How to Become a Private Practice Psychologist

The human brain has posed a mystery to individuals since the dawn of time. Not only is it hard to tell how other people’s brains work; it’s hard to tell how our own minds function. Sometimes we can’t make them up; sometimes we seem to have two of them. Other times we desperately want to stop thinking about something but can’t, while still others we seem to want something badly (like to quit smoking) but find ourselves unable to do it.

These are many of the common challenges faced by the patients of psychologists, who use a combination of science, compassion and commonsense to help people overcome such foibles. Doing so is not as easy as it looks, however, which is why psychologists need a firm understanding of psychological principles as well as significant training.

With degree in hand, psychologists then get to decide exactly where and how they will interact with their patients. Some choose clinics or hospitals. Others choose to work for government or nongovernmental organizations. Still others opt for community centers or schools. But some just want to go into business for themselves, treating patients in their own offices, decorated as they see fit, using the principles they find most effective.

If that sounds like you, then you’re likely fated to become a private practice psychologist. So how exactly do you do that? First, let’s start with a definition of what a private practice psychologist is, what they do on the day to day, and how you can get educated and licensed to do what you want to do.

What Is a Psychologist?

“Practicing psychologists have the professional training and clinical skills to help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues and mental health problems,” explains the American Psychological Association. “Psychologists help by using a variety of techniques based on the best available research and consider someone’s unique values, characteristics, goals and circumstances.”

Psychologists are not, however, allowed to administer prescriptions. That is the purview of psychiatrists, who take a different route toward practice. Instead of a master’s degree and perhaps a PhD (doctor of philosophy degree), they get a medical degree. This aligns with their need to understand human physiology so they can safely prescribe the right medications for individuals they treat.

A psychologist’s approach is primarily talk-based, helping patients to work through their life problems by seeing their part in issues, recognizing unhealthy behaviors and relationships, changing their thinking patterns and so forth. If necessary, a psychologist can refer a patient to a psychiatrist if there is a chemical imbalance that needs to be adjusted.

It doesn’t take a great leap of understanding to see that a “private practice psychologist” is just someone who works for themselves. In other words, they’re self-employed. Note that this is different from working for a small group, although if you choose to, you can work with a few others to form your own group, and therefore still be self-employed, even if you are not working alone.

Before you can become any kind of psychiatrist, however, you have to go to school.

How Do You Get a Degree in Psychology?

To become a private practice psychologist, you need a psychology degree. The specific requirements vary by state, though many require that you have a doctorate. Other states will let you work in private practice with only a master’s degree, so you should check the requirements of your state before enrolling in a program and planning to practice there. If you plan to move to another state when you’re finished with school, make sure you attain the necessary degree for the regulations in that state.

Before you can enroll in a psychology program, you will need a bachelor’s degree, ideally in a related field. Most master’s and doctoral programs require an underpinning of basic knowledge in the field of psychology, but if your undergrad education was completely unrelated, you can take what are called postbaccalaureate classes. These are courses you take after your bachelor’s but before applying to a program to round out your understanding of the subject.

At that point, you can apply to a master’s or doctoral (sometimes called doctorate; the two words are interchangeable) program. Some doctoral programs require that you first get a master’s degree, and others do not. Still other programs combine the master’s and doctorate programs, so that you fast track through the first to get to the second, and graduate with both.

Programs combine a range of courses focusing on human physiology, brain chemistry, psychological techniques such as psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, and more. Programs will also include an extended practicum or internship, during which you work with a practicing psychologist to gain real-world experience of the profession.

Overall, it usually takes about 4-5 years before you have your degree in hand and can move on to the next phase of the process: licensing.

How Do You Get Licensed?

According to the American Psychological Association, “All U.S. states and Canadian provinces whose boards are members of ASPPB – except Quebec and Prince Edward Island – require applicants to pass the EPPP, a 225-question multiple-choice test developed by ASPPB on core areas of psychology, such as assessment and diagnosis, and social and biological bases of behavior.” You can take practice tests to help you prepare for this, and you may take it more than once if needed.

Then, after receiving a certain number of supervised hours, often 1,500 to 1,600 (which hopefully you did during your program), you can apply for a license. If you are granted one by your state or province, you can now go into private practice.

What Is the Job Outlook for Private Practice Psychologists?

The good news is, private practice psychologists will make good money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for psychologists is $79,010 per year or $37.99 per hour. Jobs are projected to grow at a rate of 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is faster than average, so you should have no trouble finding clients. Plus, keep in mind that those are just average salary numbers … with hard work creating your client list, as well as tenure in the field, you can make much more.

Overall, going into private practice as a psychologist is a rich and rewarding career. Once you complete your schooling, you will have a raft of opportunity to practice in a range of places, so don’t wait to start on your psychology journey today! And remember, if you have questions, never hesitate to get in touch and let us know.

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Ann Steele, Ph.D.

Ann Steele, Ph.D.

Editor-In-Chief

Ann Steele, Ph.D., is Editor-In-Chief of PsydPrograms.org. Ann has training as a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has worked with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens throughout San Diego county.