How to Become a Psychiatrist: How Long the Process Takes, and More
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. A small percentage of this group suffers from such acute and debilitating conditions as schizophrenia, major depression, severe bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Others may receive treatment for substance abuse, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or behaviors, eating disorders, or attention disorders.
Helping people with mental health issues is the job of various professionals, including psychologists, counselors, and social workers. But perhaps none of these professionals is as vital in the treatment of mental illness as the psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in diagnosing and treating mental illness.
Psychologists and counselors utilize various kinds of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, to help people with mental illness, but as a medical doctor, a psychiatrist is uniquely qualified to discern the anatomical and physiological underpinnings of mental illness, as well as prescribe
medication for the treatment of mental illness.
A psychiatrist has powerful capabilities in the treatment of mental illness. But these capabilities come at a price measured in education, experience, and time. This article will describe how to become a psychiatrist and discuss what to expect at each step, how much time it will all take, and why the reward may be well worth the effort.
How to Become a Psychiatrist
To be a psychiatrist, you must first become a physician by graduating from an accredited medical school — such as American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC). The path to a medical degree at AUC — which is located on the Caribbean island nation of Sint Maarten — is the same as at United States-based schools: two years of medical science classes and two years of hands-on clinical training. For AUC students, the medical sciences curriculum is completed at the Sint Maarten campus; the clinical training can be completed at affiliated teaching hospitals in the United States or United Kingdom.
AUC also partners with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) in the United Kingdom for its UK-Track option for qualified non-U.S. citizens. The first two years at UCLan focus on the medical sciences. Upon completion, students receive a Post Graduate Diploma in International Medical Sciences, which AUC recognizes as equivalent to its own medical sciences curriculum. During the final two years, students can then complete clinical training across AUC’s network of affiliated teaching hospitals.
During clinical training, AUC students complete core rotations in internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, family medicine, obstetrics/ gynecology, and psychiatry. Each student then chooses from among dozens of specialty elective clerkships to fulfill their remaining clinical requirements.
During the fourth and final year of medical school, students prepare for the next phase of their medical education: residency. At AUC, the Office of Career Advisement (OCA) can help students determine which residency specialty — such as psychiatry—suits them best. The OCA then helps students navigate the National Resident Matching Program® (NRMP®) — a placement system that medical students who wish to become licensed in the United States use to “match” with a medical residency. A psychiatry residency is typically four years.
In 2023, AUC had a first-time residency attainment rate of 97% for 2022–2023 graduates*. —, AUC MDs matched with psychiatry residency programs at BronxCare Healthcare System in New York, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-Shreveport in Louisiana, and University of Texas Health Sciences Center-San Antonio in Texas, to name a few.
After completing psychiatry training, a physician may be certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Many board-certified psychiatry doctors are members of the American College of Psychiatrists. With additional training, doctors may subspecialize in a specific area of psychiatry. These subspecialties include:
- Addiction psychiatry
- Child and adolescent psychiatry
- Consultation-liaison psychiatry (for mental illness occurring alongside other medical conditions)
- Forensic psychiatry (including the treatment of criminals and convicts)
- Geriatric psychiatry (treatment of the elderly)
Meet a Psychiatrist
Esi Bentsi-Barnes, MD, a 2016 AUC graduate, is now a practicing board-certified psychiatrist. We asked Dr. Bentsi-Barnes to describe the role of a psychiatrist.
Q: Why did you go into your specialty?
A: Entering medical school, I had a feeling I would like psychiatry, but I was open to all specialties. I completed my third-year rotations in Ealing, London, and really enjoyed my time on the different services. But during my psychiatry rotation, everything clicked, and I knew I couldn’t do anything else. I like the holistic nature of psychiatry — I combine medical and socio-psychological factors in evaluating my patients, intertwined with complex pharmacology. I’m currently completing a geriatric psychiatry fellowship at Baylor and I use a lot of my general medicine knowledge every day. Plus, the work is never boring; I hear the most interesting stories.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Seeing patients improve is probably the most rewarding part of my job. As a psychiatrist, I see patients during the most difficult/upsetting times in their lives and I get to help them through it. It is the best feeling to see someone flourish after being debilitated by anxiety, depression, or some other illness. Now I am working with dementia patients and do a lot to educate families and caregivers. I really enjoy working with this population.
Q: Any advice to medical students considering the specialty?
A: Psychiatry is a great field to go into! There is a lot of research and interest in the field, and it has an extensive professional community. Express interest in psychiatry during your rotation and try to do psych electives. Delve deeper in your history-taking and familiarize yourself with core DSM diagnoses (major depression, generalized anxiety, substance use disorders, etc.). It’s important to have an understanding of basic psychiatric principles, because no matter what specialty you go into, you will interact with psychiatric patients.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychiatrist?
From college to medical school and through residency, it takes about 12 years of training to become a psychiatrist. That may seem like a long road, but for many people who complete psychiatrist schooling, the payoff is worth the effort.
Psychiatry is a rewarding specialty that offers the opportunity to help patients and improve their lives. Psychiatrists are also at the forefront of changing attitudes about mental illness. Seeking mental health treatment traditionally carried a substantial social stigma. But thanks in part to the work of psychiatrists, many people now understand that good mental health is an important component of overall well-being.
Psychiatry can offer advantages as a medical specialty, including the potential for self-employment.
Psychiatry also offers an appealing work-life balance. Psychiatrists generally see their patients during normal business hours, though they may need to share on-call duties in case of emergencies.
Psychiatry is also a high-demand field. According to a 2022 report by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the United States has a worsening psychiatrist shortage and an enormous demand for mental health services.
Now that you know how to become a psychiatrist, are you ready to begin your journey toward a rewarding career in a high-demand medical specialty? Apply for admission to AUC.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a psychiatrist the same as a psychologist?
No. Psychiatrists and psychologists are both professional psychotherapists, but they are not the same. A psychiatrist has an MD degree and completes a residency in psychiatry. Psychiatrists often focus on biological aspects of mental illness, and because of their medical training, they may prescribe medications.
A psychologist usually has a doctoral degree in philosophy (PhD), psychology (PsyD), or education (EdD). Psychologist training focuses on all aspects of human behavior, with an emphasis on research and scientific methods.
What do psychiatrists do?
Psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of addictive, adjustment, anxiety, behavioral, emotional, mental, mood, psychotic, and sexual or gender identity disorders. As specially trained medical doctors, psychiatrists understand the biological, psychological, and social components of mental illness.
Psychiatrists evaluate and treat patients through behavior modification, individual or group therapy, and psychoanalysis. They generally use a holistic approach to treatment, but can also prescribe pharmacological treatments.
Which undergraduate psychiatrist degree do you need?
Medical school hopefuls interested in psychiatry can major in whatever they like as long as they take the courses needed to fulfill premed requirements. Most premed students, however — including those intending to become psychiatrists — major in the biological or physical sciences.
Do psychiatrists need to complete a residency?
Yes. All MDs must complete a residency before they can be licensed to practice medicine. Psychiatrists may complete a four-year residency in psychiatry or a residency that combines psychiatry with internal medicine, family medicine, neurology, or pediatrics.
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Now that you know how to become a psychiatrist, are you ready to begin your journey toward a rewarding career in a high-demand medical specialty? Apply for admission to AUC!
*Percent of students attaining a 2023-24 residency position out of all graduates or expected graduates in 2022-23 who were active applicants in the 2023 NRMP match or who attained a residency position outside the NRMP match