How to Become a Psychologist

Want to unravel the mysteries of the human condition? … Explore the universe of the human psyche? … Already have a specialized area of practice in mind that fascinates you?

There are literally dozens of subfields to explore when it comes to studying and practicing psychology, making it one of the most vast and diverse fields of study.

As a psychologist or psychological associate (a common term used to describe professionals educated at the master’s level), you could work in academia, government, or in private settings, where you conduct basic and applied research… You could work as a therapist, assessing and treating individual clients with mental, emotional, and behavioral problems or couples with marital issues… You could work as an addiction counselor, talking through issues related to substance abuse problems or behavioral addictions that drive patients to compulsively engage in online gaming, sex, or gambling… Or in an in-patient clinical setting where you’d work with severe cases including patients suffering from schizophrenia, acute paranoia, or self-harming behavior…   You could even serve as a consultant to community organizations, private industry, and government agencies.

Your work may take you to laboratories, hospitals, courtrooms, prisons, schools and universities, corporations, and public health agencies. You could work independently or alongside any number of professionals, from scientists and physicians to lawyers, law enforcement officials, and policymakers. You could focus your research or practice on any number of individuals or populations, including children, older adults, business executives, and inmates, just to name a few. You could even dedicate your career to addressing societal issues like domestic violence or developmental disabilities like autism and ADHD.

While there is an abundance of professional options and opportunities within the field of psychology, there is a common thread that runs through them all: earning a graduate degree in psychology.

While a bachelor’s degree in psychology provides a solid foundation for future study and is often the minimum for working as a research associate, social worker, counselor or similar professional in the human services field, the master’s or doctoral degree has become the standard for earning the state license you need to practice psychology.

Here’s what you need to do to become a psychologist:

Step 1. Get Started with an Undergraduate Degree

Before you can begin your study at the graduate level, you must, of course, complete an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university. While many people interested in becoming psychologists choose to complete an undergraduate degree in the same discipline, it’s not always a requirement to enter a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology.

In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), just 15 percent of all graduate programs in psychology require an undergraduate psychology major.

Maybe you’ve already completed an undergraduate degree in a related area like social work, public health, marketing, or personnel management that can serve as a foundation for the psychology subfield you want to focus on in your career.

However, it’s worth noting that, according to the APA, most graduate programs require candidates to have completed at least 18 credits of basic coursework during their undergraduate program, including statistics and research methods, so it’s always worthwhile to ensure the undergraduate program you choose will prepare you for future graduate study.

Of course, earning a bachelor’s in psychology is undoubtedly the smartest choice if you’re just getting started and have plans for master’s or doctoral study, as it provides the most relevant foundation, teaching critical thinking, research ethics, and scientific problem solving in the context of psychology. Psychology remains one of the most readily available undergraduate degrees in the U.S., with the majority of four-year institutions offering a psychology bachelor’s degree.

It’s also one of the most popular undergraduate degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which reported that during the 2013-14 academic year, psychology came in fourth for the number of degrees conferred. While many students who want to become a psychologist choose to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology, it’s also become a popular undergraduate degree choice for students interested in pursuing master’s degrees in disciplines like healthcare, social work, law, and education, among others.

You can complete either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Psychology, which consists of about 120 credits and four years of study.

The major difference between the two is that the BS will often include a more extensive psychology course list, while a BA will often provide a broader course of study in the social and behavioral sciences. However, the APA notes that both the BA and BS in Psychology are an ideal choice for students interested in becoming psychologists.

This is because both types of programs feature a general core that includes courses in research methods, statistical analysis, and an introduction to the principles of psychology. Other courses within a bachelor’s degree in psychology often include:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Psychological disorders

Research is often embedded into the psychology courses, and outside research assignments are commonplace.

Step 2. Complete a Master’s Degree in Psychology and Consider a Master’s-Level License

A master’s degree in psychology is no longer considered just a stepping stone to a doctorate in psychology, as today’s master’s prepared psychologists enjoy a wide array of professional opportunities. The APA recognizes master’s-prepared psychologists as psychological associates or assistants. Depending on the state in which you live, you may be able to practice independently, similar to your doctorate-prepared colleagues.

Each state sets its own standards for the practice of master’s-level psychological associates. While some states license these professionals as they do doctorate-prepared psychologists, other states limit regulation to a simple registration process. Some states require that psychological associates work under the supervision of doctorate-prepared psychologists, while others allow them to work independently. Still many other states don’t regulate these professionals at all.

For example, if you live in Tennessee or Oklahoma, you can practice independently as a state-licensed psychological assistant, while in Indiana and Texas, you can practice independently as a school psychologist with a master’s degree. If you live in California or North Carolina, you must work under the direct supervision of a board-certified psychologist. About half of all states, including New York and Florida, do not regulate the practice of psychological associates at all.

This means it’s important to research the requirements (if any) for the practice of master’s-level psychological associates through your state licensing board.

Master’s degrees in psychology are offered as either a Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA). Though not set in stone, in general, an MS in Psychology will lend itself well to a career in research and further study to earn a PhD, which is historically a research-focused degree; while an MA in Psychology is often a better fit for students who want to practice psychology or earn a practice-focused PsyD.

Master’s degrees may be terminal, stand-alone programs, or they may be part of a track that includes a doctoral degree program. Regardless, they consist of about two years of full-time study and between 50-60 credits. Many institutions offer flexible curriculum options for the completion of a master’s degree in psychology, including fully or partially online programs and part-time study.

You may study general psychology or delve into one or more subspecialties, with focus options that include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • School psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Behavioral and cognitive psychology
  • Geropsychology

According to the APA, the top three terminal master’s degree programs include clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and industrial/organizational psychology.

A terminal master’s degree will include a supervised experience at an approved internship site. You may also need to complete a thesis as part of your program. All programs that are part of a doctoral degree track will require you to complete a thesis. At the end of the program, you will petition for admission into the school’s doctoral program.

Admission Requirements

If you want to enter a master’s program in psychology, be prepared to possess a competitive GPA from your undergraduate degree and minimum GRE scores. Because these programs tend to be competitive, other requirements often include submitting letters of recommendation and a curriculum vitae, as well as sitting for a personal interview.

Step 3. Complete a Doctoral Degree: PhD or PsyD

If you want to extend your level of education to the doctoral level to become a board-certified and licensed psychologist, you’ll either apply for a doctoral program in psychology upon completion of your master’s degree or as part of a combination master’s/doctoral program.

Doctoral programs are designed as either a PsyD, geared toward the student who wants to practice, and the PhD, geared toward the graduate who wants to pursue a research-focused career. Some may also be designed as EdD degrees, for those with a goal of working in academia. The exact trajectory of your doctoral program will depend on a number of factors, including your sequence of education and training, so your doctoral course of study may be quite different from a colleague’s course of study.

However, all programs require the completion of a comprehensive examination and a dissertation defense or other scholarly project. The APA Commission on Accreditation accredits clinical, counseling, and school doctoral programs, internship programs, and post-doctoral residency programs. Some states require candidates to complete an APA-accredited program.

The completion of a PsyD program includes a one-year internship and at least one year in a post-doctoral residency in your chosen area of practice.

Step 4. Earn a State License to Practice Psychology

To become a master’s-level psychological associate:

In about half of all U.S. states, there are no requirements to practice as a psychological associate, while among states that license/register psychological associates, you may need to show proof of the completion of an internship or other post-grad experience and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). A few states also require candidates to pass a jurisprudence and/or oral examination.

However, even among states that do not regulate psychological associates, jobs for these professionals always demand a minimum of a master’s degree in psychology.

The EPP consists of 175 scored questions and is administered through Pearson VUE. Not all states that license/register psychological associates require taking and passing this exam.

To become a doctorate-level psychologist:

All 50 states require psychologists to be state licensed before they can independently practice psychology. Note: If you plan to work in academia (college or university), in a state or federal institution, in a private corporation, or in a research setting, you may not need to be licensed. License are typically only required for psychologists providing assessment and therapy direct to the public on an out-patient basis or within a clinical setting. Find out the requirements in place with your state licensing board to determine whether or not you’ll need a state license.

Before you can qualify to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). your state licensing board will first review your education and practical experience.

In addition to a doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited college or university, most states require at least two years of supervised professional experience—about 2,000 hours in an internship and about 2,000 hours post-doc, in most cases. Some states, like Michigan, however, can require much more (6,000 supervised hours), while some states, like California (3,000 supervised hours) require less. Some states also require taking and passing a jurisprudence examination prior to state licensure.