To become a psychologist, you'll need at least a master's and usually a doctoral degree, depending on the career goals. A few different avenues lead to a career in psychology, including a stand-alone master's degree, a master's completion and then later a doctorate, or a program combining the two.
The first step required to become a psychologist is obtaining a bachelor's degree with a major or minor in psychology or a related field such as social work, or at a minimum completing several courses in psychology. Traditionally, a bachelor's takes 4 years to complete, although some people need longer because they work full-time or take a break during their education.
Working as a counseling psychologist requires a master's degree at the minimum, as does teaching at an academic institution. A college or university will expect the person to obtain a doctoral degree within a specified time frame. Some states, such as California, require a doctorate to practice as a psychologist.
Increasingly, students are going from a bachelor's directly to a doctoral program that combines a master's thesis into the degree. However, depending on career goals, a student might choose a stand-alone master's, which can provide opportunities in research, mental health and human services, mental health administration, social work and other fields. A person might also choose a master's if she does not have the resources for a longer-term course of study at the time. A stand-alone master's degree typically takes 2 years to complete, although some programs are accelerated into 1 year.
A Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D., is the traditional doctoral program, with an equal emphasis on clinical work and research. An original piece of scientific research is required for a dissertation. A Doctor of Psychology, or Psy.D., is a newer degree that focuses almost entirely on clinical practice. Academic institutions prefer the Ph.D., and clinical practices view them about equally. Many Psy.D. programs are offered by professional schools, which can be extremely expensive compared to most universities.
If a student enters a doctoral program with a master's already completed, the degree usually takes another 2 to 3 years to complete. Doctoral coursework which combines a master's usually is a 5-year program. For a doctorate in clinical psychology, another year is typically added because students must complete an internship, although some schools combine the master's, doctorate and internship all in one 5-year program.
Any of these degrees can take longer to complete because the students may have full-time jobs, families to support or other considerations. Some schools require full-time attendance of at least 12 credits a semester, but many students take time off between semesters for one reason or another. Many full-time programs offer all classes in late afternoons and evenings to allow students to work full-time, but some do not, and the student's work schedule then must be flexible in order to finish the degree.
After all this education, post-doctoral psychologists planning to practice in clinical or school fields must become licensed by passing the 200-question Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, required by all states. Clinical psychology graduates are required to work 1 or 2 years of post-doctoral residency, depending on the state, before they qualify to take the exam.