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How to become a psychologist

Published: Friday 26th March 2021

Male psychologist smiling and holding a pad

Are you wondering how to become a psychologist? You’re not alone. Thousands of people choose to go into this exciting field every year in the US. To succeed in this role, you’ll need to have a passion for mental health and helping people resolve their personal, emotional, and social issues. 

Here’s how to become a psychologist.

What is a psychologist?

Psychologists study cognitive, emotional and social processes, and use that knowledge to help patients overcome their issues and better relate to other people and their environment. They do this by seeking to better understand an individual or group’s thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors. They observe their clients to develop theories about their beliefs and feelings, and how these things influence their everyday lives in positive or negative ways.

The type of psychologist people are familiar with are those who practice modalities like psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy. However, many psychologists can also work in laboratory and research settings. 

Psychologists can work in many different fields. You could be a counselling psychologist, helping patients to deal with and understand their personal, emotional, cognitive, and social problems. You could be a developmental psychologist, studying the development of people through their lives from childhood to adulthood. Or you could be a forensic psychologist, using psychological principles in the legal or criminal justice systems to help attorneys, judges, and other legal specialists understand the psychological dimensions of a particular case. 

What education do I need to become a psychologist?

Male psychologist talking to a young female patient in an office

Most psychologists have a PhD, though some positions only require a master’s degree, such as for school and industrial psychology positions. ‘Psychologist’ is a protected term in most states, and must be distinguished from roles like ‘coach’ and ‘counselor’. The education you get determines the types of activities you can legally claim to perform.

Most clinical, counseling, and research psychologists complete either a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. These two degrees are different and prepare the students for different career paths. A PhD will require the student to undertake an original research project, take a comprehensive exam, and write a dissertation. A PsyD is primarily a clinical degree and is based on practical work and examinations rather than a dissertation. 

Do I need any other experience or certifications?

In order to practice as a ‘psychologist’ in most states, you will need a license. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state. Most clinical and counseling psychologists need a doctorate in psychology, an internship, and at least 1 to 2 years of supervised professional experience. They will also need the Examination for Professional Psychological Practice in Psychology. Information on licensing requirements can be found at the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

You can also get a range of certifications in various subjects from organizations like the American Board of Professional Psychology and the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology.

Main duties

Your duties as a psychologist will vary depending on your role. However, most psychologists will:

  • Study people in a range of environments
  • Interview, survey, and observe a many individuals
  • Identify psychological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral disorders in individuals, groups, and organizations
  • Conduct research to identify behavioral and emotional patterns
  • Test for patterns that will help patients better understand and predict future behavior
  • Advise patients on treatment options
  • Publish research papers, articles, and reports

Where are all the psychologist jobs?

Young female psychologist talking to a child in a classroom

Once you have completed your qualifications, you can practice anywhere in the country where you are licensed to operate. Where you work will depend on the type of psychologist you become. Clinical psychologists may work in laboratories or hospitals. School psychologists often work in elementary and high schools. Many counseling psychologists will open their own practice or join a firm. 


The average salary for a psychologist in the US is around $80,000. However, this can vary greatly between roles. For instance, the average salary for a school psychologist is around $76,000, whereas the average for industrial-organizational psychologists is around $92,000.

Psychologists who work in private practice usually set their own hours and rates. Others work part time as independent consultants. 

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