GUIDE: how to become a psychologist

Last updated: July 22, 2024
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GUIDE: how to become a psychologist
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Are you curious about how the brain works? Do you want to know more about mental illnesses, human emotions, and abnormal behavior?

If your answer is yes, then the psychology profession could be for you.

Pursuing a psychology career isn’t something you should do lightly, as it can take up to 12 years to finish your training. But if you’re dedicated, this can be a rewarding career with long-term career prospects.

As of 2021 in the U.S., there were 181,600 psychologist positions available. This number is set to rise by 6% by 2031.

We’ve put together this guide to help you decide whether a career as a psychologist would be right for you. We’ll chat about the education you’ll need, the must-have skills, and the licensure requirements. Plus, we’ll compare average psychologist salaries from across the country.

What is a psychologist?

Psychologists can be found in a range of workplaces, including independent practices, clinical settings, nursing homes, and mental health facilities.

They study human behavior, emotions, thought processes, and mental illnesses. They interview patients, ask them questions, and observe their behavior to find patterns. They can also perform tests on patients.

Psychologists use their knowledge to diagnose patients and create treatment plans. They keep accurate records of every patient visit.

Experienced psychologists can supervise interns. Many of them compile extensive research into articles and books.

There are different types of psychologists, and each has specific duties. Some of the most popular types are:

  • Licensed psychologists

  • Social psychologists

  • Forensic psychologists

  • Child psychologists

  • Sports psychologists

  • Research psychologists

Most psychologists work full-time, and the work hours are usually the traditional “nine to five.” However, roles in emergency settings may require evening shifts, weekends, and holiday availability.

How to become a psychologist

If you want to work as a psychologist, you’ll need to complete the required training. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you get a job in this field:

1. Make the necessary preparations

Before you get started on your psychology education, make sure you meet the minimum requirements. You’ll need a high school diploma or equivalent, and some colleges and universities also require a minimum grade point average (GPA) score.

There may also be a minimum age requirement of 18 or 21, depending on where you live.

It’s important to determine the type of psychology you’re most interested in before you get started on your studies, as this can affect your career path.

It’ll take you years to become a psychologist. Because of the commitment and amount of work involved in studying this field, psychology should be a career you’re genuinely passionate about.

2. Get a bachelor’s degree

The next step is to complete a bachelor’s degree. This is a four-year program — or longer if you study part-time.

The most common undergraduate majors for future psychologists include psychology, social work, and sociology. However, if you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, that may be enough.

The school you choose to study for your bachelor’s degree needs to be accredited. You’ll usually get to pick electives, and you should try to choose areas that are relevant to your long-term career goals.

3. Get an advanced degree

Your study days won’t end there. Once you’ve completed your undergraduate degree, you’ll need to obtain a master’s or even a doctoral degree.

While it’s possible to get work as a psychologist with a master’s degree, you’ll have some limitations. For example, you may need supervision, and you won’t be able to start your own business. If you do choose a master's degree, consider arts or science.

A doctoral program will take longer, but it will give you more career opportunities. It’ll take between four and seven years of full-time study.

There are different types of doctorate degrees. The one you choose will depend on your goals.

For example, if you want to work face-to-face with clients, you can go for a PsyD. If you’d prefer to work in research, you’ll be better suited to a Ph.D. Or, if education is more your style, you can look at an EdD or EdS.

Not sure which option is right for you? Speak to a course counselor at your college or university for guidance.

4. Complete an internship

After you’ve finished your master’s or doctoral studies, it’s time to get work experience. Graduates need to complete an internship with supervision from a mentor.

At this point, you’ll know your specialty, and your internship will be in your preferred field.

You’ll work for around a year under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. During this time, you’ll gain additional training. Your state will have its own requirements, but you can expect to undergo up to 2,000 hours of training.

While you gain experience, you can network with other professionals. The people you meet during your internship can help you with future career opportunities. For example, a mentor may end up giving you a reference for a job.

5. Pass a licensing exam

The exact licensing requirements vary between states, but you’ll need to pass a national exam to work as a licensed psychologist in the U.S.

You’ll need to complete your degree and finish your internship before you take this exam. You may also need to complete an extra year or two of supervised practice.

When you sign up for the national exam, you’ll need to pay an application fee. You can expect a multiple-choice, computer-based test. However, you’ll need to take the test in person under a proctor’s supervision.

Because there are different psychology specialties, the test you take may be customized to your area of expertise.

This exam can take over four hours, and it’s best to arrive early on the day of.

If you pass the exam, you can apply for a license. If you don’t pass the first time, you’ll have an opportunity to retake the exam later on. Keep in mind, though, that redoing the exam will come with another application fee.

You’ll usually need to pay a yearly renewal fee to keep your license active. There may also be ongoing training, professional development, and education requirements.

6. Start work

So, you’ve completed the education requirements, chosen your field, and become a licensed psychologist.

It’s now time to enjoy your new career. When you’re ready, you can start your job search. Browse psychologist positions on our job board and start the application process.

Make sure you update your resume, write a cover letter, and get your references together.

What skills do you need to be a psychologist?

A degree in psychology will teach you how to do your job. But, there are a few extra skills you’ll need to be successful. Here’s a quick rundown of the top five skills for psychologists.

Analytical skills

Psychologists need excellent analytical and problem-solving skills, as patients can come to them with a wide range of concerns. For example, a patient may need support to get through a breakup or to talk about events from their past.

Psychologists have to find solutions to make sure their patients get the best possible care.

Psychologists with specialties also need analytical skills. For example, forensic psychologists interview suspects and witnesses and look at case files. They analyze information to try to find a motive.

Communication skills

Another must-have skill is communication. Psychologists need to talk to their patients, the patients’ family members, and other healthcare professionals. To do their job well, they need to be confident and well-spoken.

They use their interpersonal skills to communicate with people from all backgrounds, even if they have different mother tongues. It’s not just about talking — listening and written communication skills are also essential to work in this job.

Psychologists need to exhibit positive body language and should understand the meanings of non-verbal cues.

School psychologists and family therapists need to be able to communicate with children. They need to be aware of their unique needs and use child-friendly terms when speaking with them.

Patience

Psychologists treat people with a range of conditions. For example, patients may visit them for help with substance abuse, mental disorders, or behavioral disorders.

Patients can be vulnerable, and treatment can be ongoing. To be successful, psychologists need to be patient and empathetic. They need to make their patients feel comfortable by taking the time to listen.

Correctly diagnosing a patient can be a long process, and patients’ conditions can go downhill during their treatment. Good psychologists never make their patients feel bad, and they understand when things don’t go as planned.

Computer skills

Computer skills are also essential for psychologists. These professionals need to keep accurate records, and most rely on electronic patient files.

For example, psychologists may use a computer program to store patient contact details and manage appointments. They can keep track of therapies and changes to patients’ conditions.

Psychologists type letters, referrals, and reports. Depending on the field, these health professionals may also write research papers and articles for other professionals in the industry.

The types of software psychologists use can vary. Experience with Microsoft Office and accurate, fast typing speeds will be beneficial.

Integrity

The personal problems psychologists hear about from patients are confidential. Because these are often sensitive issues, integrity is essential.

Like all mental health professionals, psychologists have to follow a strict code of ethics. Anything a patient says or does has to be treated with confidentiality.

A genuine and trustworthy approach will help psychologists put patients at ease and build credibility with other professionals in the field. For example, a paper published by a psychologist with a good reputation will have more credibility than a paper published by a psychologist with a poor (or no) reputation.

How much does a psychologist make?

Psychology is a high-paying field. In the U.S., the average salary for a psychologist is $81,040 per year or $38.96 per hour.

Your annual salary as a psychologist can vary depending on where you live, your employer, and your experience. Those in government positions make the most, with an average salary of $103,850 per year. If you want to work in a hospital, you can expect a median yearly salary of $99,330.

Psychologists in ambulatory settings make around $83,770 per year, and those in education make $78,830 on average.

What about location? Your state can also impact your salary as a psychologist. The highest-paying state is New Jersey, where the average salary is $143,150 per year. The second-highest-paying state is Delaware at $129,450, followed by Oregon at $126,230.

The average salary for psychologists in California is $122,790, and in New York, you can expect around $120,350 per year.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

Psychologists and psychiatrists can both diagnose mental illnesses and behavioral problems.

The main difference between the two is that a psychiatrist can prescribe medications, while a psychologist can’t.

Psychiatrists have to attend medical school; as such, they understand how different medications work.

On the other hand, psychologists get a doctoral degree from a university, after which they diagnose and treat patients without using drugs.

The option you choose will depend on your career goals.

Where to get a job as a psychologist

After you’ve completed the steps above, you can look for psychologist positions on our job board.

When you create a free account, you can set up job alerts. You can build a profile and network with others in our community discussions. There’s even a resume builder that you can use to help make your job applications stand out from the competition.

Remember, you’ll meet others in the field during your internship. Try to keep in touch with these individuals because someone you know may be able to recommend you for a future job.

Becoming a psychologist

If you’re interested in how the mind works, a career in psychology might be for you. This is a broad field with plenty of job opportunities, and you’ll not only be helping others, but you’ll also be rewarded with a high salary.

You’ll need to have a high school diploma to become a psychologist.

Look at different specialties to decide which direction you want to go in. For example, do you want to be a school psychologist, a forensic psychologist, or something else entirely?

You’ll also need to complete a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s or doctoral degree. The next step is to finish an internship and get some work experience.

When you’ve ticked all these boxes, you can take a licensing exam.

Some of the top skills psychologists need are analytical skills, communication skills, and patience. You’ll also need computer skills and integrity.

Want to see what jobs are available in your area? Check out our job board. Want more articles? Head to our research center.

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Nick Chernick
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