How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

| Nina Chamlou Modified on June 27, 2022 Reviewed by Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D.

Applying to graduate programs in psychology? Get the inside scoop. On this page, we cover entrance testing, application packet development, and steps involved with applying.

How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

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As the population grows and stigma surrounding therapy services decreases, demand for clinical psychologists continues to increase. Additional factors like political unrest and the stress induced by the pandemic have heightened this need, requiring more mental health professionals to meet the demand.

If you are interested in human behavior and enjoy helping people, learn about how to become a clinical psychologist.

What Is Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychologists provide direct counseling services, using a variety of therapy approaches specific to the client's needs. They may specialize in certain areas, such as school psychology and learning disabilities, or with a specific age group. They can work in hospitals, schools, and various healthcare centers.

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Clinical Psychology Salaries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top settings for psychologists in terms of the highest median salaries are in government, hospitals, and ambulatory healthcare services. Psychologists working at these institutions made an average of $100,360, $90,640, and $85,970, respectively, in 2020.

Psychologists
Lowest 10% Median Annual Salary Highest 10% Projected Growth Rate (2020-2030)
$46,270 $82,180 $137,590 8%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How Do I Become a Clinical Psychologist?

Licensing requirements vary by state, but clinical psychologists generally must hold a doctorate in psychology from a regionally accredited university and APA accredited program.

All states require applicants to complete and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) following the completion of their doctorate program. Candidates for licensure must also complete a specific amount of supervised clinical hours, the number of which is determined by their state's licensing board.

Education for Clinical Psychologists

The education requirements to become a clinical psychologist include an undergraduate degree and a doctorate. However, in many cases, learners complete a master's degree in between. Most students spend between 8-12 years earning their degrees before obtaining licensure.

You don't need to major in psychology during your undergraduate years to become a psychologist. Most doctorate programs ask for a bachelor's degree in any discipline from an accredited institution, among other requirements, including a minimum GPA and letters of recommendation. Each program's requirements differ slightly.

During your doctoral studies, you may complete a dissertation. You will choose a topic of interest to you and conduct an independent research project with the help of your professors. Upon completion, it may be submitted for publication. You will then appear before a board of professionals to defend your research.

Pre-Professional Experience for Clinical Psychologists

Once you have completed your doctorate, many states require supervised clinical hours to qualify for licensure. To do so, you will have to complete a postdoctoral fellowship.

The number of hours needed varies by state. You can use the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards' interactive map to learn about requirements in your state. Typically, graduates spend 1-2 years at their postdoctoral fellowship.

Licensure for Clinical Psychologists

The final hurdle before obtaining licensure is passing the EPPP. The test comprises 225 multiple-choice questions in eight content areas. You are given about four hours to complete the exam. To pass, you must answer about 70% of the questions correctly. The exam fee is typically $450.

Board Certification for Clinical Psychologists

The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offers certifications for licensed psychologists in 15 specialty areas. Prospective psychologists are not required to practice clinical psychology, but some choose to pursue certification to show advanced competency in a specific area. Specialties include forensic psychology, neuropsychology, and school psychology, among others.

In 2017, about 4% of licensed psychologists in the U.S. were board certified. About one-third of those received certification in clinical psychology, according to the American Psychological Association. Board certification requires completing certain educational, training, and experience requirements, including an exam.

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Psychologists

What is clinical psychology?

Clinical psychology combines science, theory, and clinical knowledge to understand and treat all kinds of psychological distress.

What is the difference between clinical psychology and counseling psychology?

The clinical branch of psychology focuses on the study of mental disorders to address complex mental problems. Counseling psychologists generally treat individuals with fewer or less serious pathological mental problems.

What is the difference between clinical psychology and psychiatry?

There is a significant amount of overlap in the knowledge that psychologists and psychiatrists share. However, a major difference between the two professional groups is that psychiatrists must attend medical school to prescribe medication. Like other physicians, psychiatrists study human anatomy, medication diagnostics, and diseases and how to treat them. They can also prescribe medications for mental disorders, which psychologists cannot unless they receive additional training and licensure to do so in states that allow it.

What Does a Clinical Psychologist Do?

Clinical psychologists evaluate, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They help people deal with problems ranging from acute issues to severe, chronic conditions. Depending on the client's need, they employ a variety of approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

Clinical psychologists may work with individuals, families, or groups. Often, a psychologist specializes in a particular demographic, such as teens, women, or the LGBTQ community.

Professionals can work in hospitals, clinics, health centers, schools, or prisons. Many choose to start their own private practice. While clinical psychologists spend much of their time providing one-on-one therapy to clients, they also perform other duties, depending on their specialty and where they work.

Some psychologists perform research, which involves developing hypotheses and collecting data. Others perform lab experiments or use naturalistic observation. Psychologists also commonly administer questionnaires, clinical studies, or surveys.

Skills and Competencies

To succeed as a psychologist, you must have a deep level of empathy, active listening skills, and a strong moral compass. However, psychologists commonly experience compassion fatigue, which can lead to becoming numb to your clients' feelings. Prior to the pandemic, about 20-60% of mental health practitioners experienced burnout.

Psychologists are especially vulnerable to this because they are highly empathetic, which makes them more vulnerable to emotional pain. In this way, the natural selflessness and compassion you possess as a therapist may erode your ability to help clients if you don't practice self-care.

In recent years, stigma around mental health professionals seeking therapy has decreased. Having the self-awareness and humility to seek help is crucial to maintaining your own mental health and capacity to help others.

Clinical Psychology Resources and Professional Organizations

Reviewed by:

Portrait of Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D.

Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D.

Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who currently practices in the Chicago area. She holds a bachelor's in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master's and doctorate in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. Her clinical interests include the treatment of eating and body image concerns, college student and student-athlete mental health, mood disorders, health and wellness, mindfulness, sport and performance psychology, and consultation.

In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Pietrucha has served as the training director for an APA-accredited internship program and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology. She has also worked with high school and college athletes and teams, as well as recreational fitness programs, to provide mental skills training for athletic performance and fitness adherence.

Megan Pietrucha is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.

Featured Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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