How to Become a Psychiatrist

How to Become a Psychiatrist

How to Become a Psychiatrist
Sailesh Sitaula

Becoming a psychiatrist involves a demanding yet gratifying journey. We have crafted a comprehensive career guide to assist you in navigating this path successfully. This guide elucidates becoming a psychiatrist, outlines fundamental roles and responsibilities, and delves into prospects in the field. It also addresses common questions about the profession, such as the requirement for a medical license for practice.

If you've ever contemplated a career in psychiatry and seek guidance, this article is designed to provide insights. Let's initiate our overview by examining the responsibilities of a psychiatrist, exploring the duration of the path to becoming one, and highlighting key distinctions between psychiatrists and psychologists.

What is a Psychiatrist?

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a psychiatrist is described as a "medical doctor (MD or DO) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders." The APA further emphasizes that psychiatrists are proficient in evaluating psychological issues' mental and physical dimensions. This distinction is pivotal and sets them apart from psychologists, a differentiation we'll delve into later.

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What Do Psychiatrists Do?

The role of a psychiatrist encompasses diverse responsibilities and tasks, which can vary based on the specific path chosen within the field. For instance, one might opt to become an addiction psychiatrist, geriatric psychiatrist, or forensic psychiatrist – just a few examples of the career avenues we'll explore later in this article.

According to the APA, the fundamental duties of a psychiatrist include diagnosing patients, devising tailored treatment plans, and continuously assessing and adjusting these plans to meet the patient's evolving needs. 

This process might involve implementing various interventions, such as psychotherapy in various forms, medication administration, psychosocial interventions, and other relevant treatments.

Psychiatrists operate within a broad spectrum of work environments, including but not limited to private practices, clinics, both general and psychiatric hospitals, university medical centers, community agencies, legal courts, correctional facilities, nursing homes, military establishments, rehabilitation programs, emergency rooms, and hospice programs, among other settings.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatrist?

The practice of psychiatry is intricate, demanding specialized medical expertise and skills, often involving close collaboration with vulnerable or high-risk patients. Given these complexities, becoming a psychiatrist takes time and effort. While individual circumstances vary, obtaining all the essential qualifications typically spans around 12 years. Here's how this timeline breaks down:

  • Years 1-4: Most students require approximately four years to attain a bachelor's degree, typically majoring in a field such as psychology. 
  • Years 5-8: After completing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology or another relevant undergraduate degree, the subsequent step involves completing medical school, which generally takes another four years. 
  • Years 9-12: The concluding phase entails finishing a residency program and obtaining board certification to practice as a psychiatrist.

What is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

In popular culture, "psychologist" and "psychiatrist" are occasionally employed interchangeably, but they represent distinct roles with varying responsibilities, qualifications, and educational prerequisites. 

Notably, psychologists and psychiatrists have unique designations in terms of their duties and professional paths. For instance, psychologists typically possess a doctorate, whereas psychiatrists complete medical school training and graduate as medical doctors.

Significantly, psychiatrists are acknowledged as physicians, setting them apart from psychologists and therapists. This distinction grants psychiatrists the authority to prescribe medications, a function that generally falls beyond the scope of psychology.

Steps to Become a Psychiatrist

Suppose you aspire to become a psychiatrist but require guidance on beginning and fulfilling the necessary criteria. In that case, the following overview outlines the essential steps to embark on a psychiatry career. This includes details about psychiatrist degree prerequisites, navigating medical school and MCAT testing, meeting residency obligations, and addressing licensing and certification requirements.

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree: Many individuals start by pursuing a bachelor's degree, often in psychology. However, it's important to note that no specific undergraduate degree is mandated for becoming a psychiatrist. There are stringent requirements beyond the undergraduate level, which will be discussed below.
  2. Medical School: Medical school typically spans four years for completion. Before applying, you must pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). You can pursue a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) or a Medical Doctor (MD) degree in medical school. The choice between DO and MD depends on your approach; DOs often emphasize holistic care, while MDs, who are more numerous, adopt a medication-focused approach.
  3. Complete a Residency: After graduating from medical school, the next step is to complete a residency. During your residency, you'll diagnose patients and provide hands-on care under a licensed psychiatrist's guidance. Residencies, generally lasting around four years, are typically conducted in clinical or hospital settings.
  4. Obtain Your License and Certification: Besides acquiring an undergraduate degree, passing the MCAT, finishing medical school, and completing a residency, you'll need to secure the appropriate medical license in your state. Specific requirements and procedures for licensing vary by location. If you pursue an MD program in medical school, you'll undertake the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while DO graduates undertake the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).

Furthermore, mandatory certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) is necessary and must be periodically renewed. Additionally, you can pursue additional certifications that can enhance your qualifications for specialized or competitive roles.

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:

  1. Addiction Medicine
  2. Addiction Psychiatry
  3. Brain Injury Rehabilitation Medicine
  4. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  5. Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry
  6. Forensic Psychiatry
  7. Geriatric Psychiatry
  8. Hospice and Palliative Medicine
  9. Sleep Medicine

Potential Psychiatrist Career Pathways

A wide array of career pathways exist to explore within the psychiatry field. Below, you'll find 10 examples, along with details about average salaries and the associated job responsibilities:

  • Rehabilitation Psychiatry: Rehabilitation psychiatrists earn an average salary of around $50,758. Their role involves aiding mentally or physically disabled individuals in readjusting to their daily lives after facing challenges.
  • Emergency Psychiatry: Emergency psychiatrists handle acute psychiatric crises and emergencies. The average salary for this role ranges from over $100,000 to over $160,000, contingent upon location and experience.
  • Neuropsychiatrist: Neuropsychiatrists earn an average annual pay of approximately $96,249 to $152,000. They conduct and evaluate neurological exams, assessing reflexes, coordination, and other brain activities.
  • Addiction Psychiatry: Specializing in treating substance addiction and abuse, addiction psychiatrists earn an average salary of over $285,000, ranging from approximately $173,970 to $265,430 annually.
  • Forensic Psychiatry: Forensic psychiatrists operate at the crossroads of psychiatry and criminology. The national average salary for this role exceeds $211,000, with average annual earnings around $204,000.
  • Adolescent and Child Psychiatry: In child and adolescent psychiatry, the average annual salary is $287,489, with positions typically paying between $227,500 and $362,500 per year. These psychiatrists work with young patients and their families.
  • Geriatric Psychiatry: Geriatric psychiatrists specializing in treating older adults earn approximately $180,170 and $263,780. They address issues related to aging, often working in extended care facilities.
  • Inpatient Care Psychiatry: As part of an inpatient care team, psychiatrists develop and implement patient treatment plans. The salary varies based on their treatment team role and specific responsibilities.
  • Psychiatric Research: Psychiatric researchers earn an average salary of over $144,000. They employ quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate pressing medical questions in mental health.

Demand for Psychiatrists

Once you've acquired the necessary qualifications, there are several occupations within the field of psychiatry that you can explore. But what is the demand for psychiatrists like, and what are the job prospects following graduation?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 12.5% increase in demand for psychiatrists, creating approximately 3,500 estimated jobs over the next decade. This demand indicates favorable job prospects for aspiring psychiatrists. Moreover, psychiatrists have the potential for high earnings. As of May 2021, the BLS notes, "Psychiatrist, with an annual mean wage of $249,760, was the highest paying mental health services occupation."

For instance, psychiatrists earn more than professionals such as psychologists, social workers, counselors, and marriage/family therapists. However, salary ranges can vary significantly based on the specific occupation and other factors, as exemplified by the earlier career options.

This promising job outlook and attractive earning potential underscore the opportunities available in psychiatry. If you'd like more information or specific details about job prospects in certain psychiatric specialties, feel free to ask.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What qualifications are needed to become a psychiatrist? 

To become a psychiatrist, you'll need to complete a bachelor's degree, followed by medical school, to earn either a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) or Medical Doctor (MD) degree. After medical school, you'll need to complete a residency in psychiatry and obtain a medical license.

What is the typical duration of education and training to become a psychiatrist?

The education and training to become a psychiatrist usually takes around 12 years. This includes four years for a bachelor's degree, four years of medical school, and approximately four years for a psychiatry residency.

Do I need to major in psychology for my bachelor's degree to become a psychiatrist? 

While many students major in psychology for their bachelor's degree, there is no specific requirement to do so. You can pursue any undergraduate degree, but you'll need to complete specific medical school prerequisites.

What is the MCAT, and do I need to take it to get into medical school for psychiatry?

The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a standardized test required for admission to most medical schools in the United States. You'll need to take the MCAT and achieve a competitive score to apply to medical schools, including those offering psychiatry programs.

What's the difference between a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) and a Medical Doctor (MD) degree in psychiatry? 

Both DO and MD degrees qualify you to become a psychiatrist. The main distinction lies in the approach of each profession. DOs emphasize a holistic patient care approach, while MDs focus more on traditional medical practices.

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