How to Become a Psychologist

Steps to Become a Psychologist

Careers in psychology are both diverse and rewarding. Experts in psychology are able to help both people and groups better deal with their thoughts, behavioral tendencies, emotions, social dynamics, and cognitive processes. What’s more, the BLS reports that there is consistent demand for psychologists in a wide range of fields and settings.

Regardless of what type of psychologist you want to become, there are three main steps to complete. You must:

The specifics surrounding these steps – including the type of degree, the amount of required field experience, and the specific required credentials – will vary depending upon your chosen discipline.

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Step One: Education

The required educational track for a psychologist looks differently depending upon your ultimate goals. With few exceptions, you will need a doctoral degree to become a psychologist. If research is your passion, a Ph.D. in psychology is the best path. If you are more interested in the clinical and practical side of psychology, a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree is likely a better fit.

It is worth noting that you can earn your certification and/or license in most psychologist specializations with either of these two degrees. However, choosing the degree that most closely matches your career goals should be a priority for both a successful educational experience and increased employability.

In some specific psychology fields, a master’s degree in psychology is sufficient. For instance, positions in industrial-organizational (I/O) settings – like schools or corporations – may require psychologists with specific coursework or certificates, but often fall short of requiring a doctoral education.

In most cases, prospective psychologists have the option of completing their coursework on campus or as part of a hybrid online and in-person degree program. The former is a more traditional approach that often requires full-time enrollment in a doctoral psychology program. The latter is more conducive to those working on their advanced degree part-time and/or while still working full-time. That said, on-site clinical coursework is a requirement for most psychology degrees and career paths.

It is also worth noting that a degree does not mark the end of a psychologist’s training. Most state boards require psychologists to complete continuing education work as a condition of licensure.

Step Two: Field Experience

Another crucial step in becoming a psychologist is fieldwork. Just as the educational track looks different depending upon the field and where you hope to be licensed, field experiences vary as well.

Most psychology degree programs include supervised practicum courses that give would-be psychologists invaluable training in their field. These experiences are more on-site learning than hands-on psychology; students work closely with experts in the field in order to see what being a psychologist is really like. Many schools offer practicum experiences as two semesters of their doctoral psychology programs.

After the practicum, psychologists must complete internship field experiences. Unlike practicum fieldwork, internships immerse students into the full day-to-day experience of being a practicing psychologist. Interns remain under the supervision of accredited psychologists, but have a much broader and intense range of responsibilities than a practicum student.

Internships are also a significant time commitment. It can take students 1-2 years (or more) to accrue the 1,500-2,000 hours required by most states.

Currently, one of the challenges with the internship requirement is that there is an imbalance between the available internship positions and the number of students seeking to secure internships. The American Psychological Association (APA) is working to try to address this need, but psychologists-in-training must be prepared that they may need to put in some extra legwork to find a pathway to completing their required internship hours. 

Step Three: Certification and Licensure

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require psychologists to be licensed where they practice. Technically, licensing requirements vary by state and field, but there are only minor discrepancies for most certifications.

Assuming that a candidate for a psychologist’s license has completed the requisite degree (typically at the doctoral level) and fieldwork (typically a combination of practicum and internship hours), the only additional requirement is the passage of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. This 4+ hour, 225-question multiple-choice test covers the foundational knowledge across all the psychological disciplines.

Certain specialties, such as family psychology, clinical psychology, rehabilitation psychology, and neuropsychology require additional certifications for practitioners in some states and/or places of employment.

What does a Psychologist Do?

Psychologists aim to improve people’s behaviors and processes by studying and exploring how people relate to their environments and other people. This often involves examining the social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral tendencies of patients.

Some psychologists specialize in specific domains of psychology (like behaviorism or social science), while others practice more broadly. Similarly, some psychologists work independently in a counseling or clinical setting while others work as part of a team (like in research capacities, school-based child study teams, or organizational settings). 

There are many career paths that fall under the psychologist umbrella:

  • Clinical psychologists focus on the diagnostics and treatment of behavioral, emotional, and mental disorders. They may offer general psychological care or a specialized focus on a particular type of disorder or patient. 
  • Counseling psychologists work to help patients deal with the patients’ own social, emotional, and behavioral issues. Counseling psychologists are sometimes referred to simply as therapists or counselors.
  • Developmental psychologists focus strictly on the psychological issues surrounding aging and the progression through life’s many milestones.
  • Forensic psychologists work with lawyers and the courts to provide insights into the behaviors and mindsets of those involved in legal matters.
  • Industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologists apply their psychological expertise within corporations and workplaces to improve productivity, social dynamics, and employee issues.
  • Neuropsychologists are concerned with how a person’s brain affects his or her behaviors and cognitive abilities – specifically following injury or disease.
  • Rehabilitation psychologists typically work as part of a team to help injured or developmentally challenged individuals achieve a higher quality of life.
  • School psychologists work to assess and address students’ cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral wellbeing within the context of their ability to learn. School psychologists seldom work in isolation; instead, they typically work as members of child study teams comprised of teachers, administrators, counselors, and other specialists to give parents, students, and educators the support they need to offer the least-restrictive educational experiences possible. 
  • Teachers of psychology work in high schools and colleges to offer introductory-level instruction about the history, fundamentals, and practical implementation of psychological best practices and research.

By now, you should realize that the answer to the question, “How do I become a psychologist?” is a complex one. Each of the aforementioned fields of psychology have their own focuses and pathways. To get a better idea of what your path may look like, check out the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) PSY|Book page to find out the requirements for where you hope to practice.

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Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months