How to become a psychiatrist is a question more and more medical students are asking, and with good reason. This fascinating field uses deep medical knowledge and social and cultural understanding to treat those suffering from mental illness.
When asked for his advice on how to become a psychiatrist, Joel Braslow, MD, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, explains, "Being a psychiatrist is about connecting and the act of understanding. It is one area of medicine where you can really connect empathically with suffering."
Pathology of the mind
Dr. Braslow, a psychiatrist and historian, whose work focuses on the social, cultural, historical and scientific context of treatment practices for severe mental illness, wasn't thinking about how to become a psychiatrist during medical school. He wanted to be a pathologist. But after one year of pathology, Dr. Braslow discovered he was more interested in the pathology of the mind than the body or its parts.
"I went into psychiatry because I wanted to think more broadly about the human condition and illness."
To become a psychiatrist, medical students follow a standard curriculum. During their third and fourth years, students participate in medical clerkships, usually in a combination of inpatient and outpatient settings, where they work with patients who have a variety of psychiatric illnesses. In the final year of medical school, students apply for psychiatric residency programs.
Upon completion of the residency program, many psychiatrists choose to pursue additional training in a subspecialty, such as child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, forensic psychiatry, addiction psychiatry or psychiatry in general medical settings.
Following his residency, Dr. Braslow pursued a PhD in the history of medicine. "I wanted to understand the ways in which sociocultural values shape and become incorporated into clinical and scientific practices," he explains.
Pursuing a field full of uncertainty
One thing about psychiatry is that there are so many unanswered questions, explains Dr. Braslow. "What is psychiatric illness? How do we conceptualize it? It is really fascinating. It allows you to think in multiple frames or registers."
Dr. Braslow chose psychiatry because he was intrigued by these uncertainties, and he was interested in exploring how the act of understanding someone is often very helpful and healing.
Psychiatry isn't just about clinical facts and medical knowledge. It's a field that deals with both physical organs, such as the brain, and abstract concepts, such as emotion and personality. Facts alone are not enough to unravel the human condition. Psychiatrists must also be socially and culturally sensitive in order to connect with their patients, understand their suffering, and begin to help them.
By Emily Williams