If you are considering becoming a psychologist, it’s important to consider the average timeline for schooling and licensure, which can be between 10-18 years. Everyone’s journey looks different, but it’s helpful to have an idea of what to expect. Here are the steps.
Becoming a psychologist starts in college. If you are currently at this stage, consider obtaining your B.S or B.A in psychology or a relevant field like sociology, social work, anthropology, or criminal justice.
Keep in mind that psychologists come from all different educational backgrounds. Therefore, if you already graduated college with an unrelated major, that doesn’t mean you can’t still pursue this career. But, if you’re currently in college, consider taking psychology classes first to see if the subject interests you.
At one time, it was considered typical to earn a bachelor’s degree within four years. However, this isn’t the case today. Although college enrollment rates are up, fewer than half of students complete their degree within that timeframe. The average student now finishes college in about six years.
If graduating college on time is important to you, consider:
- Determining if any high school or other college courses count for credit
- Taking summer classes
- Picking a major early and avoiding taking unnecessary elective credits
- Choosing classes that meet requirements in multiple categories
- Taking more classes per semester (if your schedule permits)
- Skipping minors
- Staying in close contact with your advisors for additional advice and support
Some psychologists seek a terminal master’s degree before obtaining their doctoral education. This degree is not inherently necessary for becoming a psychologist.
However, a terminal degree offers several psychology-related career options. Therefore, having this education allows you to gain immediate real-world experience. In addition, some students find they no longer wish to pursue more education after completing their master’s program.
A psychologist may obtain a master’s degree in the following areas of focus:
- Marriage and family therapy
- School counseling
- Mental health counseling
- Industrial-organizational psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Forensic psychology
Most master’s degree programs take anywhere from 2-4 years to complete. The program typically includes both academic classes and fieldwork. Students are also often required to complete a thesis or final exam equivalent.
Licensed psychologists must earn a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). While the focuses are different, both degrees require rigorous academic coursework, comprehensive exams, and clinical fieldwork.
PhD programs are available at several private or public universities. They are intended for potential psychologists interested in pursuing and advancing scientific research. In addition, many psychologists with a PhD teach at the collegiate level.
PhD programs heavily emphasize courses in research methods and statistics. Students generally must complete a dissertation to graduate. Psychologists with PhDs work in various settings, including research institutions, universities, community mental health settings, hospitals, and private practice.
After starting graduate school, it takes about 6-8 years to obtain a PhD in psychology. The length of time depends on whether you can transfer course credit, if you are enrolled in classes full-time or part-time, and dissertation considerations. Each university also has its own specific requirements.
The PsyD is a newer doctoral degree developed in the 1970s. Today, it is an acceptable alternative to the PhD for students interested in providing direct clinical services. The PsyD option is available at most private universities and some public universities.
PsyD programs focus more on direct clinical training. Students leave the program prepared to provide direct therapy, assessments, and clinical services to individuals, families, and groups. They often work in community health settings, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and private practice.
PsyD programs take about 4-6 years to complete. The length of time also depends on whether you can transfer course credit, if you are enrolled in classes full-time or part-time, and dissertation considerations. Many PsyD programs offer an equivalent project instead of dissertations for their students.
Other Doctoral Degrees
By far, the PhD and PsyD are the most common educational paths for psychologists. But some people also choose doctoral degrees in other specialized programs, including:
- Doctor of Education (EdD)
- Doctorate of Marriage and Family Therapy (DMFT)
- Doctorate of Social Work (DSW)
These degrees have similar time requirements as PsyD programs. It’s important to look at coursework expectations before enrolling in any specific school. Some doctoral programs also offer terminal master’s degrees along the way.
Internships and Postdoctoral Work
Psychologists generally must complete an internship/fieldwork before becoming licensed. These internships allow you to practice the work under supervision. You will gain real-world experience in a designated area of focus. Most states require anywhere from 1,500-3,000 hours along with 1-2 years of supervised training.
Licensing and Certification
Psychologists need to be licensed in the state where they work. Specific requirements vary by state, but students must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), a 225 multiple-choice question test.
Board certification conveys that you have specific, expert knowledge in a specific subfield. Certification isn’t necessary, but it can provide advanced career opportunities.
Total Length of Education and Training
If you consider your education starting from your first day of college, the total length of education and training can take anywhere from 10-18 years. Of course, numerous variables that can affect this timeline, including:
- Whether you take a break between college and graduate school
- The length of time it takes to complete your dissertation
- Needing to retake any courses or fieldwork
- Switching programs, majors, or degree tracts
- Personal obligations (taking time off to have children, medical leave, etc.)
- Additional coursework requirements
What Do Psychologists Study?
Psychology is a broad field that generally refers to human thought processes and behavior. There are numerous subtypes and specialties within this career. Below are some of the more popular types of psychologists:
Clinical psychologists: Clinical psychologists typically work in therapeutic settings and treat individuals, families, or couples. They might specialize in a certain population or with a specific type of mental illness.
Developmental psychologists: Developmental psychologists examine human development from birth to death. They may focus on a specific part of the lifespan, and they often provide assessments and evaluations. Some of them also work in focused research.
Educational psychologists: Educational psychologists typically work in academic settings and help examine, collaborate, and improve school systems. They may work individually with students, but they may also train teachers and administrators.
Forensic psychologists: Forensic psychologists often act as liaisons within the court system. They may consult with civil disputes, provide child custody evaluations, or support incarcerated clients with rehabilitation efforts.
Industrial-organizational psychologists: Industrial-organizational psychologists aim to improve business culture. They may be involved in staff hiring and company strategies regarding growth, retention, and workplace satisfaction.
Military psychologists: Military psychologists work within the military. They often provide psychotherapy to active duty members and their families. They might also support recruiting efforts, leadership support, and community wellness.
Social psychologists: Social psychologists examine group and individual behavior. They often look at larger systems and conduct research to understand social issues such as societal attitudes and conflict.
Sports psychologists: Sports psychologists typically work with athletes to support emotional well-being. They may address issues related to performance anxiety, motivation, and coping with injuries or other setbacks.
How Much Do Psychologists Make?
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists made a median salary of $81,040 in 2021. Like most industries, wages can vary dramatically. Your location, specialty, level of experience, and type of work all affect compensation.
Within the field of psychology, psychiatrists generally earn the highest-paid salaries. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who must complete medical school and a specialized psychiatry residency before practicing.
What Are the Main Differences Between Psychologists and Therapists?
Many people use these titles interchangeably, but it’s important to understand the distinction.
A therapist is a generalized term for any mental health professional competent to provide therapy. Many therapists hold terminal master’s degrees in counseling, social work, or other related fields. Only a psychologist can technically call themselves a psychologist.
Psychologists have an advanced level of education and training. However, some psychologists with doctorate-level education still identify themselves as therapists.
Generally speaking, psychologists are more oriented toward research, assessment, and teaching. Therapists, on the other hand, tend to be more oriented toward clinical application and providing therapeutic services.
Can Psychologists Diagnose Mental Illnesses?
Yes, psychologists can assess, evaluate, and diagnose all mental illnesses. This is often a core part of their clinical work.
Diagnosing may entail talk interviews, formal assessments, and testing. Sometimes, this process can happen in a single session. But, it usually requires a few sessions to really know the patient’s medical history and psychological background.
After establishing a diagnosis, a psychologist will typically work with the patient to create a treatment plan. This plan may include a combination of psychotherapy, a referral to psychiatry, and other holistic recommendations.
Can Psychologists Prescribe Medication?
In most cases, psychologists cannot prescribe medication. That said, there has been more of a societal and medical push for psychologists to hold this privilege.
Today, with specific training, psychologists can currently prescribe medication in the military and in five states: Louisiana, New Mexico, Illinois, Iowa, and Idaho.
What Other Skills Should Psychologists Have?
Psychologists need extensive education and training to be eligible to work in their roles. However, it also helps to have a specific emotional and interpersonal skillset if you’re interested in this career. Here are some important traits to consider:
Curiosity: Human behavior constantly evolves, and no two people are identical. Good psychologists love to learn and never consider themselves fully an expert on anything. They constantly seek opportunities to ask questions and challenge their thinking.
Strong boundaries: It’s crucial to maintain healthy limits in the workplace. The patient-doctor relationship is sacred, and it’s essential to maintain their confidentiality and protect their well-being as much as possible.
Ability to self-reflect: Many psychologists participate in their own therapy to become more introspective and to address any personal issues. You should be open to learning about yourself and improving your weaknesses as best you can.
Morals and ethics: Even though they are not perfect, psychologists aim to do no harm. They strive to be patient, compassionate, and sensitive. They often work with patients in immense distress, and it’s important to be a trustworthy source of support for these individuals.
Empathy: Good psychologists tend to have high levels of empathy. They aim to understand their patient’s unique experiences and can be compassionate and nonjudgmental throughout their work.
Working as a psychologist can be extremely rewarding. You may spend your days conducting research, performing assessments, providing therapy, or teaching students. The work is always evolving, and the field will likely continue to surge in the next few decades.
That said, becoming a psychologist requires a significant investment of time and money. Like with any career, it’s helpful to consider the pros and cons of this career before making the commitment. If possible, consider speaking with a few graduate students or practicing psychologists to get a feel for what to expect.