What Is a Psychiatrist? 10 Steps to Become One

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

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 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), one in five Canadians lives with a mental illness [1]. Psychiatrists help individuals suffering from a broad range of mental health conditions—from addictive behaviours to depression—by providing them with the expertise required to diagnose their conditions and provide effective treatment accurately.

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. 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 (MD) who evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental health disorders, such as addictive behaviours, 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. Psychiatrists can also provide talk and cognitive behavioural 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 skill set, psychiatrists earn much higher salaries than the average in Canada. According to Talent.com, psychiatrists make a median annual salary of $312,050 [2].

Psychiatrist vs. psychologist: What's the difference?

While both are mental health professionals, the roles of psychiatrists and psychologists 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, typically 12 years. Here's what you'll have to do to join the profession:

1. Earn your bachelor's degree. 

Graduating from college with an undergraduate 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 allow you 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 helpful. You can work on building these skills in your daily interactions with others.

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 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. 

Medical school typically takes 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. You must apply to and graduate from an approved medical school to qualify as a psychiatrist.

6. Complete a five-year residency. 

You must spend another five years in a residency program following medical school. 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 subspecialty. 

Psychiatry is considered a medical specialty, and some psychiatrists choose to pursue one of three subspecialties: child and adolescent, geriatric, or forensic psychiatry. 

8. Get your medical license. 

To work as a psychiatrist in Canada, you'll need a license and pass the Medical Council of Canada Qualifying Examination Part I (MCCQE Part I) and Part II (MCCQE Part II).

9. Pursue certification. 

Pursuing certification from the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC) specific to your province, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC), or a licensing body in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, or Yukon is required to help you qualify for your profession. You must meet the organization's specific requirements and take an exam. To keep your Royal College certification current, you’ll need to participate in the Maintenance of Certification program.

10. Embrace lifelong learning.

To maintain your license, you will be required to complete a certain number of continuing education credits each year. This allows you to stay up to date on the latest studies in psychiatry so you can give your patients the best possible care.

Next steps

Enroll in a course from a leading university, such as Positive Psychiatry and Mental Health from the University of Sydney or Medical Neuroscience from Duke University, to explore whether a career in psychiatry might be a good fit for you.

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

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Article sources


Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "Mental Illness and Addiction: Facts and Statistics, https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics." Accessed April 23, 2024.

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.