If you’re interested in the emotional and cognitive processes behind how individuals relate to each other, society at large, and themselves, consider becoming a psychologist. Psychologists are experts who study human behavior in a variety of settings, including on research teams at higher education and government institutions, in clinical settings where they work one-on-one with patients, and in organizational settings. Plus, psychologists make about $85,000 a year on average, and the field is experiencing higher-than-average job growth.
Despite the job growth and impact, this field isn’t for everyone. This guide covers how to decide if becoming a psychologist is right for you and details how to become a licensed psychologist. By the end, you’ll have a better idea about if you want to pursue this field and, if so, how to become a psychologist.
Is becoming a psychologist right for me?
Becoming a psychologist is a meaningful job, but it isn’t for everyone. Before researching how to become a licensed psychologist, consider the personality traits and interests that make for a good candidate. You might be a good psychologist if:
- You’re empathetic and ready to serve others, even if doing so takes an emotional toll on you.
- You’re ready to study for longer than other career paths require.
- You have strong interpersonal, analytical, and communication skills.
While this field is rewarding, 45% of licensed psychologists reported experiencing burnout in the past year. This field isn’t for those who are more susceptible to burnout or who may struggle discussing sensitive issues with patients.
How to Become a Psychologist: Step-by-Step
When looking at how to become a licensed psychologist, it’s important to note that the journey can be long. Typically, you must first complete a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree before you can apply for licensure and then jobs in the field. The process can also differ from state to state and from specialty to specialty. For a better idea of what’s involved, the general process of how to become a psychologist is outlined below. Some states do have additional requirements, and five of these states are discussed at the end of this guide to give you an idea of what those might look like.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Getting a bachelor’s degree is an important first step toward becoming a licensed psychologist. Typically, you want to get your bachelor’s degree in psychology or a closely related field like sociology or social work.
When getting a psychology degree, there are plenty of learning formats you can choose from. If you prefer a more hands-on approach, a hybrid or fully in-person degree might suit you best. For more independence and better school/life balance, consider a 100% online bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Some stand-out schools with online psychology degrees include:
- Faulkner University
- Mississippi State University
- Maryville University of St. Louis
- The University of Arizona
- Oklahoma State University
Getting your bachelor’s degree is a significant time and financial investment. While it can take up to four years to get the degree, there are accelerated online options that take as little as two years to complete. The average undergraduate degree costs $9,700 per year at in-state schools and $38,000 at private or out-of-state schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, financial aid can bring down that cost.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree but not in psychology, there’s no need to worry. Many programs accept candidates with a variety of undergraduate degrees, though you might have to do some extra research to find a graduate program and carefully articulate how your experience translates. Check out “Can I Earn a Master’s Degree in a Different Field Than My Bachelor’s” from Abilene Christian University for more details on making the switch.
Step 2: Decide on Your Specialty
In a bachelor’s program, you should be introduced to a variety of psychology subspecialties. Popular specialties include criminal, clinical, forensic, school, and sports psychology. After you graduate or in your final semester you’ll want to determine which subspecialty you enjoyed most as this will determine your next steps and approach for how to become a psychologist.
If you have trouble deciding on a specialty, think back to every area your undergraduate degree covered. For each subject, answer the following questions:
- How much did I enjoy that specialty?
- On a scale of 1-10, how excited would I be to take more classes in that area?
- Could I picture myself working in that area?
The answers to these three simple questions should determine the specialties you prefer. These can inform where you apply for your master’s and specific degree requirements to look out for.
Step 3: Complete a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate
Once you know what specialty you’d like to pursue, it’s time to find a master’s and doctorate program. When researching how to become a licensed psychologist, you’ll discover that getting both degrees is important for licensure in every state. Often, licensure exists for specific subspecialties as well. That means if you want to work in school counseling, for example, you should find a master’s and doctoral program that makes you eligible for licensure in that field.
A master’s degree takes two to three years to complete and costs about $18,416 a year on average. These degrees can be completed online, in person, or in a hybrid format. If your degree has a large clinical component, it may be hard to find a 100% online degree.
For those who don’t want to complete a master’s with an in-person clinical component, here are some quality online master’s in psychology to explore:
Getting a doctorate isn’t always required to work as a psychologist. Only one-third of psychologists in the United States have this degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the median salary of those with a doctorate is 46% higher than those with a master’s, and a doctorate is often required to become a licensed psychologist.
Fortunately, there are some amazing online doctoral degrees in psychology. Stand-out programs include:
Getting a doctorate takes three to five years, meaning psychologists have about a decade of education under their belt by the time they are eligible for licensure.
Step 4: Complete Your Supervised Clinical Work
During a master’s and doctoral degree program, you’ll most likely complete supervised clinical hours. These are completed in person and provide hands-on experience working with patients in an inpatient or outpatient treatment setting.
When researching how to become a psychologist in your state, pay attention to how many supervised clinical hours you’ll need, as this can vary. In Florida, for example, the requirement is 2,000 hours after completing a doctoral degree and 2,000 hours during the degree, totaling 4,000 hours. In New York, it’s 1,750 hours that can be completed while getting a doctoral degree or after.
Typically, a doctoral program requires clinical hours as part of its curriculum. Often, these programs have already established healthcare partners, and students can complete their clinical hours at those sites. If a program doesn’t have these collaborations, you may need to set up clinical hours on your own, which can be trickier but is doable.
If post-doctoral hours are required for licensure, you’ll have to look for a postdoctoral fellowship or other opportunity to get supervised clinical experience. Often, PhD and doctoral programs help students find these opportunities, and this is a trait to look for in doctoral programs.
Step 5: Apply for Licensure & Certification
Once you have your bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and have completed your supervised clinical experience, it’s time to seek licensure. Licensure requirements vary greatly by state, so it’s important to check the requirements for your specific state.
To find those requirements, google how to become a psychologist in your state. The first government website to appear should provide the specific requirements of your state’s government.
Before you google that, though, here’s a run-down of the basic requirements all or most states have:
- Be able to pass a criminal background check.
- Pay the licensure fee.
- Satisfy any reporting requirements, such as a child abuse reporting requirement.
- Pass an exam if the state administers one.
Often, doctoral programs prepare students for the licensure process. When researching how to become a licensed psychologist, remember to look at doctoral programs that lead to licensure in the state where you want to practice.
Psychology Specializations to Consider
As discussed in step two of becoming a psychologist, you’ll most likely have to choose a specialization at some point. Your specialization may slightly alter the process of how you become a psychologist, though it shouldn’t impact the time it takes to become a licensed psychologist. It will, however, impact your job satisfaction, interest in learning, and earning potential upon graduation. This is why it’s important to research different specializations and find one that suits your academic and professional interests. Consider the following specializations as you contemplate where you want to focus in your studies.
How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
Forensic psychologists help judges, lawyers, and other legal specialists build up or determine the outcome of a court case. They typically have expertise in criminal psychology and the legal system, which they then use to testify as an expert witness in family, criminal, or civil court cases. This is a great specialization option for anyone interested in the criminal justice system or how psychology interacts with the legal system.
How to Become a Clinical Psychologist
Clinical psychologists work one-on-one with patients in an inpatient or outpatient treatment center. Their job is what we typically think of when someone says they are a psychologist. In their role, they diagnose, assess, and treat various psychological disorders. In Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, and New Mexico, they can also prescribe medications for mental conditions. This specialization is ideal for someone who wants to provide frontline care to those in need. Since a large variety of patients can walk through your door, you might also want to consider this field if you prefer a diverse caseload.
How to Become a School Psychologist
Psychology candidates who have a passion for children and prefer working in school settings should consider becoming school psychologists. These specialists often work with behavioral disorders, education disorders, and developmental disorders in K-12 schools. They may also implement and evaluate performance plans for students who struggle with behavior or learning. Their role often involves consulting with many parties, including educators, parents, and children.
How to Become a Criminal Psychologist
Like forensic psychologists, criminal psychologists work and study the intersection of crime and psychology. Unlike forensic psychologists, though, criminal psychologists often work with police forces or governmental agencies to solve crimes. This makes their role more like a detective of psychology than an impartial expert witness. Criminal psychology is an ideal field for anyone who wants a fast-paced job and is interested in how the criminal justice system and psychology interact.
How to Become a Sports Psychologist
The mental fitness required for sports is currently a hot topic, and sports psychologists are at the forefront of researching this topic. They also help athletes understand how to build up mental toughness as well as how sports impact their psychology overall. Sports psychologists work in a large variety of settings, making this specialization more flexible than others. It’s also a great career path for anyone who is an athlete or who has an interest in sports as well as psychology.
State-Specific Psychologist Requirements
When researching how to become a psychologist, you’ll notice the requirements vary by state. That’s why it’s important to look at the requirements in your state and consider how easy it would be to transfer your license should you decide to move. For a better idea of how requirements differ and what elements you should be looking for in a state’s licensure guidelines, check out the varying requirements for California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois below.
How to Become a Psychologist in California
After completing a doctoral degree and 3,000 required clinical hours, there are three steps left in the process of becoming a licensed psychologist in California. The first is taking the examination for professional psychology practice. Then, you must take a California laws and ethics exam. After passing both, you can fill out the online licensure application.
How to Become a Psychologist in Texas
To become a licensed psychologist in Texas, a candidate needs a doctoral degree and at least 24 months of postdoctoral work experience. You also must complete 1,750 supervised clinical hours while getting your degree and 1,750 hours after. Candidates must also pass a jurisprudence exam and the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.
How to Become a Psychologist in New York
In New York, anyone over 21 years old with a doctoral degree in psychology is eligible for licensure. They must also have 1,750 clinical hours, which can be completed while they are in their doctoral programs. Teaching psychology courses also count toward those clinical hours. Candidates must also pass a state-administered exam and a background check as well as meet the Child Abuse Identification Reporting requirement. A $294 licensure fee is also required.
How to Become a Psychologist in Florida
After getting their doctorates in psychology, those seeking licensure in Florida need to complete their Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) and the Florida Laws and Rules examination. They also must complete 4,000 clinical hours, 2,000 of which can be completed as a doctoral internship and 2,000 that must be completed after they get their degrees.
How to Become a Psychologist in Illinois
The first requirement to become a licensed psychologist in Illinois is to have master’s and doctoral degrees in the field. You must also have a post-doctoral job that satisfies the percentage of work requirements outlined in the state’s guidelines for new graduates. Unlike other states, Illinois has two licenses to consider: a clinical psychologist or prescribing psychologist license.