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What is a psychiatrist?

Psychiatry is a specific area of medicine that focuses on mental health conditions, from causes and diagnosis to prevention and treatment of a range of different conditions. Psychiatrists are trained to evaluate how mental, emotional, and physical health interacts and how they affect each other. These skills can include helping people manage mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

The field of psychiatry is relatively new in the realm of medicine. Psychiatrists are trained in psychotherapy and drugs to provide comprehensive mental health treatment. They can diagnose mental illnesses and treat them with medication and talk therapy. The primary difference between a psychiatrist and a therapist is the ability to prescribe medicine and psychoactive drugs.

Psychiatrists have to have diverse skill sets. They must understand the biological and psychological causes of mental illness. They need to know how to use medication to treat conditions, how to recognize warning signs of mental illness, how to talk to patients about their mental health, and how to respond to challenging situations. 

They also build rapport with other professionals in the field, evaluate how mental health affects physical health, and help patients manage their emotions.

One of the key distinctions between psychologists and psychiatrists is that psychiatrists will generally seek to identify a biological or physiological cause for certain mental health conditions or symptoms, aiming to treat these with medicines as well as psychological therapies, whereas psychologists generally focus on psychological therapies and psychological factors alone.This means that psychiatrists need a good knowledge of genetics, and other physical health issues that can affect mental health, blending physical medicine and mental health therapy to be able to diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions most effectively.

See also; what’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

It is common for psychiatrists to specialize in areas such as;

  • Addiction
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Sleep disorders
  • Geriatric psychiatry

This gives psychiatrists a wide range of specialisms and routes to develop in their career, making it an interesting and varied role with plenty of opportunities for dedicated and hardworking individuals.

Learn more about other behavioral health jobs.

Who employs psychiatrists?

Psychiatrists are employed by all sorts of organizations, such as hospitals, clinics, universities, community agencies, courts, prisons, the military, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and private practices.

These organizations tend to offer various treatments and therapies for patients suffering from mental health conditions that may have underlying or unknown physical causes. This means that psychiatrists can work with people of various ages and in all kinds of different institutions, both independently and in support of other therapies and clinicians or multi-disciplinary teams.

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How to become a psychiatrist

The journey of how to become a psychiatrist is long and challenging, but it can be rewarding and fulfilling. Becoming a psychiatrist can take 8-10 years, depending on how long the residency program takes and how many steps you need to complete. 

1. Get an Undergraduate Degree

Your first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college or university. You’ll be on a pre-med track, so be transparent about your career goals throughout the application and enrollment process.

You will need to major in pre-med, biology, or related fields. During this time, you will also need to take courses related to psychology and medicine. 

Some of the classes you will need to take in undergrad include human anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, histology, and neuroscience. In addition to taking a challenging pre-med course load, many aspiring psychiatrists complete internships in a psychiatric clinic or hospital to get more hands-on experience and elevate their med school application.

2. Attend Medical School

Since psychiatrists are doctors, they must go to medical school and earn either a medical degree (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). You will need to complete a four-year program to earn your MD or DO degree. During medical school, you will take courses in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and other medical subjects, as well as receive hands-on training through clinical rotations.

3. Complete an Internship and Residency

After medical school, doctors complete a one-year internship and a four-year residency program. Aspiring psychiatrists should choose a residency program that offers a specialty in psychiatry. They’ll work in clinics and hospitals treating various people and conditions.

Even once you’ve completed your residency, you may want to do a fellowship in a more specialized area, such as pediatric psychiatry, addiction and substance use disorders, or neuropsychiatry.

4. Earn and Maintain a License

Doctors must hold licenses and complete continuing education to maintain them. MDs must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, and DOs have to take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.

For psychiatrists, you must pass an American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology exam. Most states also have medical boards that issue their own licensing requirements

Finally, continuing education courses (see our list of CE providers) allow you to stay on top of current research and implement cutting-edge techniques in your practice.

From the end of high school, all of this training takes at least 12 years, which is an immense amount of time spent in development, and isn’t for the faint of heart.  Additional specialized training can make this period of time even longer, so it’s a very serious commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

5. Continuing education

Once you have obtained the license, you will be required to take continuing education classes throughout your career to stay up-to-date on the latest developments and treatments in psychiatry. Continuing education classes may include attending conferences, reading journals, and taking online courses to maintain your license.

It is essential to complete continuing education because the medical field and psychiatry are constantly changing and evolving. New treatments and medications are becoming available, so staying up-to-date with the latest technology and treatments is vital to practice the best possible care for your patients.

Psychiatrist salary/earning potential

Psychiatrists have great earning potential, due in large part to the immense amount of time, effort, skill, and investment they take on to become fully certified psychiatrists. Not many people are able to complete the process, which naturally makes the number of psychiatrists quite small, as few people have all the necessary aptitudes and qualities required to sustain such a long period of work and study.

As such, psychiatrists are paid very well generally, with the average salary being nearly $250,000 a year. This can be affected by various factors such as experience, location, and the organization being worked for, but generally, psychiatrists are paid well above the average wage in the US and elsewhere, indicating the incredibly skilled and difficult work they undertake.

See our psychiatrist salary guide for more information.

What does a psychiatrist do in their job?

Psychiatrists are somewhat similar to psychologists in that they are primarily responsible for researching and focusing on mental health issues, however, the difference is that psychiatrists are able to prescribe medicines and treatments that go beyond forms of talk therapy, and which look at finding and treating the underlying cause of mental health issues, be they related to things like depression, mood issues, sleep issues or psychosis.

Psychiatrists can be considered a sort of compromise between a traditional doctor or physician and a psychologist, able to understand mental health and its intricacies while being able to relate these issues to physical causes and finding suitable treatments.

Is being a psychiatrist stressful?

It definitely can be, as psychiatrists often deal with patients who are seriously ill or have been through tragic situations and circumstances and aren’t always able to help or resolve these issues. While not all psychiatrists deal with psychopaths and severely mentally ill patients, it’s a high-stress job as it can be difficult to diagnose correctly, and comes under intense scrutiny to ensure patient safety, much like other medical doctors and professions.

While challenging, it is a very rewarding job at the very frontline of trying to help people deal with mental illnesses and find solutions to some of the most tragic and disturbing illnesses and afflictions that exist.

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Position Company Location Posted
Psychiatrist, Operational Stress Injury Clinic Dalhousie University Halifax, Nova Scotia 03/21/2023
The Department of Psychiatry at Dalhousie University is recruiting immediately for a full or part-time psychiatrist for Nova Scotia Healths (NSH) Operational Stress Injury Clinic in Dartmouth, NS Canada. The Department of Psychiatry is a mid-sized clinical academic department within the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Faculty in the Department of Psychiatry work as members of multidisciplinary teams within the Nova Scotia Health Mental Health ... More
Psycho-Oncology Psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center New York, New York 03/21/2023
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) Overview: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) is one of the worlds premier cancer centers, committed to exceptional patient care, leading-edge research, and superb educational programs. The blending of research with patient care is at the heart of everything we do. The institution is a comprehensive cancer center whose purposes are the treatment ... More
SCR CALL FLOOR WORKER - CHILD WELFARE SPECIALIST (UPWARD MOBILITY) Illinois Department of Children & Family Services Springfield, Illinois 03/21/2023
SCR CALL FLOOR WORKER - CHILD WELFARE SPECIALIST (UPWARD MOBILITY)We continually strive for a workforce that reflects the growing diversity within the State of Illinois. A variety of employee backgrounds, perspectives, ideas and experiences are crucial to our ability to most effectively serve the public. Bilingual skills welcome Reasonable Accommodation StatementThe State of Illinois is committed to working with and providing reasonable ... More
Child Adolescent Psychiatrist - Outpatient LifeStance Health Chevy Chase, Maryland 03/21/2023
We offer Psychiatrists:Sign-On Bonus for Full-Time.Strong work/life balance.Flexible work schedules. 100% outpatient work. No nights, no hospital calls, no weekends. In-Person and Hybrid flexibility. Unlimited/Uncapped earnings, tremendous upside based on productivity.Additional Compensation for collaboration with Mid-Level Providers. Collegial work environment. Full administrative support. ... More
Adult Psychiatrist - Outpatient LifeStance Health Arnold, Maryland 03/21/2023
We offer Psychiatrists:Sign-On Bonus for Full-Time.Strong work/life balance.Flexible work schedules. 100% outpatient work. No nights, no hospital calls, no weekends. In-Person and Hybrid flexibility. Unlimited/Uncapped earnings, tremendous upside based on productivity.Additional Compensation for collaboration with Mid-Level Providers. Collegial work environment. Full administrative support. ... More
Physician (MD,DO, Resident) St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea Chelsea, Michigan 03/21/2023
OPPORTUNITY HIGHLIGHTSSt. Joseph Mercy Chelsea has an excellent full time employment opportunity for a Board Certified or Board Eligible Psychiatrist to join our Inpatient Psychiatry Program located in Chelsea, Michigan.The selected candidate will join two other providers as an attending Psychiatrist for the inpatient unit. St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea's inpatient ... More
Physician (MD,DO, Resident) Trinity Health IHA Medical Group Ann Arbor, Michigan 03/21/2023
OPPORTUNITY HIGHLIGHTSIHA, the aligned medical group for Trinity Health in SE Michigan, has an excellent part-time (0.2 0.8 FTE) employment opportunity for an Adult Psychiatry physician to join the Outpatient Adult Behavioral Services team and work 100% remotely.The psychiatrist will join our well-established Behavioral Health Collaborative Care Program. Our ... More
Physician (MD,DO, Resident) St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Oakland County, Michigan 03/21/2023
OPPORTUNITY HIGHLIGHTSSt. Joseph Mercy Oakland has an excellent full time employment opportunity for a Board Certified or Board Eligible Psychiatrist to join our Inpatient Psychiatry Program located in Pontiac, Michigan.The selected candidate will join our inpatient psychiatry team as an attending psychiatrist for the inpatient unit. St. Joseph Mercy Oakland's ... More
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