Before we dive in, I think it is important to lay out some definitions and scopes of competencies term “psychologist” refers to a person at the Ph.D. or Psy.D. (doctorate) level and who has passed their licensure exams. Only when they have a posted doctorate degree and can prove licensure can they be called a psychologist. One exception exists in which a person can attain their doctorate in psychology and work exclusively in higher education, for example, as a professor. If they are working as a professor and are unlicensed, they may use the term “psychologist”. Psychologists have the widest scope of competencies, including psychometric construction and administration, diagnoses, treatment, psychotherapeutic interventions, and (in some states) prescriptive privilege.
An “educational psychologist” or a “school psychologist”, on the other hand, does not necessarily have a doctorate. Often times, these professionals are at the master’s level. They will work in a school setting or privately within the school system. They can provide psychological testing and interpretation, as well as some therapeutic services to students who are struggling. The idea of leaving school psychologists at a master’s level is to increase the availability of psychological services to students who are struggling. However, once trained as an educational psychologist, these individuals are somewhat limited; they cannot move on to have a private practice or to apply their skills in other settings.
A “Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)” is one of the most common master’s level clinicians. MFTs, although their name suggests so, do not necessarily need to focus their clinical work on marriages, couples, or even relationships. Rather, the name comes from the theoretical orientation from which these professionals are trained: systems theory. These professionals are able to interpret psychological test materials for treatment or diagnostic purposes, but they are limited in that they are not able to administer or develop psychological tests.
“Clinical Social Workers,” “Licensed Professional Counselor,” and all master’s level therapists are governed by the board of behavioral sciences. These professions rely heavily on practical work and are not required to be trained in psychometrics or their development. They are able to do most, but not all, of the competencies that licensed psychologists have. It is important to research each of these specific programs to find out which one is best for you, if you feel like this might be a good fit.
A “therapist”, on the other hand, has a very broad definition: this can refer to anyone who conducts therapy—whether that be occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or any other type of therapy. Some therapists have only a bachelor’s degree while others are at the doctorate level; it simply depends on the type of therapist and its specific requirements.
Now that the reader is sure psychologist is the best route for you, let’s really look at what you need to have and how long each step will take.
The first thing that you will need to have is a bachelor’s degree. Most often, bachelor’s degrees will be completed in four years. However, there are exceptions of instances that can take as little as two (if you were to transfer in international baccalaureate credits, AP credits, or the like), or situations that can take longer than four years (if a person were to attend college part-time or if they would need to extend their degree program for any reason). For the vast majority of people, bachelor’s degrees take four years.
In order to demonstrate your interest in the field, it is best to go for a bachelor’s in psychology, whether that be a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) or a Bachelor of the Arts (B.A.). Many graduate schools require at a minimum a bachelor’s degree (B.S. or B.A.) in psychology. If you do not have this, they may require you to declare your bachelor’s level understanding and competency in the field through either the GRE Psychology specific test or taking some core psychology courses and acquiring a base GPA in these courses. Each graduate program is different, so this will take a bit of extra leg work on your part.
Choosing which bachelor’s degree program is important, as it will set the tone for your academic career. A B.S. degree tends to convey a higher interest in research or neuropsychology, rather than a B.A. degree, which tends to lend itself more to practical therapeutic settings and research applications. However, just as choosing a major at 18 is immensely stressful, choosing the degree can be as well. Allow me to alleviate a bit of this stress for you: if you truly want to be a psychologist, this is not the make-or-break step.
The second step is to obtain a master’s degree in psychology or a specific subfield within psychology. This usually takes about two years, and in some cases three, depending on your field of study. This step also includes some individual variability. There are two major paths that you can take to obtain your master’s degree: either a standalone master’s degree program or an incorporated master’s degree program. The first, a standalone master’s program, also known as a terminal master’s degree, allows you to apply to a master’s graduate program and complete the coursework as it stands. You will apply to that university and complete the master’s work without any specific guarantee that you will move into a doctoral program. This also allows you a bit more flexibility in your master’s degree: you have the freedom to choose a master’s anywhere from geropsychology to forensic-focused psychology.
An incorporated master’s degree, in contrast, is something that you would pick up along the way in through a doctoral program. This means that if you were to apply and be accepted into a doctoral program directly out of your bachelor’s degree, the master’s degree would likely be completed after the second year of your studies in the doctoral program. While this would shorten your time until degree completion, it would also limit your master’s degree specialty. While getting a master’s degree as part of the doctorate degree requirements, you would get your master’s in the same in which your doctorate degree is focused, very likely general clinical psychology.
The next (and surprisingly not final) step is to obtain a doctorate degree. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this step also contains quite a bit of individual variance as well. The first major choice you must make is between Psy.D. and Ph.D. The difference between these two may seem small, but there is a myriad of fine differences that should be noted. I would encourage you to seek outside research on these differences. Generally speaking, the Psy.D. gives more weight to clinical practice and application rather than research and experimentation. In contrast, the Ph.D. focuses more on the research method and experimental design, as well as the science of psychology.
The difference between doctoral programs also impacts the length of time that you will be in school. The Psy.D. will take anywhere from four-to-six years to complete, depending on specific program requirements and how much credit you are able to transfer in. It is not necessarily the case that if you transfer in a master’s degree that your program will be shorter. Some professional schools will require that you spend the full program time whether or not you transfer credit in or not. A Ph.D. program typically takes longer, between five-to-seven years. Again, this number is entirely dependent on the program. Sometimes you are able to shorten the requirements by transferring in credits and in other cases you are not. Both programs will require a supervised internship or residency for the final year.
For both programs, the final step is training and licensure. This typically takes one year at a minimum, but some extenuating circumstances can cause the individual to modify their postdoctoral training schedule and extend this period. After acquiring your postdoctoral training either through practice as a psychological assistant or through a formal postdoctoral placement, you will be able to sit for the licensure exam and finally be able to call yourself “psychologist”!
Overall, there are several variables at play when discussing how long it will take to become a psychologist. It is important to examine your own life to determine how these steps will impact you and how you would manage each different option. Becoming a psychologist is a tremendous undertaking but can provide you with a rewarding and beneficial career down the line.