Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Careers in Psych

Psych Majors as Medical Professionals? You Bet!

These professional degrees in medicine are good fits for many psychology majors.

Posted Nov 11, 2015

Not even a year has passed since the first set of aspiring doctors sat down to take a new version of the Medical Colleges Admissions Test (MCAT). Under changes approved by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges), as of April 7, 2015, students taking the MCAT are expected to understand not only the biological foundations of health, but the psychological and sociological as well. It is not surprising that future doctors are expected to have a more dynamic view of healthcare, given the medical community’s shift from a biomedical model of disease toward one that incorporates biological, psychological, and social factors in patient health. Last week we considered how this shift in perspective is opening doors in medicine for those with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. This week’s focus is on medical careers for those with a psychology degree who pursue advanced degrees.

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Many with backgrounds in psychology go on to earn professional degrees in the medical field where they learn skills for patient care in a particular profession. For instance, a nursing degree allows an individual to help people improve their health and quality of life. There are different types of nurses: licensed practical nurse (LPN), registered nurse (RN), nurse practitioner (NP) and others. There are different time frames and degrees that can be earned as a nurse: 2-year associate's degree or 4-year bachelor's degree. Nurses must obtain licensure from the state board of nursing to practice in the profession.  

Another professional degree option is the physician’s assistant (PA) degree. PAs practice medicine as part of a healthcare team and are educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide patient treatment. In some states, they are licensed to prescribe medication. The time to complete a PA program is approximately two years. Most applicants to physician assistant education programs have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience, for instance as an EMT or paramedic. In fact, many PA programs now require prior healthcare experience with hands on patient care. A PA can specialize in a specific medical area (e.g., pediatrics), and must obtain licensure from the state board of nursing to practice in the profession. The job outlook for PAs is very good, with employment of physician assistants projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, which is faster than the average (11 percent) for all occupations1.

Of course, becoming a physician is another option for those with a psychology background. There are two types of physicians, with corresponding professional degrees: M.D. (Medical Doctor) and D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). Both use the same treatment methods, including drugs and surgery, but D.O.s focus on the body's musculoskeletal system, preventive medicine, and holistic patient care. Almost all physician degree programs require at least 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, and, depending on the specialty, 3 to 8 years in internship and residency programs. Before beginning a residency or internship, the aspiring doctor must first pass an exam to be licensed in a particular state. If you love psychology and medicine, you may consider becoming a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental health and emotional problems. Psychiatrists use a wide variety of treatments — including psychotherapy and medication — to best address the needs of their patients. The length of residency to become a psychiatrist is 4 years. 

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Finally, some psychology majors continue to dental school after graduation. Dentists are qualified to treat the diseases and conditions affecting teeth and gums. A dental degree usually requires 4 years of dental school, after which the individual must obtain licensure from state board of dentistry to practice in the profession. To specialize in an area of dentistry (e.g., become an orthodontist), you must complete 2-4 years of postdoctoral education, and might be required to complete a 2-year residency program in a specialized area. 

Keep in mind that professional degree programs often have specific requirements for admission to their program. For instance, at a minimum, nearly all medical schools expect applicants to have completed one year of biology, one year of physics, one year of English, one year of general chemistry and one year of organic chemistry2. If you intend to pursue a professional degree, you should check with the specific program’s requirements to ensure you have taken the appropriate courses before applying.

The bottom line is that today, more than ever, individuals with psychology backgrounds have ample opportunity in the medical field. In fact, having a psychology degree at any level will help you in pursuing a health-related job. If you would like to suggest other options for psychology majors and advance degree holders in terms of careers in health care or medicine, please comment below. We would love to hear from you! Also, if you want more information on any of the careers mentioned in this post, check out the external links posted below or feel free to contact us.

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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External Links

Nursing and Becoming a Nurse

How to Become a PA

Deciding Between an MD and a DO

Is Psychiatry for the Profession for You?

Applying to Dental School