Psychiatrists work with patients who are dealing with a variety of issues, including trauma, mental illness and addiction. Psychiatrists are considered mental health physicians. Given the in-depth nature of their work, it is no wonder that psychiatrists require a great deal of education – depending upon the specialty, up to twelve years of academic study and clinical training is required to earn a psychiatry degree.
Students interested in becoming a psychiatrist should understand all the educational and clinical requirements, as well as what they will encounter upon graduation. This guide focuses on all the pertinent questions for aspiring psychiatrists, including what they should study as an undergraduate, what skills are required, what the job entails and the credentials required to begin work.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors. They assess and treat mental illness and often focus on working with specific populations. Some psychiatrists focus on the more technical or research-based side of psychiatry by working in the forensics field or aiding companies and corporations in assessing the mental health of their employees and associates. Psychiatrists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, government offices, private practices and mental health clinics. They might also take positions in research-based universities. Their hours worked vary depending upon the job setting.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized in mental health issues. Therefore, earning a degree from medical school is a requirement to become licensed and practice. The path to medical school includes a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, followed by a passing score on the Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT. Students who enter medical school programs, which are very competitive, can expect to devote at least four to five years of their life to further education and supervised clinical training. During that time, students can specialize in various areas of psychiatry, such as dealing with certain populations — such as children or people addicted to drugs — or handling specific mental health issues, such as schizophrenia. Students must then complete a residency before they can become board-certified.
Psychiatrists use a variety of methods to help patients under their care, including medications, psychotherapy, individual or group counseling, psychoanalysis, and even hospitalization for those situations that call for more intense intervention. Psychiatrists work closely with other healthcare professionals to ensure holistic care for the entire person, not just for mental illness issues.
Psychiatry, from Medieval Latin psychiatria, literally means “a healing of the soul.” The practice of psychiatry can be traced to ancient India.
Obviously, becoming a psychiatrist takes an intense amount of dedication, education and effort. How will that investment pay off when it’s time to begin pulling regular paychecks? Psychiatry can be a very difficult career to enter, but those who do tend to reap financial rewards. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatrists made a median annual salary of $181,880 in 2014. The lowest ten percent in the profession made $61,600, while the highest paid in the field made over $187,000 per year. Psychiatrists who have earned certifications through the ABPN might be able to command a higher salary due to their credentials and might also see the best job opportunities.
Geographical location and cost of living also play a role in just how much a psychiatrist gets paid. The following are the five states that boast the highest earnings for psychiatrists, based on annual mean wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
The first step to becoming a psychiatrist is to earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. In preparation for medical school, a good choice would be to focus on pre-med, physical sciences or psychology — or a combination of the three by utilizing a double major or minor.
The courses a student takes during the bachelor’s program depend upon the major and minor, but some courses are recommended for those who intend to apply to medical schools. For instance, students majoring in psychology will likely take the following courses:
Medical school admissions are very competitive, so high grades and an impressive list of courses during undergraduate study are essential. Students should also plan ahead for the next step in their journey by taking advantage of any prep classes offered for the MCAT.
The MCAT is a vital component of the admissions process for medical school. This examination is a standard test comprised of three multiple-choice sections. Students should take the MCAT the year before they intend to apply to medical school; they are allowed to take it as many times as necessary in order to pass. Those who need to retake the MCAT can sign up for a new testing period two days after their previous examination.
Medical schools evaluate prospective students’ score on the MCAT and their undergraduate performance to determine whether to offer the student enrollment.
Students who enter medical school can choose between two designations to eventually become a psychiatrist: a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) program. Each degree focuses on the same methods of treatment, but a DO degree also focuses on osteopathic manipulative medicine.
No matter the degree, students can expect to complete four to five years of training in medical school. The first few years focus on basic classes in pathology, anatomy, biology and other science-related fields. The second half of the program focuses on clinical rotations with doctors and other healthcare professionals, allowing students to hone their skills in psychiatric practice. Students might also be invited to participate in research programs.
Courses taken during medical school vary widely depending upon the program, but students studying psychiatry can expect to take the following, among others:
Once students have graduated from medical school, they still need some supervised training. During their residency, students work for three to eight years in a clinical or hospital setting. They are given the opportunity to further hone their skills during this time as they work under the direction of licensed psychiatrists.
Students who complete medical school and a successful residency can then apply for their medical license and board certification. Those who graduate from an MD program take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while those who graduate from a DO program take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).
After receiving their medical license, students can take the examination for board certification, which is offered through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Students who sit for board certification can take the test as many times as necessary in order to pass. Certification must be renewed every ten years.
Earning a psychiatry degree and becoming licensed does not mean the education ends. Those who earn their board certification must enter into continuing education programs throughout their career in order to remain certified. For most psychiatrists, this includes an average of 30 credits earned per year. Some states might require even more continuing medical education (CME) credits in order to continue practicing.
Psychiatrists work closely with a variety of patients on a daily basis and thus must have excellent communication skills, including a top-notch ability to listen and develop a good rapport with patients. Good observational skills are a must, as a psychiatrist should be able to study patient behavior and reactions to medications or other treatments. The job requires a significant amount of patience and compassion, social perceptiveness, and the ability to make judgments and decisions based on both prior and new information.
In addition to the medical license and board certification in psychiatry, there are several subspecialties in the field that also offer certification. These usually require additional training or fellowships. Some of the possibilities include:
Once these credentials are earned, they are subject to the same CME requirements as any other board certification through the ABPN.
With faster-than-average growth projected for the field, those with a psychiatry degree can expect employment opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatric position openings should grow by 16.2 percent from 2012 to 2022. Much of this growth can be attributed to more attention paid to psychiatric services as well as recent legislation expanding healthcare coverage. Those with psychiatry degrees can often find work in every corner of the healthcare industry, including hospitals, private clinics, home healthcare, residential care facilities, community services and even local and state government.
The following jobs related to psychiatry are also expected to be in high demand in the coming years:
David M. Reiss, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice. This is part of his detailed journey from aspiring engineer to psychiatrist.
In high school, my interests were always more intellectual than physical. My deepest curiosities tended to be more philosophical, but my practical abilities showed most promise in the applied sciences. I was told, and it made sense to me, that I should become an engineer.
I entered the Northwestern University Technological Institute. At that time, there was no Department of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern, but I was able to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering with an option in biomedical engineering. Having moved into biomedical engineering, in my last years in college I took courses in physiology and biochemistry such that I ended up having sufficient prerequisites to apply to medical school.
I was formally accepted to Northwestern Medical School. Arriving at NUMS, not having been “a pre-med” I was a fish out of water – and I absolutely hated my first year. Memorizing Latin terms in anatomy class was the furthest thing from taking on challenging engineering problems. The more I learned about psychiatry, the more interested I became. I had the good fortune to be able to work with excellent teachers and mentors in psychiatry.
Currently, my time is split between three areas. I have been involved in the California workers’ compensation system as a qualified medical examiner for over 25 years, performing medical-legal evaluations and providing treatment.
Roughly one-third of my time has been spent staying active in frontline treatment in other milieu, providing both psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological intervention, mostly in psychiatric hospitals. As at this point in my career I am not seeking a full hospital practice, I have done “locum tenens” [temporary] assignments ranging from two weeks to four months. The remainder of my time is spent on personal projects related to my practice of psychiatry.
Observe. Study. Question. Challenge. Integrate the best of “old” ideas with the advantages of new theories and understanding. But most importantly – discover how to talk to patients — all patients — even those who are psychotic. Explore, respect and honor the opportunity to get to know and relate to people from every walk of life with every type of circumstance and challenge, and through that process, making a positive difference in the person’s life. It is an opportunity that is available in few if any fields other than psychiatry.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth of 16.2 percent from 2012 to 2022 for psychiatrists, a number that is higher than the national average for all other occupations. A great deal of this growth could be spurred by more attention to mental health matters, as well as healthcare legislation that makes health insurance more affordable for many Americans. As a result, more people are expected to reach out for help from the medical establishment, including those who need the skills of a psychiatrist.
Another reason for growth is that the baby boomer generation is rapidly aging. As more individuals suffer medical issues due to aging, the skills of a psychiatrist will be needed to help them through the changes and challenges they will inevitably face. Psychiatrists can expect better job opportunities in areas with a higher aging population.
The following states are expected to offer the highest growth opportunities for professionals with psychiatry degrees between 2012 and 2022, according to Projections Central:
Those who choose to go into psychiatry work closely with other healthcare providers, including those in the table below. In some cases, the training is very similar. For instance, psychiatrists and doctors must both attend medical school but choose different paths of study during their time in graduate school. These numbers are based on 2014 reporting from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Those who are interested in psychiatry might also find the following occupations to their liking. These are all in the healthcare field, offer the opportunity to work closely with patients, typically pay impressive salaries and have above-average growth numbers.
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