How to Become a Psychologist
Mental health is important to our wellness. It shapes how we think, feel and engage with others and ourselves. But sometimes, mental health challenges arise. And when they do, it’s not always easy to manage or cope with them alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 American adults experience mental illness each year.
Psychologists play a critical role in broadening our understanding of human behavior and building a support system for the individuals and communities who need it the most. Caring for your mental health is an ongoing process, but psychologists can guide the way. Interested in a career in psychology or learning how to become a clinical psychologist? First, get familiar with career options and job responsibilities and then map out the education and training requirements for your desired role.
Steps to Become a Psychologist
Starting a career in psychology might seem daunting for some, but it is possible with adequate research and planning. There are a number of areas where psychologists help people regulate their emotions and cope with struggles, which creates opportunities for meaningful impact and drives change. Psychology can challenge you to think compassionately, problem-solve, maintain healthy relationships and communicate effectively.
Once you’ve decided to become a psychologist, the next question is how? There are different types of psychology you can explore. While everyone’s path is different, here are recommended steps for how to become a psychologist:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree.
- Earn a master’s degree.
- Enroll in a doctoral degree program.
- Gain field experience.
- Obtain a license.
While certain positions (those in schools and organizations) only call for a master’s degree, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that most clinical, counseling and research psychologists need a doctoral degree.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Not all psychologists study psychology at the baccalaureate level. Some earn a bachelor’s degree in related disciplines like social work. The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that studying psychology in college or university allows candidates to grasp the fundamentals of the field in preparation for a career in clinical psychology. The APA also states that psychology majors learn how to think critically and exercise ethical judgment.
With an undergraduate degree in psychology, aspiring psychologists are able to learn about different areas of the field, such as health psychology or counseling psychology. Depending on the school and program, there may be opportunities to specialize. That means students can focus on certain populations and work toward a career in a specific setting, such as a school or hospital, or dedicate their time to treating specific disorders.
Step 2: Earn a Master’s Degree
Earning a master’s degree is typically the second step in the journey to becoming a psychologist. In a 2017 article, the APA describes a master’s degree in psychology as a credential that allows for entry into the workforce. The degree prepares students for roles like care coordinator, executive coach, market research analyst and research assistant.
Admissions requirements for master’s programs vary. Some schools encourage prospective students to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, while others accept applicants with bachelor’s degrees in other subjects with certain prerequisites.
There are a number of benefits to earning a master’s degree in psychology, the first being that students gain a deeper understanding of the field. On top of that, the knowledge acquired in a master’s degree program can enhance individuals’ application to doctoral study, should they choose to pursue that path. Master’s degree programs may also provide an opportunity to gain field experience through an internship while developing their professional network.
A master’s degree program in psychology covers a variety of topics, from emotional disorders to abnormal behavior. Here are some other areas candidates might study:
- Industrial-organizational psychology.
- Diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.
- Group therapy.
- Theories and techniques of counseling and psychotherapy.
- Advanced research/scholarly writing.
Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP) offers online psychology master’s degrees. Students may pick from the following options:
- Online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
- Online Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology
- Online Master of Arts in Psychology
Step 3: Enroll in a Doctoral Degree Program
As mentioned above, practicing psychology in most states requires a license. And in order to get that license, you’ll need a doctoral degree. Aspiring professionals can pick between the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degrees based on their interests and career goals. Per the APA, the PhD is geared to professionals with an interest in scientific research, while the PsyD degree is designed for those with an interest in providing psychological services.
Students in a doctoral program will also need to accrue supervised hours via a practicum and an internship. The number of required supervised hours varies by jurisdiction.
Step 4: Gain Field Experience
Master’s in psychology students may complete an internship as part of their program or directly after, prior to pursuing a career in the field. It’s important to note, however, that those who go on to pursue a doctoral degree must complete an internship as part of their program because internships are part of the requirements to become a licensed psychologist. Internships may be found in clinical, counseling, school or health service settings. Other internship sites include research labs, mental health centers, hospitals, college and university counseling centers and cognitive and development labs.
In a 2012 gradPSYCH Magazine article, staff writer Christopher Munsey highlights the importance of interns viewing themselves as professionals in training who have a clear idea of their strengths and interests—that way, they can make the most of the experience. They can start to do this while completing a practicum.
Practicum training is when students start applying therapy techniques and other approaches and lessons from their coursework to real clients in their communities under supervision. These practicum experiences can help students cultivate their professional identity as a psychologist and build a rapport with their supervisors while accruing required clinical hours.
Step 5: Obtain a License
The final step in becoming a psychologist is obtaining a license through your state. Each state has its own specific requirements. The APA lists the following criteria for licensure:
- A postgraduate degree in psychology, either a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology.
- Supervised hours ranging from 1,500 to 6,000, depending on the state.
- Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which tests individuals on the core areas of psychology. The EPPP has 225 multiple-choice questions and test takers need a minimum score of 70 percent or 500 on the computer-based exam in order to pass.
Then, you must be approved by your state licensing board. Fees for licensure range from $500 to more than $1,000, according to the APA.
Frequently Asked Questions
Still have questions about how to become a psychologist? Here are some FAQs about the process.
How long does it take to become a psychologist?
Wondering how long it takes to become a psychologist? It varies. Everyone’s journey is different. A bachelor’s degree program generally takes four years to complete. A master’s degree program might take anywhere from 18 to 27 months to complete. Then, there’s the doctoral program, which generally can be completed in four to six years.
All professional experience is important and relevant to your career path. It helps you sharpen your skills and focus on advancing yourself professionally, while pinpointing your strengths and areas for improvement.
What education is needed to become a psychologist?
To become a psychologist, you need a bachelor’s degree, preferably in psychology or a related field such as education with a concentration in psychology. Typically, the next step is to earn a master’s degree in psychology with relevant coursework in psychology, research and statistics. Should you choose to advance your education, there are opportunities at the doctoral level. Remember, a doctoral degree is one of the requirements for a psychologist license.
How do I become a psychologist in California?
California has a specific set of requirements and processes for licensure. According to the Department of Consumer Affairs Board of Psychology in the State of California, applicants submit an application for the EPPP exam. Then, they must apply for the California Psychology Law and Ethics Examination (CPLEE). Once they’ve done so, they can submit a request for an initial license along with a fee. This final stage includes fingerprint scanning and a background check.
To qualify, you are required to have a doctoral degree in psychology, educational psychology or in education with a specialization in counseling psychology or educational psychology from an accredited academic institution. Then, you’ll need to complete 3,000 hours of supervised professional experience—1,500 of which must be completed post-doctorally. Lastly, you must complete coursework in human sexuality, child abuse, substance abuse, spousal abuse, aging and long-term care and submit evidence for that.
Should I be a psychologist?
There are a couple of reasons why you might consider a profession as a psychologist. The field of psychology offers versatile career paths, a number of which require a master’s degree. You don’t have to become a psychotherapist if you study psychology. Other potential psychology career paths include advertising and marketing, human resources, public health, law enforcement and criminal justice, community services, intelligence and homeland security, research analysis and business.
Furthermore, overall employment of psychologists is projected to grow 3 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. According to the BLS, the aging population will need the help of psychologists to navigate the mental health changes that may occur from growing older, as will veterans suffering from war trauma and survivors of other trauma. With a growing need for mental health services in schools, particularly in the areas of special needs, learning disabilities and behavioral issues, school psychologists will likely be in demand. Industrial-organizational psychologists also have a role to play in human resources departments to maintain efficiency and work toward meeting company goals.
The earning potential for psychologists varies. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for psychologists was $82,180 in May 2020. The lowest 10% earned less than $46,270 and the highest 10% earned more than $137,590.
Psychologists can make a difference in people’s lives by helping them better strategize how to make healthy decisions and maintain their mental health. If you are naturally inquisitive and inclined toward problem-solving, this might be a good path for you.
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
The simple answer is that a psychiatrist can prescribe medications because they have a medical degree, but a psychologist cannot. Of course, there are other differences between the two roles, starting with how they are defined and their scope of work.
The BLS defines psychologists as individuals who conduct scientific research, identify psychological issues and diagnose disorders, test for patterns and discuss treatment of clients. They typically have a doctoral degree in psychology, although they may earn a master’s degree in psychology and pursue roles that don’t require a psychologist license. Pepperdine GSEP offers three types of online graduate psychology degrees to aspiring professionals:
And for individuals who prefer to earn their degree in person, the master’s programs mentioned above are also available on campus.
Still want to know what sets psychologists and psychiatrists apart? Here are a few details to know about the role:
- Doctoral degree (typically four to six years).
- Medical school not required.
- Cannot prescribe medication.
- Courses focus on human behavior, development, personality, assessment, psychotherapy, research, statistics, ethics.
- MD (Doctor of Medicine) degree.
- Courses focus on biological functioning, medications and more.
- Specialized residency focused on mental illness treatment.
- Can prescribe medications.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists can use talk therapy in their practice to evaluate behavior.