The road to becoming a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental disorders, is a long and demanding one. Generally, it takes at least eight years of postgraduate education, which includes both medical school and a specialized psychiatric residency, to become a licensed and certified psychiatrist.

Undergraduate Degree

Future psychiatrists may major in any field for their undergraduate degree, but many choose psychology, sciences like chemistry or biology or even specialized pre-med programs. Regardless of major, students must take ample coursework in psychology, including introductory psychology, statistics and research methods, and courses in abnormal psychology and psychopathology. Many double major in both psychology and a science in order to complete the required coursework. Applying for medical school admission is competitive, so an excellent GPA in these courses will increase your chances of being accepted.

Medical Degree

Because psychiatrists are practicing physicians specializing in mental health, they must hold a medical degree--either an M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) or a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine)--from an accredited medical or osteopathy school. Applicants must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) as part of the admittance requirements. In medical school, future psychiatrists will spend four years taking courses in human anatomy, histology, biochemistry, pharmacology and even psychology. During this time, students gain an all-around knowledge with clinical training in various fields of medicine.

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Psychiatric Residency

After graduating from medical school, students take a further four years of a psychiatric residency where they undergo hospital training specific to their field. Throughout this residency, future psychiatrists become experienced in different medical environments, from health clinics to psychiatric wards, interacting directly with patients under the supervision of a licensed doctor. After completing their residency, aspiring psychiatrists are given a written and oral exam that covers basic science as well as clinical psychiatry and other specialty areas. This exam tests both medical knowledge as well as real-world skills in treating patients.

Fellowship, Licensure and Certification

For aspiring psychiatrists wishing to specialize even further into fields such as addiction or adolescent psychiatry, an optional one to two year post-residency fellowship can be very helpful. For those not undergoing a fellowship, the next step after residency is to pass both their state's board exam as well as a written and oral exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), which grants students certification and licensure to legally practice psychiatry. Once the ABPN certification has been granted, it must be renewed every ten years through a Maintenance of Certification program (MOC) which assesses the following components: professional standing, self-assessment and continuing education, cognitive expertise and performance in practice.

About the Author

Gale Marie Thompson's work has been published in "Denver Quarterly," "Los Angeles Review" and "Best New Poets 2012." Thompson holds a BA in English and creative writing from the College of Charleston, a MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is working on a PhD at the University of Georgia.