How to Become a Psychologist: 7 Steps
Aug 16, 2023
How to Become a Psychologist: 7 Steps
In modern society, people are sharply divided by what they think and say. We have never had more information competing for our attention, influencing our opinions, and leading us in wildly different directions. At the same time, we have more ways to express ourselves and impose our ideas on others than ever before, as well.
Mental health is taking up a growing space in our collective consciousness as we come to terms with its very real importance in our lives. We’re realizing that it’s not enough to say “Get over it” or grin and bear it when our thoughts and feelings get the better of us.
The first step to being healthy is understanding, and that’s why psychologists are more important than ever. We need talented, devoted practitioners to help us make sense of how we think and why we act the way we do. To cut through the tricks our powerful minds can play on us and get to the truth of what is occurring in our brains.
If this important work sounds like a puzzle you’d be interested in solving or a mission that speaks to you, you’re a strong candidate to be a licensed psychologist. So what are the steps to becoming one, and what are some of the career paths in psychology? Let’s find out.
1. Degree Requirements
We’ve all been guilty of “armchair psychology” at one time or another—when we give out life advice despite not being asked or having any credentials. While there’s no degree needed to be a sounding board for your loved ones (or total strangers), if you want to be a psychologist with a professional practice who treats patients legally, the first step is going school for it.
Psychology is a fairly common major at colleges and universities and a fixture among most institutions’ arts and science majors. As you can imagine, there are many psychology majors all over the world, but not nearly that many psychologists. Like other established degrees, a psychology degree opens up numerous career possibilities, so there’s an important distinction to make between psychology and clinical psychology, which is the area we most commonly associate with the field.
Kendra Cherry writes for VeryWellMind that, “To become a clinical psychologist, you will need an undergraduate degree (four to five years of college) plus a doctoral degree (four to seven years of graduate school). For this specialty area, most people will spend between eight to 12 years in higher education.”
A clinical psychologist use their knowledge of human thought processes medically, trying to find the cause of mental illness or other problems and prescribe solutions. As with doctors who treat physical problems, a lot of schooling is required before you can be trusted with the health and safe treatment of other people.
Importantly, Cherry adds, “Of course, there are other career options in psychology that do not require as many years of college. For example, you could become a licensed marriage and family therapist with a master's degree, which would require two to three years of graduate study.”
In other words, if working with patients on the more serious of mental health problems and prescribing solutions doesn’t interest you, there are still plenty of rewarding ways to work in the field and help people.
Regardless of what area of psychology you choose, you’ll likely start with a bachelor’s degree, taking a variety of courses that depend on the requirements of the school you choose. You’ll then most likely go on to further schooling, depending on the area you want to work in. To find out more, be sure to check the graduation requirements for any college or university you are thinking of attending.
2. Choosing a Specialization
The brain is a sophisticated computer, doing billions of calculations every day while juggling thoughts about every aspect of our lives. For everything we spend time thinking about, there’s an area of psychology that studies it. From a career perspective, that’s good news for you, as there’s no shortage of options for what kind of psychology you want to do. That means the next step is finding the one that’s right for you.
The team at Indeed.com offers an overview of possible specializations:
- “Addiction psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Developmental psychology
- Educational psychology
- Environmental psychology
- Forensic psychology
- Health psychology
- Organizational psychology
- Physiological psychology
- School psychology
- Social psychology
- Sports psychology”
With all of that to choose from, how do you go about narrowing it down? The good news is that no one expects you to even try before you start your psychology classes in college. Especially in your introductory classes, finding out the kind of psychology you’re best suited for Is part of the point.
According to Dr. Leila Azarbad, professor of psychology at North Central College, “One of the best ways to explore specialty areas within psychology is to take various psychology courses. You can start with Psychology 100 and think of it as a buffet – just like a food buffet exposes you to a variety of foods, an introductory course introduces you to a variety of sub-fields of psychology. Then, if one area piques your interest, you may consider taking that course later in the curriculum.”
Like any other major, psychology starts out broad and gives you an overview, which is important as it’s not a subject you would typically learn anything about from grade school through high school. From there, it’s up to you to focus on what area speaks to you most. You can also think about your hobbies and interests. If you’ve been an athlete, a performer, or an amateur scientist your whole life, you may find you have insight on the psychology of your activity.
Be mindful, however, that it’s preferred that your college degrees be in the same area of psychology that you want to practice in. When it comes time to make your final choice, it’s not enough just to like developmental psychology, for example—you need to be ready to commit to it for a long time.
3. Further Education and Certification
We’ve alluded to the fact that your undergraduate degree, while vital and a lot of work to achieve, is only the beginning when it comes to learning to be a psychologist. You will most likely need more education in order to succeed professionally. How much education and in what type of degree program depends on your chosen field.
Clinical psychology will definitely require a doctoral degree, typically a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Other careers like social work or counseling may require a master’s degree instead. Knowing the right degree for the career you want is vital to choosing where you’re going to graduate school.
Kathryn R. Klement, writing for the Association for Psychological Science, offers several criteria on which to judge a potential graduate program:
- “Training model” – fairly self-explanatory, the three most common models reflect the nature of the work they prepare you for: Research-Scientist, Scientist-Practitioner, and Practitioner-Scholar
- “M.A. vs. Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.” -- again, the type of degree you need depends on the job you want: master’s degrees typically take two to three years and are less expensive and competitive; the Ph.D. degree is the most prestigious in academia, is usually highly competitive, can take up to six years, and will likely require a dissertation, and an internship to complete; the Psy.D. degree can take around five years to finish and is less exacting, focusing on practicing professional psychology more than research and usually doesn’t require a dissertation, but shorter research papers—it's just viewed as less prestigious than the Ph.D.
- “Faculty match” - in other words, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in close contact with your graduate faculty, and they’ll be key to getting you through your program, so make sure they’re a good fit with your personality and work style
- “Funding opportunities” - you need to know there will be enough chances for fellowship, tuition waivers and other financial aid for you to afford getting through the program
- “Location” - it’s preferable to go to school close to where you live, or at least somewhere you can get to and from easily with a comfortable living situation nearby
- “Cost of living” - your dream school may be in an area where rent, groceries, gas and other essentials are too expensive for you
- “Cost of applying” - something of a “hidden” factor, as many psychology students don’t realize all the costs associated with applying to graduate schools
- “Acceptance criteria” - bottom line: Will you be able to get in?
- “Program feel” - how well you connect with the students, social atmosphere, class sizes and approach to teaching in a given program
4. Gaining Experience
Your undergraduate education is a vital part of the journey to becoming a psychologist. Even before you’ve finished taking classes and researching, however, you should be thinking about the next step in your journey, which is gaining the professional experience you need in order to be a licensed psychologist.
On Counseling Psychology’s website, Joel Gill says, “A stated minimum number of internship hours and a further period of supervised fieldwork are required for all licensure candidates.”
Supervised fieldwork is a key component of any career in psychology. Rather than be thrown into the deep end equipped only with what you’ve read, supervision allows you to meet with clients and then discuss your cases with experienced practitioners who will help you sort out your reactions, evaluate your response to patients’ conditions, and learn for future encounters.
You may get the chance to practice fieldwork during an internship and are most likely to do it during your graduate study as part of your academic work. Supervised work will be required as you start off professionally, too, and it’s recommended even for experienced, licensed psychologists so they can benefit from objective views of their colleagues and continue learning.
Remember that supervision is not about having someone looking over your shoulder or picking apart your faults. On the contrary, it’s to give you the benefit of another psychologist’s experience so you can grow from any mistakes and feel better about the progress you are making.
5. Getting Licensed
Now that your academic preparations are finished, the next step is a big one—getting licensed to practice psychology. This is where you go from having a helpful attitude and a dream to doing real work you can get paid for.
Getting licensed is an involved process, because as we mentioned, there is a lot of responsibility that goes with practicing psychology. Moreover, every state in the U.S. has their own distinct requirements, though there are a lot of similarities between them. According to Melissa Dittman of the American Psychological Association (APA) the following tips are key to navigating your search for licensure:
- “Ask yourself, ‘Do you need to get licensed?’” - Remember that not all careers in the psychology field require licensure, so be sure to look up the requirements for the specific job you want in the state in which you want to work.
- “Meet education requirements.” - Be sure to check for your state’s requirements before or while you are enrolled in school and get the right degrees and majors for your career path.
- “Gather administrative materials.” - While you are doing your supervised fieldwork, keep records of how many people you treated and what their problems were. You should also keep a list of the courses you took in college and grad school as well as the credentials of the instructors who taught them. Then ...
- “Bank your credentials.” - Websites like the National Psychologist Trainee Register or ASPPB's Credentials Bank let you record your transcripts, supervisor information, and necessary signatures online so you won’t have to search for them later on. Start using one early and often as soon as you begin interning.
- “Prepare for tests.” - Passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) is required to get a license in the U.S. and Canada. It's a 225-question, multiple choice exam covering basic knowledge, legal issues, and the importance of ethics in psychology careers (LINK HERE). For more information and help on preparing, you can visit the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) website.
- “Accrue supervised clinical hours.” - As we covered earlier.
- “Make yourself mobile.” - It’s good to have numerous options for where you can practice, so familiarize yourself with the requirements in each state in case you need to change your plans and make sure you are eligible in more than one state.
- “Anticipate the cost.” - Licensure costs range from $500 to more than $1,000 and will have to be paid in each state you want to be licensed in, so plan accordingly.
- “Seek help when you need it.” - Remember that no one expects you to figure all this out on your own, so ask your instructors, mentors, and supervisors and look at the ASPPB and APA websites when you have questions
6. Finding Employment
Now for the last and most rewarding step—getting a job! Looking for work in psychology is much like with other careers—you're most likely to start online, but forming a network through your time in school, internships, and fieldwork is more likely to help you find a position.
According to Azarbad, “Regardless of the online search engines you use, be sure to talk with your professors about job opportunities! Oftentimes faculty learn of job openings directly that we can share with students, and we can also explore your interests with you and make suggestions about employment settings you may want to consider.”
For more on looking for work, check out our articles on career paths in psychology and average psychologist salaries.
7. Start Off on the Right Foot
As with every journey, the most important step to becoming a psychologist is the first one—finding the right school to begin your academic career. Look for a school like North Central College, with courses on numerous areas of psychology from dedicated faculty and resources like an on-site research center, treadmill and sleep labs for data collection, and great opportunities for internships and experiential learning.
Find out more about North Central’s psychology program today.
Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
Kendra Cherry, “How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychologist?”, VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-become-a-psychologist-2794935
“16 Areas of Specialization in Psychology: How To Choose One,” Indeed.com. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/specializations-in-psychology
Joel Gill, “Getting a Psychology License,” Counseling Psychology. https://www.counselingpsychology.org/psychology/licensure/
Melissa Dittman, “What you need to know to get licensed,” American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2004/01/get-licensed
Kathryn R. Klement, “Choosing a Graduate Program,” Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/members/apssc/undergraduate_update/summer-2011/choosing-a-graduate-program