It’s time to learn how to become a psychologist with this step by step guide which details how you can set yourself up to launch an exciting career in the field of psychology. One of the most popular majors at college, psychology is a fascinating topic that draws many people’s interest. Here we provide a roadmap for you including answering critical questions such as how long does it take to become a psychologist and what kind of salary and career prospects can you expect. So let’s dive in and answer the question how do you become a psychologist!
What Does a Psychologist Do?
A psychologist is a trained expert with an advanced understanding of the mental processes that motivate human activity. In their effort to comprehend patterns of thinking and behavior, psychologists study cognition, emotions, social and cultural influences, and the neurological characteristics of the human brain. Psychologists are qualified to diagnose a full range of mental and behavioral health conditions, and to develop comprehensive treatment plans that incorporate evidence-based therapies that specifically target the symptoms of those disorders.
Psychologists encourage their clients to acknowledge and explore the thoughts, feelings, and memories that underlie their ongoing mental or behavioral health issues. Even when no recognized disorder is found or reported, they can still help their clients identify obstacles that might be causing them stress, inhibiting achievement, or preventing them from finding health and happiness. In addition to working directly with clients seeking their services, psychologists may also carry out their own research projects, to gather valuable data they can use to refine their own practice and/or present to the greater psychological community.
How Much Does a Psychologist Make?
In 2019, the median pay for psychologists was $80,370 per year. There were 12 states where the median pay for psychologists surpassed the $90,000 mark, most of which were located on the west coast or in the northeast.
The demand for psychologists is currently rising at a modest rate. Between 2019 and 2029, the number of psychologists working in the U.S. is expected to increase by three percent, which is slightly below the anticipated job growth rate for all occupations combined. Career opportunities for psychologists are available in all states and all cities, and even in many smaller municipalities. This gives trained psychologists a plethora of options to choose from when they’re seeking employment or deciding where to set up a practice.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychologist?
Overall, it takes about 10 to 13 years to become a psychologist including your time as a bachelor’s student. If you already have a psychology degree or a degree in a relevant field, then you can expect an additional 6 to 9 years on higher education. Exactly how many years to become a psychologist depends on how quickly you complete your courses and how many courses you take per semester. Another factor is if you pursue a PhD or PsyD (see step 4 below).
If you are just wondering how long does it take to get a PhD in psychology, then the answer is five to seven years in a PhD doctorate program.
How to Become a Psychologist: A Step-by-Step Guide
Here are the steps which detail how to become a psychologist.
Step 1: Choose a Career Specialty
Psychology is a broad and diverse profession with many specialties and subspecialties. Depending on your interests and inclinations, you could study:
- Child Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Cognitive and Perceptual Psychology
- Counseling Psychology
- Criminal Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Educational Psychology
- Engineering Psychology
- Experimental and Research Psychology
- Forensic Psychology
- Geriatric Psychology
- Industrial/Organizational Psychology
- School Psychology
- Social and Personality Psychology
- Sports Psychology
Each of these specialties can open unique doors to employment. Clinical psychology is the preferred choice for most, and can prepare you to seek a large variety of positions. But if you take a more focused approach by choosing another specialty, it could help you build a distinctive portfolio of experiences and qualifications, giving you a leg up on competitors who lack that specialized training.
Step 2: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
You’ll lay the foundation for your future career as a psychologist by obtaining a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. The BA and BS degree tracks differ on electives primarily, with BA students being required to take more social sciences and humanities classes, while those seeking a BS degree will have more electives in science and mathematics. Most aspiring psychologists choose the BA track, but if you have an interest in psychological research you might prefer the science-heavy route.
In addition to your coursework in psychology, your undergraduate program will also require you to complete an original psychological research project, and internship, or both. These experiences will add depth and texture to your education, and you should consider adding these elements to your personalized degree plan even if they aren’t mandatory.
It should be noted that you wouldn’t necessarily have to complete a bachelor’s degree program in psychology to be admitted to a graduate program in that field. Depending on the school, you might be able to get into a master’s program with another type of degree, if your undergraduate curriculum included a significant psychology component.
Step 3: Seek a Master’s Degree in Psychology
A master’s degree is the minimum requirement for those who want to pursue a career in psychology. It will generally take between two and four years to complete your master’s program, which will likely include a few hundred hours of internship experience in addition to rigorous coursework.
There are no minimum standards that will determine whether or not you’re admitted to a graduate program in psychology. Once you submit your application, your fate will be decided by evaluators who will analyze your GRE scores, your letters of recommendation from instructors or work supervisors, your academic record (your grades), and the results of your oral interview (if the school you’re considering requires such an interview).
During your master’s program, you’ll be able to customize your studies to prepare you to work in a particular specialty (clinical psychology, counseling psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, school psychology, etc.). Your internships or practicums, which will require you to gain between 100 and 600 hours of supervised on-the-job experience in most cases, should also be chosen based on your career preferences.
You will not be able to become a licensed psychologist with only a master’s degree. However, you would have options for employment, should you decide not to continue your studies any further.
Some of the career choices open to individuals who have a master’s degree in psychology include marriage and family therapist, social worker, human resources manager, mental or behavioral health counselor, child protection worker, and career counselor.
Step 4: Pursue a Doctorate in Psychology
A trained and licensed psychologist will be an individual who holds a doctorate from an APA (American Psychological Association)-accredited program. This will be the case whether you choose a career in clinical or counseling psychology, school psychology, experimental psychology, educational psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, or any other type of psychology that will qualify you to treat clients or assume high-level research or teaching duties.
Universities that sponsor doctoral programs for aspiring psychologists usually offer two types of degrees: the PhD and the PsyD (the latter standing for Doctor of Psychology). The former option will train you as a scientist-researcher, and is ideal if you want to teach psychology at the community college or university level, or if you’d like to become an experimental psychologist. The PsyD degree, on the other hand, will prepare you specifically for clinical practice.
If your plan is to work with clients in some capacity, a PsyD degree track is usually the best choice. In addition to its general clinical focus, it takes less time to complete (4-6 years, as opposed to 5-7 years for the PhD track) and will include a valuable year-long (1,500 hour or more) internship or psychological residency under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. If you have a dual interest in research and clinical practice, however, the PhD option could be more attractive.
Regardless of your ultimate career path, obtaining a doctorate in psychology will prepare you to perform all the duties associated with your chosen profession.
Step 5: Gain Additional Training and Experience in a Postdoctoral Fellowship Program
To enter the psychological profession and obtain a license to practice in your specialty, you’ll need more preparatory training than what will be provided in your masters- and doctorate-level internship programs.
To complete your training, you’ll need to secure a place in a mentored and supervised postdoctoral fellowship program. These programs represent the final educational step for aspiring psychologists, and are designed to help you complete a smooth transition to your future career as a licensed professional
Your fellowship will be customized to give you the experience you require in your chosen specialty. You’ll assume more individual responsibility as the fellowship progresses, based on your accumulation of knowledge and ever-expanding capacity to capably handle a broader range of duties.
Fellowships are generally designed to last for one year. But they may be expanded to two years, if your doctorate program didn’t include enough internship hours, or if you decided to alter your choice of specialty after obtaining your PsyD or PhD.
Between doctoral and postdoctoral work experiences, you’ll need to complete between 3,000 and 4,000 hours (on average) of supervised work experience to qualify to sit for your professional licensing exam.
Step 6: Become a Licensed Psychologist in Your Specialty
Psychologists are licensed at the state level. However, all states rely on the same comprehensive exam to complete the licensing process.
This is the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), a 225-question multiple-choice test that covers all the core areas of psychology and psychological practice. This exam was created by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology (ASPPB), and can be taken at Pearson VUE Testing Centers all across the United States and Canada.
To have the results you obtain on the EPPP accepted by the state where you plan to practice, you’ll have to meet that state’s internship and postdoc work hour requirements. You’ll also have to provide references from supervisors or educators who can testify to your qualifications and personal and professional qualities, and you may have to submit to an oral interview as well.
Before your license can actually be issued, some states will require you to take a jurisprudence test. This examination will test your knowledge of the law as it relates to psychological practice.
Psychologist licenses must be renewed every two years in most states, and you’ll need to accumulate 20-24 continuing education hours in relevant topics during the intervening period to qualify for renewal.
Step 7: Start Your Career as a Psychologist
Acquiring your license officially signifies your entrance into your chosen profession. After completing between 10 and 14 years of schooling and internships, residencies, and fellowships, you’ll finally be ready to launch your career as a psychologist.
Psychologists are employed in a wide variety of environments, based on their specialized knowledge and previous work experience. In pursuit of a position in your area of specialty, you might apply for jobs offered by:
- Hospitals and clinics
- Established Psychology Practices
- Nursing Homes
- Corporations or Private Businesses
- Community or Nonprofit Agencies
- Government Agencies and Bureaus
- Social Service Agencies
- Rehabilitation Centers
- Educational Institutions (K-12 or university/college level)
Approximately two-thirds of licensed psychologists are self-employed, meaning they run their own practices alone or in partnership with other licensed professionals. Many of these individuals gain experience working with a public or private employer first, in order to gain more experience and increase their marketability.
Step 8: Seek Board Certification to Improve Your Long-Term Career Prospects
In addition to your license, you can enhance your resume by seeking board certification in various psychological specialties. These added credentials will speak to your expertise in areas of practice that may be in-demand and offer possibilities for increases in salary and responsibility.
The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) provides opportunities for psychologists to achieve board certification in the following concentrations:
- Clinical Psychology
- Counseling Psychology
- Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
- Clinical Health Psychology
- Clinical Neuropsychology
- Couple and Family Psychology
- Forensic Psychology
- Organizational and Business Psychology
- Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology
- Group Psychology
- Rehabilitation Psychology
- School Psychology
- Police and Public Safety Psychology
Board certification exams are administered orally through the ABPP. To qualify to take the exam, you’ll need to have accumulated several thousand hours of clinical experience in a relevant specialty or specialties. Work hours gained during doctoral program internships and postdoctoral fellowships will count, as will hours accumulated while working as a professional psychologist.
While ABPP specialty board certifications will carry the most prestige with current or future employers, there are other specialized certifications you can acquire that will also be considered legitimate. These may be granted by organizations connected to particular specialties (the American Board of Sports Psychology offers opportunities for certification in that field, for example), or they may come from organizations that provide continuing education services.
Pros and Cons of a Career as a Psychologist
Pros of Becoming a Psychologist
People who train to become psychologists have an extraordinary opportunity to convert their interest into helping others into effective, practical action. In most instances, psychologists are hired to offer expert guidance and assistance to men and women who are truly ready to change, and the high motivation levels of their clients can be both inspiring and energizing. Psychologists earn good money, and they do so while practicing a profession that can have a profoundly positive impact on people’s lives. Psychologists can be their own bosses if they prefer, and in fact the majority of psychologists will eventually choose to set up their own private practices.
Cons of Becoming a Psychologist
In some cases, psychologists may invest a significant amount of effort trying to help their clients achieve results, but experience little or no success. They must also deal at times with the burden of unrealistic expectations, from clients who want quick solutions and don’t realize it can take many weeks or months of therapy before breakthroughs can occur. Because they are empathic by nature, even the most experienced psychologists can fall into the trap of identifying too strongly with their clients’ pain on occasion, which can take a toll on their emotions and leave them feeling weary, depressed, and burned out. It usually takes a decade or longer of training and education before an aspiring psychologist is ready to join the professional ranks, and that delay can be anxiety-inducing for those who have family responsibilities or experience financial struggles.
Important Characteristics of a Psychologist
Psychologists must master the art of communication to rise to the highest levels in their profession. The most successful psychologists are eloquent speakers and superior listeners who craft carefully customized messages of hope and redemption, based on what their clients tell them about their past traumas, emotional struggles, and persistent fears and insecurities. Top psychologists know how to interpret body language and vocal tones, and they do an excellent job of reading between the lines to uncover the hidden truths that clients may be reluctant to reveal openly. Psychologists are empathic communicators who know how to earn their clients’ faith and trust, which they must have if they are to do their jobs properly.
Highly successful psychologists are motivated by sincere intellectual curiosity and a strong desire to comprehend how peoples’ minds work. They enjoy the challenge of trying to unlock the secrets of their clients’ mental health struggles, and in their quest for knowledge they’re always seeking to learn more about the latest therapies and psychological theories. Their intellectual curiosity and desire to learn serves them well during their studies, during their internships, and throughout their years in practice, as their approach must continually evolve in response to new research findings and other important discoveries.
The most effective psychologists are impressively well-organized. They always show up on time for appointments, and they make sure each counseling session is productive and focused on the healing needs of their clients. The best psychologists develop detailed long-term plans designed to facilitate significant changes in their clients’ psychological, emotional, and even physical states, and they rely on their in-depth knowledge of evidence-based medicine to craft recovery regimens that incorporate an effective mixture of appropriate treatment methodologies. Clients who work with them quickly realize they’re in the presence of a committed professional who is both capable and totally serious about helping them get better.
Great psychologists are filled with compassion and have a genuine interest in helping others. But they understand that their compassion cannot be converted into effective action unless they prioritize the long-term needs of their clients over their own emotional responses. Their idealism is always tempered by practicality, which means they won’t become overly absorbed by what their clients are saying, thinking, expressing, or feeling in a particular moment. The top psychologists are self-aware, meaning they’re always examining their own feelings and reactions just as they examine those of their clients, to make sure they don’t allow their compassion and empathy to compromise their professionalism.
In this article we looked at how to become a psychologist and answered important related questions such as how long does it take to be a psychologist and what type of individual excels in this career. Whether or not you’ve decided to pursue this path, we hope this has been helpful in assisting you to narrow down your interests and plan out the next steps of your career. In the future we have related guides coming down the pipeline, including:
- how to become a clinical psychologist
- how to become a forensic psychologist
- how to become a child psychologist
- how to become a school psychologist
- how to become a criminal psychologist
- how to become a sports psychologist
Please return if you ever need further career advice or guidance and feel free to share this article with anyone you think might be a good fit as a psychologist! Or perhaps you would rather learn about how to become a life coach.