How to Become a Psychologist

How to Become a Psychologist

Thinking about becoming a psychologist
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Have you ever wanted to become a psychologist? This can be an exciting career choice with a wide variety of specialty areas and opportunities. So what exactly do you need to do to become a psychologist? How long will you need to go to school? The steps below outline the basic process required to enter this profession.

So What Exactly Is a "Psychologist" Anyway?

First, it is important to realize that there are many different types of psychologists and the educational and licensing requirements can vary considerably depending on the specialty area you are interested in. Some of the different job paths include school psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, forensic psychology, sports psychology and many others.

For the sake of this article, let's assume that when you say "I want to become a psychologist" you are referring to the profession that utilizes the science of the mind and behavior to assess, diagnose, treat and help people who are experiencing psychological disturbances. Of course, there are a number of different professionals that offer psychotherapy services, including counselors and social workers. In this case, we will discuss the specific career path of psychologists with a doctorate-level degree in psychology.

Now that we've sorted that out, it is essential to note that almost all states have laws about exactly who can call themselves psychologists. In the state of California, for example, the designation of psychologist is a protected term. In order to use this title, you need to have a doctorate degree in either psychology or education and also have passed the state licensing exams. As you begin planning your path towards becoming a psychologist, be sure to contact your state for specific laws regulating the use of the title of psychologist.

Start Planning Early

Writing down plans
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Start Planning Early

Psychology is not necessarily a common course offered at most high schools, but increasing numbers are beginning to offer AP Psychology classes. If your high school does offer some sort of psychology course, it would definitely be a good idea to add this class to your schedule. Having some background knowledge about general psychology can really be helpful during your first year of college.

Of course, there are many other classes you can take in high school to help prepare you for your future career as a psychologist. A strong science background is a must, so sign up for as many courses as you can in topics such as biology, chemistry, human anatomy/physiology and other life sciences. Statistics is a core component of any university psychology program, so having a solid background in mathematics is certainly helpful.

Beyond science and math classes, taking courses in history, philosophy, writing, religion and language can also be beneficial. By learning more about human history and behavior, you can put yourself on the road to future success as you continue your psychology education. Finally, remember to maintain good grades in all of your courses. University admissions can be competitive, so it is important to have a strong GPA and great teacher references.

Tips for High School Students:

  • Take an AP Psychology course.
  • Check to see if your community college offers college-level psychology courses for high school students.
  • Enroll in science, math and humanities courses.
  • Consider starting a psychology club at your school.

  • Look for volunteer opportunities in your community.

  • Start looking at universities during your junior year.

  • Get to know your teachers so that they will be able to offer good letters of recommendation.

  • Get good grades and perform well on the ACT or SAT exam.

  • Submit your applications to the universities of your choice.

Earn Your Undergraduate Degree

Earning undergraduate degree
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Once you have been accepted to the university of your choice, it is time to begin studying psychology in earnest. Before you begin your freshmen year, sit down with your academic advisor and come up with a four year course plan covering all of the general education, psychology and elective courses that you will need to graduate. While you may find yourself deviating from this plan due to various reasons, it can serve as an important road-map as you work toward your ultimate goal of becoming a psychologist.

As you begin to learn more about psychology, you may find that your interests shift towards a particular specialty area (such as developmental, cognitive or biological psychology). If you find that a particular area appeals to you, consider adjusting your course plan to include more elective classes in this subject area. Remember to keep your GPA high in order to prepare for graduate school.

Tips for Undergraduate Students:

  • Seek out research opportunities and participate in experiments whenever possible.
  • Consider signing up to be a teaching or research assistant. You can gain valuable experience and receive mentoring from your supervising professor.
  • Maintain a high GPA. Psychology graduate schools can be very competitive and having good grades, especially in your core psychology classes, is essential.
  • Take the Graduate Requisite Exam (GRE), including the Psychology Subject Matter test. Most graduate programs require this test in order to gain admission.
  • Start looking at graduate programs as early as your freshmen year. By understanding the requirements of the graduate school you wish to attend, you can be sure that you make the most of your undergraduate years.
  • Develop good relationships with your instructors. The better they know you, the better prepared they will be to write glowing letters of recommendation for your grad school applications.

Earn Your Graduate Degree

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The next big question you need to ask yourself is what type of graduate degree you plan to earn? The Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) is what most people think of when they talk about a doctorate degree in psychology, but it is not your only option. You could also choose to earn a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. How do these two degree options differ? Typically, the Ph.D. degree tends to focus more on a scientific model and places a lot of emphasis on experimental methods and research. The Psy.D. degree is a newer option that focuses more on a practitioner model and emphasizes clinical work.

The type of degree you choose will depend largely on your career goals. Do you imagine doing research in addition to treating patients? Then the Ph.D. option might be a good fit for your needs. Would you prefer to focus purely on working with clients in a clinical setting? Then the Psy.D. degree might be well suited to your goals.

As part of your graduate training, you will also be required to complete an internship in a clinical setting. This is a great opportunity to gain practical experience in your field, receive mentoring from experienced psychologists and learn more about where you would like to work after completing all of your educational and training requirements.

Tips for Graduate Students:

  • Volunteer to work with graduate faculty. This is a great way to find professional mentors and gain valuable experience in your field.
  • Keep your grades high. Many graduate programs have minimum GPA requirements and if you drop below this level, you could get kicked out of the program.
  • Consider choosing an area of specialization, such as childhood disorders or substance abuse.
  • Start planning your thesis or dissertation early.

Read some great tips for surviving your first year of psychology graduate school.

Complete the Licensing Requirements in Your State

Taking an exam
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The specific requirements for licensing depend on the state where you live, so be sure to check state law's in the area where you plan to practice. In many cases, you will be required to complete a specific period of supervised residency work (often one to two years) after earning your graduate degree. Finally, you will then need to pass the required exams, which may include both oral and written components.

Becoming a psychologist can be a long, challenging and sometimes frustrating process, but the rewards can be well worth the efforts. After putting in long hours studying, training and working towards earning your degree and becoming a licensed psychologist, you can finally begin putting the skills and knowledge you have acquired to good use.


1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Psychologists, on the Internet at

2Richmond, R.L. (2009) To become a psychologist. Guide to Psychology and Its Practice. Found online at

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