The road to a clinical psychologist is a long one. Folks who are interested in the career may be curious about exactly how long it takes to become a fully autonomous practicing clinician.
The answer is pretty darn long – especially for the traditional PhD route. There are quite a few educational and professional hoops and milestones to jump through to become an independent practicing psychologist. We are thinking on the time scale of years.
In this post, I clarify how long it takes to become a practicing clinician and specific milestones that are required at each stage.
Obtaining your undergraduate degree
Although there are people who begin truly pursuing their clinical psychology career after finishing undergraduate, many begin to consider this path in the beginning or in the midst of their undergraduate studies.
They will likely major in Psychology for their undergraduate degree, join an Honour’s program, take relevant coursework, and conduct extensive research. Although this is the traditional path, you can apply even if you majored in a different program with sufficient relevant coursework and experience.
Clinical psychology PhD programs are very competitive, so early consideration and preparation through a strong academic track record and extensive research experience will be vital to being a competitive applicant. Here is a guide on how to best prepare for clinical psychology programs in your undergrad if you’re interested!
Assuming a typical Bachelor’s degree, the undergrad will take around 4 years. However, it is the norm rather than the exception for some students to take an extra gap year to obtain further research experience and prepare for applications rather than go straight from undergrad to graduate school. So far, we are looking at somewhere between 4 to 5 years.
Obtaining your Master’s degree
The Master’s and PhD program are typically built-in together; that is, the program expects you to complete both as most jurisdictions require a PhD to consider yourself a psychologist.
The Master’s degree is typically 2 years. During this time, you will complete relevant coursework, such as research methods, statistics, in addition to courses on theories on psychopathology (mental disorders), assessments, and treatments. The specific treatment you will specialize in (e.g., cognitive behavioural therapy, humanistic psychology, etc.) depends on the program and its specialized training.
During this time, you will also begin to see your first patients and complete a Master’s thesis as an independent research project supported by your research supervisor.
Obtaining your PhD degree
The PhD is more variable than the Master’s degree in terms of length because people can take more or less time to complete their doctoral dissertation. Usually, the length of the PhD is somewhere between 3 to 5 years.
Besides the hefty doctoral dissertation that you will propose, collect data for, and defend, there are continued coursework and clinical work you will complete. For example, I worked at two different research hospitals providing assessment and treatment for different presenting problems, such as perinatal anxiety/depression, chronic insomnia, and substance use problems. There is also a comprehensive examination, which is a large exam that differs based on the school. Our exam was a written one where we had to complete a systematic review paper on a topic outside our field of expertise.
Completing your pre-doctoral internship
After completing major coursework, clinical practica (experience in counselling centres, hospitals, private practice), and research milestones (defending your thesis proposal), you will apply for a year of full-time supervised work at an internship site. This process is not unlike the residency experience that medical students go throuhg – you apply and get matched as ranked applicants to different internship sites.
The internship is 1 year and is built-in to the doctoral timeline. Altogether, the MA/PhD program with internship is 6 to 7 years on average with the final task typically being defending the doctoral dissertation (though some defend prior to/during internship).
Continued practice and examinations prior to full licensure
As much as I’d like to say that the extensive coursework, clinical work, and research that you have accomplished to this point is sufficient to becoming an autonomous practicing clinician, there’s still a couple more hoops to jump through. The specific requirements to be licensed after the doctoral degree is awarded differs varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Common requirements include passing the EPPP (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology) exam, which tests foundational knowledge in psychology, and the Jurisprudence Exam, which tests knowledge of ethical practice. Finally, you will also complete 1 year of supervised practice.
All said and done, the whole timeline to becoming an autonomous practicing clinical psychologist is somewhere around 11 to 13 years after an undergraduate degree, MA/PhD, and post-doctoral licensure.
It’s definitely a long road. But for many who go through it, this career can be extremely rewarding and flexible.
And the experience itself doesn’t have to be miserable; graduate school can be fulfilling and enjoyable depending on your values and specific preferences for lifestyle. For example, I enjoy graduate school because of its flexibility and the different activities (research, clinical work, mentorship, teaching) I get to play a role in on a day to day!
If you found this post helpful, please consider subscribing to the mailing list!