How to know if you want to be 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.

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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

How to Become a Clinical Psychologist

If you have a desire to help people and are interested in how the human mind works, a career in clinical psychology might be a great fit. Clinical psychologists receive a specialized education that allows them to assist clients with a variety of problems, helping people to make changes, become more resilient, and develop strengths to better navigate life. The clinical psychology field can provide opportunities, too. Whether you decide to start your own private practice or work for a school, hospital or in another setting, there is the opportunity to find work you may enjoy. If you think this is the career path for you, read on to see an overview of how to become a clinical psychologist.

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Earn an MA in Psychology Online from Pepperdine

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months

Why Study Clinical Psychology?

Studying clinical psychology can help prepare you for a career as a clinical psychologist. Clinical psychologists receive specialized training so they can diagnose and treat mental, emotional and behavioral illnesses. Rather than prescribing medications, clinical psychologists use techniques like psychoanalytic therapy to help their patients. In addition to treating patients, clinical psychologists may participate in research and testing projects. They may also choose to teach psychology. 

According to the American Psychological Association, clinical psychologists can choose from many career opportunities. Some may choose to focus on treating certain problems, like work stress or chronic conditions. Clinical psychologists may open up their own private practices, or they may work in settings like hospitals, courts, schools, the military and more. Psychologists can also choose to work with certain populations, like children, trauma survivors or veterans. 

Starting your private practice could have its own benefits. When you open a private practice, you enjoy greater autonomy than you would have working at a group practice. You’ll be able to set your own schedule, decide where to locate the practice, and determine the practice’s specialty. There’s a great deal of pride that can go along with starting your own practice, and being in charge of your own business can be freeing. 

A career as a clinical psychologist offers many opportunities. Helping other people can be emotionally rewarding, and clinical psychology jobs had a mean salary of $80,450 in 2019, according to the BLS. 

How Long Does it Take to Become a Clinical Psychologist?

Because clinical psychologists need specialized training and must meet multiple education requirements, it can take long to become one. Clinical psychologists will need undergraduate and doctoral degrees. These requirements take eight to 12 years to complete, depending on the specific programs you enroll in and whether you study on a full- or part-time basis.

Clinical psychologist education requirements

According to The American Psychological Association, a clinical psychologist must complete the following education requirements: 

  • Undergraduate degree
  • Master’s degree
  • Doctoral degree
  • Additional training and licensing

4 Steps to Becoming a Clinical Psychologist

While every journey is different, the American Psychological Association outlines the following common steps to become a clinical psychologist: 

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

    Many clinical psychologists begin by earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. This provides the fundamentals, preparing you for the degrees you’ll pursue next. Some graduate programs will require a bachelor’s degree in psychology, while others may be open to bachelor’s degrees in other fields. If you know you want to become a clinical psychologist when you enroll in a bachelor’s degree program, pursuing a program in psychology may mean you’ll be able to choose from a wider selection of master’s degree programs than if you major in another field. 

  2. Earn a Master’s Degree

    You’ll have a few choices when it comes to your master’s degree in clinical psychology. It’s possible to complete a master’s degree and then pursue a clinical psychology doctoral program. You may also be able to enroll in an undergraduate program that results in a master’s degree so you can graduate more quickly and get started on your doctoral program. Some doctoral programs also allow you to enroll directly without earning a master’s degree. 

  3. Earn a Doctoral Degree

    Doctoral degree programs usually take five to seven years to complete, depending on your program and its requirements. Be prepared to write and defend a dissertation. Most programs culminate in a comprehensive examination you’ll have to pass to earn your degree. It’s also common for a doctoral program in clinical psychology to require a one-year internship.

  4. Get Training to Become a Licensed Clinical Psychologist

    Clinical psychologists must be licensed in most states, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports. Licensing requirements vary depending on your state and the type of position. In most states, a clinical psychologist must meet the following requirements: 

    • Have a doctorate in psychology
    • Complete an internship
    • Have at least one to two years of supervised professional experience
    • Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology

    Once you have your license, you will likely need to take continuing education courses to renew that license throughout your career. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards provides additional information on state licensure requirements.

8 Skills Clinical Psychologists Use Every Day

Good Psychologists should possess certain skills. If you’re considering a degree as a clinical psychologist, plan to use the following skills daily. 

Interpersonal skills

Clinical psychologists use multiple interpersonal skills every day. These are the skills that allow psychologists to express themselves and to understand how their clients think and feel during each appointment. A psychologist needs to focus on their clients and empathize with them. Strong listening skills are essential. Staying genuinely interested in the client, keeping the conversation focused on the client, and picking up on messaging conveyed by body language will help a psychologist be effective and gain a client’s trust. 

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Strong communication talents

Psychologists need to communicate well and clearly with clients. This communication is important in everything from establishing a dialogue and asking the right questions to explaining why clients are experiencing their symptoms. A psychologist needs to be able to provide these explanations clearly so clients understand why they’re feeling certain ways and why the psychologist is suggesting certain approaches and treatments. 


While psychologists should keep appointments focused on clients, it’s also important that psychologists have self-awareness and self-insight. For a psychologist to be effective in helping clients, it’s important they can identify their own issues and understand how those issues could affect their emotional responses to clients and client conversations. By identifying and managing their own emotional responses, psychologists can remain more impartial and more effective in their conversations with clients.

A long-term viewpoint

Helping clients can be a long-term process, so a psychologist will benefit from a long-term viewpoint. This long-term approach, and the dedication to a client that comes with it, can help psychologists identify an appropriate plan, evaluate that plan over time, and make changes to improve that plan. These steps are essential.

Sensitivity to and awareness of cultural differences

Psychologists may work with clients from a variety of cultural backgrounds. It’s important for psychologists to be aware of and sensitive to the cultural differences that can affect a client’s values and emotions. When psychologists are aware of a client’s background and how that background affects family relationships, religion, and societal behavior, they’re better able to understand and help the client. 


Clients aren’t one-size-fits-all, and the approach that works for one client won’t necessarily work for the next. Since some types of treatments tend to be more effective for certain types of problems, it’s important that a psychologist is willing to be flexible in their treatment plans to find the right option. Listening to client feedback about what is and isn’t working can also cause a psychologist to reevaluate a treatment plan to make sure it’s the best option for the client. Clinical psychologists who embrace this flexibility are more likely to be able to truly help each client as an individual. 

Ability to develop trust

For psychology to be effective, it’s important that a client is able to trust their psychologist. Psychologists can help build that trust through their communication. A mix of verbal and nonverbal skills can convey trustworthiness to new clients. Because people determine whether they can trust someone immediately upon meeting them, a psychologist who has the ability to develop trust can set the tone for a session from its very beginning.

Devotion to ongoing learning

The field of psychology continues to adapt and advance, and a clinical psychologist needs to stay well-informed about new methods and theories. A psychologist should have a natural desire to stay informed by reading the latest available research, and should also continue to pursue new training and education. When a psychologist keeps well-informed of advancements in the field, they can ensure their talents and approaches stay as effective as possible. 

Clinical Psychology Careers and Salary

Psychologists held approximately 181,700 jobs in 2018, according to the BLS. Psychologists were most often self-employed, but they also frequently worked for elementary and secondary schools, ambulatory health care services, the government, and in hospitals. 

The BLS reports that in May 2019, clinical, counseling, and school psychologists together earned a median annual wage of $78,200. Psychologists who worked in government earned a median of $96,870, while those who worked in hospitals earned $88,480.

The BLS predicts encouraging job growth within the psychology field. From 2018 to 2020, the BLS projects psychologist employment will increase 14%1, which is much faster than the average growth across all occupations.1 Clinical psychologist employment should grow even faster because of increased demand in hospitals, schools, social service organizations, and mental health centers.

Many factors are driving this increased demand:

  • The large aging population will need psychological support to deal with the changes that come with aging.
  • Veterans coping with war trauma and survivors of other forms of trauma will need mental health support. 
  • Increased awareness of how mental health and learning are connected will drive more need for school psychological services.
  • Businesses and organizations will continue to rely on psychologists to help with challenges in employee retention, workplace productivity, and supporting workplace morale.

Competition for these psychology jobs will depend on factors like the specialty of a position, its education requirements, and locality. Clinical psychologists who have a doctoral degree paired with postdoctoral work experience may be more competitive when applying for sought-after positions. It’s also likely there will be more opportunities available for psychologists who provide rehabilitation services and services to seniors.1

Is Becoming a Clinical Psychologist Right For You?

There are many options for pursuing a clinical psychologist career, including starting your own private practice or pursuing one of the many jobs that will likely be available. No matter what specialization or work location you decide is right for you, you’ll have the satisfaction of helping people on a daily basis.

Earn an MA in Psychology Online from Pepperdine

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months

Last Updated August 2020

1Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Psychologists,” September 2020. Accessed September 2020.arrow_upwardReturn to footnote reference

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