4 Steps to Becoming a Psychiatrist
Becoming a psychiatrist involves several steps. The profession requires a significant investment of time and money, considerable planning, and an ongoing commitment to continuing education. Read the steps below for a realistic perspective on how to become a psychiatrist.
Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program
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.
To date, no U.S. college or university offers a pre-med major, per se. However, several institutions do offer a pre-med track, including New York City College of Technology, Pepperdine, and Georgetown. In lieu of a pre-med track, popular undergraduate majors for would-be psychiatrists include psychology, biology, and chemistry. Academic advisors typically suggest a program with intensive laboratory sessions, relevant internship opportunities, and comprehensive classroom instruction in subjects like human anatomy, the neurological system, and pharmacology.
Take the Medical Colleges Admissions Test
Next, students have to sit for the medical college admission test (MCAT). Although medical schools evaluate the merits of a student's total application, a passing MCAT score is a basic requirement for consideration. Most schools consider a score of 511 points (out of a total of 528 points) to be acceptable.
Complete an M.D. or D.O. Program
Students accepted to medical school typically receive the same basic instruction whether they opt to become an M.D. (medical doctor) or D.O. (doctor of osteopathy). An M.D. typically offers allopathic treatments that address the specific symptoms of a disease. A D.O. regards the body as an integrated entity and addresses conditions from lifestyle and medical perspectives, instead of treating specific symptoms. After medical school, students begin a residency in a specialty of their choice. A residency program in psychiatry typically takes another four years.
Courses taken during medical school vary widely depending upon the program, but students studying psychiatry can expect to take the following, among others:
Earn and Maintain Licensed and Board Certified
All states require doctors, including psychiatrists, to obtain a license before they can practice unsupervised. Additionally, psychiatrists must obtain certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Requirements for maintaining and renewing a license vary by state, but most require doctors to earn a minimum number of continuing education credits to maintain the licensure. Renewal conditions of an ABPN certification depend on a psychiatrist's area of specialty, but are generally required every 10 years.
Preparing to Become a Psychiatrist:
Schools and Programs
Lists from reputable websites typically evaluate key factors such as accreditation, acceptance rates, MCAT scores, and specialty areas. Many students begin their search for the ideal psychiatry program by investigating the schools included in such a list.
The cost for attending medical school continues to climb, and many students need some type of financial assistance to afford enrollment. Several universities administer financial assistance programs including fellowships, scholarships, and research grants. For example, the University of Florida awards a forensic psychiatry fellowship, giving recipients the opportunity to conduct forensic evaluations involving competency, guardianship, and criminal responsibility. Professional medical organizations also award financial assistance packages such as the American Medical Association’s Physicians of Tomorrow Awards.
Courses in Psychiatry Programs
Medical students typically focus on a specific field of practice in their third or fourth year of residency. Residents who opt to pursue a specialization in psychiatry can expect to enroll in classes such as the ones described below. Keep in mind, however, that each curriculum is crafted to support specific educational objectives for students. Because of this, course offerings can vary greatly among schools. Psychiatry residents with a clear idea of the specialization they wish to pursue should examine a school's roster of courses closely to make sure it offers the coursework that supports their area of specialization.
In this course students learn about the biochemical, pharmacological, and physiological aspects of behavior. Students gain a broad perspective on human behavior based on various factors such as emotions, personality, and social interactions. The course gives students the chance to examine specific problems from a biobehavioral standpoint.
Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience
Through class lectures and laboratory sessions, students gain an in-depth understanding of recent developments in neuroscience. The course gives students the chance to examine the underlying neurological components of cognition and affect: how humans think, remember, process emotions, and make decisions.
This course introduces students to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Students examine the complexity of various psychological disorders and the conditions of psychopathology, with an emphasis on modern treatment. The material further explores the ethical, legal, and multicultural factors typically present in abnormal psychology.
Social Context of Mental Health and Illness
The course provides a historical context behind contemporary mental health attitudes and practices. Students learn how social factors influence the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. They also examine the availability and quality of mental health services in different social environments.
Understanding the Brain (Neurobiology)
In this course, students explore functional neuroanatomy in order to develop a clear understanding of how humans perceive and process information from the environment. The course demonstrates the relationship between the nervous system and behavior. Students learn how the human brain functions and the behavioral implications of neural malfunctions.
Accreditation for a Psychiatry Program
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversee the school and programmatic accreditation process. Accreditation refers to the process of evaluating an institution's educational programs to determine its quality and adherence to established academic standards. Accreditation is a voluntary process in the U.S.
Nonprofit public and private colleges and universities typically seek regional accreditation. Vocational for-profit schools (including sectarian institutions) often seek national accreditation. Accreditation not only attests to the quality of education, it also plays an important role when applying for student aid. Federal financial assistance is only through accredited institutions.
ED and CHEA recognize the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) as the primary accrediting body for medical programs. ACGME accredits institutions, residency and fellowship programs, and specific sub-specialties under general medical practice.
Psychiatry students can select a subspecialty after completing their residency. Most subspecialties require an additional year of fellowship, although some require longer. For example, fellowships in child/adolescent psychiatry typically require the completion of a two-year fellowship. At the end of a fellowship program, graduates earn a certificate in their subspecialty.
ACGME currently recognizes eight psychiatric subspecialties, including addiction medicine, child and adolescent psychiatry, consultation liaison psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, and hospice and palliative medicine. Although psychiatrists can practice without a sub-specialty, many choose to invest an additional year or two of study and training into a subfield that holds their professional interest.
A subspecialty allows psychiatrists to work with a specific population or in a particular work environment. They keep up with the latest advances in treatment options and pharmacological solutions that work best with patients within their field of specialization. Psychiatrists with a subspecialty can still treat patients outside their specialized arena, which enhances their employability and expands their client base.
Components of a Successful Psychiatrist Career:
Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology
Psychiatrist Required Skills
Psychiatrists need the ability to show genuine empathy and compassion toward their patients while maintaining a professional demeanor and objectivity. They must also be able to create a non-threatening physical and emotional space that elicits trust and openness from their patients. Psychiatrists need well-developed critical and analytical thinking skills to help patients through their mental, emotional, and sometimes physical struggles.
Recent advances in the study of the human brain and its functions have contributed to the practice of psychiatry, including the enhancement of treatment protocols and increasing pharmacological options. States require psychiatrists to enroll in continuing education courses to maintain or renew their license. This ensures that psychiatrists are well aware of the most recent developments and applications in their field.
Psychiatrists can now take advantage of advanced medical software developed specifically for the mental health profession. For example, the SoftPsych Psychiatric Diagnosis helps psychiatrists compile a thorough psychiatric history, formulate a diagnosis, craft treatment options, and maintain accurate medical records.
Spotlight Career Interview
David M. Reiss, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice. This is part of his detailed journey from aspiring engineer to psychiatrist.
Please describe your educational path to becoming a 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.
What does your day-to-day work entail?
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.
Do you have any advice for students interested in becoming a psychiatrist?
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.
Professional organizations give psychiatrists the chance to learn the most recent research findings and developments in the field. They also provide excellent networking and mentoring opportunities. Through membership in professional organizations, psychiatrists provide and receive support to and from colleagues locally, nationally, and globally.