How to Become a Psychologist

September 3, 2022

Welcome to another installment of College Transitions’ “How to Become a” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions. This article examines how to become a psychologist. We’ll look at the best educational career path for your situation including undergraduate college selection.

Which “Helping Profession” Is Right for Me?

The term psychologist likely conjures up an image of a professionally-attired individual scribbling on a notepad as a patient, reposed on a couch, shares traumas from their adolescence. This image is consistent with the work of a clinical or counseling psychologist, just two of a plethora of options in this diverse field.

A host of specialty areas exist in the field of psychology: school psychology, sports psychology, organizational psychology, experimental psychology, forensic psychology and neuropsychology, just to name a few. There are also many professional jobs in the mental health field that do not carry the “psychologist” label such as rehabilitation counselor, social worker, special educator, or guidance counselor. Entrance into these positions typically requires a master’s degree. However, if you want the title of clinical or counseling psychologist, you must plan to continue your higher education journey, as all states now require these professionals to hold a PhD or PsyD degree.

How to Become a Psychologist – Plan the Financial End

Salaries in the mental health field will increase based on the level of education required to enter a given area. Those with bachelor’s degrees in psychology make around $50,000 on average. Most will find entry-level employment in the behavioral/mental health field. They may start in positions such as a drug and alcohol counselor, probation officer, group home coordinator, or social worker. Master’s level psychologists can expect to earn $10k more than their bachelor’s-only peers. Those who eventually earn a PsyD or PhD will see average earnings of $90,000.

Even better pay may await those willing or wanting to explore careers outside traditional mental health settings. For example, Industrial-Organizational psychologists help businesses and other organizations improve work productivity, evaluate prospective employees, and design policies and systems that optimize work performance and quality of work life.  In 2020, top-earning I/O psychologists took home annual salaries of more than $192,000.

Like I/O psychology, school psychology is also among the fastest growing occupations in the country. Working primarily in K-12 settings, school psychologists use their expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior to aid the academic and emotional development of students.  Unlike other psychological specialties, school psychology does not require a doctorate for entry. Most practitioners hold either a master’s or specialist degree.  Despite this, school psychologists earn robust salaries approaching $80,000, on average. Further, many have ample time, especially during summer months (when school is not in session), to pursue consulting, private practice, and other income-generating endeavors.

Does Going to a Prestigious Undergraduate School Help?

Becoming a psychologist is guaranteed to involve education beyond the bachelor’s. Hence, the real question here becomes—can attending an elite undergraduate school give you a leg up if your goal is to one day attend a top graduate program in the field?

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology are extraordinarily competitive. Acceptance rates at schools such as Boston University, Yale, and The University of Michigan are as low as 1-2%. Even “less competitive” psych programs have rates hovering around 5%.Therefore it figures that attending a highly selective undergraduate school could be a tiebreaker between two similarly-qualified applicants. To test this hypothesis, we analyzed data provided by the National Science Foundation’s annual Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED). SED collects information on all (research) doctoral degree recipients in the U.S. in a given year, including where recipients received their bachelor’s degree. Using this information, we were able to identify which colleges produced the highest percentage of graduates who eventually went on to earn a PhD in psychology.

These include schools such as:

  • NYU
  • UNC Chapel Hill
  • Vassar College
  • Wesleyan University
  • UT Austin
  • Williams College
  • Barnard College
  • University of Florida
  • Penn State
  • Spelman College

For a complete list visit our Dataverse Page of Top PhD Producers for Psychology.

Most top-producing institutions are highly selective. This suggests that attending a competitive college may indeed give aspiring psychologists an edge on their competition. In addition, all of the top producers (per capita) are small liberal arts colleges. This finding is indeed interesting, but not necessarily surprising. Students attending liberal arts colleges are significantly more likely to interact and collaborate with faculty. This often enables them to acquire substantive research experience and strong letters of recommendations. Those two things, along with high grades and GRE scores, significantly improve a student’s PhD admission prospects.

Do I Have to Major in Psychology?

Psychology has become a wildly popular college major. It ranks somewhere between the fourth and sixth most popular undergraduate degree in the United States. Oddly enough, only about a quarter of undergraduates who major in psychology actually go on to enter the field. Instead, many elect to pursue jobs in sales, government, advertising, and a number of other only obliquely-related vocations.

For those who are serious about a career in psychology, being a psych major is not necessarily a hardened prerequisite for all graduate programs in the field. While the majority of applicants to master’s and doctoral psych programs will possess a B.A. or B.S. in psychology or a closely related field, many programs only require the completion of a number of core classes.

Prerequisites vary from school to school. For example, Hofstra’s PhD program requires that applicants have achieved strong grades in an undergraduate statistics course, research design, abnormal psych and an experimental psychology (lab) course. Pitt’s Graduate School of Psychology requires applicants to have completed a minimum of 12 undergraduate credits in psychology, one abnormal psych class, and one advanced mathematics course.

Many programs require applicants to take the GRE Psychology exam as well. It stands to reason that someone who majored in psychology will have an edge. After all, they have received more formal schooling on the subject than non-majors.

Psy.D versus Ph.D

The Psy.D, or Doctor of Psychology degree, is a fairly recent creation. It emerged in the 1970s to answer the call for better practical training for future clinicians. PhD’s are a better route for those who wish to enter academia or other research-focused areas of the field. However, many who obtain a PhD also enter the field as clinicians.

PhD programs tend to be more selective, sometimes sporting admit rates less than half that of Psy.D programs. PhD programs also tend to be more affordable, primarily because most PhD students secure significant financial support in exchange for assisting faculty research; whereas students admitted into more practice-oriented Psy.D programs are usually responsible for paying their own way.

How to Become a Psychologist – Job Outlook

The job market for psychologists looks decent with positions expected to grow about as fast as average in the coming decade. Those with doctoral degrees or specialty certifications such as school psychology will fare best.

If you plan on pursuing graduate degrees in the mental health field, make sure you select a school with opportunities to participate in research and work closely with faculty. Hands-on experience plus top notch grades and standardized test scores will make you a quality candidate to continue your studies and eventually land the “helping” job of your dreams.

Also feel free to check out previous career-oriented blogs that may be of interest, including. How to Become a: