How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

Help, psychologist, doctor.What Is Clinical Psychology?

Everyone has off days when they just don't feel like themselves. For most people, these feelings are normal, and they don't last long at all. For some, however, these feelings are more serious and could indicate a severe mental or emotional problem.

Clinical psychology is a broad branch of psychology that focuses on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, including learning disabilities, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

By the second half of the 19th century, the field of psychology was widely recognized and respected, though the subfield of clinical psychology didn’t gain that same level of recognition until closer to the turn of the 20th century. It was around this time that Lightner Witmer, the American psychologist credited with introducing the term "clinical psychology", first opened a clinic catering to children with disabilities.

Although his ideas were somewhat slow to catch on, Witmer is now widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of clinical psychology, and his progress in treating children helped pave the way for the field to develop into what it is today.

What Does a Clinical Psychologist Do?

The role of a clinical psychologist is to use psychological techniques to treat mental illnesses. Clinical psychologists use psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalytic therapy rather than prescribing medications.

Clinical psychologists work in a variety of different capacities, largely dependent on the patient population they treat, whether it’s veterans, the elderly, or children. Their day-to-day work is also influenced by any area they might choose to specialize in, like neuropsychology.

Clinical psychologists may further specialize by working primarily with children and adults with ADHD or Asperger's Syndrome or based on the setting in which they work. In a school setting, they can help children with learning disabilities. At a university, they can help students make career decisions, stay emotionally healthy, and achieve academic goals. In community-based facilities, they can help culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged populations. As the nation's aging population grows, more and more are working with senior citizens.

Regardless of the setting or the patient population they see, clinical psychologists often treat mild mental health problems associated with things like depression and anxiety, although their primary focus tends to be more severe chronic issues like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Other clinical psychologists research mental health issues, policies, and training, as represented by the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology.

How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

Three of the most common questions prospective students interested in this field have are Is it hard to become a clinical psychologist?”, “What are the educational requirements to become a clinical psychologist?”, and "How long does it take to become a clinical psychologist?"

Clinical psychology takes hard work but is a rewarding career. To become a clinical psychologist, you will need to earn your undergraduate degree, which takes on average four to six years. You will also need to earn your doctorate degree, which takes on average four to seven years to complete. In total, most clinical psychologists spend between eight and 12 years in school.

Of course, the path to becoming a clinical psychologist isn’t the same for everyone. Some students prefer to earn their clinical psychology degree online, while some prefer a traditional classroom or a hybrid approach. In any case, it’s important to research psychologist license procedure by state, but these steps are the most common.

1. Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology provides the fundamentals you’ll need to pursue your master’s and doctoral degrees. While most clinical psychologists earn a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology, not all graduate programs require this. If you know you want to become a clinical psychologist and are enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program, it’s recommended to major in psychology as this will give you a wider selection of graduate degree programs to choose from later on.

Spotlight Clinical Psychology Degree Offerings

2. Earn Your Master’s Degree

Once you’re ready to pursue your master’s degree, you’ll have several choices to choose from. Some undergraduate programs result in a master’s degree so you can study at an accelerated pace, graduate sooner, and begin your doctoral program. Depending on where you choose to study clinical psychology, you may not need a master’s degree and can instead enroll directly into a doctoral program.

3. Earn Your Doctoral Degree

Although some states recognize and grant limited licensure to master's-educated psychological associates, allowing them to work in a limited capacity under the supervision and authority of licensed psychologists, full authority licensure in clinical psychology always requires a doctorate degree in psychology.

Earning a doctorate takes five to seven years and requires you to write and defend a dissertation in addition to passing a comprehensive exam. A one-year internship is also required in most cases.

There are two options available for earning a doctorate:

  • A Ph.D. in Psychology, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology, which is a research-focused doctorate appropriate for professors of psychology, researchers, as well as practitioners.
  • A PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, which is a practice-focused doctorate specifically aimed at practitioners and clinicians.

Where Does a Clinical Psychologist Work?

As the clinical subfield of psychology, these specialists most often work in settings like psychiatric hospitals, general healthcare facilities, and mental health clinics.

Many clinical psychologists find employment with government-run organizations, including on military installations where they can work as military personnel or civilian contractors, as well as in VA hospitals and with federal law enforcement agencies. Universities often employ these psychologists as research professors and as classroom instructors that help inspire psychology students to consider clinical practice.

Many clinical psychologists also choose to open their own private practices and work for no other boss but themselves. Opening a private psychology practice can often be expensive and difficult but can also be very rewarding and lucrative.

Here are a few of the areas clinical psychologists can be found working:

  • Research at a university
  • School psychology
  • Health service psychology
  • Physical health psychology
  • Work with the elderly
  • Work with children and university students

4. Become a Licensed Clinical Psychologist

In most states, a license is required to practice clinical psychology. Specific licensing requirements vary depending on where you live and what type of position you’re seeking, but in most states, clinical psychologists will need to:

  • Earn a doctorate in psychology
  • Complete an internship and 1-2 years of supervised professional experience
  • Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology

Continuing education is required and many choose to become a board-certified member.


Influential Clinical Psychologists
  1. Sigmund Freud is often credited for "inventing" talk therapy and modern psychoanalysis.
  2. Albert Ellis founded Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) and several cognitive behavioral therapies, which are often the most popular types of treatment in clinical psychology today.
  3. Lightner Witmer was the first psychologist to use and coin the term clinical psychology.

Find the Right Clinical Psychology Degree for You

Interested in learning more about clinical psychology degrees? Get additional information on clinical psychology programs, licensing, certification, and more today.

Clinical Psychology Degrees