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How to Become a Psychiatrist

Majors Overview January 28, 2013

Licensed medical professionals who perform diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses are called psychiatrists. Not only do they prescribe medication, but they also employ various techniques such as psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Common Requirements

Degree Level


Area of Concentration



Residency training – Four years to complete

Certification and Licensure

A state-issued license is required, voluntary certifications are available

Key Skills

Patience, organizational, verbal and written communication, leadership, empathy, and problem solving

The following is a step-by-step guide that should be followed by students who are pursuing this career field.

Stage One: Earning a Bachelor Degree

The first step to a career in psychiatry is earning a bachelor degree, a prerequisite to enroll into a medical school. Undergraduate students who aspire to become psychiatrists could choose psychology as their major; however, no specific major is required. Regardless of their area of concentration, students must ensure that coursework includes natural sciences, such as biology, chemistry and physics that are necessary prerequisites for enrollment in a medical school. Volunteering to work in local hospitals and mental health centers will give aspiring psychiatrists an edge in getting admission to medical school; such enrollment is highly competitive and cannot be assured even with a high GPA. Such volunteer work will also help showcase students’ leadership qualities as they work with patients.

Stage Two: Earning a Medical Degree

Prospective psychiatrists have to absorb the same medical school education as other physicians such as surgeons and doctors. It usually takes four years to earn a medical degree. Coursework is a combination of class-work and lab training during the first two years, and supervised hands on training in clinical settings during the last two years. Subject areas covered include pathology, physiology, anatomy and pharmacology. Students also become adept in conducting medical exams and diagnosing patients.

Stage Three: Gaining Residency Training

Once they have completed medical school, psychiatrists are required to complete a minimum of four years of post-doctoral residency training. Psychiatrists starting out on their career can use residency participation to gain hands on clinical experience in hospital settings and get paid for it (source: American Psychiatric Association (APA). The first year of general medical residency must be succeeded by thirty-six months of psychiatric training focused on topics such as transcultural psychiatry, substance abuse disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychopharmacology and psychopathology. Apart from choosing specialized areas of concentration, such as addiction psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine or geriatric psychiatry; psychiatrists are also required to choose sub-specialties where they will have to undergo additional fellowship training for a year.

Stage Four: Satisfying Licensure

State licensure is mandatory, and psychiatrists can satisfy licensure norms by passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (source: APA). States decide on the licensing requirements and maintenance procedures; there are also reciprocal arrangements between states where a license issued in one state is recognized in another, thereby allowing the psychiatrist to work in that second state. Prescription of medication can only be completed through acquisition of a federal narcotics license and registration with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Stage Five: Obtaining Board Certification

Seeking voluntary Board Certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology could benefit professional psychiatrists. To qualify for board certification, psychiatrists need to hold an accredited medical school degree and a current state license that permits them to practice their profession. They will have to take a certification exam. They are required to renew the board certificate every ten years.

Stage Six: Continuing Education

Continuing education throughout their career will help psychiatrists stay abreast with industry trends and theories and is compulsory for the renewal of Board Certification; some states may also require it for renewal of licensure. To pursue continued education, psychiatrists can seek admission to programs at approved institutions that include classes, seminars, workshops and self-assessment activities.

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