How to Become a Psychologist
A psychologist studies mental and emotional issues and disorders via observation and interpretation. They will also study cognitive, emotional, perceptual and social processes.
There are a variety of settings in which a psychologist could work. Some may work exclusively as independent practitioners, and others may choose to operate as part of a healthcare team. Some may also choose to pursue psychology academically.
Psychologists are not necessarily just academics or members of a general healthcare practice. They work in many different areas of society, including:
- Social reform
As a practicing psychologist, you may pick a specialty that fascinates you. For example, psychologists may be present as part of a sports team to ensure that athletes perform to their ultimate potential, or they may work with children struggling with dyslexia or other learning difficulties.
Possibilities for specialisms are diverse.
To become a psychologist, you must have sufficient willpower and commitment to the career, as it requires an extremely long educational process via an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree (also known as a postgraduate degree) and supervised work experience or an internship, as well as possible additional licensure.
A career in psychology can be hugely rewarding and a wonderfully emotional and intellectual match for the right personality. Psychologists will typically be intensely analytical, focused individuals, with generous, empathetic character traits.
Those who choose a career in psychology are often incredibly motivated to be catalysts for positive change, believing that seismic transformation can only begin with the empowerment of the individual. They may also possess an intense curiosity for the world around them, reveling in problem-solving and being curious about how the world works.
Psychologists are not to be confused with psychiatrists. The two roles sound similar and often work in tandem, treating patients with mental health issues. However, the main difference is that a psychiatrist will treat patients by medicinal means, whereas psychologists approach the patient’s condition via a more therapeutic technique, principally using talking therapies as their central method of diagnosis and treatment.
Psychology can be a very rewarding career on many levels. First and foremost, you will have the chance to be a facilitator for life change – whether on a personal level with patients or within the field of research.
Secondly, psychology work (within a practical capacity) can be intensely varied, with no two days the same, due to the variance between cases and patients. As a result, you will be constantly intellectually and emotionally stimulated. For those who thrive on diverse levels of problem-solving, this aspect of psychology will be hugely attractive.
Psychology also has high earning potential, and although this shouldn’t be your sole motivator, it is a great benefit and will justify the time it takes to gain your qualifications. Depending on your level of experience, what organization you end up working for, or if you choose to operate privately, your salary could begin at around $45,000 and climb into six figures at the peak of your career.
Soft skills typically center around interpersonal attributes that characterize the quality of relationships. Since so much of psychology work is focused on human interaction and trust, these ‘soft skills’ make up a large part of psychologists’ capabilities during their day-to-day work.
Some of the most important soft skills for a psychologist include:
A practicing psychologist will need to possess an exceptional level of communication. Communication covers a broad spectrum of other skills, including general comprehension, understanding and interpersonal skills.
Psychologists also need to be adept at interpreting nuance and subtlety of communication, which may not necessarily be communicated verbally. Nonverbal communication skills are therefore essential.
A successful psychologist will have an intensified sense of emotional management. This means they can handle sensitive situations with tact, understanding and compassion.
Dealing with clients can be stressful and mentally draining for a psychologist. If you can naturally separate your work and personal life, you will find this intensity easier to deal with.
As psychologists often work alone and will also conduct much of their doctorate unaided, a useful predisposition for a would-be psychologist is an ability to focus, avoiding distractions or impulses.
This also relates strongly to self-management – the ability to manage yourself and your workload. This is essential when working as a psychologist.
Whether you choose a psychology career focusing on practice or academic research, patience will play a key factor in your work.
Whilst psychology work is fulfilling, it often requires playing a long game to reach a conclusion. You may also need to be prepared for non-conclusive and ongoing cases.
Impulsive, impetuous personality types may struggle with this element of psychology work. However, patience, with necessary dedication, can develop over time.
The path to becoming a psychologist starts with a rigorous educational program requiring several years of dedication before you are free to operate as a qualified psychologist, whether in an academic or practicing capacity.
A bachelor’s degree (undergraduate degree) is your first step to securing your dream career. This will typically take around four years if you complete your degree in the US, or three years in the UK. There may be some discrepancies in this time scale, depending on the institution and degree in question.
Whilst studying for your undergraduate degree, you may wish to consider volunteering or working within the field to build up practical experience.
A degree specifically in psychology, or majoring in the subject, will provide a great foundation for a career in the field. However, do not panic if you already have a bachelor’s degree in a different subject. It is still perfectly possible to transition into a psychology specialism for your master’s degree, as long as you finish your undergraduate degree with a GPA of 3.3 or higher/B+, 2:1 grade or higher.
For your master’s degree you will home in on a specialty that especially interests you.
Examples of relevant specialties include:
- Clinical psychology
- Research psychology
- Counseling psychology
Dedicate a significant amount of time to picking your options, to ensure you settle on a graduate program that fits well with you and your interests.
Your master’s degree will generally take between one to two years to complete, depending on the institution and whether you opt for full- or part-time study. Master’s degrees in the US will usually take two years (full-time), whereas a UK master’s degree will be one year.
Whilst studying for your graduate degree, you may want to consider working as a psychology assistant in your chosen field of interest. This will help your level of understanding for studying and will also provide you with more valuable resume experience.
To be eligible for a doctorate – the next step in the educational process – you will need a score on the GRE of 1200 or higher/a GPA of 3.3 or higher, or a 2:1 or higher for UK degrees.
Your doctorate will be your final stage of education before you become a fully qualified psychologist.
Depending on whether you decide to specialize in academia or clinical practice, you will pick either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. degree. A Ph.D. in psychology is a research-based degree with a dissertation and will culminate in a comprehensive exam, based on your research.
A Psy.D. focuses on the practical side of psychology, and will therefore be based more on practical work and ongoing examinations. The Psy.D also usually includes a one-year internship as a part of the doctorate.
Depending on your chosen field of psychology during your doctorate, you may also be required to complete a one- to two-year supervised internship, depending on the state you choose to operate in.
It’s also important to note that many career roles within clinical and counseling psychology may require an internship to be approved by the American Psychological Association, so it’s worth carefully checking your internship program beforehand.
To practice independently as a psychologist, you will need to hold a license. This verifies that your level of education and experience is appropriate for a practitioner in your field.
Depending on the state, there will be different license requirements. However, differences in requirements will be fairly minimal, and essentially all states will hold similar expectations of education and experience.
These requirements typically include a year-long internship, as well as undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees. As part of the licensure, you may also be required to participate in a year-long residency and an exam with a required pass rate.
The total length of time that you can expect to spend becoming a psychologist is 10 to 14 years.
Psychology is a fast-growing field that offers many fascinating and varied opportunities for steady, committed individuals who are willing to go through the demanding route towards qualification. Few career paths offer the level of high reward that psychology does.
In conclusion, becoming a psychologist is a very special calling, ultimately culminating in helping people to lead happier, healthier lives.