How to Become a Psychologist

Working as a psychologist is an excellent way to make a big contribution to the ever-growing school of thought surrounding how we think, what forms the basis of their emotions and the social paradigms that exist in human society. Whether you’re looking for a role working with people, researching populations or interpreting data collected by researchers in the field, you can find a rewarding career in psychology.

A huge range of roles exists in the field of psychology, depending on the niche you’d like to operate in and the level of schooling you wish to achieve. Due to this wide variety, it’s important to learn more about what a degree in psychology can do for you. It’s also helpful to know how you go about earning the various degrees you will need to work in these various roles.

In this guide, we will discuss what exactly a psychologist is and does (with specific attention to the difference from a psychiatrist, a role with which it is commonly confused).  We will also talk about the job outlook, necessary schooling and licensing, and the internship or practicum, as well as a few other topics along the way. Grab your notebook and a pen, sit back and get ready to learn all about your potential new career path.

What Is a Psychologist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Psychologists study cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior by observing, interpreting, and recording how people relate to one another and their environments.”

They can perform these roles in a variety of settings. Some psychologists practice independently, working with children, couples, families, individuals or the elderly to help them develop coping skills and strategies for life, relationships or mental health disorders. Others work in schools, clinics, government offices, hospitals, institutions, correctional facilities or other establishments, helping a variety of population types heal emotionally and establish better thinking patterns and emotional responses.

Not all psychologists work with individuals, however. Many work as researchers, taking sample data from populations, designing and carrying out experiments, administering psychological tests, conducting interviews, designing questionnaires for use in government facilities, private corporations or schools, and more. Additionally, researchers work in academia, teaching others about the profession, while pursuing their own interests and publishing on the side.

The type of work a psychologist performs depends on their interest area and their schooling, which we will discuss below. Before we turn our attention to that, however, let’s briefly talk about the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

Psychologist Vs. Psychiatrist

To the uninitiated, the terms “psychologist” and “psychiatrist” may seem interchangeable. They are not, however, instead having very specific types of training and scopes of practice. It’s important to understand these before you choose your career path.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors. They have gone through medical school and earned an MD, then work in private practice. While they perform many of the same services for their patients as a psychologist does – listening, counseling, finding solutions, processing emotions and so on – they can also prescribe medication.

Psychologists, on the other hand, are not able to prescribe pharmaceuticals to their patients, but must instead refer them to another professional. While a psychologist can be a doctor if they have earned a Doctorate of Psychology, not all psychologists have done so. Some simply have bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

If you wish to prescribe medications to your patients, you should become a psychiatrist rather than a psychologist. It is also worth noting that due to their medical degree, psychiatrists make significantly more than psychologists – $193,680 a year, on average, as opposed to $72,580 per year. These are, of course, just averages (provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), but they are telling.

Job Outlook

That is not to say, however, that the job outlook for psychologists is bad. To the contrary, it is quite good. Average earnings in the $70,000 range are quite good, and the number of jobs is growing at a very high rate: a projected 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is much faster than average. The job prospects for those who earn a Doctorate of Psychology are best, however, both in terms of earning potential and in terms of employability.


The type of psychologist you become depends heavily on your level and type of schooling.

Associate’s Degree

The simplest degree you can earn in the field of psychology is the associate’s degree. This gives you a basic but broad understanding of social interaction, the human mind and behavior. Many people earn this degree on the way to earning their bachelor’s, especially as you easily can earn an associate’s degree online, giving you the freedom and flexibility to complete your schoolwork from home. This can be an excellent choice for people who have to work through school or have family responsibilities they must attend to at the same time.

On a final note, an associate’s degree can help deepen your understanding of human behavior, which can be helpful in the corporate world, if you work in hiring departments and more. You don’t necessarily need to work as a psychologist in order to benefit from this degree.

Bachelor’s Degree

The next degree level is the bachelor’s degree in psychology. This allows people to work as research or administrative assistants for psychologists. Other job prospects include becoming a technician in a related field (such as market research) or assisting psychologists in mental health centers and correctional programs.

As mentioned above, you can earn the first half of your degree by taking classes online and earning an associate’s degree, which can be a cheaper and more flexible option. There are even a few online bachelor’s degrees, though certain employers may not accept them. For that reason, and for the hands-on experience and increased level of support, many people choose to transition to a four-year institution after earning their associate’s degree.

Master’s Degree

To work on an individual basis with clients, you must earn at least a master’s degree in psychology. People with a master’s degree are also qualified for a range of other positions. These include psychological assistants in clinical, counseling or research settings.

To be accepted to a Master’s in Psychology program, you do not need to have earned your undergraduate degree in psychology. Typically you can apply no matter what field you have worked in, though some employers like to see a continuous focus on psychology throughout the length of your career. If you’re just beginning and aren’t sure what track you want to take, talk to a few potential employers and see what they require or desire so you can make sure to meet those requirements.

Also note that while you don’t have to have a previous degree in psychology, you often need to take certain prerequisite classes before you can begin. Master’s programs typically take between 1 and 2 years.

Doctoral Degree

Earning a doctoral degree in psychology is a serious commitment. It usually takes between 4 and 7 years above and beyond the time it takes to earn a master’s degree, though not all doctoral programs require one. Some will accept you with just a bachelor’s degree so long as you majored in psychology.

Before applying for a doctoral degree program, be sure you understand the two different types of doctorates. The first, a PsyD, qualifies you to practice with individuals, families and populations, helping people manage their lives and learn better coping strategies. The second, a PhD, qualifies you as a researcher. With this kind of doctorate, you can design and lead research studies, apply for grants and make major contributions to the overall field of psychology.

Non-Human Degree Programs

There are also degree programs and career paths in animal behavior and psychology. Such degrees will allow you to work as a researcher in animal behavior, designing and running experiments that help us understand more about how animals think and feel, the evolution of behavior, causes of behavior and more. If you are interested in working with animals in a research capacity and helping add to our understanding of the vast wealth of animals on our planet, search for degree programs in this area.

Certification and Licensure

In most states, if you want to use the term “psychologist” to refer to yourself or your practice, you must be licensed. Any psychologist that wishes to practice independently must similarly be licensed.

Licensing laws differ from state to state, and from job to job. If you wish to work as a clinical or counseling psychologist, you need a license, which requires:

  • A doctorate in psychology
  • An internship
  • 1-2 years of supervised professional work
  • An examination certifying your level of knowledge

If you would like information on the requirements for your individual state, you can check with the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. This offers detailed information about the rules in every state and different territorial jurisdictions. This will tell you not only what you need to do in order to get licensed or certified to perform your desired role, but also the continuing education needed to maintain your licensure or certification.

Certification allows you to work in a more highly specialized area. Examples of certification include

  • school psychology
  • clinical health
  • clinical child and adolescent psychology
  • couple and family health
  • rehabilitation

… and more. There are 15 areas in total recognized by the American Board of Professional Psychology, so head to their website if you wish to find out more about the certification you’re interested in. You can also check out specialty boards related to your interest area. For instance, the American Board of Professional Neuropsychology offers professional certifications related to neuropsychology.

While certification is optional, note that some hospitals, clinics and other healthcare settings do require certification. If you wish to work in these settings, you will need to earn the specified certification to qualify you for that role.

Internship or Practicum

Some psychology degrees require an internship in which a practicing professional supervises you for a year or two. This professional experience allows you to put the ideas you learn in your program to use, and to ensure that you have the necessary skills to help people when working in clinical practice. An internship usually isn’t required for people who wish to work in a research setting at the bachelor’s level.

However, if you wish to work in a corporate setting helping organizations create rules, understand employee behavior or craft effective communication strategies, you may need to put in some practicum hours first. Similarly, if you want to work in government agencies, mental health settings or NGOs, an internship may be helpful and/or necessary.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, psychology is a very wide-ranging field. Whatever your interest area, it is likely you can find a job that aligns with it. If you have questions about human behavior, there’s a great deal of flexibility in designing your own experiments and having autonomy to research and work with people, providing you’ve earned applicable degrees beforehand. The sky is really the limit when it comes to psychology, so talk to an administrator in the degree programs you’re interested in to find out more about what your exact role might be.

Now that you know more about what it takes to become a psychologist, we hope you are better prepared to choose your job path and embark on a new career for yourself in the near future. If you would like help getting started or want to learn more about this exciting profession, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. If you have experience in this field, you should also feel free to leave comments below that might help others learn more about it. Good luck!