How To Become A Psychologist: Degrees And Requirements

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Would you like to have a career in helping others? Are you fascinated with the ways people think and behave? Are you ready for a challenge? If so, a career in psychology may be a valuable choice.  

Psychologists can perform a variety of duties in a wide range of settings. They can treat mental illness through talk therapy, help develop new treatments for emotional disorders, or provide guidance through school systems. There are many career options in psychology, including titles like clinical psychologist, counseling psychologist or research assistant, that allow you to use your passion for helping others and your curiosity about human behavior to make a difference in the world. However, a few significant steps must be taken to arrive at this point. Understanding these steps can help you get started on the path to your dream career. 

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What do clinical psychologists do?

Clinical psychologists—sometimes called counseling psychologists—are educated mental health professionals who have completed the required schooling, training, and licensing to fulfill the required duties. Clinical psychology is one of the largest psychology specialties, and it has many subspecialties. However, unlike other types of psychology, such as organizational psychology, clinical psychology focuses on the assessment and treatment of mental disorders in a clinical setting. As a clinical psychologist, you may work with people of all ages and backgrounds in various mental health systems.

Work directly with clients 

Clinical psychologists have three main jobs in working directly with patients. First, they assess possible mental health disorders by observing and interviewing clients. Second, they can diagnose mental, emotional, and behavioral conditions based on their assessment and psychological testing. Finally, they treat mental illnesses and mental health concerns that their clients have using various psychological approaches and techniques.

Psychotherapy is an essential part of a therapist's work. Clinical psychologists can conduct individual, family, or group sessions, help people develop plans for changing their behavior, and support them as they make those adjustments. A clinical psychologist can work with people with short-term mental health problems or chronic, severe mental illnesses.

As a clinical psychologist, there are several ways you can impact your clients positively. You can work with people with depression, anxiety disorders, substance use or anger challenges to help them relieve their symptoms or work with those experiencing stress. You may work with couples or families to help them improve their relationships or work with a group of clients.

In addition to common mental health conditions, you may treat mental illnesses that are chronic, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are several different modalities psychologists use to address mental health challenges, including cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and applied behavior analysis.

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Consult with clients 

As a psychologist, you might act as a consultant, either for a specific client or about the psychological needs of the community. For this duty, you may work with people in your profession, such as a psychiatrist, or those who aren’t, such as a medical doctor or community/government leader. 

Research

You may need to conduct research as part of your job, even if your primary job is working directly with patients. You may gather information for studies, write reviews of studies that have already been completed or engage in other types of research. In these cases, you may need to keep up with the latest research by reading psychological journals, attending meetings and conferences, and taking continuing education classes throughout your career.

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Working as a clinical psychologist

Various considerations go into a career as a psychologist, including the following. 

Types of Clinical Psychologists

As a clinical psychologist, you can choose from various subspecialties. For example, you can focus your practice on a specific population, such as children or older adults. Or you can specialize in a particular aspect of psychology, such as neuropsychology or clinical forensic psychology. The type you choose can affect the salary you'll receive, and the qualifications needed to become credentialed. 

For example, industrial-organizational psychologists make an average salary of approximately $144,000; these professionals may also have to obtain board certification. A school psychologist may make closer to $90,000 per year, given the BLS’s estimate of approximately $87,000; and they will often have to be licensed by their state’s licensing board and certified by their state’s education department. 

Working conditions

Your working conditions as a clinical psychologist can depend on where you practice. If you work in a hospital, you may be asked to work longer hours and on weekends. However, psychologists in non-public practice sometimes also work evenings or weekends to accommodate their clients' schedules, although their primary practice is during regular working hours. You may work alone, as is often the case with school psychologists, or as a part of a team.

Salary 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for clinical psychologists in 2021 was $81,040, slightly below the median yearly wages for general psychologists, which was $102,900.

However, psychologists in government had a median wage of $103,850. In hospitals, the median wage was $99,330. If you're wondering about a specialty like child psychology, the hospital, government, school psychology, or non-public practice setting may determine how much this individual makes. A therapist's salary is slightly lower than a psychologist's, depending on their education level and location. 

Tips for becoming a psychologist

There are a few tips to keep in mind as you work toward becoming a psychologist, including the following. 

Know yourself

Besides understanding the field of clinical psychology, you may benefit from knowing yourself well. Psychology often involves examining and analyzing information. You may be required to have expert communication skills, working well with clients and colleagues. Being observant and a problem-solver can also be helpful, and personal qualities like patience and integrity are essential.

If you're unsure about your suitability to be a clinical psychologist, it may help you to talk to a counselor. College counseling centers may be able to offer professional psychology counseling, and your teachers in higher education can also support you as you work through your coursework and understand the duties of a psychologist more in-depth. 

Receive the proper education

The main requirement to become a clinical psychologist is relevant education. The education to become a psychologist can involve significant commitment. Since you'll need to spend several years studying and preparing for your career, you may be asked to have a plan before you begin. Talking to a counselor can help you develop educational and career goals. 

Educational requirements to become a psychologist 

Aspiring professionals must receive a doctoral degree prior to becoming licensed psychologists. This process involves completing an undergraduate program, master’s degree program, and doctoral study program.

Undergraduate degree

The earlier you start studying psychology, the better prepared you may be prepared to practice psychology clinically. After you go to college, you can gain more in-depth knowledge about psychology and explore the branches of psychology in your undergraduate degree coursework.

Graduate degree

When you complete your undergraduate degree, you must apply to graduate programs to continue your studies. You may be able to go directly into some doctoral programs. However, in many cases, a master's degree in psychology comes first. To get into a psychology master's or doctoral program, you'll need a GPA of 3.5 or higher and a high score on the GRE. Experience in the field is also helpful for entrance into a program.

Once in graduate school, you'll study subjects like:

  • General psychology
  • History of psychology
  • Statistics
  • Biology 
  • Developmental psychology
  • Theories of personality
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Psychological testing
  • Clinical psychology concepts and practices

Doctoral degree

The doctorate degree graduate students choose determines the work needed to complete a degree. Suppose you decide to get a Doctor of Psychology degree (PsyD) or a Doctor of Philosophy degree (Ph.D.). In that case, you'll be required to take a comprehensive exam and write a dissertation based on scientific research. 

For a PsyD, you'll have to do practical degree work and exams instead of a dissertation. Some clinical psychologists, especially those working in schools, choose an Ed.D. degree, an education specialist degree, rather than a Ph.D. or PsyD degree. Most doctoral programs take five to seven years to complete. 

Clinical training

Clinical training is required for clinical and counseling psychologists. Before and after you complete your doctoral level degree, you'll get supervised experience in the field. A supervised internship allows you to put all the knowledge you gained during your studies into practical use.

Many internships last at least one year, though the number of hours required to complete an internship depends on the state licensure laws where you plan to practice.

License to practice

The final step in becoming a clinical psychologist is to become licensed. The rules vary by state, so it helps to know where you want to practice. Many states, for example, require aspiring psychologists to pass a jurisprudence examination, which tests healthcare professionals on their knowledge of the laws that apply to their field. You'll also be asked to achieve a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Afterward, if you want to enter a specialty, you may need to become certified, which may also involve another exam.

Launching your career

With your education, training, and licensure exam behind you, you're ready to start your career as a clinical psychologist. Many new psychologists start working in a hospital or clinic where they can build their skills and reputation. However, where you work can depend on your preferences and goals for your career. Some psychologists work primarily in research or academia instead of as therapists. 

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Do you want to spend your life helping others?

Professional support

If you're considering a career as a clinical psychologist, talk to a counselor with knowledge and experience relating to the requirements involved. They can help you explore your suitability for the field and suggest ways to improve your skills early on as you work toward your goals. If you don't have time in your schedule to meet with a therapist in your area, you can also talk to one of the many licensed therapists who’ve decided to offer their counseling services online through platforms like BetterHelp.

With an online platform, you can attend counseling sessions from the comfort of your home via video, phone, or chat, and you don't have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list to get an appointment. In addition, you can specify that you want to speak to a career counselor when you sign up to get matched with someone who fits your profile. 

Research shows that online therapy can effectively treat various mental health issues and decrease the impact of chronic fatigue and stress. Deciding whether to pursue psychology as a career and completing the required education and training can be stressful. Talking to a counselor throughout the process can support you through each step. 

Takeaway

Becoming a clinical psychologist can take time and effort, but having a career in helping others may make it worth it. If you want support in deciding if you have the right qualities for the job or are experiencing stress and anxiety about exams or internships, consider talking to a therapist online or in your area for further support.
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