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How to Become a Psychologist

Psychology can be a rewarding field for those who want to devote their career to helping others in a clinical setting. If you feel comfortable listening to people talk about their lives and challenges, and you want to learn how to become a psychologist, a career in clinical psychology might be a path for you.

Before jumping in, though, you can benefit from doing some research into psychologist education requirements so you have a better understanding of the commitment involved.

Here’s what you need to know about how to become a clinical psychologist — from the average earning potential of working psychologists to possible programs you can look into.

How much do psychologists earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for psychologists in 2019 was $80,370 annually or about $38.64 per hour.

Data from the American Psychologist Association offers deeper insight into how much psychologists make. In its 2017 Center for Workforce Studies report, 57.4% of psychologists said they earned between $60,000 and $120,000 annually. Top-earning psychologists worked in industrial/organizational psychology with median annual earnings of $125,000. On the lower end of the earnings report were educational psychologists, who reported median earnings of $75,000.

It’s not just the specialty that impacts a psychologist’s earnings, though. Where you practice also influences how much you’ll earn. Psychologists in the mid-Atlantic, for example, earned an average of $108,000 annually. Psychologists in the east south area of the United States, however, reported earning just $59,000 annually.

Psychologists also have a wage gap between women and men, with men earning approximately $11,000 more than women annually. A gap is evident between whites and minorities, too, with whites earning approximately $17,000 more than minorities annually.

Moreover, the amount of education you have affects your earnings as a psychologist. PhD holders reported earning on average $10,000 more annually than those without a doctorate — that’s about $200,000 more over the course of a 20-year career.

Currently, the job outlook for psychologists is brighter than the average profession and other popular health services professions — the projected growth between 2018 and 2028 is 14%, compared to a projected growth of 12% for registered nurses or 8.9% for nursing assistants, for example.

How to become a clinical psychologist

Becoming a clinical psychologist requires many years of education and supervised placements. Here’s what the journey to becoming a clinical psychologist typically looks like:

Step 1: Get a bachelor’s degree

Most people pursuing a career in psychology will get a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Although this degree isn’t necessarily a requirement for all graduate psychology programs, it’s definitely the most straightforward approach.

Step 2: Earn a master’s degree or doctoral degree

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, students will then move on to graduate study — typically working toward a doctoral degree, which takes five to seven years.

Step 3: Complete an internship

To practice psychology in a clinical setting you’ll also need to complete an internship, usually lasting one year, specific to your area of practice. This internship is undertaken during your PhD or PsyD.

Securing your internship will require you to match with a program, a challenge that requires you to submit an application with references. It is often recommended you apply to several internships to ensure you match with at least one.

Step 4: Obtain licensure

After completing your education, you’ll need to get licensed in the location you’re planning to work. Each state has different licensure regulations. For example, in Ohio, an oral examination is required to obtain your license, whereas in California it is not. Check your state’s rules through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Step 5: Obtain board certification

Although you don’t necessarily need to become certified in a particular specialty, some psychologists feel board certification helps focus their careers. In 2017, approximately 4% of psychologists had board certification.

The American Board of Professional Psychology offers certification in 15 specialty areas, the most popular being clinical psychology, followed by clinical neuropsychology.

Psychologist education requirements

Most psychologists in the United States require a doctoral-level degree to practice independently. There are some master’s level psychology programs; however, many states won’t allow master’s degree holders to practice psychology independently.

Students who opt for a master’s degree will likely have to practice under someone with a PhD, which is a research-based degree, or PsyD, which is a clinically based degree. Some psychologists can work independently with an education specialist degree, or an EdS.

Alternatively, many industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologists can work with a master’s degree, particularly one that includes coursework related to I/O psychology and statistics.

How to find an accredited psychologist program

Choosing the right clinical psychology program is a major part of your journey toward becoming a psychologist — after all, you’re likely going to spend five to seven years in school, not to mention the financial cost your education will entail. Because you’re making such an investment, it’s important to find a reputable program, one that is accredited by the American Psychologists Association.

Accreditation is a voluntary process that programs undertake, but a degree from an accredited program can be a requirement to practice in some states. Only doctoral programs are accredited by the APA, so if you’re hoping to enroll in a master’s program that focuses on psychology, be aware that you won’t be able to find any accredited master’s programs.

You can search a database of all APA-accredited programs to review your options.

Disadvantages of a career in psychology

Before jumping headfirst into becoming a psychologist, it’s important to understand some of the drawbacks of a career in psychology. Here are a few cons to pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist to help you decide whether it’s the right career for you:

  • Expensive education: Unless you enroll in a fully funded doctoral degree, you’re going to have to pay your tuition and living expenses for five to seven years while you train for your profession. This circumstance could send you deep into student debt. Even at the high end of the scale — about $120,000 — you might earn enough to repay that debt quickly after entering the workforce.
  • Stressful work environment: Psychologists work with people who are facing distressing circumstances, putting them at high risk for occupational stress. They’re often professionally isolated and shoulder the business responsibilities of running a practice in addition to providing care.
  • Heightened risk of suicide: In past decades, there has been a heightened risk of suicide among psychologists, although the APA has stated that more modern research needs to be done to understand how strong that risk is in 2020. In 2009, a survey found 40% to 60% of psychologists experienced anxiety, depression or burnout.

Having a clear picture of the challenges psychologists face can better prepare you for the journey on how to become a psychologist. Being aware of these unique challenges can also shape your area of specialty or the way you approach your work.

Tackling psychology student loan debt

Because becoming a psychologist requires a doctoral degree, chances are you’ll graduate with a considerable amount of student debt. Having a student loan repayment plan ahead of time might influence which loans you take out or what jobs you pursue.

For example, you could decide that you want to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). PSLF requires that you make 120 qualifying payments on a Direct Loan while working for an eligible employer, such as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization or the government. After these payments are completed, the program forgives the remaining balance on your loan.

PSLF is just one strategy that can help you get out of debt faster, however. If you know you want to become a psychologist, be deliberate about your approach to student debt by booking a predebt consultation with a student loan debt expert on our team.