Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Psychologist

From college education requirements to choosing a specialization and getting your license, follow these key steps to become a professional psychologist.

More than 181,000 psychologists practiced in the U.S. as of 2018, with numbers projected to rise by 14% over the coming decade. Becoming a psychologist takes years of education, focus and determination, but earning your license and getting to help others every day often makes the process more than worth it. If you’ve thought about becoming a psychologist but don’t know where to begin – or exactly what the journey entails – you’re in the right place. Here you can learn step-by-step what it takes, from starting your undergraduate degree and choosing a psychology specialization to earning your state license.

FAQs About Becoming a Psychologist

How long does it take to become a psychologist?

Figuring out how long it takes to become a psychologist depends heavily on the type of psychologist you want to become. Many psychologist positions require a PhD or PsyD degree along with a post-doctoral fellowship. Others require only a master’s degree. The following table gives you an idea of how long some popular psychology pathways take but remember that these are general guidelines. Actual timelines depend on you, the degree program you choose, and individual state licensing requirements.

College EducationPost-Degree Supervised Work ExperienceETA to Career Start
Clinical Psychologist8-12 years1-2 years9-14 years
Counseling Psychologist8-12 years1-2 years9-14 years
Forensic Psychologist8-12 years1 year9-13 years
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist6 years0-1 years6-7 years
School Psychologist5-6 years1 year6-7 years

What qualifications do you need to become a psychologist?

How much money does a psychologist make?

Step 1

Make Sure Becoming a Psychologist Is Really for You

Becoming a psychologist takes a great amount of dedication and a willingness to sacrifice free time for years as you pursue the required degrees. It also requires a substantial financial commitment. Before moving any further, consider whether the work of a psychologist aligns with your interests and skills. We’ve provided a few questions to help you figure out if this is the best path for you.

  • Do you enjoy school and learning enough to complete all of the degrees required to work as a psychologist?
  • Do you enjoy conducting research and learning about new studies and data findings that can inform your work?
  • Does the thought of maintaining an active client roster and working with many different types of people appeal to you?
  • Can you see yourself in this position for a long time?
  • Does the average salary meet your requirements for a profession?

If you answered “yes” to most of the questions above, a career as a psychologist is likely a good choice for you.

Step 2

Explore Psychology Specializations and Map Out Your Degree Path

Before starting college, taking time to research the available specializations within the psychology profession can help you determine the type of degree you’ll need and how long it will take to meet all requirements. The American Psychological Association officially recognizes 17 psychology specializations and three proficiencies. Here’s a closer look at some of the most popular specializations:

Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists treat people with moderate to serious psychological disorders, but their role in helping these individuals can range from direct psychotherapy to scientific research and consulting. Clinical psychologists can also choose to further specialize by treating specific populations like children or veterans. Clinical psychologists often work in research labs, universities, hospitals, mental health clinics, or in private practice. Clinical psychologists require a PhD or PsyD degree to become licensed.

Best for…

Individuals who want a broad range of professional pathways to help people with more serious mental health problems using a diagnostic approach.

Example Degree Path

Bachelor’s in Psychology Master’s in Clinical Psychology PsyD in Clinical Psychology

Counseling Psychologist

Forensic Psychologist

School Psychologist

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Step 3

Apply for Scholarships and Other Financial Aid

With the cost of college rising each year, and psychology education taking so long to complete, finding ways to cover tuition and fees is more important than ever. Take time to learn about various types of financial aid – including scholarships and student loan forgiveness programs By doing the research now, you may be able to avoid substantial student loan debt.

Step 4

Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology or a Related Field

Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and related studies serve as the foundation for your future career as a psychologist. While many students who know they want to work in this field begin their academic journey with an undergraduate psychology degree, it’s not required at this stage. If you want to work as a forensic psychologist, for instance, a criminal justice bachelor’s degree may best suit your needs. Alternatively, those who want to work as a school psychologist may consider an undergraduate degree related to education or teaching.

Many bachelor’s degrees in psychology and related fields exist online, making them a great fit if you prioritize flexibility and accessibility. Aside from educational considerations, your undergraduate years also offer a great opportunity to job shadow practicing psychologists to figure out which psychology specialization appeals most.

Step 5

Pick Your Specialization and Pursue Graduate-Level Studies

After earning a bachelor’s degree, it’s time to pick your specialization and make important decisions about which graduate degree(s) will help you reach your goals. A few options exist, some of which we highlight in the following section.

Master’s in Psychology

Master’s in psychology programs serve as a stepping stone on the path to becoming a psychologist, with many PhD and PsyD programs requiring learners to complete this level of training as a prerequisite. This is especially true if you want to work in clinical or counseling psychology roles. Master’s in psychology programs are offered both on-campus and online, typically require two years of full-time study, and begin introducing learners to some of the topics they will encounter at the doctoral level.

Education Specialist (EdS) in Psychology

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

PhD in Psychology

Graduate Internships & Practica

Accreditation

Step 6

Get Licensed in Your State

Any person who wants to legally call themselves a psychologist must first receive and maintain licensure, but rules and requirements around getting a license vary across states and specializations.

Research State Licensing Regulations

Every state has different requirements, so it’s important to do your homework. For general information about psychologist licensure requirements in each state, the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards is a great resource. It’s also a good idea to confirm licensure requirements by contacting your state’s board of psychology. School psychologists and industrial-organizational psychologists should check with the National Association of School Psychologists and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, respectively.

Complete Post-Doctoral Supervised Fieldwork

When looking for a post-doctoral supervised fieldwork position, it’s important to find one that meets all requirements. These should be accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) or Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) and require at least one year of full-time experience. These experiences vary from grad school internships in that you get to provide actual psychological services to real patients under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.

Pass National Exams

As part of steps to licensure, the majority of states require you to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) examination. This exam covers the core tenets of psychology and determines your preparedness to practice independently. If you plan to become a school psychologist, you’ll instead likely need to take the Praxis School Psychologist Test to demonstrate your ability to work in this role.

Meet Other Requirements

Outside of the exams listed above, some states may also require licensure candidates to take a jurisprudence examination or oral examination. These exams test graduates on their understanding of the laws and rules around psychology specific to their states.

Step 7

Consider Becoming Professionally Certified

The American Board of Professional Psychology currently offers 15 different psychology specializations. Other organizations, such as the National Association of School Psychologists, offer additional credentialing pathways. Becoming certified helps psychologists stand out from their competition while also demonstrating advanced knowledge and competencies. Many employers prefer job seekers with board certification as well. While you don’t necessarily need to seek board certification directly after receiving licensure, it’s something to put on your to-do list.

Step 8

Find Standout Job Opportunities and Apply

Now that you hold licensure, it’s time to find a meaningful job. Before launching yourself into the endless sea of job postings and applications, take time to fully consider your path. A few questions to ask yourself include:

  • What does my ideal working day look like?
  • What does work-life balance mean to me?
  • If I could design the perfect job, what would that look like? Should I consider working for an organization or going into private practice?
  • Have I spoken with my networking contacts from previous internships and field experiences to get their advice?
  • What types of positions are currently open in my area? Do I want to stay where I currently live or would I consider moving?

After identifying the type of job you want and finding suitable openings, it’s important to adequately prepare for the interview process. Tips for achieving success include:

  • Reach out to your network and let them know if you used them as a reference so they can provide thoughtful answers.
  • Tailor your resume to the needs of the employer and use buzzwords you find on their website.
  • Learn as much as possible about the company before your interview.
  • Answer interview questions in a way that speaks to both your experience and the ethos of the organization.
Step 9

Maintain License & Certification Through Continuing Education

Requirements vary by state, but most mandate that psychologists renew their licenses every 2-5 years. To meet renewal requirements, psychologists must complete a certain number of continuing education credits. Contact your state board of psychology to learn about specifics in your area and review the American Psychological Association’s guidance on the topic.