have historically been focused on one of three major areas: preparing students to practice psychology, teach psychology, or conduct research in the field of psychology. In any case, it is the final component in the typical track for how to become a psychologist.
PsyD programs developed in the 1970s as a route to professional practice for psychologists. That is, PsyD programs are specifically designed to prepare students to be practicing psychologists, and as such, the research component often found in Ph.D. programs is far less robust.
For example, in a Ph.D. program in psychology, a student can expect coursework in research psychology, psychological statistics, research ethics, and in many cases, teaching methodologies as well. Upon graduation, students might seek employment in a research field, such as working for the Centers for Disease Control studying psychological topics, such as the prevalence of PTSD among veterans of the armed forces.
Conversely, PsyD programs present students with coursework in psychological theory, systems of psychology, therapeutic techniques, marriage and family therapy, theory of personality, and so forth. If you’re wondering how to become a clinical psychologist, a PsyD is a good final step toward achieving that goal.
In both cases, students can expect to complete at least a year of internship experiences.
Another distinct difference between these programs is their length. The average Ph.D. program is typically five to eight years in length while the average PsyD program is four to six years in length.
But despite these differences, there are also many commonalities between Ph.D. and PsyD programs.
Firstly, admissions requirements are often very similar, centering around having a master’s degree and letters of recommendation from graduate-level professors.
Second, both programs require some kind of a capstone learning experience, typically a dissertation defense, though a Ph.D. dissertation would mostly focus on research and a PsyD dissertation would likely focus more on the application of psychological principles in a therapeutic situation.
Lastly, as noted earlier, both degrees communicate that the graduate has completed the highest level of study in the field of psychology, and as such, they hold the title of doctor. Likewise, many of the same career options within the field of psychology are open to graduates of both Ph.D. and PsyD programs.
With the examination of the basic requirements of how to become a psychologist complete, let’s take a deeper look at more specific requirements for a common subfield – clinical psychology.
Even if you aren’t interested in clinical psychology, the requirements listed still give you a good idea of the steps to becoming a psychologist, the educational requirements, the time commitment necessary to get the required education, and so forth.
How to Become a Clinical Psychologist
Far and away, clinical psychology is one of the most popular types of specialization for psychology students.
As noted earlier, clinical psychologists work with clients to assess, diagnose, and treat mental disorders. To become qualified to do so, the following example roadmap of studying psychology at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree levels should be followed.
At the undergraduate level, most students that wish to become a clinical psychologist major in psychology. While a B.A. in psychology might be more advantageous given the psychology-centric coursework, a B.S. in psychology is certainly a fine option.
Because many graduate programs in clinical psychology are very competitive, having an undergraduate major in psychology might demonstrate to admissions committees that one has the breadth and depth of foundational knowledge needed to succeed in advanced studies.
Earlier, we discussed that there are many different types of undergraduate degrees one can pursue for a career in clinical psychology, so while a psychology major is often advantageous, don’t let it dissuade you from pursuing other possible undergraduate degrees.
In fact, some education experts believe that having a non-psychology undergraduate major makes students more attractive to graduate admissions committees simply because students might have a unique point of view to offer in their graduate studies.
To help you stand out from the crowd, it’s recommended that you partake in a variety of elective courses in psychology that will help you form a broad-base of understanding of this discipline. Even if you’re most interested in applying psychology in a clinical setting, branch out and take courses having to do with psychological research and applying psychological principles to other realms (i.e., education) as well.
Furthermore, supplement your undergraduate studies with field experiences to the extent possible. From serving as a research assistant for one of your professors to job shadowing a clinical psychologist to finding an internship in a mental health clinic, there are ample opportunities for undergraduate students to expand their understanding of psychology outside the classroom.
Once a bachelor’s degree is complete, the next step in how to become a clinical psychologist is to complete a master’s degree program.
Two popular tracks culminate in a student completing their studies and becoming eligible for licensure as a clinical psychologist.
First, many students opt to complete master’s and doctoral degrees separately. This is the more traditional route and enables students to complete their graduate studies, get job experience, and then complete their doctoral studies at a later date.
Second, some institutions offer combined master’s and doctoral programs in clinical psychology, which tend to be shorter in length, although there is no break in one’s studies in which to get job experience.
In any case, graduate coursework must be completed as many states require clinical psychologists to have a doctorate in order to practice and be eligible for licensure.
In a previous section, we discussed that a Master of Arts or Master of Science in psychology is a worthy pursuit, but it’s worth noting again that unlike at the undergraduate level, graduate studies require students to focus on psychology.
A detailed list of typical admissions requirements for graduate programs in psychology are outlined later in this document, but for now, just know that experience in research, extracurricular learning (i.e., job shadowing or internship), an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher, and satisfactory scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) are among the most important factors that admissions committees consider.
The last step in becoming a clinical psychologist is to complete either a Ph.D. or PsyD program.
As explained earlier, no matter which track is chosen, students spend much more time in applying what they’ve learned in clinical or research settings than they do in a classroom environment.
In that regard, undergraduate and graduate studies build the foundation of knowledge that students use to apply what they’ve learned in their doctoral programs, which is why at least a year of the internship experience is required in most doctoral-level programs.
One of the most critical factors when choosing a doctoral program is that the program is accredited by the American Psychological Association. Without this accreditation, it could prove impossible to find gainful employment as a clinical psychologist. Because APA accreditation demonstrates that graduates have had the proper education and training to be effective clinical psychologists, many employers require that job applicants have graduated from an APA-accredited program.
Common Admissions Requirements for Psychology Degree Programs
Whether you’re currently seeking an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral program in psychology, there are some basic requirements that most colleges and universities require you to fulfill before being admitted to a psychology program.
Though there are certainly differences in the specific requirements of particular schools, the following guidelines offer a glimpse at some of the more specific steps to becoming a psychologist.
Undergraduate Degree Requirements
Since the undergraduate level of study is the most basic in psychology, the admissions requirements for these programs are more relaxed when compared to those for graduate and doctoral studies.
In addition to submitting a completed undergraduate application and the necessary fees, prospective undergraduate psychology students must be able to prove that they have graduated from high school or hold a GED. There are GPA requirements for undergraduate admissions as well, which can vary from 2.0 on a 4.0 scale on the low end to more than 3.0 on a 4.0 scale on the high end.
In some cases, students must complete prerequisite coursework before formal admission to a psychology undergraduate program is granted.
For example, if a student was majoring in chemistry and decided to change to psychology, and had not yet taken an introduction to psychology, they might be admitted to the psychology program on a conditional basis until that and other prerequisites are completed.
In some cases, psychology departments ask students to submit letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and other documentation that speaks to the student’s academic achievements and goals for the future.
Once in an undergraduate program, students can expect to complete around 60 credit hours of coursework in the field of psychology and another 60 credit hours of general education courses.
Psychology coursework at this level is broad-based, with most classes representing an introductory level of instruction upon which students can continue learning how to become a psychologist in their graduate and doctoral studies.
Classes that might be required for an undergraduate degree in psychology include:
- Introduction to psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Lifespan development
- Psychological statistics
- History and systems of psychology
- Psychology of learning
- Social psychology
Beyond these requirements, students must take a variety of elective courses in psychology to fulfill the degree requirements of the program.
Where required courses are usually introductory in nature, elective courses offer students an opportunity to study topics of interest in more depth.
For example, an elective course for psychology undergraduates might look specifically at psychological issues that predominantly impact women. As another example, an elective course might explore comparative psychology, and how building an understanding of animal behavior might be utilized to better understand human behavior.
Graduate Degree Requirements
As with undergraduate degree programs, graduate programs have varying requirements for students to graduate.
Generally speaking, to be admitted to a master’s program in psychology, students must already have an undergraduate degree in psychology or a closely related field. Students must submit a completed admissions application and any applicable fees, provide copies of undergraduate transcripts, and might be asked to submit letters of recommendation and a curriculum vitae.
Typically, graduate programs also ask prospective students to submit a personal statement to shed light on who they are as a person outside of school. In some programs, students are asked to sit for an interview with the department faculty, either face-to-face or via a video conference call.
Once admitted to the program, a student can expect to take anywhere from 30 credit hours to more than 60 credit hours, depending on the master’s degree program.
Coursework for a graduate degree in this field might include the following:
- Advanced psychological statistics
- Experimental psychology
- Psychological Theory
- Developmental psychology
- Ethics in Psychology
Likewise, as noted earlier, many master’s degree programs in psychology require students to complete field experiences, such as practicums, in which students observe or shadow psychologists in their place or work. Additionally, internships, in which students gain on-the-job experience working directly with clients under the tutelage of an experienced psychologist, are a common requirement for graduate programs.
Often, it is during these internship experiences that one truly learns how to be a psychologist. That is, it’s an opportunity to put years of classroom learning into practice with a real, live client.
Though internship experiences begin with students on a short leash (i.e., a student participating in a group therapy session as an assistant to their supervisor), by the end of the internship experience, students should have the knowledge, experience, and confidence to branch out more and conduct their work much more independently of supervision.
Doctoral Degree Requirements
Being that a doctorate is the terminal degree in this field, students applying to such programs will find that admissions requirements are quite robust.
In addition to having a solid track record as an undergraduate and graduate student (typically determined by having at least a 3.0 GPA), prospective doctoral students are often required to submit at least three letters of recommendation, preferably from professors in their graduate program and supervisors during clinical experiences.
While one’s grades are an indicator of one’s academic prowess, these letters of recommendation speak to one’s ability to take what they’ve learned and put it into practice in a real-world setting.
Likewise, many Ph.D. and PsyD programs require that students write a personal statement in which they elucidate their skills and abilities as a budding psychologist. In many cases, admissions committees will also seek to interview applicants in some form, be that in person or via video chat.
Another common doctoral degree requirement is demonstrating one’s academic research abilities. This is done by submitting documentation of original research done at the graduate level.
Students that are admitted to a doctoral program in psychology can expect to spend anywhere from 4-8 years in the program, which includes internship experiences. Adding post-doctoral studies onto that, and one can easily spend ten years completing the process of getting a doctorate.
Doctoral students can expect to spend a lot of time in research and practice, but class-based learning is also an important component of these programs. Common courses include, but are not limited to:
- Quantitative design and analysis
- Advanced statistics and research techniques
- Advanced clinical practices
- Ethics and legal issues in psychology
- Dissertation research and defense
Remember that the area of concentration will determine the specific types of courses and learning experiences for doctoral-level students. However, the list above is typical of many generalist doctoral programs in psychology.
Licensure Requirements for Psychologists
Licensure for psychologists is done at the state level, and as such, requirements for licensure vary from one state to the next.
Generally speaking, however, to be licensed as a psychologist, most states require that applicants hold a doctoral degree from an accredited institution, pass a licensure examination, and have a certain number of hours of supervised work experience before licensure will be granted. In many cases, applicants must have 3,000 hours of supervised experience, which includes practica and internships.
Furthermore, some states require licensees to have post-doctoral experience. For example, a state might mandate that clinical psychologists specializing in child psychology complete a certain number of hours of training in child psychology before a license will be granted.
Often, post-doctoral studies take the form of an internship or fellowship experience in which the post-doc student gets highly specific training in his or her field of interest. Even if the state in which you wish to practice does not require post-doctoral work, it’s not a bad idea to get the additional training as it will only benefit you in your ability to find work and to provide appropriate services to clients.
Of course, once a license is obtained, psychologists must complete the steps necessary to retain licensure. To do so, psychologists must fulfill state requirements pertaining to continuing education, such as completing approved courses in the field of psychology.
These credits must be completed in a specific timeframe, say, every three years. Fortunately, many courses fulfill these requirements. In fact, the APA offers dozens of continuing education courses, ranging from suicidology to neuropsychology to studies in anxiety and depression.
Becoming a Psychologist: Skills You Need
As with any career path, one must have a certain set of skills (or the capability to develop said skills) in order to fulfill the duties of the job to the fullest extent.
There are many basic and advanced skills and personal qualities required of psychologists. This includes:
- Organization – No matter the area of specialty, psychologists must be able to be organized, maintain complete records, meet deadlines, and so forth.
- Patience – Whether conducting long-term psychological research or working with a client in individual therapy, psychologists must understand that this line of work depends largely on time. Patience is an absolute must as progress is often quite slow.
- Empathy – Clinical psychologists, in particular, must be able to put themselves in other people’s shoes and empathize with their situation. Even psychologists that specialize in areas that do not involve direct contact with clients (i.e., research psychology) should approach their work with the understanding that their research and outcomes could have real-life effects on people with mental disorders.
- Observational Skills – In a clinical setting, psychologists should have the capacity to read body language, observe social interactions, and examine people’s facial expressions, as these physical manifestations of behavior might provide deeper clues regarding the client’s behavior or mindset than simply taking in what the client is saying.
- Interpersonal Skills – Psychology is the study of human behavior, so having the ability to communicate effectively with people is an absolute must. This includes having the ability to actively listen, provide guidance and direction as needed, and build strong working relationships.
- Ethical Behavior – Since many psychologists work directly with highly vulnerable clients, it’s their responsibility to have a strong code of ethics that informs their practice. Without ethical and moral norms, psychologists can’t ensure the well-being or safety of their clients. Likewise, psychologists that concentrate on research must rely on ethical practice to ensure the results of their studies are unbiased and that participants in their studies are treated with the utmost respect.
- Emotional stability – It’s difficult for a psychologist to offer support and guidance to a client when they themselves aren’t emotionally stable.
- Self-awareness – Learning how to counsel other people requires a good deal of introspection to find blind spots. The self-awareness that grows out of that is immensely helpful for psychologists so they can recognize when their own biases, feelings, desires, and so forth get in the way of what’s best for their clients.
Job Outlook for Psychologists
When considering how to be a psychologist, one must also consider what the job outlook is for the field of psychology. After all, if the need for psychologists is expected to shrink, the competition for open positions will be that much greater.
Fortunately, the job outlook for psychologists is, in general, quite favorable.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for psychologists is expected to grow at a rate of 14 percent through 2028.
More specifically, the BLS notes that the need for school psychologists, clinical psychologists, and counseling psychologists will be strong because of an increased demand for psychology services in institutions like public schools, mental health centers, and hospitals.
Other areas of job growth for psychologists include the fields of geriatric psychology (due to an aging Baby Boom generation) and in providing services to veterans who have served in various wars and conflicts over the last several decades. Likewise, psychologists with expertise in developmental disorders are projected to be in high demand due to the rise in numbers of children with mental health issues, such as autism spectrum disorders.
Of course, the job outlook depends greatly on one’s specialty within psychology as well as one’s level of education. For example, a psychologist with a specialty in trauma therapy might have more difficulty finding a job than one whose training is in clinical psychology, simply because there is a greater need for trained clinical psychologists than there is for trauma psychologists.
Furthermore, doctoral-level psychologists typically have more job opportunities open to them than master’s-level psychologists, as many jobs in this field require not only a doctoral degree but also several years of work experience.
As noted earlier, though, job prospects look good for psychologists as a whole for the next decade, making it a solid choice for a career.
Psychologist Vs. Psychiatrist
While very similar and even intersecting at many points, the worlds of psychology and psychiatry are actually distinctly separate and different from one another. In many medical practices, psychiatrists and psychologists will also work in the same operation and at times with each other therein. The distinctions between the two, however, are very real.
The psychologist’s job is one of working with patients to understand their unique psychological operations, as individuals, and then working with them to help manifest healthier psychological patterns. Psychologists are Ph.D-level clinicians, but they are the medical field’s premier experts on mental health only. Psychologists are not able to prescribe medications.
Psychiatrists, unlike psychologists, are essentially full doctors but with a trained focus on mental health specifically. Psychiatrists can and regularly must prescribe medications to their patients. They also work in a different way than psychologists.
In psychiatry, the psychiatrist sees patients, one-by-one, and works with them to determine which medications may be best for their particular mental health circumstances. In this setting, the psychiatrist is able to see many more patients in a day than a psychologist. This is because the psychiatrist can typically glean the info they need for further medicine prescriptions via a short discussion with the patient about their recent feelings and experiences.
Conversely, the work of a psychologist requires much longer sessions in order to really get into the patient’s mental state and try to then make positive strides therein. For reference, a typical psychiatrist may see 20-25 patients in a single day. A typical psychologist will see only about 10 patients each day, on average.
Psychologist vs. Therapist/Counselor
Mental health counselors and therapists represent another similar yet separate occupation area to that of today’s psychologist. These particular professionals act in much the same way as a full-fledged psychologist but with the exception of not having as much experience and education. Most mental health therapists and counselors hold master’s degrees instead of doctorate degrees as do their psychologist counterparts. Aside from this further training and experience, therapists, counselors, and psychologists do much the same work – working with patients individually to help them work through various mental health circumstances.
Tools of the Trade
Having covered the topic of becoming a psychologist, we can now move on to the topic of what exactly it takes to become an exceptional psychologist. Being an exceptional psychologist requires a number of key elements but many of those are simply about utilizing the tools, tips, and tricks of the trade that are already well established. Being a resourceful psychologist is being an exceptional steward of the trade. Here are some of the key components, the tools of the trade, that can help lead one to exceptionalism therein.
Continued educational efforts are one great way toward being a master of the psychology trade today. This means staying abreast of news and current events related to the psychology trade as well as being directly involved in actual academic endeavors in psychology. Attending newly-developed college courses and certificate programs, taking part in private research and studies, and being involved in other academia all counts toward being an up-to-date and highly effective psychologist.
Maintaining a solid network built around the greater psychology field is another, important approach to excelling as a modern psychologist. There are many ways to network in psychology with some of the easiest and most straightforward avenues consisting of simple word-of-mouth, membership and association with psychology-related organizations, and the frequenting of academic circles related to psychology studies. Attendance and even participation in psychology events and forums is another great way to network and reap the subsequent, professional benefits.
Beyond these methods of resource utilization, there are some specific tools in the know-how toolbox with which every exceptional psychologist must maintain a close, working relationship. One of these trade tools is that of proper use of what are known as the “five, key concepts” of psychology. The five, key concepts to psychology are the elements of learning, biology, cognition, psychoanalytics, and sociocultural perspectives. Understanding each of these elements and how they affect the individual patient is crucial, but even more crucial is the ability to know when and to what degree the approaches of each of these five elements should be used in conjunction with others. Ultimately, mastery here translates to mastery in the greater art and science.
Beyond these five, key concepts of psychology, further mastery through specific tactics and knowledge can come by way of the utilization of a number of additional psychological concepts that are often misunderstood by the untrained mind. Consideration of the “natural vs. right” quandary is one such example. Another is the use of “multifactorial causation” to help precisely understand complex situations and consequently map a series of better, more effective ways forward through those complexities.
Additional Psychology Resources
Finally, for pros and novices alike, there are a number of noteworthy organizations out there that directly represent the interests of the greater psychology field and its many workers. The following five organizations are tops among those very resources, and all interested in learning more about psychology or any of its many facets are highly recommended to inquire further with one or more of these groups.
The American Psychological Association, or APA as it is commonly called, is the premier, representative force across all of the psychology field today. This organization sets many of the standards in modern psychology practice, heads research work in the field, and is a leading source of academia and professional association for countless professionals in and outside of psychology alike. Whether a member or not, one can inquire with this organization and glean a number of excellent benefits. Members, however, gain access to exclusive content found only at the very head of the psychology world right now.
When it comes to professional literature and journals based specifically on the practice of psychology, Psychology Today is a leading resource. Beginning in 1967, this organization began publishing news, cutting-edge findings, opinion pieces, and more via its namesake magazine/journal heading. The publication became a hit and has since, maintained a high level of authoritative respect throughout the industry.
Visitors to the Psychology Today website can find a free, open wealth of knowledge and psychology resources with which to investigate. In addition to information, the website provides an array of excellent, industry-leading contact points, professional networking avenues, and a variety of other, great benefits also. The print version of the Psychology Today magazine and journal offers similar benefits but in limited, print form which is published once every two months.
The Association for Psychological Science is another, significant organization and representative force in the world of psychology. With over 25,000 active members across the globe and many, other associative connections in addition, this non-profit maintains a large, real-life network of psychology experts. This organization also publishes a popular online psychology magazine entitled “Observer.”
A quick visit to the group’s website offers visitors a great array of options to head toward. News, Research Topics, Conventions, Journals, and Employment and Career make up some of those categorical directions one can take upon the first arrival to the group’s site. Membership is yet another option at the APS. For those who do become members, the benefits are many including access to an exclusive directory of student and practicing-professional resources, member-only networking opportunities, awards and honors, and plenty more.
The National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers is, as its name suggests, a representative organization for workers in psychology today. With a stated mission of working to “promote and advocate for the clinical practice of doctoral-level psychology” and a wide range of resources for the task, this organization is a well-respected element in the industry. The group was established in 2006 and also has acted as a strong political lobby for the psychology worker sector since that time. Those new and tenured in psychology alike can find a considerable array of resources here.
Finally, the National Psychology Training Consortium represents yet one more, authoritative organization key to the wider psychology industry. This group specifically manages much of the educational and training endeavors associated with psychology work and utilizes its vast network of member practices in order to facilitate those many training opportunities. With its wide array of offerings and connections, all tenured and upcoming psychology pros are highly recommended to stay abreast of this consortium’s ongoing offerings.
With that, you have a detailed outline of how to become a psychologist.
It is not an easy road, nor is it a quick one. But with the knowledge, skills, and tools acquired over years of study, psychologists are well-equipped to aid people in coping with psychological problems and conduct research that will help people live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. With that, you now have a detailed outline of how to become a psychologist.
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