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    8 things you should know before you become a psychiatrist

    Key points 

    • Psychiatrists specialize in focusing on patients' mental, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing, aiming to help them achieve and maintain a satisfactory quality of life.
    • The training and education to become a psychiatrist typically takes 12 years. This includes undergrad, medical school, a psychiatry residency, and optional fellowship program to sub-specialize.
    • Psychiatry involves working with individuals who may be facing significant emotional challenges, which can be emotionally demanding for the psychiatrist. You must be skilled at understanding complex mental health conditions.
    • Strengths of a successful psychiatrist may include: empathy, listening skills, communication skills, open mindedness, and a non-judgmental attitude.
    • Psychiatrists in the U.S. make $247,591 per year on average.

    After countless hours of studying and hard work throughout your undergrad and med school years, the moment has arrived for you to make a pivotal decision. Perhaps the most significant one yet: which specialty do should you pursue? 

    To provide you with comprehensive information about various specialties, we have conducted interviews with board-certified physicians who graciously share insights about their professional journeys. In this article, we'll cover 7 things you should know about how to become a psychiatrist. 

    For a detailed interview with psychiatrist Maria Yang, MD, visit the "Psychiatry: Career Focus" section within your Medical Student Core.

    1. What does a psychiatrist do? 

    Psychiatrists are specialists who focus on the mental, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing of patients. The common goal is to help people attain and maintain a satisfactory quality of life. Psychiatrists have expertise in recognizing and treating various conditions, including major depression, schizophrenia, alcohol use disorders, behavioral changes related to neurocognitive disorders, and autism. They also learn how to use interventions other than medicine—such as psychotherapy—to help people.

    "I enjoy learning and using skills other than medications to help people. While psychiatric medications have the potential to significantly improve the lives of patients, it is particularly rewarding to teach people to use skills to help them maintain their health and improve their symptoms. I also like working in teams, which are often necessary for people with complex psychiatric conditions." Maria Yang, MD

    2. How long does it take to become a psychiatrist?

    Overall, becoming a psychiatrist will take about 12 years. A psychiatry residency is 4 years long. Those in an adult training program spend 6 months to 1 year of training in an internal medicine internship. The remaining 3 years focus on psychiatric training.

    Steps to become a psychiatrist: 

    • Complete a Bachelor's degree (4 years)
    • Complete medical school to obtain an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree (4 years)
    • Complete a residency in psychiatry - 6 months to 1 year of training in an internal medicine internship for adult psychiatry. The remaining 3 years focus on psychiatric training. (4 years) 
    • Optional fellowship training to subspecialize (~1 year, more info below)  
    • Complete your certification exam

    Of course, the amount of time can vary depending on your individual circumstances, like how many years you take to complete medical school or if you choose to do additional fellowship training.  

    3. How do I become a child psychiatrist?

    Child psychiatrists usually do their internships in pediatrics, though this is not required because some students do not realize that they want to become child psychiatrists until they begin their formal psychiatry training.

    After an internship, they then go through 2 years of adult psychiatry training, then 2 more years of fellowship training specific to child psychiatry, making this path 5 years long.

    4. What subspecialty options exist for psychiatry?

    There are several subspecialties within psychiatry. Addiction psychiatrists receive additional training related to substance use disorders. Forensic psychiatrists focus on psychiatry within the context of the law. Psychosomatic psychiatrists work at the intersection of general medicine and psychiatry. Geriatric psychiatrists have specialty training in older adult care. Child psychiatrists specialize in children and adolescents. Sleep medicine is also a psychiatric subspecialty.

    Most of these subspecialties require 1 extra year of fellowship training.

    5. Is being a psychiatrist a rewarding career?

    Choosing a career as a psychiatrist can bring immense fulfillment and satisfaction. As a psychiatrist, you have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of your patients by assisting them in overcoming mental health challenges and attaining better overall well-being. Witnessing the progress and growth of your patients over time can be incredibly rewarding and personally fulfilling. Plus, the sense of purpose that comes from helping others and advocating for mental health adds to the gratification of this profession.

    However, it is crucial to acknowledge that being a psychiatrist, like any profession, comes with its own set of challenges that demand dedication, empathy, and a commitment to continuous learning. But, don't just take it from us—we interviewed Maria Yang, MD about the realities of being a psychiatrist. Here's why she chose to become a psychiatrist and what she loves about her career. 

    "After waffling about what specialty to choose, I ultimately went with psychiatry for 2 reasons. First, I am fascinated with the interactions between the mind and the body. Each affects the other in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. Second, a primary focus of psychiatry is on quality of life. People with psychiatric conditions often experience great suffering, and psychiatrists have the opportunity to help people build the lives they want to lead." - Maria Yang, MD

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    6. Is it hard to become a psychiatrist? 

    Becoming a psychiatrist certainly has its challenges! The process requires a significant commitment of time, effort, and dedication. After your residency training, you'll need to pass your certification exam through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) to become board-certified. It's an ever evolving field, so you'll need to engage in continuous medical education to stay up-to-date with the latest research and treatment modalities.

    Not to mention, there are numerous emotional and intellectual demands of becoming a psychiatrist. Psychiatry involves working with individuals who may be facing significant emotional challenges, which can be emotionally demanding for the psychiatrist. You must be skilled at understanding complex mental health conditions and developing effective treatment plans.

    Achieving a work-life balance can be challenging for psychiatrists, particularly during residency and early in their careers. The demanding workload and irregular hours may limit personal time and self-care. Despite the challenges, many psychiatrists find great fulfillment in their careers, so, it will be some give and take! We asked Dr. Yang what she dislikes the most about her specialty and here's what she said.

    "The brain remains a black box because we still don’t know how it works. This makes the field interesting, but also frustrating: How do we effectively treat conditions when we don’t know how or why they happen? The suffering of patients is often great, and we have limited tools to help them. While stigma related to mental health and substance use disorders is decreasing over time, it persists. This affects what treatments are available and who pays for them. Sometimes we are confident that a certain patient would benefit from psychotherapy, but that resource either isn’t available or insurance does not pay for it." - Maria Yang, MD

    7. What personality types generally excel as a psychiatrist? 

    Psychiatry, as a diverse field, attracts individuals with a wide range of personality types. While there is no one-size-fits-all personality type that guarantees success as a psychiatrist, certain traits and characteristics can be beneficial for excelling in this profession. Some personality traits that are often associated with successful psychiatry include:

    • Empathy: Psychiatrists need to be empathetic and compassionate to be able to genuinely understand their patients' perspectives and situations.
    • Listening Skills: Active listening is crucial in psychiatry, as it helps them grasp their clients' concerns and challenges effectively.
    • Open-mindedness: Being open to diverse perspectives and ideas is essential, as they work with individuals from various backgrounds and experiences.
    • Patience: Working with patients who may be facing complex emotional issues requires patience and understanding.
    • Communication Skills: Effective communication is key to building rapport with patients! 
    • Non-Judgmental Attitude: A non-judgmental attitude is crucial for creating a safe and supportive environment for clients to share their concerns. 

    While having these traits can be beneficial, successful psychiatrists can come from various personality types. What truly matters is having a genuine dedication to helping others, a strong commitment to continuous learning and professional growth, and a constant drive to enhance skills. 

    8. What's the average salary of a psychiatrist?

    According to, psychiatrists in the U.S. make $247,591 per year on average. 


    Each section in the Medical Student Core features a Career Focus section that outlines the details of a career in that specialty. You'll see an overview of the specialty as well as an interview with a specialist about their chosen field. Each of these paint a clear picture of what your future holds should you venture down that path.

    Start studying with the Medical Student Core now to see the entire Psychiatry Career Focus section. 


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