Psychology Degree Guide

How to Become a Psychologist: A Student’s Guide

Therapist with patient

You’ve thought about it a lot, you’ve mulled over the pros and cons, and you’ve finally come to a decision — you want to become a psychologist. But before you can build a career in this fascinating field, you still need to answer one question: how do you get started? This article outlines the basic steps you’ll need to follow to begin pursuing your dream career in psychology.

Decide what sort of psychologist you want to be

There are many positions available for psychologists, with each requiring a different set of skills. Would you rather be a clinical psychologist, who might work on fields as diverse as research, counseling, and psychological assessment; a psychiatrist, a physician who can prescribe medications in conjunction with counseling; or a therapist, who helps people overcome their psychological issues? The goal you choose will determine your path.

A clinical psychologist, for example, will have heavy training in both the theory and practice of psychology. You’ll typically need a doctorate degree in a psychology-related field in order to build a career. A psychiatrist has even more rigorous demands; becoming one requires medical school training.

A therapist, on the other hand, can often get by with a masters degree in their chosen specialty. However, most therapists will agree that doctorate-level training can go a long way in your success.

Choose your specialty

Once you’ve decided what you want to become, you’ve then got to choose your specialty. Psychology is a science that branches out into many other specializations, and you’ve got to decide which of those you’d want to build your career around.

For example, a clinical psychologist may choose to focus on psychological research, and so they might opt to make Experimental Psychology or Behavioral Analysis their specialty.

A psychiatrist who prefers to work with children and teenagers might enter child or adolescent psychiatry, while a psychiatrist who prefers to work with the elderly could become a geropsychiatrist. A therapist has a host of choices; they can choose to enter family therapy, relationship counseling, or addiction counseling, among many others.

Find a School

Once you’ve determined what sort of track you want to take, it’s time to start scouting around for a college. Location, budget, and faculty are among the essential factors to consider.

Perhaps the most important (and most basic) thing to check for is if whether or not the school offers a bachelor’s degree in the program of your choice, and whether or not it’s accredited by a reputable institution. Most universities offer undergraduate psychology degrees; just be sure the school is accredited.

Study, Study, Study

If you ever want to succeed as a psychologist, you’ve got to know your stuff. Since the current trend with psychology is integration of multiple branches to provide a complete, holistic understanding of the human experience, you’ll need a solid background on a range of topics. Your performance in school will determine your options after graduation, so take your studies very seriously.

Go to Graduate School

The work isn’t over yet. After college, you’ll need to continue your studies. Find out what graduate programs are available and/or required for the field you want to enter. Most fields require a master’s degree, although doctorates are often necessary for clinical psychologists, and medical degrees are typically required if you want to be a psychiatrist. Success in grad school requires the same focus as you put in as an undergraduate, but at an even more advanced level. So study, study, study.

Get Experience

No form of education is better than actual experience, so go out there and get some work in! Although most clinical programs will require you to complete an internship program anyway, you can always supplement it with a little extra experience.

You can sign up to be a research assistant or volunteer where social workers are needed, among others. If you’re feeling brave, you can also sign up for another supplementary internship. Just make sure your programs are accredited.

Pass the Licensure Exam

The last thing you need to do to become a full-fledged psychologist is to get licensed. It is a law that psychologists can only legally practice if they possess a license to do so, much like doctors do. In order to do this, you have to do three things:

1) Get work experience under the supervision of a licensed professional (usually for two years); 2) Pass the board exams; and 3) Depending on your state, present a valid case study to the board. After all that work, you’ll finally be able to call yourself a psychologist!

About the Author

Angie Boss is an award-winning health writer and author or co-author of several books, including Before Your Time: Living Well with Premature Menopause (Simon and Schuster, 2010). She received a Bachelor's of Arts degree in Sociology and Journalism from Virginia Wesleyan College and a Masters of Pastoral Counseling from Union Theological Seminary.

Read Angie's full bio here...

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