Anxiety, depression, addiction, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and bipolar are just a few of the mental health illnesses that affect millions of Americans each year. In fact, one in five people will experience some kind of mental illness, and one in 25 will have a serious mental disorder. There are many different mental health professionals who can help people experiencing these disorders, but only a few types are licensed doctors, including psychiatrists.

Psychiatrist investigate human behavior, diagnose mental illness, and treat patients with psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals, and other therapies. They have received extensive specialized training during their years of residency and are licensed as either a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO). Additionally, in order to practice, they must be board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

Becoming a psychiatrist takes between 15 to 20 years of expensive schooling. Despite this, the career is growing faster than average in the United States. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019) reports that openings for psychiatrists will swell 16 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028—more than three times the projected average growth for all occupations during that period (5 percent).

Keep reading to learn how to become a psychiatrist, the job duties they perform, top schools in the country with psychiatric residencies, and steps to licensure.

Psychiatrist Specializations & Degree Types

Psychiatrists have completed four years of medical school and a residency. They are either a doctor of medicine (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO). MDs practice allopathic medicine which aims to cure patients through the application of remedies such as surgery or drugs. DOs, by contrast, practice osteopathic medicine which is more holistic and looks at all factors, including one’s environment, nutrition, and body system when diagnosing and treating a patient.

Psychiatry has a wide range of specializations and doctors in this field can be certified in sleep disorders, pain medicine, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction psychiatry among others.

Admissions Requirements for Psychiatrist Programs

Medical school is required in order to become a psychiatrist. Admission requirements vary from school to school, but most require completing a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, biology, pre-med, or a related field. Medical schools also require students to have taken the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Upon completing medical school, students will specialize in psychiatry during their residency. Obtaining a residency in psychiatry includes a very competitive interview but students can improve their chances of acceptance with proof of qualifying coursework, letters of recommendation, and an outstanding personal statement. Background checks are mandatory as well.

Psychiatrist Program Accreditation

All medical schools in the United States are required to be accredited programs. MD programs are accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). Every year the LCME publishes a directory of accredited programs. Doctor of osteopathy schools are accredited by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA).

Accreditation for medical programs is critical as residency programs will not accept students who have attended an unaccredited school.

On-Campus Psychiatrist Degree Programs

All medical schools in the United States follow a four-year program, where students are required to complete general medical training and rotations in all specialties, including family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics, and psychiatry. Below are some of the top medical schools in the country with psychiatric residency programs.

Johns Hopkins University – School of Medicine

The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is one of the leading medical schools in the country. The psychiatry program is ranked number two in the nation by US News & World Report (2019). The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services treats adults, adolescents, children, and those with substance abuse disorders. Both medical students and residents receive training and education in this top-notch department.

Groundbreaking research is happening at Johns Hopkins including the formation of a new Psychedelic Research Center, which will be examining the use of mind-altering drugs for treatment and therapy, research into mental health and well-being during and after pregnancy, and discovering new ways of treating substance abuse disorders.

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Tuition: $54,900 per year

Stanford University – School of Medicine

Stanford’s School of Medicine has one of the top-ranked psychiatric programs in the nation coming in at number 10 on the US News & World Report rankings. With small cohorts of 90 to 100 students, this program fosters community and collaboration. Since Stanford University is such a large institution, medical students have the opportunity to complete a dual degree in partnership with many other departments on campus.

During a psychiatric residency at Stanford, students work with inpatient and outpatient clients, participate in a rotation in emergency psychiatry, and learn advanced psychotherapy techniques. This program not only focuses on the mental health of its patients, but also of its residents offering counseling, free yoga, self care retreats, and weekly processing groups to ensure students stay healthy and well.

  • Location: Palo Alto, CA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Tuition: $58,197 per year

University of California, San Francisco – School of Medicine

There is a wide range of psychiatric programs available at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. Fellowships are available in both clinical and research settings as well as a residency program focused on adults and another on adolescents and children. The department of psychiatry coordinates all of the elective psychiatry courses for the medical students and residents

With over 30 different research programs, centers, and laboratories, Stanford is a leader in innovations in this field. A primary area of research is digital health and the use of technology to advance mental health. The school even has a mental health biostats department to provide consultative services to the doctors on how to measure, collect, and interpret data collected during research.

  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Tuition: $47,222 per year

University of California, Los Angeles – David Geffen School of Medicine

With an astounding 14 researchers named amongst the world’s most influential scientists, two of whom are in psychiatry, students at the David Geffen School of Medicine have access to some of the best minds in the field. Psychiatric residency specialties here include geriatrics, neuropsychology, and children and adolescents.

Students and residents at UCLA are immersed in the emerging field of precision medicine which looks at a patient’s genes in order to be able to treat their specific illness in a targeted and unique way. Pioneering work is happening identifying genetics that may be causing neurological and psychiatric diseases, including autism and dementia.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Tuition: $47,432 per year

Online or Hybrid Psychiatrist Degree Programs

Due to the hands-on nature of obtaining a medical degree, there are no hybrid or online programs available.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists must complete medical school and residency in order to obtain a state license and board certification. Including four years of high school, this path can take 15 to 20 years.

How To Become a Psychiatrist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

In order to pursue an undergraduate degree, students must obtain a high school diploma or GED. Courses in science, math, and psychology will prepare students for further studies.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program (Four Years)

Students pursuing a medical career will need to complete a bachelor’s degree in science. Majors can include biology, health sciences, or even chemistry. Many medical schools have prerequisite course requirements so students should ensure they take those classes while completing their undergraduate program.

Step 3: Take the MCAT Exam (Timeline Varies)

Prospective medical school students should take the MCAT in April or May of the year before they wish to start. Most students take the test at the end of their junior year if they want to enroll in medical school immediately after completing their bachelor’s.

Step 4: Apply for Medical School (Timeline Varies)

Most schools use the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) for incoming first-year students. This centralized application process allows students to easily submit applications to multiple schools. Applications are submitted a full year in advance. Undergraduate students typically apply the summer before their senior year to begin medical school upon graduation.

Step 5: Attend Medical School (Four Years)

General medical school education takes four years to complete. While completing general requirements, students have the opportunity to shadow many different specialties. Students who wish to pursue psychiatry should choose a medical school with an outstanding psychiatric department, as that will give them good exposure to the specialty.

Step 6: Apply for a Psychiatric Residency (During Medical School)

During the fourth year of residency, students apply for their specialty residency programs. Numerous hospitals and schools across the United States offer spots for medical school graduates to receive hands on training in psychiatry. The application process is rigorous and involves interviews and extensive supplemental materials. Students are matched to their programs in March.

Step 7: Fulfill Residency Requirements (Three to Seven Years)

Each residency has its own requirements and timelines. Most psychiatric residency programs are four years long, but some may be shorter or longer.

Step 8: Sit for the National Licensing Exams (Timelines Vary)

Upon completion of their residency, prospective MDs will take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) and prospective DOs will take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMPLEX-USA). The extensive standardized tests evaluate the skills and knowledge obtained during medical school and years of residency.

Step 9: Obtain State Licensure (Timelines Vary)

Once a prospective psychiatrist’s education, residency, and testing have been completed, the candidate can apply to their state for licensure and begin practicing medicine.

Step 10: Take the Exam to Become Board Certified (Timelines Vary)

To practice as a psychiatrist one must become board certified by passing the test from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). This certification must be renewed every year.

What Do Psychiatrist Do?

Psychiatrists work in hospitals, public clinics, private practices, emergency rooms, inpatient treatment programs, and in research facilities. Daily duties vary based on the place of employment but can include the following:

  • Assess, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses
  • Advise on lifestyle changes for better mental health
  • Provide psychotherapy
  • Admit patients to the hospital, if necessary
  • Prescribe medications, when needed
  • Offer a second opinion or advise other doctors on complicated cases
  • Work with individuals, groups, or families to improve mental health
  • Apply therapies such as electroconvulsive therapy

Psychiatrist Certifications & Licensure

Doctors must be board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) in order to practice psychiatry. They also must be licensed as an MD or OD by the state in which they practice.

Additionally, doctors can receive board certification in the specialties of neurology or child neurology. Subspecialty certification includes addiction, pain medicine, neurodevelopmental disabilities, or forensic psychiatry, just to name a few.

Psychiatrist Salary

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2019) reports that the 25,630 psychiatrists in the country earn an average annual salary of $220,380. Those at the lower end (10th percentile) earn $75,590 or less, while the BLS did not have exact figures for those at the higher end since it does not report percentile salaries in excess of $208,000 annually.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.