By Zawn Villines

Psychiatrist talks to patientA psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, ADHD, and eating disorders. Many, but not all, psychiatrists specialize in treating a specific type or group of mental health conditions.

Psychiatrists must complete medical school and an additional four years of residency training in psychiatry. Psychiatrists spend much longer in school than most other mental health professionals. Their medical degrees allow them to prescribe psychotropic medication.

How to Become a Psychiatrist

The journey to medical school begins in college, so aspiring psychiatrists must graduate high school or get a GED. From there, the steps are as follows:

  • Graduate college. You don’t need a specific degree to get into medical school. However, most medical schools expect students to have taken and passed one year each of biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, calculus, and physics. A pre-med major can help you meet these basic requirements. A high GPA can increase the odds of acceptance into medical school. (The average GPA of accepted applicants is 3.71.)
  • Take the MCAT. This is the medical school entrance exam. The average score for accepted applicants is 511 (out of 528 points total). This 7.5-hour test contains four sections:
    1. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
    2. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
    3. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
    4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
  • Apply and be accepted to medical school.
  • Graduate medical school. Medical school usually takes four years. High medical school grades can increase a student’s odds of getting a good residency.
  • Apply to be a licensed doctor. You should apply in the state where you intend to practice or complete your residency. You’ll generally need to take a state board examination. You may need to meet additional requirements, such as completing a background check.
  • Complete a psychiatric residency. Psychiatry residencies typically take four years. During residency, you’ll learn about and treat a wide range of mental health conditions, usually in a hospital setting.
  • Become board-certified with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Board certification is optional, but most psychiatrists want to be certified. You’ll need to take a board certification exam and renew your certification every 10 years.
  • Complete any additional state licensing requirements. Most states require doctors to complete a certain number of continuing education credits to keep their license.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychiatrist?

The amount of time it takes to become a psychiatrist varies from person to person. Some people take longer to graduate college than others. Others take time off after graduation to study for the MCAT. Occasionally, a person is able to complete college more quickly than is typical.

Assuming a person does not take any breaks and graduates on a typical timeline, the time from high school graduation to psychiatric board certification is as follows:

  • 4 years of college
  • 4 years of medical school
  • 4 years of residency

That demands a total of 12 years after high school, so the youngest age at which a psychiatrist can expect to begin practicing is about 30.

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Psychiatrist?

The average cost to become a psychiatrist varies depending on where a person goes to school, whether they receive student loans, and whether they live in an area with a high cost of living. Out-of-state students who attend four-year public colleges spend about $23,890 per year in tuition, for a total of $95,560. This does not take into account the cost of books, room and board, food, and student fees, which can be several thousand dollars per year.

Out-of-state students attending public medical schools pay an average of $58,668 in tuition per year, for a total of $234,672. The cost of books, room and board, and other expenses can greatly increase this price tag.

This means that, taken together, for an out-of-state public school student, the cost of medical school and college is about $330,000. In-state public school students typically pay less, while private school students may pay double or even triple this sum.

Psychiatry residencies typically pay $60,800 a year. However, some residents may feel underpaid for the amount of work and expertise involved. Many psychiatrists spend the first several years of their career life playing financial catch-up and struggling with student loan debt. According to Medscape, the average American-trained psychiatrist in 2018 earned about $256,000 per year.

Can You Become a Psychiatrist Without Medical School or a Psychology Degree?

You don’t need a psychology degree to become a psychiatrist. In fact, most people planning to go to medical school choose pre-med, biochemistry, or a similar major, not psychology.

You must, however, go to medical school to become a psychiatrist. People interested in treating mental health conditions who do not want to go to medical school may wish to consider careers as therapists or psychologists instead. Those interested in the medical side of mental health may enjoy a career as a psychiatric nurse or psychiatric physician assistant.

Various sub-specialties in psychiatry may require additional training. The specific path depends on the specialty, so it is important to research your chosen career. Doctors who know they want to practice within a specific sub-specialty should pursue residencies in that specialty.

How Do You Become a Psychiatrist in Canada or the UK?

The process of becoming a psychiatrist in Canada is substantially similar to the process in the United States, with two exceptions: Only 11 of 17 Canadian medical schools require the MCAT, and psychiatric residencies in Canada are 5 years, not 4 years. Psychiatrists must be registered through the College of Physicians and Surgeons or a provincial college.

The educational system in the UK is much different, and so too is the process of becoming a psychiatrist. After completing high school, students apply to medical school, which lasts 4-6 years. Next, students begin foundation training, which is a paid program similar to a medical residency. Foundation training usually takes 2 years. Students must complete an additional three years on core psychiatry training, followed by 3 years of higher psychiatry training.


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