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How to Become a Psychologist

Psychologists need a master’s, specialist, or doctoral degree in psychology. Practicing psychologists also need a license or certification.


Most clinical, counseling, and research psychologists need a doctoral degree. Psychologists can complete a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. A Ph.D. in psychology is a research degree that culminates in a comprehensive exam and a dissertation based on original research. In clinical, counseling, school, or health service settings, students usually complete a 1-year internship as part of the doctoral program. The Psy.D. is a clinical degree and is often based on practical work and examinations rather than a dissertation.

School psychologists need a master’s, specialist (Ed. S. degree, which requires a minimum of 60 graduate semester hours), or doctoral degree in school psychology. Because their work addresses education and mental health components of students’ development, school psychologists’ training includes coursework in both education and psychology.

Graduates with a master’s degree in psychology can work as industrial-organizational psychologists. When working under the supervision of a doctoral psychologist, master’s graduates also can work as psychological assistants in clinical, counseling, or research settings. Master’s degree programs typically include courses in industrial-organizational psychology, statistics, and research design.

Entry into psychology graduate programs is competitive. Most master’s degree programs do not require an undergraduate major in psychology, but do require coursework in introductory psychology, experimental psychology, and statistics. Some doctoral degree programs require applicants to have a master’s degree in psychology, while others will accept applicants with a bachelor’s degree and a major in psychology. 

Most graduates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology find work in other fields such as business administration, sales, or education.

Licenses and Certification

In most states, practicing psychology or using the title of “psychologist” requires licensure or certification.

In all states and the District of Columbia, psychologists who practice independently must be licensed. Licensing laws vary by state and type of position. Most clinical and counseling psychologists need a doctorate in psychology, an internship, at least 1 to 2 years of professional experience, and to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Information on specific requirements by state can be found from the Association of State and Provincial Licensing Boards. In many states, licensed psychologists must complete continuing education courses to keep their licenses.

School psychologists must be licensed or certified to practice in schools. This credential varies by state and is usually obtained through the state’s department of education. Information on specific requirements by state can be found from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

In addition, NASP awards the Nationally Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) designation, which is a nationally recognized certification. Currently, 30 states accept the NCSP as a route to licensing or certification. To become nationally certified, candidates need a minimum of 60 graduate semester hours in a school psychology program, a 1,200-hour supervised internship, and to pass the National School Psychology Examination.

The American Board of Professional Psychology awards specialty certification in 13 areas of psychology, such as clinical health, couple and family, psychoanalysis, or rehabilitation. Although board certification is not required for most psychologists, it can demonstrate professional expertise in a specialty area. Some hospitals and clinics do require certification. In those cases, candidates must have a doctoral degree in psychology, state license or certification, and any additional criteria of the specialty field.


Psychologists typically need previous related work experience. To become licensed, for example, psychologists must have completed one or more of the following: predoctoral or postdoctoral supervised experience, an internship, or a residency program. School psychologists also must complete a yearlong supervised internship program to become licensed or certified.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Analytical skills are important when performing psychological research. Psychologists must be able to examine the information they collect and draw logical conclusions from them.

Communication skills. Psychologists must have strong communications skills because they spend much of their time listening to and speaking with patients. 

Observational skills. Psychologists study attitude and behavior. They must be able to watch people and understand the possible meanings of people's facial expressions, body positions, actions, and interactions.

Patience. Because research or treatment of patients may take a long time, psychologists must be able to demonstrate patience. They also must be patient when dealing with people who have mental or behavioral disorders.

People skills. Psychologists study people and help people. They must be able to work well with their clients, patients, and other medical professionals.

Problem-solving skills. Psychologists need problem solving skills to find treatments or solutions for mental and behavioral problems.

Trustworthiness. Patients must be able to trust their psychologists. Psychologists also must keep patients’ problems in confidence, and patients must be able to trust psychologists’ expertise in treating sensitive problems.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition