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How to Become a Psychiatrist

December 18, 2013

Psychiatrists are medical doctors that strive to understand and empathize with human actions in order to assist patients in changing their behavior. Psychiatrists love their work because they see every day as a puzzle to be solved, and they take great joy in helping patients find solutions to their problems. Psychiatry is an exciting and challenging field, but it isn’t a good fit for everyone. This stimulating field demands years of training, a thick skin, a compassionate outlook, and a critical and curious mind. Does this sound like you? If so, then psychiatry could be your future career.

Preparing for a Career as a Psychiatrist

how to become a psychiatristPsychiatrists spend over a decade in college, medical school, and residency. In order to become a psychiatrist, you must be comfortable spending a long period of time in school and training. You must also be able to make a significant monetary investment; even completing this training at an affordable institution will add up over time.

If you are still in high school, be certain to take sociology and psychology if they are offered. You should also be earning the best grades possible, so you can get into a quality undergraduate school. This will be important later on when you apply to medical school.

Enroll in an undergraduate program that offers a pre-med program or enough science classes for you to get into medical school later on. If your college doesn’t have a pre-med program, you will be expected to take classes such as: general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, physics, and certain math classes

While you are still in high school or college, take advantage of volunteer opportunities that can help you gain valuable experience. If possible, get a volunteer position in a hospital or mental health facility. This will help you become familiar with medical environments. This is also a great time to work on developing your listening and communication skills.

Helpful Personal Traits

Becoming a psychiatrist is a long journey and it isn’t for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to be able to help patients the way a psychiatrist does. As you consider pursuing this career, keep in mind that there are several personal qualities that will help you become successful. Here are just a few traits that successful psychiatrists must possess:


As a psychiatrist, you will learn that it sometimes takes clients months or years of therapy in order to achieve results. We all love instant gratification, but you can’t expect to see results after just a few sessions. When you are dealing with life-long problems and addictions, you have to be patient and get comfortable with the idea that your clients must move at their own pace. Eventually you will feel the satisfaction of seeing results, but it won’t happen right away.


Ever heard of a doctor having a good “bedside manner”? This may be optional for some physicians, but not for psychiatrists. In order to be a successful psychiatrist, you must be an inherently caring and compassionate person. Whether your client is a self-absorbed socialite or an anorexic teenager, you must be able to empathize with your clients no matter what. In order to practice compassion, psychiatrists must imagine themselves in other people’s situations. Are you capable of empathizing without judgment? If so, you may have the compassionate traits of a psychiatrist.

Communication Skills

Though many careers require good communication skills, psychiatrists utilize this skill on a daily basis. You may think that a psychiatrist’s job consists mostly of listening, but a big part of the job also involves the ability to effectively communicate. When a psychiatrist listens to a patient relay a problem or issue, they must also be able to repeat this information back to the patient. For example, it is common for a psychiatrist to say things like “what I’m hearing you say is…” This allows the patient to clarify what is being said and also helps the psychiatrist to communicate clearly with the patient.

Educational Requirements

A bachelor’s degree will take about four years to complete. Some students are able to complete a three year accelerated bachelor program, but not all schools offer this option. Although students are not required to complete a “pre-med” major this can often be helpful.

Many students are admitted to medical school with a wide range of majors that may or may not be related to science or math. At the very least, medical schools are looking for one year of biology, one year of organic chemistry, one year of inorganic chemistry, and one year of English. It is also beneficial to have taken calculus and biochemistry.

In order to be accepted into medical school, you must keep your grades up. In general, successful medical school applicants have a grade point average between 3.5 and 4.0. Medical school applicants will also need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This test measures ability in verbal reasoning, writing, and biological and physical sciences. Minimum scores vary depending on the school. In addition to these requirements, you will also need to complete a personal interview, essay, and get recommendations from former professors or coworkers.

Medical school will take another four years to complete in addition to a bachelor’s program. In medical school, you can expect to take classes such as anatomy, physiology, histology, biochemistry, embryology, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology and immunology.

Two years into medical school, students will need to take the first section of the US Medical Licensing Exam. The last year of medical school, students will then take the second and third parts of this exam. Students must also take a Clinical Skills Exam which assesses how well students are able to function in a clinical setting with actual patients.

During the last part of medical school, students must select a specialty. Medical students must then complete one year of general medical practice in a residency program and then two or three years of residency in psychiatry. Students who would like to certify in a specialty area like forensic or child psychiatry, can expect to spend even more time in training.

In residency, medical students will actually get to begin working with real patients. Students will complete rounds with a resident or a supervising doctor. This process allows students to receive feedback from working professionals in the field as well as getting real-world experience. During this time, students are also required to be on call, working late nights and early mornings, often with very little sleep. Students of psychiatry can expect to be on call for attempted suicides, emergency admissions, and other psychiatric cases. This is a grueling process, but it help to prepare students for the hard work ahead of them.

Getting a Job

career in psychiatryAs you can see, it takes quite a few years of education and training in order to become a psychiatrist. After completing college, medical school, and residency, you are now ready to get a job and establish yourself in the field. The stereotypical psychiatrist that is portrayed in popular culture is often shown working in a private practice. For most psychiatrists, a private practice fresh out of med school is not a likely option. Many beginning psychiatrists will start out working in a treatment center, hospital, or clinic. This could eventually lead to the creation of a private practice down the road.

As you prepare for your job search, be sure to utilize the resources available through your school’s career center. They will be able to help you update your resume and apply to available jobs in your area. Also, make sure that you have professional or academic references ready to send to potential employers.

Professional organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association can also provide a wealth of resources and job leads. Research the various professional associations and look for positions on their individual job boards. Join the association that corresponds to your sub-specialty for even more access to jobs that may meet your qualifications and interests.

Possible Earnings

If you are considering a career as a psychiatrist, then you are probably curious to know how much money you will earn each year. The answer is not cut and dry and depends on quite a few different factors such as location, status, and hours. On average, a psychiatrist earns about $150,000 each year.

You certainly will have the opportunity to earn much more than $150,000 per year if you develop a private practice in an area with wealthy clientele who are willing to pay a higher hourly rate. For example, in Beverly Hills or New York City, high-end psychiatrists may charge over $300 per hour. Your annual salary is highly dependent upon the environment in which you choose to work and your dedication to developing your professional skills in private practice.

As you consider your salary, also take into account that you will need to repay any student debt you have incurred during your training. Not many students can afford to pay out of pocket for a decade or more of education and training. As you think of your monthly take-home pay, be sure to consider that you will most likely have a hefty student loan payment.

Although this field may prove to be very lucrative for some, money is typically not the reason why people choose to go into the field of psychiatry. People who pursue this line of work are often drawn to it due to a desire to help others and the satisfaction they feel from developing complex therapeutic relationships. In other words, the job pays well, but a strong interest in assisting patients is also necessary.

Pros and Cons

There is never a boring day in this field. Every day is different and every day presents a new challenge. It is common for psychiatrists to still feel eager to go to work each morning even after many years working in this position. Another advantage of working as a psychiatrist is that it is intellectually stimulating. Psychiatrists must use problem solving skills as well as critical thinking skills in order to help patients.

There will always be a need for psychiatrists and the field is only growing larger. This means that prospective psychiatrists can expect to have job security in the coming years. While it is true that most psychiatrists don’t earn as much as other medical doctors, the pay is still decent. It will also get better as you gain experience and/or build your private practice.

As with any profession, there are some downsides to psychiatry. If you are not a strong person, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the negativity you encounter on a day-to-day basis. It is common for psychiatrists to deal with individuals that are depressed, suicidal, or just plain sad. For those who have a tendency to “take work home” this is very emotionally draining.

Psychiatrists who deal with managed care patients often become easily frustrated. You might feel that a patient genuinely needs eight months of therapy sessions, but insurance will only cover three months of sessions. Some managed care organizations may also pressure psychiatrists into prescribing pharmaceutical treatment rather than using therapy.

Is this Career Right for Me?

Even after learning more about the path to becoming a psychiatrist, you might still be wondering whether or not this is the right field for you. If hard work scares you, then this is not the field for you. If you are easily discouraged, then this is not the field for you. If money is the most important thing to you, then this is not the field for you.

While there is no way to know for sure whether or not you should become a psychiatrist, there is one question you can ask yourself to get a fairly good indication: Am I passionate about helping people? Those who are serious about helping people along with a willingness to work hard, are ready to start the journey to becoming a psychiatrist. For those who succeed, a fulfilling, lucrative, and interesting career lies ahead.