Get Matched With Colleges

What is a Psychiatrist?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines psychiatry as the “branch of medicine focusing on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders.” While it is the job of a psychiatrist to treat such patients, they are also medical doctors, specializing in mental health. While psychiatrists use a variety of treatments in their practice, including psychotherapy, psychiatrists may also prescribe medication for patients. That is not true, with limited exceptions, for psychologists. Although these professionals also work in the mental health field, they are not medical doctors. Psychiatrists often work as part of a team including medical doctors, social workers, and other professionals.

Compare Popular Online Bachelor's in Psychology

Steps to Take

  • Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

  • Step 2: Apply to Medical School

  • Step 3: Earn License to Practice Medicine

  • Step 4: Residency

  • Step 5: Obtain License to Practice Psychiatry

  • Step 6: Certification

Becoming a psychiatrist means going to medical school. The first step in the process is obtaining an undergraduate degree, perhaps with a pre-med or psychology major. After graduation, the candidate must apply to medical school. After four years of medical school, the graduate takes an examination to receive a medical license. From there, they go through four years of psychiatry residency. That means it takes most psychiatrists at least 12 years to become a practicing psychiatrist. If the psychiatrists wants to obtain additional certification, such as specialized training in certain types of psychiatry, they must undergo further schooling.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

You’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree in health science, from an accredited college or university. Because potential psychiatrists must earn a medical school degree, the undergraduate should take the types of courses required to get into medical school, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Good majors to declare include psychology, biology, or pre-med. During this time, a student can increase the odds of acceptance into very competitive medical schools by volunteering at mental health clinics, undertaking an internship at a local hospital, and joining psychiatric and pre-medical organizations. It is vital that the student have some experience with patients with mental health issues, so they are familiar with the needs of such patients and are sure psychiatry is the right profession for them. The student must also study for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) to gain medical school acceptance. It is imperative that the undergraduate maintain top grades, as only the most highly qualified candidates are accepted into medical school.

Compare All Online Programs

Step 2: Apply to Medical School

After earning a degree you’ll apply to medical school. After acceptance, you can expect to spend four years earning either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. During this time, the student learns about anatomy, histology, pathology, physiology, and similar studies of the human body. They also learn about medical ethics, pharmacology, and other issues pertinent to a psychiatric career.

Step 3: Earn License to Practice Medicine

Once their schooling is complete, they’ll take an examination to receive a license to practice medicine. Such licenses are granted by individual states, and the process may vary by state. You can expect that the state licensing board will run a background check to ensure the candidate possesses good moral character. After passing the examination, it should take at least 60 days from the time the application for a medical license is submitted and the date licensure is approved. Note: You must complete at least one year of an internship or the first year of residency in order to apply for a medical license. Certain states may require more than one year of residency.

Step 4: Residency

The next step will be the completion of four years of residency in either a hospital or clinic, preferably in the state in which you plan to practice. During this time, the candidate is trained in subjects such as chemical dependency, neurology, and psychometrics. The resident spends time either in a hospital’s psychiatric ward or in a psychiatric hospital. However, the initial part of residency is spent in general medical rotations, focusing on a family practice. Expect to spend a few months afterward concentrating on neurology. From there, the rest of the residency focuses on psychiatry, and includes a year of inpatient psychiatry followed by a year of outpatient psychiatry. The resident will then choose a specialized psychiatric field for the remainder of their residency. During the residency, the individual can expect to encounter patients with a variety of mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other issues.

Step 5: Obtain License to Practice Psychiatry

At this point you’ll need to obtain a license to practice psychiatry. Each state has its own laws and examination, which is why it wise to go through a residency in the same state in which you want to practice. If you go out-of-state, you must take another examination to qualify for licensure in that jurisdiction, and you must learn the regulations governing licensure in that state.

Step 6: Certification

Finally, you’ll need to receive certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). While not absolutely mandatory, failure to obtain such certification limits a doctor’s employment considerations. The ABPN requires previous licensure to practice medicine in one state or territory before applying for certification. Certification testing is offered throughout the U.S. The ABPN also offers certifications in psychiatric sub-specialties. Certification is good for ten years. After that, psychiatrists maintain certification by taking continuing education classes and via self-assessment. A psychiatrist with a specialty must take 30 hours of related continuing education courses annually.

Psychiatrists may also want to join the APA, the world’s largest professional organization for those in the field. The APA offers continuing education classes, research opportunities, think tanks, and a vast community for networking purposes.

What Does a Psychiatrist Do?

Find Your School

Because psychiatrists are medical doctors, they are tasked with diagnosing and treating patients after assessing an individual’s mental and physical health issues, as the latter may affect the former. People seek or are ordered to undergo psychiatric care for various reasons, including substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, psychosis, and other mental, emotional, or behavioral issues. Psychiatrists may treat patients with psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, with medications, or often a combination of the two. Visits are often divided into therapy or medication appointments, with the first taking more time than the second. There is no typical day for a psychiatrist, no matter where they work. Each day involves dealing with individual patients with their own specific needs.

While most psychiatrists work a standard 9 to 5 schedule, patient emergencies can arise, so they remain on call. Much depends on the type of patient the psychiatrist sees, and their doctor’s specializations. While a psychiatrist in a private or group practice has patients come to them, those working in psychiatric hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, and other facilities must go where the patients are.

In addition to patient counseling, psychiatrists must perform other tasks, including designing individual treatment plans for patients, patient record reviews and updates, prescribing and perhaps administering medication, and sending tests to laboratories to determine whether a patient has an underlying physical issue affecting their mental health.

Skills to Acquire

Psychiatrists must possess good listening skills, as well as strong observational skills when treating patients. They need good inductive and deductive reasoning skills. The former consists of the ability to apply facts and logic to a situation to arrive at an answer, while the latter involves reaching a conclusion by putting together information already known.

Other necessary skill sets include:

  • Good communication skills – oral and written
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Respect for patients and their problems
  • Good coping mechanisms
  • Sensitivity
  • Perception

Dealing with patients with mental or emotional issues is often stressful, and the doctor must prove able to handle these stressful situations. It is a possible that a patient may become violent or agitated, and the psychiatrist must know how to behave appropriately in these circumstances, aiding the patient while keeping themselves and staff safe. Psychiatrists must also have a good sense of when a patient is lying or otherwise providing misleading information, and when they are being truthful and honest.

Alternative Paths

There are no real alternative paths to becoming a psychiatrist other than going to medical school and going through a psychiatric residency. For those who wish to work in the field of mental health but do not want to go to medical school, becoming a psychologist is an option. The fields of psychology and psychiatry overlap in some ways, and a clinical psychologist must still obtain a doctorate in order to practice. It takes about the same amount of time to first complete a master’s degree in psychology and then earn a doctorate in psychology as it does to become a psychiatrist.

Psychiatrist Careers & Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychiatry is one of the highest paying occupations, with an average wage greater than $217,000 annually. The BLS does not break down the career prospects for different types of doctors, but all jobs relating to physicians are expected to grow by 15% between 2014 and 2024.

Where Might You Work?

Psychiatrists may work in private or group practices, general hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, mental health clinics, hospice programs, nursing homes, prisons, courts, and rehabilitation programs. They are also employed by the military, school districts, and other government agencies. Generally, a psychiatrist does not open a private practice until they have acquired a number of patients through a group practice or via referrals. Psychiatrists working in hospital settings may not work every day, but when they are working the shifts are long.

While psychiatrists may work anywhere, the greatest demand is in metropolitan regions. The New York City area employs the largest number of psychiatrists, followed by the Los Angeles metropolitan area; Chicago; Phoenix Mesa Scottsdale, Arizona; Boston; Nassau and Suffolk Counties, New York; the Washington DC metro area; Riverside San Bernardino Ontario, California; Newark, New Jersey and the eastern Pennsylvania metropolitan region, and Minneapolis/Saint Paul.

Potential Career Paths

Get Matched With Online Schools

While some psychiatrists maintain a general practice, many specialize in treating certain types of patients. These specializations often include additional experience or training in particular fields, and appropriate certification.

Such fields may include:

Addiction Psychiatry
This subspecialty allows addiction psychiatrists to identify and treat the underlying mental issues leading to substance abuse. This is one of the psychiatric specialties currently in most demand, as there is a shortage of adequately trained addiction psychiatrists.

Child Psychiatry
This field deals with the mental health of children. Some psychiatrists may work with both children and adolescents, while others concentrate on either younger or older youth. This specialty requires at least two years of accredited residency and training in child and adolescent psychiatry. In addition to diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment, child and adolescent psychiatrists may consult and work with juvenile courts, schools, and social service agencies.

Emergency Psychiatry
As the name indicates, this field involves dealing with patients in emergency situations, which may include those who are suicidal or otherwise threatening to harm themselves or others. Other situations an emergency psychiatrist may deal with include violent patients and those in psychosis.

This role involves assessing the mental health of inmates in jails and prisons, including whether they are competent to stand trial. They may also work with the defense or the prosecution to determine whether a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity. Specialists in psychometrics may testify in criminal and civil proceedings.

Geriatric Psychiatry
Focusing on the mental health issues of the aged, geriatric psychiatry examines the aging process as it relates to psychology and behavior, and the interaction of physical illness with a patient’s mental condition. Geriatric psychiatrists may diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in the elderly patient.

Learning Disability Psychiatry
This branch of psychiatry deals with patients with learning disabilities, who are more likely than the general population to experience mental health issues. Such learning disabilities – also known as intellectual disabilities – run the gamut, including those on the autism spectrum.

This branch of psychiatry deals with patients whose mental health conditions are related primarily to brain injury or disease, or conditions affecting the central nervous system.

Organizational Psychiatrists
These psychiatric practitioners work in organizational settings, such as workplaces. Also known as industrial psychiatrists, they focus on mental health issues in the organization. They may evaluate workers seeking social security disability or workers’ compensation for mental health-related problems.

Pain Psychiatry
This subspecialty involves working with patients suffering from chronic pain. The psychiatrist works in conjunction with a patient’s primary care physician (PCP), and may advise the PCP on a patient’s pain concerns and help boost the patient’s ability for self-care.

A psychiatrist may decide to study psychoanalysis and become a psychoanalyst. Such training includes going through personal psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a method of treating mental disturbances by investigating the mind’s conscious and unconscious components. This method uses techniques such as free association and dream analysis.

Rehabilitation Psychiatry
This field deals with patients requiring long-term treatment, and with their families so the patient may eventually reintegrate into the community. Patients in the rehabilitation psychiatry field usually suffer from psychotic, difficult to treat mental illnesses. The psychiatrist works closely with social service and other organizations to aid their patients.

Psychiatrist Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Addiction Psychiatry/Counselor $39,000 $39,000 $43,000
Child Psychiatrist $144,000 $215,000 $277,000
Clinical Psychiatrist $59,000 $101,000 $257,000
Geriatric Psychiatrist $196,000 $227,000 $252,000
Neuropsychologist $85,000 $93,000 $116,000
Pediatric Psychiatrist $202,000 $214,000 $225,000
Psychiatrist $197,000 $211,000 $240,000
Psychometrist $31,000 $47,000 $63,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

Currently, there are approximately 45,000 psychiatrists working in the U.S. The numbers are expected to stay stable or grow slightly over the next decade. The fact remains that one out of every four people will experience a mental health issue annually, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, so the demand for psychiatrists is likely to remain strong.

Advancing From Here

Generally, a psychiatrist is a top-level position. That doesn’t mean you can’t advance within your field. Advancement may require earning additional certification in particular subspecialties. Some psychiatrists may choose to conduct research and write papers or books or teach in universities or medical schools.

Find Psychiatrist Jobs Near You

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychologists study the mind and behavior of patients as well as provide counseling to help assist with mental illness and trauma. Psychiatrists also study the mind and behavior but they typically use medication to help treat mental illness and trauma.

What is the workplace of a psychiatrist like?

Most psychiatrists work around 48 hours a week and spend about 60% of their time with patients. Psychiatrist

Where do psychiatrists work?

Psychiatrists work in psychiatric clinics, hospitals, and other mental health clinics. They also work in prisons, correctional facilities, and private medical offices.

What is the outlook for psychiatrists?

Psychiatrist careers are expected to grow by 12% by 20230.

What are the tools and technology that psychiatrists must be familiar with?

Psychiatrists need to be familiar with different types of medical software such as Psych Advantage, SoftPsych Psychiatric Diagnosis, and MEDITECH Behavioral Health Clinicals. They must also be familiar with blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, CT scans, and PET scans.

Psychology & Counseling Career Paths

Search All Programs