How to become a clinical psychologist

If you’ve always wanted to pursue a career that helps others try clinical psychology.

In this psychological specialty, practitioners have the chance to work with people struggling with mental illness and, through therapy, teach them how to navigate the difficulties they face.

While clinical psychology requires a heavy educational commitment, the result of your years of work is having a stable, fulfilling career.

No matter if you’re ready to apply for colleges known for their psychology programs or curious about the process, this article will give you clarity on what it takes to be a practicing clinical psychologist.

What is Clinical Psychology? 

The main role of a clinical psychologist is analyzing a patient’s mental health to understand exactly what kinds of treatment would best fit their needs. For instance, someone with an anxiety disorder will have unique requirements compared to someone struggling with depression.

To determine the best ways to treat their patient, clinical psychologists employ a few methods. First, they give a diagnostic interview. This is basically a question-and-answer session that allows their patient to better explain why they are seeking therapy.

After the diagnostic interview, the clinical psychologist may also use a behavioral assessment to learn more about their patient’s behavior outside of  therapy. Some clinicians may also give psychological tests to check for the severity of the person’s mental health issues, especially if they believe their patient has a mental illness.

Once they get the patient’s test data and analyze it, they develop a treatment plan. This could be through cognitive behavioral therapy which focuses on altering negative thought patterns and behaviors to improve mental health. Another popular method is the psychodynamic approach. This type of therapy has more of a focus on the patient’s unconscious mind and how past events impact the present.

There is also using client-centered therapy or the humanistic approach. This therapy subset encourages the patient to listen to themself (because they know themself better than anyone else) and focuses more on the present than digging into past traumas.

Some clinical psychologists may combine methods, depending on what their patient responds to. Through multiple sessions, they work in tandem to improve how the person learns to cope with life and their responses to it.

Besides treating patients in one-on-one or group therapy sessions, clinical psychologists are often asked to consult by certain organizations. For example, a nonprofit company may ask one of these professionals about the best ways to improve a community health project.

Clinical psychologists are also researchers. They must be aware of the latest psychological treatment methods so they can give their patients the best kinds of care. Some of these practitioners also engage in their own research.

How Do I Become a Clinical Psychologist?

It’s not easy to get certified as a clinical psychologist. Following this career path requires graduate school, internships, and a commitment to continual education, among other things.

An important factor: the licensing process varies by state, so you’ll need to check what yours requires to ensure you’ve hit all the requirements.

Here’s a rundown of what you’ll need to do before being allowed to call yourself a clinical psychologist.


Your path to clinical psychology starts by getting your bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related discipline, like neuroscience or social work. In this part of your education, you’ll learn about the basics of psychology. Get ready for plenty of labs, lessons in theory, and mastering statistics.

Once you’re finished with your undergraduate degree, it’s time to move on to graduate school. Before getting into a program, you’ll need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Your score on this test is a major factor in getting accepted into a graduate program — good programs require at least a 600 and excellent programs mean scoring 700. You’ll also need three letters of recommendation, so make sure you’re developing relationships with your professors.

When you’ve been accepted into a graduate program, you’ll likely need to start by earning a master’s degree in psychology. This takes 2-3 years. For some states, getting a master’s degree (along with completing their licensing tests) is enough to be able to practice. It’s much more common for states to make a doctoral degree a requirement, so be prepared for another 3-4 years on top of your master’s degree.


Onceyou’ve earned your graduate degree, you’ll need to complete a certain number of supervised internship hours. This changes by state, but it averages to about 1-2 years of work.

Though it is an internship, your work won’t be unpaid. On average, post-doc interns make about $51,000 annually. This number can vary greatly depending on where you’re interning though. Private universities and R1 public universities generally pay the best.

Earning Your License

After you’re finished with your internship, no matter which state you’re going to practice in, you’ll need to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).

This four-hour exam has 225 multiple-choice questions and covers eight unique psychological domains. These are Biological Bases of Behavior, Cognitive-Affective Bases of Behavior, Social and Cultural Bases of Behavior, Growth and Lifespan Development, Assessment and Diagnosis, Treatment, Intervention, and Prevention Supervision, Research Methods and Statistics, and Ethical/Legal/Professional Issues.

The highest achievable score is 800 points. To pass the test, you’ll need to score 500 points (for private practice) and 450 (for supervised therapy work). This is the standard for most states, but there are a few that have their own scoring requirements.

If you don’t pass the first time, you can take the test up to four times every year. Unfortunately, the test costs $450 every time you retake it.

Board Certification

This is an optional step for clinical psychologists. If you’d like another way to prove your competency in clinical psychology, you can get board certified through the American Board of Professional Psychology. Few psychologists take this option.