Becoming a Psychologist

First Steps

Becoming a psychologist ultimately requires earning a graduate degree. Even in high school, though, you can begin preparing yourself by taking courses in science, math, social studies, and English. Reading about psychology and talking with psychologists about their work can help give you some pictures of the field.

Bachelor's Degree

Most bachelor's degrees in psychology include courses both in science and in the liberal arts. Usually there is an introductory courses as well as courses in experimental psychology and statistics. Other required courses can include learning, personality, abnormal psychology and tests and measurements. Not all graduate programs require a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Because there are wide differences among graduate programs and their requirements, it can be a good idea to begin making plans for graduate school before your junior year. This way you can identify programs that are the best match for your career plans, and you will have time to prepare yourself for these programs.

A graduate or professional school’s catalogue, brochures, and website are generally the best and most current sources of information about the nature of each graduate program and its program and admission requirements. A composite source of such information is also available from the American Psychological Association.

People with bachelor's degrees are qualified to assist psychologists and other professionals in settings such as community mental health centers. Some work as research assistants or administrative assistants.

Master's Degree

A master's degree requires at least two years of graduate study. Required courses in the master's program typically include statistics and research design. Practical experiences in an applied setting are usually required as is a master's thesis based on an original research project. People with a master’s degree in psychology can work as industrial-organizational psychologist, and they can conduct research or do psychological evaluations under the supervision of doctoral-level psychologists.

Doctoral Degrees

The missions of the doctoral programs appear to be on a continuum. On one end are programs that are mainly committed to producing research-oriented, scientists/scholars who will create knowledge that will improve the quality of life. Some of these programs, such as the program at Stanford University, do not even offer degrees in clinical, counseling, industrial or organizational psychology. On the other end of the continuum are programs whose primary mission is to produce practitioners/clinicians who work directly with people, typically as therapists and counselors.

In general, the schools on the research end of the continuum award the traditional research PhD degree. Some of the schools on the practitioner/clinician end of the continuum award the PhD, but an increasing number of schools award a newer degree - the PsyD.

A doctoral degree generally requires 5 to 7 years of graduate study. The PhD degree culminates in a dissertation based on original research. The PsyD may be based on practical work and examinations rather than a dissertation.

A doctoral degree usually is required for employment as an independent licensed clinical or counseling psychologist. Psychologists with a PhD qualify for a wide range of teaching, research, clinical, and counseling positions in universities, health care services, elementary and secondary schools, private industry, and government. Psychologists with a PsyD usually work in clinical positions or in private practices, but some also teach, conduct research, or carry out administrative responsibilities.


John Chaney, Mvskoke Creek, PhD, director of the American Indians into Psychology Program at Oklahoma State University, says that during high school, students can do volunteer work in nursing homes and hospitals. Later as undergraduates they can work on hotlines and in women’s crisis shelters. These experiences can help students decide if they have the aptitude to deal effectively with human issues and if they want to work with people.

Chaney also advises all students to take some math courses and to do some research as undergraduates. Many students are afraid of these areas but he says that once you understand that they are straightforward and learnable, they can be rewarding and even fun.

Candace M. Fleming, Kickapoo-Oneida-Cherokee, PhD, gives the following advice to American Indian and Alaska Native students who are considering graduate work in psychology: “The more well rounded you are in your knowledge about history, science, literature, oral traditions, and philosophy, the better you can understand the persons you’re serving. I think graduate schools are very interested in people who have sampled a variety of disciplines and traditions of learning.” She also says, "The behavioral health disciplines have more than just applied careers. There’s also research and teaching. I urge students to consider many pathways. In Indian Country, we naturally want to give back to and help our own people, so often we think of service careers. But research can be of great help to Native people. Educating others is essential for having role models at the academy for those that come after us."

For descriptions of a few programs that recruit/support American Indian and Alaska Native students, see Schools/Programs.
Parts of this article were originally published in the Fall 2000 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Roy Henry Vickers, Tsimshian and English.)