How to Become a Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in mental illness. They diagnose and treat mental health issues such as addiction and mood disorders. Like psychologists, psychiatrists treat patients through the use of counseling and psychotherapy, but as medical doctors, they are also able to prescribe medication to treat conditions.

With many specializations, psychiatry is an interesting and varied field of study for any medical student. Combining science-based medicine with emotion-based therapy, psychiatry is an often complex and emotional yet rewarding career.

If you want to know how to become a psychiatrist, the below guide will surely help. We’ll look at the educational requirements and long-term career prospects to help you decide if it’s the career for you.

Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, psychiatrists and psychologists perform different roles. Although psychologists hold doctorate degrees, as they are not licensed physicians, they are not able to prescribe medication. To treat patients, they rely solely on counseling and psychotherapy.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, treat patients using pharmacological means as well as psychoanalysis and other psychiatric methods. As medical doctors, they also determine if mental disorders are the result of physical ailments.

Main Responsibilities

The main role of a psychiatrist is to diagnose and treat mental disorders. Psychiatrists’ main responsibilities include:

  • Counseling and diagnosing patients
  • Prescribing medication to treat conditions
  • Collaborating with other medical professionals to discuss treatment plans
  • Collecting and reviewing patient information
  • Informing patients’ families of conditions and treatments
  • Conducting research and publishing findings


Although many of the skills needed to become a psychiatrist are gained through study and training, to be successful, it can help if you possess the following:

  • Patience and willingness to help others
  • Excellent communication skills
  • Compassion and empathy
  • High emotional stress tolerance
  • Exceptional memory and recall ability

Educational Track

Like all medical professions, the journey from high school to certified psychiatrist takes many years. The typical education requirements include:

  • Bachelor’s degree (four years)
  • Medical degree (four years)
  • Residency (four years)
  • Ongoing education for certification

Most psychiatrists will be eligible for board certification after 12 years of study. However, unlike some other medical professions, psychiatrists are required to be board-certified in order to practice. Certification must be renewed every ten years, so psychiatrists will need to continue studying throughout their career to meet board standards.

University or College

This first step to becoming a psychiatrist is to earn a bachelor’s degree. While pre-med programs offered at some universities help prepare students for medical school, many people interested in psychiatry will complete a bachelor of science in addition to studying social sciences like psychology and sociology.

The following courses are prerequisites for most medical schools:

  • Organic chemistry
  • Inorganic chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Physics

While completing an undergraduate degree, aspiring psychiatrists can gain experience through an internship or volunteer program. This experience can help prepare students for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), which assesses their medical knowledge and is required for entry to medical school.

Medical School

Entry to medical school is far from guaranteed. As there’s so much competition, only the best students are accepted. To secure a place, you will need to have exceptional grades and a high MCAT score.

Psychiatrists go through the same medical training as most doctors. A four-year medical degree is divided into coursework and practical experience.

During the first year, medical students concentrate on science courses, absorbing knowledge in anatomy, biology, and pathology. Courses covering ethics, psychology, and pharmacology are also studied. More clinically focused, the second year prepares students for the Objective Structured Clinical Examination, which tests their clinical performance and skills.

The final two years of medical school take a more practical approach, moving students from the classroom to clinical rotations and exposing them to a range of medical specializations, including psychiatry.


Upon completing a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree, graduates need to participate in a four-year residency at a clinic or hospital. Under the supervision of experienced physicians, residents get hands-on experience with patients.

Before specializing in psychiatry, first-year residents undertake general medicine rotations. The remaining three years provide residents with specific psychiatric training, including the areas of psychopharmacology, neurology, and other electives stipulated by the American Psychiatric Association.

Many students complete their residency in a hospital’s psychiatric ward, treating a range of conditions including depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, substance abuse, and psychosis.


With the residency complete, the next step in becoming a psychiatrist is to get a medical license. Regulations vary by state, but all require a passing grade for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX).

To prescribe medication, psychiatrists will also need to obtain a federal license and register with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Board Certification

To become board-certified in psychiatry, the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) require that the candidates do the following:

  • Graduate from an accredited medical school
  • Complete all training in an accredited US or Canadian program
  • Hold an unrestricted medical license
  • Meet the Board’s training requirements
  • Pass the ABPN certification exam

Board certification must be renewed every ten years. Psychiatrists are required to maintain good standing in their field and participate in self-assessment and continuing education in order to renew their certification.

Career Prospects and Salary

As healthcare continues to expand, so too does the need for psychiatrists. Latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show demand for psychiatrists is expected to grow by 11% over the next decade. As psychiatrists are able to work in a variety of settings, this continued growth is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.

The same BLS report shows a high average salary of $216,000. Local government physicians have the highest average salary at over $250,000, while on the other end of the scale, general medical and surgical hospital psychiatrists average $199,000.

Is Psychiatry the Right Choice for You?

Now that you know how to become a psychiatrist you should decide if it’s the right career for you. It can be an emotional and mentally tough profession, and with at least 12 years of study and training, it’s an expensive journey as well.

Helping people tackle their mental demons can make psychiatry an enriching and rewarding career. If this sounds like the career path you would like to take, get in touch with a medical school or college for entrance requirements.