Steps to Becoming a Clinical Psychologist

A psychologist is a professional whose job is to analyze human behavior and understand why people do the things they do. While there is a range of specialties that fall within the umbrella of psychology, the most common is clinical psychology.

Clinical psychologists are licensed professionals who have been certified to assess, diagnose and treat mental and behavioral disorders in people. They may focus on working with a specific population group, such as children or couples, or they may be generalists.

Becoming a clinical psychologist is a challenging journey, but for those with the dedication and passion for helping others, the investment of time, energy and (usually) money is well worth it. Let’s check out what steps are involved in becoming a clinical psychologist.

What’s On This Page

  • Career Overview
  • Educational Steps
  • Choosing a Program
  • Doctoral Coursework
  • Examinations
  • Career Outlook
  • Expert Advice

Career Overview

At its most basic, a job as a clinical psychologist means it’s your responsibility to understand the behavior of another person and help them either change or cope with behavior patterns. Here’s a broad overview of the career of a clinical psychologist.

Job Duties and Responsibilities

Clinical psychologists use a variety of methods to understand their patients, including:

  • Assessments
  • Interviews
  • Biological tests
  • Surveys
  • Observation

They then use the results of any or all of these methods to develop a unique and specific treatment plan for each individual patient. In some cases, that plan will include counseling or therapy sessions with the clinical psychologist, but in other cases, different treatments may be recommended. No single treatment or combination of treatments will be recommended for each person, and clinical psychologists are trained in developing treatment plans tailored to every individual client or patient.


In every state in the U.S., clinical psychologists must earn state licensure before they can legally practice, and in almost every state, the only way to earn licensure is to complete a doctoral program in psychology.

The Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree is the most popular and fastest-growing degree for psychologists, including clinical psychologists, but more traditional Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees also can provide the necessary educational foundation.


As mentioned, clinical psychologists must earn and maintain state licensure in order to practice in most cases. There may be some specific jobs for which clinical psychologists don’t need to maintain licensure, but those jobs will be rare, and it’s unlikely the title would include the term “clinical psychologist.”

State laws are quite strict in this area because of the public’s need to be sure that individuals who are entrusted with licensure are equal to the task.

Related Jobs

Many people who could call themselves clinical psychologists actually hold different but related job titles. Here’s a look at some of those titles and the ways in which they are similar to the job of clinical psychologist.

Educational Steps

No single educational path exists for clinical psychologists, though most people will take a pretty similar journey. Here’s a look at what that typically involves, from starting out as an undergraduate to maintaining licensure.

Bachelor’s Degree

For new students interested in pursuing a clinical psychologist career, the best first step is earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. While it’s possible to continue to the remaining steps with a bachelor’s degree in another field, without extensive professional experience in psychology, it’s difficult it not impossible to do without some sort of bachelor’s degree.

It’s not always a requirement to get your bachelor’s in psychology. Some related fields can provide a good foundation in many aspects of this subject. Those fields include biology, social work, and statistics. Still, those with no psychology training of any kind will find it difficult to proceed to the remaining educational steps.

Master’s Degree

Some but not all doctoral programs in psychology require applicants to first obtain a master’s degree in psychology before they can get accepted to the program. This is especially true for people seeking a doctorate in a specialty area like child psychology or forensic psychology. In both cases, it’s unlikely a standard psychology bachelor’s degree would have provided the necessary foundation in those areas.

Earning a master’s degree is also a way for those without undergraduate training in psychology to gain the necessary educational experience they’ll need to become attractive doctoral candidates.


A doctorate in psychology is required in almost all states, and even in the ones that technically will grant licenses to those with master’s degrees, applicants for licensure must complete as many as 4,000 hours of supervised professional experience in the practice of psychology. This kind of hands-on internship work is often built into doctoral psychology programs.

While Psy.D. has become the standard doctorate for those seeking psychologist licensure, Ph.D. programs also can fill the educational requirement in most states. The decision of which to pursue is largely a personal one that will often come down to geography, since not all states have a huge number of choices in this area.

Continuing Education

After earning state licensure, clinical psychologists must work to keep their licenses valid. This means earning continuing education credits, and these requirements vary by state.

Requirements range from 10 to 40 hours of continuing education every one to two years, and some states have very strict rules for the nature of the programs, even down to the specific topics covered. For example, in Nevada, psychologists must take at least two hours of continuing education every two years in suicide prevention and awareness.

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How to Choose a Doctoral Program

Why are there two main doctoral degree types that can help provide the foundation for licensure? Let’s take a look at the differences between the two types and how students can go about deciding which is right for them.

Main differences: Psy.D. vs. Ph.D.
Main method of instructionHands-onAcademic/research
Program length4-6 years5-7 years
Cost$$$$$$, but programs usually offer tuition remission and stipends
Internship required?UsuallySometimes
Dissertation required?UsuallyAlways

In general, those who want to become clinical psychologists should pursue a Psy.D. track if they can, while those who may still want to work in academia or contribute to scientific research should stick with a Ph.D. program. The Psy.D. degree was developed in the late 1960s specifically as an alternative to the Ph.D. for people whose career objective was to work one-on-one with patients and clients in the field of psychology rather than conducting long-term academic research studies.

SEE ALSO: Differences Between PsyD vs PhD Degree

So most Psy.D. degree programs, while they still include intense classroom work, are heavy on the personal practice of psychology, and in many cases, these programs support on-site community and nonprofit mental healthcare clinics at which students gain real-world experience.


The American Psychological Association is the most well-regarded accrediting organization for psychology doctoral programs. Most states’ guidelines for licensure include applicants completing their doctoral training at APA-accredited institutions, and in a couple of states, they do not license those with degrees from schools that are not APA-accredited.

SEE ALSO: Editors’ Choice Best APA Accredited Psy.D. Programs

Both Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs across the country have earned APA accreditation, but not every state is home to one or more of these programs, so students should be choosy when it comes time to apply for doctoral education. Think first about where you wish to practice psychology and be sure that any program you’re considering will provide you with the educational and internship foundation you’ll need to become licensed.

Typical Psychology Doctoral Coursework

Every doctoral program is a bit different, and each school has its own unique mix of instructors and courses. But most psychology doctoral courses will include some variations on the following class themes:

  • Cognitive Assessment
  • Psychometrics
  • Advanced Psychopathology
  • Personality Assessment
  • Life Span Development
  • Biological Basis of Behavior
  • Social Basis of Behavior
  • Models of Psychotherapy
  • Family Psychology
  • Research Methods & Statistics
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Clinical Interviewing

Those who wish to pursue a specialty within clinical psychology often can do so through electives, or they may choose to enroll in a program with a specialty track in that area. The courses they take reflect their chosen specialty. For example, those who want to work as child clinical psychologists may take additional courses in developmental psychology as well as psychopathology courses involving children and families. On the other hand, for people who want to specialize in counseling those with substance abuse, coursework should focus on areas related to emotional and biological connections to drug and alcohol dependence.

Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology

In every state, becoming a licensed clinical psychologist means taking and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, or EPPP, as it’s known in the industry. The test was developed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), and it’s a long test, consisting of 225 multiple-choice questions.

Here are some additional details about the EPPP:


  • 225 questions, 4 hours, 15 minutes at most to complete

Passing score

  • About 70% of questions correct, for weighted score of 500

Exam fees

  • $450, but some states charge additional administrative fees, and $65 fee paid to testing center

Content areas covered

  • Biological bases of behavior
  • Cognitive-affective bases of behavior
  • Social and multicultural bases of behavior
  • Growth and lifespan development
  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Treatment, intervention and prevention
  • Research methods and statistics
  • Ethical, legal and professional issues

Career Outlook for Clinical Psychologists

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical U.S. psychologist makes about $80,370 per year, and data suggests the future is bright for many types of psychologists, including clinical psychologists.

SEE ALSO: Clinical Psychologist Salary Outlook

These professionals can expect to earn the highest wages in Oregon, where the average annual wage for clinical, counseling and school psychologists is more than $112,000. Here’s a look at the top and bottom 10 salaries for clinical psychologists in the U.S.

Average annual clinical, counseling and school psychologist wage, highest and lowest

Oregon$112,010West Virginia$54,780
District of Columbia$106,900Montana$64,160
New York$96,170Arizona$65,400
New Jersey$95,680Kentucky$66,940
Hawaii$94,550South Carolina$68,040
North Dakota$92,370Vermont$70,120

The next several years are expected to see rapid growth in the availability of clinical, counseling and school psychologist jobs, BLS data indicates. In fact, across the U.S., these jobs are expected to expand by 15%, which is three times higher than the rate at which all U.S. jobs are projected to expand through 2028.

In some states, the expansion in clinical psychologist jobs will be even more pronounced. In Colorado, for example, these jobs will see a blistering 33.5% growth rate.

Percentage increase in clinical, counseling and school psychologist job openings, 2018-2028


Advice From the Experts

How can you make sure you’re on the right path toward becoming a licensed clinical psychologist who can make a real difference in the lives of others? Let’s see what the experts have to say about the steps involved in becoming a clinical psychologist.

  • On types of intelligence needed to be a psychologist – “A psychologist needs to have access to both intellectual and emotional intelligence. They need to be able to ‘hear’ and understand what is being expressed by the patient. The patient is not always aware of their own reality, they believe what they have been taught is the truth. However, even if they are clear on certain facts of their own history, their inner construction of the sense of these experiences is often heavily manipulated by their ‘education.’ I often say that I totally believe my patients but in nothing that they say.”Gary G., psychologist/psychotherapist
  • On the ups-and-downs of a psychology career – “I have always felt grateful for my profession. Helping others to heal and grow is privilege. The trust patients place in psychologists when sharing their stories is a privilege. I am grateful that I have been paid enough to live a middle class lifestyle even though it has not made me rich. I am grateful that psychology is intellectually demanding. I am grateful that there are so many different ways to practice psychology, from working with infants to working with the elderly, from teaching to research to psychological evaluation, to providing psychotherapy. Some psychologists work with police departments and others work with criminal offenders. There are psychologists working with the CIA, the military and NASA.”Stephen L., Ph.D.
  • On the new frontiers of human behavior – “ … one thing I will bet money on is that when humans start becoming really good at predicting the future, it will be because of social and behavioral science. So study psychology and help develop our understanding of humans beyond what we are capable of imagining today.”Michael M., B.S., psychology
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Take Your First Steps

Here’s are several important resources for students considering beginning their journey to becoming a clinical psychologist: