Are you interested in psychology but also in the medical field? Do you want to address the needs of patients with mental health challenges? Psychiatry might be a career path to consider. However, before you start looking up job openings, know that you’ll need over a decade of education and training before you can practice. While the path to becoming a psychiatrist is a long, demanding one, it’s highly rewarding — not only in its work but also in its work environment opportunities and salary.
You may be familiar with psychologists or stuck in the time-old confusion between psychologists and psychiatrists. While both are professionals that work with patients with mental health challenges, they’re equipped with different knowledge and ways to address these patients’ needs. Psychiatrists are medical doctors that diagnose and treat mental health challenges. They may use some practices that psychologists use — like personal counseling — but they also can treat patients with medicine or hospitalization. Although they’re on the medical side of treatment, psychiatrists often work with other health professionals like psychologists to make sure patients are being assessed and attended to holistically.
They have extensive education in medicine and psychological practices and can work in a variety of locations: physicians’ offices, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, general medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient care centers, local government and residential intellectual and developmental disability, mental health and substance abuse facilities.
Because becoming a psychiatrist involves going to medical school, your best bet is to earn a bachelor’s degree first. You’ll need to complete pre-med requirements, but you have flexibility in your choice of major. Majoring in the physical sciences or psychology will keep you most on track with what you’ll be studying in the future. Regardless of what courses you take, you’ll need to work for a high GPA; this will increase your chances of getting accepted to medical school.
Taking the MCAT is an essential part of medical school preparation. You’ll use the knowledge from your pre-med and other undergraduate courses to ace this exam. If you’re hoping to go to medical school right after you graduate college, you’ll need to take this exam sometime between your junior year and the beginning of your senior year. The MCAT is offered on multiple days from January to September, excluding the month of February. If you want a competitive score for your applications, you’ll want to aim for a score of 511 of 528; according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the mean MCAT score of 2019–20 medical school matriculates was a 551.5.
Once you’ve applied and been accepted to medical school, you’ll go through about four to five more years of education — this time with training. The first two years of medical school generally focus on science courses in areas like pathology, anatomy and biology. In the next few years, you’ll work with other health care professions during clinical rotations. Grades in medical school are important, too; the higher your medical school grades, the better chance you’ll have of finding a residency.
During your residency, you’ll get further clinical training, most likely in a hospital setting. You’ll learn about treating a variety of mental health conditions before working more specifically in your chosen areas of interest.
Once you’ve graduated medical school and completed a residency, you’re eligible to apply for license and certification. To become licensed, you’ll need to pass your state’s board exam. Every state requires a license to practice, but each state’s requirements differ; make sure to check specific state requirements before the exam. After you’re licensed, you can become board certified with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). While this is optional to practice, the certification demonstrates that you’ve gone through specialty-specific training and that you have appropriate knowledge and competence. The ABPN also offers subspecialty certifications.
While all future psychiatrists need to go through the same steps to get licensed, the amount of time these steps can take varies from one person to the next. At the minimum, a psychiatrist needs four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school and four years of residency. Assuming this person takes their state’s board exam directly after their schooling, the fastest amount of time it takes for someone to become a psychiatrist is in 12 years. If this person starts these steps directly after high school, they can become a psychiatrist as young as 30 years old.
However, not everyone will complete these steps one right after the other or even start them right after high school. Some people take more than four years to graduate from college or medical school. Others might take off some time to study for the MCAT and then apply to medical school.
Twelve years of schooling and training aren’t cheap. Luckily, psychiatrists across the board earn high salaries, regardless of what state they’re licensed in or where they choose to practice.
While becoming a psychiatrist can be extremely costly, the salary once you secure a job will be well worth the investment. Psychiatrists were in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 20 highest-paying occupations list. The median 2018 wage for psychiatrists was $208,000 per year or $100.00 per hour.
The annual mean wage for psychiatrists who worked in home healthcare services was highest, totaling $253,370. Those working in local government, excluding schools and hospitals was the second-highest, coming in just under at $253,140. Most psychiatrists who work at psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals made an annual mean wage of $209,080. Out of the five states with the highest psychiatrist employment level — New York, California, Florida, Texas and Ohio, respectively — California psychiatrists had the highest annual mean wage at $255,790. While Hawaii, Connecticut and Maine employ far fewer psychiatrists, these three states had the higher annual mean wages than California.
If you’re a hard-working lover of both psychology and medicine and have a passion for addressing mental health challenges, pursuing psychiatry might be your optimal career move. You’ll need to remain on track for at least 12 years of education and training, but by the end, you’ll have the knowledge and skills to be the mental health medical professional you’re meant to be.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoeakaplan.com.