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How to Become a Psychiatrist in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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A psychiatrist is a highly educated, trained, and qualified medical doctor specializing in identifying, diagnosing, and treating patients with mental health conditions. These conditions could range from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, ADHD, and many others. 

For the most part, psychiatrists often choose to specialize in dealing with and treating a specific mental illness or a group of related mental health conditions. Some psychiatrists, however, choose to generalize their practice and partner with specialized psychiatrists in terms of referral for highly specific and sensitive mental disorders. 

The journey to becoming a professional psychiatrist calls for the completion of medical school and attaining a medical degree and an additional four years of residency and training in psychiatry. Aspiring psychiatrists, therefore, should be prepared to spend a much longer period in school when compared to other mental health professionals. 

The good news is that there are a host of available professional paths for qualified psychiatrists. Licensed doctors could choose to become:

  • Forensic Psychiatrists
  • Adolescent Psychiatrists
  • Geriatric Psychiatrists

Of course, Forensic Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, and any other kind of psychiatric field that calls for specialization require a slightly skewed educational path that leads to that specific field. That, however, doesn’t mean that practitioners in that field will have an easier path to their licensing; it just means that they would have to choose that path much earlier on in their education.

Steps to Becoming a Psychiatrist

It should first be noted that becoming a psychiatrist requires aspiring psychiatrists to go to medical school and get a medical degree. To do that, they must first obtain an undergraduate degree in a related field such as psychology or pre-med. 

Once the student graduates from the undergraduate degree program, they have to apply and be accepted into medical school. They’ll spend four years training as a medical doctor focusing on mental disorders and health. Before they are done with medical school, they need to take a medical exam to obtain a medical license. 

Once that is done, they have to go through four years of training in a psychiatry residency capacity. All in all, for students to become professionally licensed and practicing psychiatrists, they need to spend at least 12 years in school. Should the qualified psychiatrist be interested in obtaining further specialized training and qualifications, they would have to go through further schooling. 

Here are more details on all the steps necessary for becoming a professional psychiatrist:

Step 1: High School Preparations

Granted, a career in psychiatry is a little more than a decade away as far as high school students are concerned. However, that doesn’t mean that aspiring psychiatrist can’t start their journey this early. 

Of course, maintaining a high GPA is a given if the student wants to pursue a career in any kind of medicine. Additionally, they need to take on as many science classes and enroll themselves in as many advanced placement science classes (AP) as their schedule can reasonably allow. 

To improve their experience and expose them to the medical field, students should pursue extracurricular activities such as volunteering at their town’s local psychiatrist’s office, hospital, or rehabilitation center. 

Another excellent avenue would be signing up to be a peer counselor. That’s by far one of the best avenues for them to gain valuable insight into the psychiatric profession. It will also help them build up a highly attractive profile to med schools and colleges of their choice. 

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

While it’s true that the student can major in pretty much anything they want when they go to college, the smart move is to enroll themselves in a Bachelor of Science course. This is mostly because to become a psychiatrist, they will need to attend medical school after attaining their bachelor’s degree, and that calls for science-based courses. 

Most medical schools will require courses such as:

  • Biology (2 semesters of this with lab practicals)
  • Organic chemistry (2 semesters of this with lab practicals)
  • Physics (2 semesters of this with lab practicals)
  • English (at least 2 semesters)
  • General chemistry (2 semesters of this with lab practicals)
  • Biochemistry (at least 1 semester)
  • Math (at least 2 semesters)
  • Students might also need to take on courses in Psychology and Statistics

Some of the most common degree courses for students who want a career in psychiatry include:

  • BSC in Biology
  • BSC in Psychology
  • BSC in Physics
  • BSC in Chemistry

Some of the most common college classes would include:

  • Cognitive psychology
  • Biopsychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Abnormal psychology

While undertaking their degree program, the student should continue building up their profile outside of their classroom and schoolwork. Various volunteer activities such as staffing a suicide hotline and helping out at a rehab center are excellent ways to highlight their interest in helping people with mental illnesses. 

Additionally, securing an internship at their local hospital or any other pre-med and psychiatric organization will help improve their profile and make them more attractive to medical schools around the country. 

Step 3: Get Into Medical School

While earning a bachelor’s degree is an important step towards becoming a psychiatrist, simply getting one isn’t good enough. Students need to do well enough to get accepted into medical school − a fit that is quite difficult to achieve. According to the US News Medical School Compass, the best medical schools have an acceptance rate much lower than 5% and require students to maintain at least a 3.7 GPA. 

This is not all; students still need to pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a 7.5-hour long exam graded out of a possible 528 points. To be on the safe side, students need to aim for a score better than 509, which puts them in the 80th percentile and most likely to get selected by the most competitive medical schools. This exam has four sections:

  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

To highlight just how difficult these exams are to pass, in the 2020-2021 period, the average MCAT score for students accepted to competitive allopathic medical schools was 511.5.

Any student accepted into medical school can follow one of two paths:

  • Doctor of Medicine Degree (MD): Focusing on treating illnesses with specific medication
  • Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (D.O.): Focusing on a more holistic approach to medicine

Regardless of the path, the medical school will take at least four years to complete for both types of students, with the first couple of years spent in a classroom or a lab learning and exploring courses such as:

  • Anatomy
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry  
  • Neuroscience
  • Medical ethics
  • Pathology 
  • Physiology 

The remaining two years of medical school are typically spent in clinics and hospitals undergoing supervisory training under physicians/medical doctors or nurse practitioners. This affords the student the kind of experience they need to diagnose and treat patients.

Step 4: Obtain Licensing to Practice Medicine

Once a student has gone through medical school, they must obtain their license to practice medicine. These licenses are granted by individual states, and the processes involved may vary slightly from state to state. What is standard, however, are the governing and licensing bodies:

Each and every state requires doctors to pass at least one of the above tests. However, for the aspiring psychiatrist to obtain a practicing license, they would have to pass an additional exam provided by the specific state in which they want to practice. 

It’s common practice for individual states to run a background check on each applicant to ensure that they have the right qualifications and the right moral standing. Once the applicant presents their application to the specific state licensure board, it takes about 60 days to complete the license review and approval process. 

Additionally, professionally practicing psychiatrists must get certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) to legally practice psychiatry in the US. This certification is renewable every ten years. 

Step 5: Residency

Once the student has successfully completed and graduated medical school, they must take up a residency program. This often lasts for about four years, during which time they will be trained on how to diagnose and treat a variety of mental illnesses. This real-world experience is a crucial part of the student’s training and could focus on a host of specifications such as:

  • Adolescent psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry

It is during this residency that the student can decide which path they want to follow. Some of the available options include becoming a:

  • Forensic psychiatrist
  • Psychologist
  • Adolescent psychiatrist
  • Psychiatric nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric technician

While the initial parts of a student’s residency program will be spent in a hospital with the students going through general medical rotations, the residency program often progresses and focuses on psychiatry. At this point, the students will spend more of their time in a psychiatric hospital or ward. 

Educational Commitment to Becoming a Psychiatrist

What stands out about psychiatry and pretty much most other medicine-oriented careers is that aspiring psychiatrists never really stop learning. Even though psychiatrists spend a good portion of their adult lives in school, the kind of certifications they need to maintain their licenses calls for continuous studying. 

Couple that with the many different types of specializations that come into play and the fact that different mental health issues keep cropping up, you’ll see why it’s important for these professionals to keep learning. 

What Sort of Expectations Should Students Have Going Into a Psychiatry Program?

Going into a psychiatric program, students should expect to be bombarded with complex courses. This is mostly because they will essentially be training as a medical doctor at first. This means that they will tackle courses such as biology, biochemistry, physics, statistics, and so on. 

How long it takes the student to complete their psychiatry program fully depends on the student. Granted, there are a select few students to finish earlier than expected, but the majority of most students take 12 years:

  • 4 years of undergraduate school
  • 4 years of Medical School
  • 4 years of psychiatric residency

Some students take time off to prepare for the MCATs, which means they could take a little longer to complete their psychiatric programs. All things remaining constant, it takes 12 years to complete psychiatric studies, which means that the youngest age at which a student can expect to begin practicing professionally should be 30.

How Much Do Psychiatric Programs Cost?

How much a psychiatric program costs depends on where the student goes for their education. For example, the Medical School at Harvard costs approximately $64,984. That’s not including other associated costs that could drive the total cost to well over $70,000. However, with such a low acceptance rate, not every aspiring psychiatrist will go to Harvard. There are a few factors that come into play when it comes to the overall cost of a psychiatric program:

  • The school attended
  • Whether the student is an out-of-state or in-state student
  • Cost of living in the school location
  • What kind of financial relief (student loans or sponsorships) a student receives

For the most part, however, students can expect to spend around $24,000 on tuition every year if they attended a public college or university. This would bring their overall total tuition costs to around $96,000. These costs, however, don’t take into account most other associated costs such as:

  • The cost of books
  • Food
  • Room and board
  • Other student fees

This often means that out-of-state students should expect to pay a lot more than in-state students (almost twice as much).

What Sort of Variants Can You Find in Psychiatry Programs?

Because psychiatry programs take a minimum of 12 years to complete, it’s logical that the earlier years will be spent giving students the basics. This means that they are trained to be doctors then slowly introduced into the world of psychiatry. Paths begin to diverge when students go for residency programs, and even then, specializations begin to occur in the final two years. 

The more a student specializes, the more they discover a host of variants in their psychiatry program. Some of the most popular include:

  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Child psychiatry
  • Neuropsychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Organizational psychiatry

These variants are best studied and learned during a psychiatric fellowship program, which most students enter after completing their residency. Fellowship programs involve working under the supervision of a licensed doctor. It also comes with additional seminars, courses as well as research projects.

Resources for Becoming a Psychiatrist

Not only are college tuition fees quite expensive, but student loans often leave aspiring psychiatrists in debt. There are, however, available scholarships for deserving students. Of course, each and every one of these scholarships has its own qualification criteria as well as requirements. Here are some of the most lucrative options available to psychiatric students:

  • Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship: The Rock Sleyster Memorial Scholarship is a $2,500 scholarship offered through the American Medical Association. It’s a scholarship that’s only available to students who are both US citizens and in their final year of Medical School with a focus on psychiatry.
  • Evalee C. Schwarz Charitable Trust for Education Scholarship: The Evalee C. Schwarz Charitable Trust for Education Scholarship was created as part of the will of Evalee C. Schwarz. The scholarship is designed to provide students with exceptional academic prowess and financial need with interest-free loans for their undergraduate and graduate programs. To be eligible, the student must be a US citizen, qualify as a financially needy candidate by qualifying for government grants and enroll in college or university. The scholarship is highly competitive and worth $15,000.
  • Scarlett Family Foundation Scholarship: The Scarlett Family Foundation Scholarship is one of the most lucrative scholarships on this list, worth about $60,000. To qualify, students must showcase exceptional academic abilities, graduate from any high school in Middle Tennessee, and be enrolled in a non-profit university or college pursuing a STEM or Business degree. 
  • American Psychiatric Nurses Association: Provided by the APNA, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association is dedicated to advancing studies in the field of psychiatry. One way they do that is to provide grants and scholarships for exemplary candidates who have dedicated themselves to this field. There are multiple grants provided by the association, most of which are valued at $5,000 each year. 

Apart from these scholarships, there are some loans and financial aid programs that psychiatry and psychology students can apply to psychiatry programs. Some of the most common and most lucrative include:

  • Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship: Granted by the American Addictions Center, the Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship hands out three scholarships each year to qualified students enrolled in mental health programs. This scholarship is for exemplary students who have a minimum 3.2 GPA and can range from $2,500 to $5,000.
  • Psi Chi Undergraduate Scholarships: Designed for undergraduate students who want to study psychology, the Psi Chi Undergraduate Scholarships gives about $3,000 worth of financial aid each year. 
  • The Melanie Foundation Scholarship: This one is specifically available to students who have applied to a master’s program in mental health at any accredited university. The Melanie Foundation Scholarship is worth about $2,500. 

Of course, other resources such as government and school-specific scholarships available to students who need them. The process of identifying these opportunities is rather simple. All the student needs to do is contact the university or college in which they are enrolled and ask for a full list of any available scholarships and financial aid options for both their specific degree program or just the school in general. 

Another portal serves as the one-stop-shop for students who want to learn whether they qualify for grants from the federal government, work-study programs, or loans. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

The US Department of Education is keen on getting every student, regardless of financial or educational background, to fill in and submit a FAFSA application form. Students’ information on this application form is important and will tell the student what kind of financial aid or loans they qualify for when they join college or university. 

Psychiatrist Careers and Salary Outlook

As things stand today, there’s an actual shortage of psychiatrists in the country. There are about 28,000 legally licensed and practicing psychiatrists in the US, and about three out of every five psychiatrists are aged 55 years or older. 

The unfortunate truth is that this problem isn’t exactly unique to the field of psychiatry; it’s been a growing concern in the medical field as a whole. While the job outlook for psychiatrists and any medical practitioner is quite positive, there aren’t enough professionals getting licensed every year. 

On the other hand, this shortage also means that graduating psychiatrists are almost guaranteed to find jobs depending on their specialization. 

What Does the Average Career of a Psychiatrist Look Like?

Once qualified and licensed to practice, the average career of a psychiatrist can take one or even several of many different paths. For the most part, new psychiatrists often find themselves working in a:

  • Psychiatric hospital
  • Under the supervision of an experienced psychiatrist in the form of a fellowship
  • Nursing home
  • Private practices

While some psychiatrists prefer to work in these kinds of settings, most psychiatrists prefer to own their own private practice and work out of a private office that could either be part of a commercial building or even a part of their home. 

Depending on the kind of setting in which the psychiatrists work, the hours are more often than not full-time as the psychiatrist should always be available to respond to and assist in case of emergencies. 

Psychiatrist Duties & Responsibilities

Every psychiatrist has duties and responsibilities that come with their license. These may include:

  • Evaluating and even referring patients for further psychological testing to reach a conclusive diagnosis
  • Designing and recommending a treatment plan based on these test results and diagnosis
  • Employing a host of tools such as psychotherapy or talk therapy to try and resolve patient mental illness
  • Employing psychoanalysis which involves the exploration of the patient’s past experiences to learn how they affect their current mental health
  • Exploring other treatment methods such as CBT or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to try and help change the patient’s behavior and thought process
  • Prescribing necessary medication which can often alter the patient’s chemical imbalances which have a direct effect on their behavior as well as state of mind 

Ultimately, the psychiatrist is tasked with finding ways to help their patients cope with or cure their mental illness. 

Psychiatrist Salary

It should be stated that a psychiatrist’s salary depends on a number of things:

  • Specialization
  • Where they work
  • Experience
  • Personal hourly rate
  • State in which they reside

That being said, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatrists earn a mean annual salary of about $216,090, with the lowest-paid percentile making around $149,440 per annum. However, entry-level psychiatrists make significantly less because they don’t have the experience and, for the most part, the additional credentials such as a master’s degree to command higher pay. On average, an entry-level psychiatrist makes about $73,787 per annum. 

Psychiatrist Job Outlook

The job outlook for a psychiatrist is quite positive. In fact, psychiatry has a better job outlook than becoming a physician or a surgeon. While these two have a 4% job outlook, psychiatry enjoys a 16% job outlook, according to data collected by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of the best states in terms of employment opportunities for psychiatrists are New York, California, Maryland, and the District of Columbia.

How to Get a Job as a Psychiatrist

The beauty of pursuing a career in a field with such a positive job outlook and an actual nationwide shortage is that you are almost guaranteed to find a job. That, however, doesn’t mean that all jobs in this field are created equal. 

Many psychiatrists choose to start their own practice and determine their own earning potential. However, when just starting out, here are some places that psychiatrists can try to find jobs:

  • APA JobCentral: The American Psychiatric Association has an excellent job board that lists available opportunities for psychiatrists of all caliber. 
  • Targeted Applications: Students could also target specific organizations, hospitals, and private practices by sending their resumes.
  • Referrals: One of the best ways to land a job as an entry-level psychiatrist is to get referrals from your fellowship supervisors.  

While it might take a long time to study and qualify as a psychiatrist, that time is worth it. This is a highly fulfilling field where professionals can impact humanity while earning a decent, if not above average, living. 

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