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How to Become a Psychiatrist: Steps to Take from High School

Wondering how to become a psychiatrist? The road to becoming a psychiatrist is long and challenging, but proper planning and a clear understanding of the requirements you’ll need to meet can smooth the path—helping avoid unnecessary detours and earning you the coveted title of doctor.  


How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychiatrist?


High school students interested in pursuing a career as a psychiatrist should prepare for years of rigorous academic study, as they have 12 years of coursework and practice ahead of them before earning the title of a psychiatrist. The common calendar to become a physiatrist is as follows:


  • Four years to earn an undergraduate degree
  • Four years in medical school 
  • Four years of residency


Those interested in working in a specialized field may need to complete further schooling and obtain additional certification, making the process even longer. The payoff for those who complete the demanding journey is a fulfilling and financially rewarding career. 


What Does a Psychiatrist Do? 


Psychiatrists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat mental and emotional issues. Psychology emphasizes the connection between the mind and body—consequently, psychiatrists also monitor how mental and emotional issues are related to physical manifestations and ailments. 


A majority of a psychiatrist’s time is spent working with patients, but other duties include reviewing treatment plans, tracking the progress of patients, and consulting other professionals. The day-to-day duties of a psychiatrist vary depending on their work setting, which is diverse. Psychiatrists commonly work at: 


  • Private practices
  • Clinics
  • Hospitals (general and psychiatric) 
  • Rehabilitation centers 
  • Nursing homes
  • Prisons 


What Does a Psychiatrist Make? 


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychiatrists are near the top of the list of highest-paying occupations. In 2019, the median wage of a psychiatrist was $220,430. It’s also one of the fastest-growing medical occupations; the BLS predicts the need for psychiatrists to grow at a 12% rate through 2029, substantially greater than the 5% average growth projected for all occupations. 

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How to Become a Psychiatrist: Steps to Take from High School


The path to becoming a psychiatrist is filled with rigorous academic work with each step—from high school through residency—laying a foundation for the next.  


High School


A career as a physiatrist is more than a decade away for high school students, but their preparation for the career begins here. Students should take as many science classes as their schedule allows and enroll in as many advancement placement (AP) science classes as possible while maintaining a high GPA. 


High school students should also explore extracurricular activities that expose them to, and highlight their interest in, the medical field. For example, students could volunteer at a local psychiatrist’s office, rehabilitation center, hospital. They could also sign up to become a peer counselor. These activities will offer insight into the profession while also building a profile that is attractive to colleges and med schools. Here are some other extracurriculars for high schoolers interested in studying medicine.




In college, you can major in anything, as long as you complete the medical school prerequisites. These courses generally include: 


  • Biology – 2 semesters with lab
  • Physics – 2 semesters with lab
  • General chemistry – 2 semesters with lab
  • Organic chemistry – 2 semesters with lab
  • Biochemistry – 1 semester
  • English – 2 semesters
  • Math – 2 semesters
  • Some schools also might require Psychology and Statistics


These requirements are STEM-heavy, so most students choose to major in a STEM field out of convenience, but you could major in something totally unrelated, like music. We have a list of top pre-med majors if you want to learn more. For students pursuing psychiatry, psychology, biology, physics, and chemistry are common undergraduate degree programs.  


Common college classes for a student interested in a career as a psychiatrist include: 


  • Cognitive psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Biopsychology
  • Abnormal psychology


Students should continue to build their profile outside of the classroom with volunteer activities—helping at a rehab center or staffing a suicide hotline are excellent ways to demonstrate an interest in helping others with mental health issues. An internship at the local hospital, research opportunities, and enrollment in psychiatric and pre-med organizations will also bolster your odds of acceptance into medical school. 


Earning a bachelor’s degree is an important step in becoming a psychiatrist, but merely receiving a degree isn’t enough. Getting into medical school—the next step on the path to becoming a psychiatrist—is extremely difficult, and acceptance into a highly selective medical school is even more arduous. In 2018, the acceptance rate at the 118 medical schools ranked by U.S. News was just 6.8% and 2.4% at the most competitive medical schools. The average GPA of a student admitted to medical school was 3.79.


Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)


Taking (and scoring well on) the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is an essential step to take to become a psychiatrist. The MCAT is a 7.5-hour-long exam that contains four sections: 


  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills


The average MCAT score of students accepted into medical school in the 2018-2019 academic year was 512 (the highest possible score is 528). Top 50 medical schools are even more selective—the average MCAT score of accepted students for the same academic cycle was 515.4. You will need to spend ample hours studying, and time the test just right so that it aligns with the material covered in class.


Medical School


Students accepted into medical school will follow one of two tracks—one leading to a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree and the other to a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. 


  • M.D.s generally focus on treating specific conditions with medication
  • D.O.s typically take a more holistic approach and focus on whole-body healing rather than specific symptoms 


Despite differing tracks, medical school is similar for both those seeking an M.D. and those pursuing a D.O. In general, medical school generally takes students four years to complete. The first two years are spent in classrooms and laboratories exploring topics such as:


  • Anatomy
  • Chemistry 
  • Medical ethics 
  • Neuroscience
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology 
  • Physiology 


The final two years of medical school are normally spent working in hospitals or clinics under the supervision of experienced physicians, and gaining firsthand experience diagnosing and treating patients.  




Following medical school, future psychiatrists will receive further training and experience with patients in a residency program, which typically takes four years. During this time, they’ll normally work in a hospital or clinic and gain experience in diagnosing and treating a broad spectrum of mental health issues including:


  • Anxiety 
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dementia 
  • Depression 
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder 
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Substance abuse 




A fellowship is sometimes required to enter specific fields of psychiatry and typically adds another year or two of training after a student completes their residency program. Fellowships involve working under the supervision of a licensed doctor, along with additional courses, seminars, and research projects. The subspecialties of psychiatry include: 


  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Child psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Neuropsychiatry
  • Organizational psychiatry




Upon completion of medical school and residency, students have to pass a licensing examination. 


  • M.D.s take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)
  • D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA)


Psychiatrists must also obtain a state license to practice unsupervised. State guidelines vary, although passing either the USMLE or COMLEX-USA is a requirement of all 50 states.  


Psychiatrists must also get certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) to legally practice. Renewal of ABPN certificate is typically required every ten years. The ABPN also provides certification in a number of subspecialties of psychiatry, including: 


  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Adolescent and child psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Pain medicine
  • Sleep medicine


Despite the enormous amount of time psychiatrists spend in school, they are never truly done learning. As the field of psychiatry continues to advance and new mental health issues appear, psychiatrists are challenged to stay current on the latest in everything from treatment techniques to new tools for making a diagnosis to emerging ailments. 


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Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.