What Is a Psychiatrist? 10 Steps to Become One

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Psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental illnesses and prescribe medications that may help improve mental health. Read on to learn more about this impactful health care profession and what you need to do to join it.

[Featured image] A psychiatrist sits at a desk meeting with a patient.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication for mental health problems.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental illness [1]. Psychiatrists help individuals suffering from a broad range of mental health conditions – from addictive behaviors to depression – by providing them with the expertise required to accurately diagnose their conditions and provide effective treatment.

In this article, you'll learn more about psychiatrists, what they do, how much they earn, and what you need to do to become one. At the end, you'll also find some suggested courses to help you start exploring this fascinating health care career today.

What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors (M.D. or M.O.) who evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders, such as addictive behaviors, personality disorders, and depression.

Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medication to their patients and focus primarily on the biological and neurological basis for mental health disorders. Nonetheless, psychiatrists can also provide talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

What does a psychiatrist do?

Psychiatrists must perform a range of duties during their day to day work. Specific responsibilities might include:

  • Conducting interviews, psychological tests, and other assessments with patients

  • Reviewing patient medical histories

  • Documenting and analyzing assessment findings 

  • Prescribing suitable medications and establishing treatment plans

  • Monitoring the progression of patients' health following treatment

  • Adjusting treatment plans as necessary

Because of the nature of their work, psychiatrists may also have to play a role in crisis intervention. Depending on the setting, psychiatrists often work alongside psychologists, psychiatric technicians, aides, and social workers. 

Psychiatrist salary

As highly trained medical professionals with an in-demand skillset, psychiatrists make a much higher salary than is the average in the United States. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychiatrists made a median annual salary of $249,760 as of May 2021 [2].

Psychiatrist vs. therapist: What's the difference?

While both are mental health professionals, the roles of psychiatrist and psychologist differ in a few key ways. Psychiatrists tend to work with more severe cases and can prescribe medication to patients.

Psychologists, on the other hand, rely primarily on psychotherapy (or talk therapy) and similar practices to help clients. However, they rarely prescribe medication. The level of required education and expected salary also differ. Psychiatry jobs tend to be more lucrative because psychiatrists are required to be medical doctors. 


How to Become a Psychiatrist: 10 steps to success

Psychiatrists are highly trained medical professionals who must undergo many years of education and training. Here's what you'll have to do to join the profession:

1. Earn your bachelor's degree. 

Graduating from college with a bachelor's degree is the first step toward a career as a psychiatrist. You don't need to major in a specific subject, but holding a degree in psychology, biochemistry, or biology can help build a strong foundation. No matter which major you choose, aim to develop a firm understanding of science and math—topics you’ll study in depth in med school.

2. Gain experience in college.  

While in college, you can start to build your resume by volunteering at local mental health service providers or joining psychology-related organizations. Consider any options that give you a chance to work near mental health professionals or build on your knowledge of biology and psychology. 

3. Develop your workplace skills.  

Aside from a strong knowledge of medicine, psychiatrists need a set of personal skills that include analytical thinking, emotional resilience, and empathy. The ability to listen effectively and interpret body language is also useful. You can work on building these skills in your daily interactions with others.

Read more: 7 Active Listening Techniques to Communicate Better

4. Prepare for the MCAT. 

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized test used as an admissions requirement when you apply for a medical degree program. Plan to spend at least 200 hours studying for the exam. Break this down into 10 to 15 hours per week over a period of four to six months. Set yourself up for success by creating a manageable schedule and sticking to it.

The MCAT will assess your knowledge of multiple subjects, including chemistry, biology, and psychology. There's a fee for taking the exam, and you can retake it three times within one year. 

5. Apply to medical school. 

As you begin applying to medical schools, you'll need to decide on whether you want to pursue a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Either route allows you to become a physician within a similar timeframe and after completing similar training. However, DOs are trained in a more holistic approach.

Medical school typically takes about four years of full-time study. The initial two years focus on classroom-based learning and labs. Later years will involve more hands-on clinical experience.

6. Complete a four-year residency. 

Following medical school, you'll need to spend another four years in a residency program. During this time, you'll treat people with mental health conditions in a real-world clinical setting under the supervision of a more experienced psychiatrist. 

7. Consider a specialty. 

Some psychiatrists choose to specialize in a specific area, such as child and adolescent psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, or brain injury medicine. This usually involves training for a year under a licensed physician during a clinical fellowship. 

8. Get your medical license. 

The application process for a medical license may differ from state to state, but you'll need a license to work as a psychiatrist in the United States. You'll need to pass either the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) to earn your license.

9. Pursue board certification. 

Pursuing board certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) is an optional step that can help you find further success in your profession. You'll need to meet the organization's specific requirements and take an exam. Every ten years you can take the Maintenance of Certification exam to maintain your credential.

10. Embrace lifelong learning.

Most states will require you to complete a certain number of continuing education credits each year to maintain your license. This also gives you the opportunity to stay up to date on the latest studies in psychiatry so you can give the best possible care to your patients.

Next steps

Explore whether a career in psychiatry might be a good fit for you by enrolling in a course from a leading university, like Positive Psychiatry and Mental Health from the University of Sydney or Medical Neuroscience from Duke University.

If you don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree, explore how you can earn one online on your own schedule and for less than on-campus programs.

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Article sources

1. National Institutes of Mental Health. “Mental Illness, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml." Accessed August 12, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Psychiatrists, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291223.htm." Accessed August 12, 2022.

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