Becoming a psychiatrist is a rigorous but rewarding process. To help you navigate it successfully, we’ve prepared this career overview that explains how to become a psychiatrist, covers some basic roles and job duties, and discusses future job outlooks. It also answers some frequently asked questions about the field, like whether psychiatrists need a medical license to practice.
If you’ve ever wondered whether a career in psychiatry is right for you, this article is here to help. Let’s begin our overview by looking at what a psychiatrist does, discussing how long it takes to become a psychiatrist, and exploring some key differences between psychiatrists and psychologists.
What is a Psychiatrist?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines a psychiatrist as “a medical doctor (an MD or DO) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders.” As the APA also adds, “Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems” — a crucial distinction from psychologists, as we’ll explore later.
What Do Psychiatrists Do?
What is the role of a psychiatrist, and what are their typical tasks or duties? The answers depend on your specific occupation, such as whether you choose to become an addiction psychiatrist, geriatric psychiatrist, or forensic psychiatrist — just a few examples of the career paths that we’ll explore later in this article.
According to the APA, some fundamental responsibilities of a psychiatrist include diagnosing patients, developing personalized treatment plans, and monitoring and adjusting care plans to help ensure the patient’s needs are continually being met. That might involve administering “various forms of psychotherapy, medications, psychosocial interventions, and other treatments.”
Psychiatrists work in a wide range of employment settings. These include, but are not limited to, environments or employers like “private practices, clinics, general and psychiatric hospitals, university medical centers, community agencies, courts and prisons, nursing homes… military settings, rehabilitation programs, emergency rooms, [and] hospice programs,” among others.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatrist?
Psychiatry is a complex practice that requires highly specialized medical knowledge and skills — often, working closely with patients who are vulnerable or at risk. Considering these factors, it’s no surprise that becoming a psychiatrist doesn’t happen overnight. While everyone’s situation is different, it typically takes about 12 years to earn all of the qualifications necessary. Here are what accounts for this period of time:
- Years 1-4: Most students need about four years to earn a bachelor’s degree — typically, majoring in a discipline like psychology.
- Years 5-8: After earning a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology or another undergraduate degree, the next step is graduating from medical school, which usually takes another four years.
- Years 9-12: The final stage is to complete a residency program and earn board certification to practice as a psychiatrist.
What is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?
In popular culture, the terms “psychologist” and “psychiatrist” are sometimes used as though they are interchangeable. In reality, psychologists and psychiatrists have different duties, qualifications, and education requirements. For instance, psychologists generally hold a doctorate degree, while psychiatrists attend and graduate from medical school.
Critically, psychiatrists are considered to be physicians, while psychologists and therapists are not. That distinction means psychiatrists can prescribe medications, which is normally outside the scope of psychology.
Steps to Become a Psychiatrist
Want to become a psychiatrist, but not sure how to get started or what criteria you need to fulfill? Below, we’ll review the essential steps to starting a psychiatry career, including information about psychiatrist degree requirements, medical school and MCAT testing, residency requirements, and requirements around licensing and certification.
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Many students begin by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. However, there is no specific type of undergraduate degree that is required for becoming a psychiatrist, as you may be surprised to learn.
Of course, that does not mean there are no academic criteria for aspiring psychiatrists. On the contrary, there are rigorous requirements that students must complete beyond the undergraduate level, which are discussed in more detail below.
Medical school generally requires four years for students to complete. However, before you may apply to medical school, you must pass the Medical College Admission Test, better known as the MCAT.
In medical school, you may pursue a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) or Medical Doctor (MD) degree — as the APA points out, psychiatrists can choose either option. The simplified overview is that DOs take a more holistic approach, while MDs, who outnumber DOs, take more of a medication-focused approach. You can read a more detailed comparison of MDs and DOs here.
Complete a Residency
Completing a residency is the next step after graduating from medical school. During your residency, you’ll make diagnoses and provide hands-on patient care while under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist, usually in a clinical or hospital environment. Most residency programs require approximately four years to complete.
Obtain Your License and Certification
In addition to earning your undergraduate degree, passing the MCAT, graduating from medical school, and completing a residency, you’ll also need to obtain the appropriate medical license in your state, with specific licensing requirements and procedures varying by location. If you chose an MD program in medical school, you’ll take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while DO graduates take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).
You must also obtain mandatory certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), which must be occasionally renewed. In addition, you may choose to pursue optional additional certifications, which can help you qualify for more specialized or competitive positions.
Fellowships and Subspecialties of Psychiatry
Some residents opt to pursue a fellowship, which provides extra training in one of nine subspecialty areas. Most fellowship programs are approximately one year long. The nine subspecialties are as follows:
- Addiction Medicine
- Addiction Psychiatry
- Brain Injury Rehabilitation Medicine
- Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry
- Forensic Psychiatry
- Geriatric Psychiatry
- Hospice and Palliative Medicine
- Sleep Medicine
Potential Psychiatrist Career Pathways
There are numerous career pathways that you can explore within the field of psychiatry. Keep reading to see 10 examples, including information about average salaries and job responsibilities.
Rehabilitation psychiatrists earn an average salary of approximately $50,758. In a related profession, the BLS reports that rehabilitation counselors earn a median salary of $38,560. The role of a rehabilitation psychiatrist is to help mentally or physically disabled clients readjust to daily life.
Emergency psychiatrists treat patients who are dealing with acute psychiatric crises and emergencies. That means you need to be comfortable and cool-headed working in high-pressure situations. The average salary for an emergency psychiatrist ranges from over $100,000 to over $160,000, depending on your state, according to ZipRecruiter data.
ZipRecruiter reports that “the average annual pay for a Neuropsychiatry [professional] in the United States is $96,249.” However, other sources like Career Trend report salaries closer to $152,000. As a neuropsychiatrist, you’ll be conducting and assessing the results of various neurological exams, evaluating reflexes, coordination, and other brain activity.
As the name suggests, addiction psychiatrists specialize in treating patients who are coping with or recovering from substance addiction and abuse. Psychiatrists who specialize in treating addiction and related disorders earn an average salary of over $285,000, according to ZipRecruiter, with Salary.com reporting a range from approximately $173,970 to $265,430 per year.
Passionate about the criminal justice system? Consider a career in forensic psychiatry, a discipline that exists at the intersection between psychiatry and criminology. Salary.com reports that the national average salary for this position is greater than $211,000, while Glassdoor reports average annual earnings of around $204,000
Adolescent and Child Psychiatry
Child and adolescent psychiatry services are often paired. Psychiatrists in this category work with patients who range in age from approximately four to five years of age through the late teens, early twenties, or even mid-twenties, depending on the specific practice. According to ZipRecruiter, “The average annual child and adolescent psychiatrist salary as of December 2022 is $287,489. The majority [of positions],” the site continues, “pay between $227,500 to $362,500 per year.”
Geriatric psychiatrists specialize in treating older adults. As one medical journal describes this profession, geriatric psychiatrists “work with families who are dealing with end-of-life issues in an aged loved one,” frequently treating issues such as chronic pain, substance abuse, and insomnia. They often play vital roles in training the staff members of nursing homes, and — of possible interest to those pursuing leadership roles — “are often co-medical directors of extended care facilities.” The typical salary for a geriatric psychiatrist ranges from approximately $180,170 to $263,780, according to data from Salary.com.
Inpatient Care Psychiatry
As part of an inpatient care team, you’ll help develop and provide treatment plans that might consist of components like evidence-based therapies, specialized therapies like pet therapy, meetings with family members, and more. The salary for psychiatrists who provide inpatient care depends on their specific role within the treatment team, such as whether they are psychiatrists, social workers, or mental health technicians.
According to data from Glassdoor, the average salary for a psychiatric researcher in the United States is over $144,000 as of December 2022. Psychiatric researchers, who are also referred to as mental health researchers, use quantitative and qualitative methods to test hypotheses and answer some of our most urgent and complex medical questions.
Demand for Psychiatrists
Above are just a few examples of occupations you can explore once you’ve earned the appropriate qualifications. But how in demand are psychiatrists, and what sort of job prospects will you have after graduating?
The BLS reports that the demand for psychiatrists is expected to increase by 12.5%, creating roughly 3,500 estimated jobs over the coming decade. Psychiatrists also have high earning potential. According to the BLS, “Psychiatrist, with an annual mean wage of $249,760, was the highest paying mental health services occupation” as of May 2021.
For example, psychiatrists earned more than psychologists, social workers, counselors, and marriage/family therapists. However, salary ranges always vary by occupation, as the examples in the list above show.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Many careers in psychiatry pay above-average wages — but it’s factors like your skills, passions, and interests that ultimately determine whether a psychiatry career is “good” for you.
Psychiatrists provide treatment and support for patients who are coping with trauma, addiction, and other crises. This can create intense pressure to succeed — but can also make psychiatry an immensely rewarding profession.
In most cases, it takes approximately 12 years to complete the requirements necessary to become a psychiatrist: four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, four years to complete medical school, and four years to complete a residency and earn certification.
Yes. In order to practice, all psychiatrists must have a current medical license in the patient’s state. Note that specific licensing requirements vary by state.