How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychologist?
Most people when asked to picture a psychologist probably conjure the image of a person sitting in a chair, taking notes and asking questions like “How does that make you feel” while their client lies on a couch describing their issues in life. To be sure, that’s one possible scenario for professional psychologists, but it’s far from the only potential daily work situation.
That’s because psychologists can work in a huge range of settings, including within medical facilities, in academia, for private companies — even for the military. And their jobs don’t always involve working one-on-one to help people manage their emotional and behavioral problems.
But regardless of the final destination, most everyone who becomes a psychologist follows a pretty standard path of education, professional training and state licensing. How long does it take to travel that path and become a psychologist? The short answer is it depends on your own interests and the educational institutions from which you seek your degrees. And here’s the long answer:
Bachelor’s Degree: 4-5 Years
The first step to becoming a psychologist is earning a bachelor’s degree. Well, really, it’s graduating from high school, but we assume those who are interested in becoming psychologists are academically motivated, so high school should be a breeze.
While it’s true that most bachelor’s degrees are theoretically designed to be completed in four years, the average undergrad today finishes their degree in closer to five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Students may consider pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field, but other applicable majors or areas of concentration for a bachelor’s degree includes education, social work, biology, sociology, or even English.
In addition to which major is the right one, students also may find themselves at a crossroads when selecting the degree type, whether a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. B.A. degrees tend to be broader and based on a liberal arts-style education, while B.S. degrees generally place more focus on science and mathematics. Which option is right may depend on the type of doctoral degree the future psychologist wishes to pursue, though at the undergraduate level, it’s probably best to choose the path that fits you best rather than worrying too much about your eventual doctoral training.
Remember that the path to becoming a psychologist will extend far beyond you work as an undergraduate college student, so it’s important to take classes that give you exposure to a broad range of topics that could include things like:
- Research Methods
- Behavioral Science
Master’s Degree: 2-3 Years
For most prospective psychologists, the next step after their bachelor’s degree is to earn a master’s degree, though some graduate schools do offer programs that allow students to bypass this step. Still, the majority of students will make a stop in graduate school to earn a master’s degree.
Depending on their area of practice and individual state licensing regulations, some psychologists may be able to seek licensure after completing their master’s, though that’s not the norm for most. School psychologists, for instance, may be able to seek licensure directly after finishing their master’s, but most clinical psychologists will need to obtain a doctorate first.
Either way, at the master’s level, most students will be able to further narrow down their area of focus and tailor their graduate degree to their psychology career goals. In addition to being able to select between a Master of Arts or Master of Science, depending on the educational institution, students could choose to focus on one of a handful of areas of psychology, including child development, clinical psychology or forensic psychology.
For those who intend to continue onto a doctorate, it is helpful to consider possible PhD or PsyD program destinations first before deciding on their master’s focus, or even whether they need to get a master’s at all. It also may not be necessary to choose a psychology focus for your master’s degree, as degrees in social work, education, sociology or counseling could help you earn acceptance into a doctoral program, too.
Students who are able to attend full-time will, of course, finish their degrees more quickly than those who need to work or manage family obligations while they go to school. But a typical master’s degree will take just a couple of years to complete.
Doctoral Degree: 4-7 Years
For most people who wish to work as a clinical psychologist, child psychologist or counseling psychologists, their final formal educational step will be earning a doctoral degree, though even here, there is no single path. That’s because there are two-degree types — a PhD in Psychology (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) — that are both psychology doctorates.
The primary difference between the two types of degrees is the nature of the educational programs. A PhD will focus more heavily on research methods, while a PsyD will lean more toward the clinical applications of psychology, though, again, both qualify a person to sit for licensing exams.
But there’s another crucial difference between the two degrees — a PsyD program generally will be shorter and, therefore, faster to complete than a PhD. Depending on the educational institution, PsyD students may be able to bypass the dissertation requirement, which can help them complete their doctorates in as little as four years. For most PhD students, that will be closer to seven years, with many educational institutions setting maximum time limits for PhD candidates to complete their training. In general, the heavy research focus of the PhD program adds at least a year when compared to the PsyD.
SEE ALSO: Best Online PsyD Degree Programs
A few students may choose to seek a third type of doctorate that could potentially qualify them to work in psychology — the Doctor of Education, or EdD. This degree is less common, but it may be the preferred degree for those who wish to work in psychology within educational settings, but for those who wish to work as clinical psychologists, one of the two psychology doctorates would probably be more appropriate.
Internships & Licensing: 1-2 Years
Depending on the educational institution, a prospective psychologist may need to complete an internship as part of their doctoral degree, and in most states, psychologists must complete an internship before they can apply for state licensure. The number of hours varies by state and accrediting organizations, but they are typically between nine months and a year.
Also, in most states, legally claiming the title “psychologist” requires sitting for a licensure exam and completing a certain number of hours of supervised work. Most professional psychologists must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, and some states have additional state-level exams that you must pass.
For the typical psychologist, this process will take a couple of years, though some states require professional psychologists to complete continuing education classes to maintain their licensing.
Adding up all the steps, we can see that a person just beginning their journey to becoming a psychologist has anywhere from 11 to 17 years of education, training and licensing ahead of them before they can begin practicing professionally a psychologist. That may seem daunting, particularly for those whose journeys will be closer to 17 years than 11, but given the nature of the work, a long, aggressive educational path is understandable. After all, a typical clinical psychologist is trusted with their clients’ deepest fears and anxieties.
But for those who are committed to helping others, this educational journey will be an exciting challenge they’re eager to tackle.
- National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Time to Degree – 2016. (2016.) Retrieved from https://nscresearchcenter.org/signaturereport11/.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-4
- Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, ASPPB PSY Book: Psychology Licensing Requirements. (Undated.) Retrieved from http://psybook.asppb.org/
- Average Clinical Psychologist Salary by State. (2019). Retrieved from https://psydprograms.org/average-clinical-psychologist-salary-by-state/