A psychiatrist is a highly trained medical doctor and primary mental health-care giver in one of the oldest professional specialties in the field of medicine. Psychiatrists treat individuals with a plethora of mental health conditions; many of which are caused or affected by physical conditions, illnesses, syndromes and diseases. Since proper care requires both a mental health specialist as well as a physician; aspiring psychiatrists begin acquiring their dual abilities by following the traditional path to becoming a doctor; which includes completing a medical school degree program. Upon completing the requirements of a medical physician, the individual then proceeds to the specialized education and training necessary for diagnosing and treating mental health issues from a psychiatric perspective.
Earning Your Associate Degree
Although an associate degree program in psychiatry does not exist, individuals do have the option to earn an AA (or complete the more commonly-selected certificate program) in psychiatric technology.
Associate degree programs in psychiatric technology differ from certificate programs because they include general education courses, such as English, mathematics and science. They also touch upon psychological and fundamental nursing concepts, as well as include clinical work. Students also take longer to complete an associate degree program (roughly two years of study) while some certificate programs can last as brief as one semester.
Those who finish the most basic of psychiatric-related education programs qualify for entry-level positions, which are often filled by Psychiatric Aides, whose duties involve helping patients with personal grooming and other daily activities, such as recreational- and therapeutic pursuits.
Psychiatric Technicians have received more formal training than aides, and learn how to take a more active role in the planning and carrying out of patient treatment plans. In addition to conducting therapy sessions, they may also admit and interview patients, keep records, and give medications. A psychiatric tech also works directly under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist or another type of health care provider.
According to the American Association of Psychiatric Technicians (AAPT), additional training is needed for a psychiatric tech to advance in the field, such as entering a bachelor’s degree program to become a practical- or registered nurse. Beyond earning a college degree in nursing, some psychiatric technicians go on to pursue an education in psychology, social work, sociology, special education, or another related field, such as developmental disabilities or mental health. Becoming certified also increases salary opportunities for psychiatric technicians. The AAPT administers a voluntary certification examination that recognizes three levels of achievement based upon years of experience and total number of completed college course hours.
To become a psychiatrist, technicians and aides must first earn a bachelor’s degree, and then go on to medical school to receive adequate training and experience as a doctor.
In order to become a psychiatrist, a bachelor’s degree in any field is generally acceptable. The curriculum for an aspiring psychiatrist typically includes mathematics and science coursework with lab requirements, such as physics. It is not uncommon to see students majoring in a science-related discipline, such as biology, chemistry, or even psychology. For example, a Bachelor of Science in Biology is a 4-year degree program with a curriculum typically featuring coursework in chemistry, genetics, physics, and organic chemistry. Some aspiring psychiatrists may also opt to double-major in a science and psychology.
To gain the best preparation for an advanced education leading towards a career in psychiatry, pursuing a pre-med program at a college or university is optional, yet ensures a student has fulfilled the necessary prerequisites associated with gaining entry into medical school. During their undergraduate studies, students also take courses to gain a better understanding about how the mind works. Those who complete an internship or volunteer at a local clinic or hospital gain valuable hands-on experience which ultimately enhances his or her medical school application.
In addition to maintaining a solid GPA, having glowing recommendations and writing an essay, doing well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is highly recommended for prospective medical students. Administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the multiple-choice exam measures a student’s aptitude in biological sciences, critical thinking, and other related skills. Most medical schools require the submission of MCAT scores during the application process. Undergraduate students typically take the MCAT during their junior or senior year of school.
To become a physician that primarily cares for patients with mental health problems, aspiring psychiatrists must complete four years of medical school to earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) or Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. All psychiatrists go through the same medical training as all other doctors, with a focus on learning how the body functions, how to treat all types of disease, and explore processes of the mind.
The first two years of medical school are spent building a solid foundation in all areas of medicine that includes coursework in anatomy, psychology, pathology, physiology, biochemistry, and immunology. The classroom instruction that students encounter also touches upon subjects related to healthcare law and medical ethics.
Hands-on experience and training takes place during clinical rotations, where medical school students spend the remaining two years of their studies in hospitals and clinics (usually in university-affiliated medical facilities), learning how to care for patients under the guidance of seasoned medical staff. During this time, students explore a wide range of fields and specialties such as obstetrics, family practice, surgery, and pediatrics.
Upon successful completion of medical school, graduates receive a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, whereas some medical schools award the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). New graduates must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam to obtain a state license in order to practice medicine in the U.S. Upon successful completion of medical school, the graduate is officially a doctor, but is not yet qualified to fully practice as a psychiatrist.
Additional training is still required, which takes place during a residency in psychiatry.
A psychiatric residency allows a physician to learn how to better interact with patients, as well as develop their skills to specifically address a patient’s mental health needs. Depending on the specific program and specialty interests of a doctor, the extra training related to the diagnosis and treatment of emotional illnesses takes a minimum of four years to complete.
A residency plays an important role in shaping the education and experience of a psychiatrist, and involves on-the-job, paid training that typically takes place in a hospital. The first year of residency training introduces doctors to patients with a variety of medical issues. The American Psychiatric Association states that at least three additional years of training follows, to touch upon the diagnosis and treatment of mental health cases within a range of medical settings, such as psychiatric wards, health clinics, and hospitals. Doctors eventually gain experience working with a variety of patients, including individuals, couples, families, and large groups.
During their residencies, psychiatrists-in-training also become familiar with the range of treatment approaches associated with their field, such as psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), medication, deep brain stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy (which uses electrical currents to the brain for severe depression cases), and light therapy as a method of treating patients suffering from seasonal depression.
Upon completion of at least four years of residency, a doctor becomes a psychiatrist, and may pursue board certification by passing an exam administered by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. In order to maintain their credentials as a certified psychiatrist, doctors must re-certify every 10 years.
From chronic care to thought disorders (like schizophrenia), a psychiatric residency also introduces a physician to various niches they may later want to pursue on a more in-depth level. Doctors who gravitate towards a subfield of psychiatry require an additional 1-2 years of training (called a fellowship) where they concentrate on a specific subject, such as children, adolescents, adults, addiction, forensics, neuropsychiatry, or personality disorders.
Obtaining a specialty in psychiatry opens the doors to a greater number of employment opportunities. For example, substance abuse treatment centers often seek the expertise of an addiction psychiatrist, while a forensic psychiatrist is often hired by the criminal justice system. Geriatric psychiatrists specialize in working with the elderly, and generally find jobs in nursing homes, hospices, and long-term care facilities.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, psychiatrists who specialize in child- or geriatric psychiatry are expected to be in high demand. Psychiatrists, in general, also fall under the category of healthcare-related occupations that represent a shortage in mental health providers. HRSA also states that it would take approximately 2,800 new psychiatrist hires to eliminate the current mental health professional shortage areas in the United States.
In conclusion, the educational path of a future psychiatrist starts with an undergraduate education, which lays down a foundation of math and science for a student to expand upon. All psychiatrists must complete a medical school education before entering a residency program, which solely concentrates on equipping a doctor with the tools to operate as a psychiatrist and treat patients in mental health distress. The opportunity to specialize in a more targeted area of psychiatry requires additional years of training, but also increases a physician’s employment opportunities and potential earning capacity.