Psychiatrist: A Career Overview

Medical Doctor Specializing in the Treatment of Mental Disorders

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in the treatment of mental disorders. Ned Frisk / Getty Images

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. Learn more about a career as a psychiatrist in this brief overview.

What Is a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in the treatment of mental disorders. Psychiatrists are sometimes confused with psychologists, and while there are many similarities between the two professions, there are also many important differences.

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          . 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 of a Psychiatrist

The Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the following description:

"Psychiatrists are the primary mental health-care givers. They assess and treat mental illnesses through a combination of psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, hospitalization, and medication. Psychotherapy involves regular discussions with patients about their problems; the psychiatrist helps them find solutions through changes in their behavioral patterns, the exploration of their past experiences, or group and family therapy sessions. Psychoanalysis involves long-term psychotherapy and counseling for patients. In many cases, medications are administered to correct chemical imbalances that cause emotional problems."

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 Needed to Become a Psychiatrist

In order to become a psychiatrist, a person must have either an MD or DO degree from an accredited school of medicine or osteopathic medicine. In addition to this, a four-year residency must be completed with at least three of these years specifically in the practice of psychiatry.

After completing this residency, prospective psychiatrists 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, the individual is then eligible to apply for board certification.

This certification is granted through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), a member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). Once a psychiatrist has been granted board certification, he or she may practice legally anywhere in the United States. However, this certification must be renewed every ten years. Psychiatrists must also get a license through a state medical board in each state where they practice and renew that per state law.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychiatrist?

Typically, it takes about eight years of post-undergraduate 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 Does a Psychiatrist Work and What Are Some 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. According to, 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 a psychiatrist’s 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 Does a Psychiatrist Differ 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.

How Is the Job Outlook for Psychiatrists?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for psychiatrists is expected to grow at a rate faster than the average for the next decade. The increased demand for health care professionals as well as the increased awareness of mental health issues is expected to spur the demand for highly skilled psychiatrists.

A report by the Graduate Medical Education National Advisory Committee described psychiatry as a specialty in which there was a shortage, indicating a need for more psychiatrists in the future. The report also suggested that child psychiatrists and geriatric psychiatrists would be in the greatest demand.

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

How Much Does a Psychiatrist Earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a psychiatrist for the year 2016 was $200,020. Those who were employed in the offices of physicians had an average salary of $197,190 per year. Those employed in outpatient care centers made an average of $214,460 per year.

Who Are Some of the Most Famous Psychiatrists?

There are many famous figures within the field of psychiatry. Some of these include:

Where Can I Find a Psychiatrist?

If you are 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.


Charter: Council on Graduate Medical Education. Department of Health & Human Services.

Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016 29-1066 Psychiatrists. Bureau of Labor Statistics.