Psychiatrist: A Career Overview

Education, Training, Duties, Salary, and Outlook

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Psychiatry is one of the oldest medical specialty areas. The professional organization known as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has been in existence for over 150 years. Here's everything you need to know about a career in psychiatry.

Psychiatrists Are Medical Doctors

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in the treatment of mental disorders. Because psychiatrists hold a medical degree and are trained in the practice of psychiatry, they are one of the few professionals in the mental health field able to prescribe medications to treat mental health issues. Much like a general practice physician, a psychiatrist may also perform physical exams and order diagnostic tests in addition to practicing psychotherapy.

Psychiatrists may also work as part of a mental health team, often consulting with primary care physicians, social workers, and psychologists.

Job Description

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatrists are primary mental health physicians. Among their major duties are the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. They typically utilize a variety of methods that may include medication, psychotherapy, hospitalization, psychoanalysis, or a combination.

Psychotherapy involves meeting with patients on a regular basis to talk about their problems, behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and relationships. The goal of the psychiatrist is to help each patient find solutions to their problems by exploring thought patters, behaviors, past experiences, and other influences. Patients might meet with their psychiatrist individually or as part of a family or group session.

Types of Psychiatrists

There are a number of different specialty areas in psychiatry. Some different types of specialized psychiatrists include:

  • Addiction psychiatrist: Works with people who have addiction and substance abuse issues
  • Adult psychiatrist: Works with adults experiencing mental illness or psychological distress
  • Adolescent and child psychiatrist: Works with children and teens
  • Forensic psychiatrist: Works in the courts and criminal justice system
  • Geriatric psychiatrist: Works with elderly populations
  • Neuropsychiatrist: Treats mental disorders associated with nervous system problems, brain diseases, and brain injuries
  • Organizational psychiatrist: Practices psychiatry in workplace and organizational settings

Training, Licensing, and Certification

In order to become a psychiatrist, you must have either an M.D. or D.O. degree from an accredited school of medicine or osteopathic medicine. In addition to this, you must complete a four-year residency with at least three of these years specifically in the practice of psychiatry.

After completing this residency, you must then pass a written and oral examination. The written exam lasts a full day and covers basic science, clinical psychiatry, and specialty areas within psychiatry. The oral segment of the exam is designed to assess skills in real settings through actual observation of an examination and patient history with a client.

Once the exam has been completed, you are then eligible to apply for board certification. This certification is granted by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), a member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS).

Once you have been granted board certification, you may practice legally anywhere in the United States. However, this certification must be renewed every 10 years. You must also get a license from a state medical board in each state where you practice and renew that per state law.


Typically, it takes about eight years of graduate study in order to become a board-certified psychiatrist.

The educational timeline for becoming a psychiatrist looks much like this:

  • Bachelor's degree: Four years
  • Medical school: Four years
  • Residency: Four years

If you include the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree, most students are looking at spending at least 12 years in school and training to become a psychiatrist. If you are interested in becoming certified in a sub-specialty area, you may have to complete a fellowship that could take an additional one to two years of post-residency work.

Where Psychiatrists Work and Typical Job Duties

Psychiatrists are often self-employed and run their own mental health practices. However, many psychiatrists also work at hospitals, mental health clinics, government offices, and universities. Psychiatrists typically spend about 60 percent of their time working directly with patients. Other duties may include teaching, consultation, research, and administration.

Day-to-day duties can vary depending on your specialty area and employment sector. For example, a psychiatrist working in a psychiatric hospital might spend much of his or her time assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients suffering from acute mental disorders.

A psychiatrist working in a private practice with a group of other psychiatrists or physicians might spend part of the day consulting with colleagues, performing psychotherapy, meeting and evaluating new clients, completing paperwork, and consulting with other members of a mental health treatment team.

How a Psychiatrist Differs From a Psychologist

While similar in many ways, there are also some important differences between psychiatrists and psychologists. Psychiatrists have a medical degree and psychologists have a doctorate-level degree in psychology. Psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications, while psychologists cannot in most states. Some psychiatrists only prescribe medication and refer patients elsewhere for psychotherapy.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for psychiatrists is expected to grow by 11 percent in the next decade, a rate that's faster than average. The increased demand for healthcare professionals, as well as the increased awareness of mental health issues, is expected to spur the demand for highly skilled psychiatrists.

If you're interested in this field, you should be aware that competition is very high, so it's important to maintain top grades in order to get into medical school.

How Much Psychiatrists Earn

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for a psychiatrist is $200,220. Those who were employed in the offices of physicians had a mean salary of $197,190 per year and those employed in outpatient care centers averaged $214,460 per year.

Famous Psychiatrists You Might Know:

Finding a Psychiatrist

If you're looking for the services of a psychiatrist, the best place to start is to get a recommendation from your own primary care physician. Other options include contacting local mental health clinics, psychiatric organizations, universities, and hospitals for a referral.

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