If you are considering a career as a psychiatrist, these are important and exciting times for the profession, as it tries to figure out the neurobiological underpinnings of mental illness. Currently, clinical psychiatry does not have objective, biological tests to help confirm mental illness. Rather, mental illness is diagnosed based on history and clinical presentation. However, psychiatry is fast becoming a specialty of medicine based on the brain. The mind, and the various problems and illnesses that are from disorders of the mind, can basically be explained at a molecular level, with neurons communicating with each other via synapses, and these synapses connect to one another via neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are the chemicals which carry out the message between neurons, and the receptors of these neurotransmitters are the targets of the psychiatric medications prescribed for mental illness…this is the so-called “chemical imbalance” theory of mental illness. But mental illness is much more complex than a chemical imbalance. In the brain on a macro level, mental processes have specific circuitry, which connect different parts of the brain, and this circuitry is comprised of the neurons which conduct the message between brain areas. Functional neuroimaging is already revealing preliminary evidence that mental illness is associated with disruptions of these brain circuits, and that treatment can normalize these circuits. In addition to neuroimaging research, genetics research is on the verge of finding the constellation of genes responsible for the transmission of mental illness in families. In the next few years, psychiatry should have objective, biological tests to help diagnose mental illness, and cures may be possible.
Given the multitudes of research in the neurosciences to find the biological underpinnings of mental illness, it is a great time to join the ranks of psychiatry. As a student interested in psychiatry, it would be advantageous for you to have an undergraduate degree in a science field, given the neuroscience emphasis in psychiatry over the past two decades. The following knowledge and skill set are important for the modern biological psychiatrist: organic chemistry, neuroscience, statistics, clinical trials, neuroimaging, genetics, epidemiology, psychopharmacology, psychology, evidence-based psychotherapy, biopsychosocial model, business management (for managing your medical practice), and managing clinical teams.
In high school, if you already know you want to be a psychiatrist, you should take chemistry, physics, biology, Latin, a second language course (to communicate with patients in your region who speak a different language), English literature, home economics (you need to know basic activities of daily living), athletics (physical activity to model good health), debate team, student leadership positions, and pre-calculus. If possible and if you have the time in high school, take all the AP (advance placement) courses you can find, like AP English, AP Chemistry, AP Calculus, AP History, so you can get college credit and get into a top undergraduate premed program. In high school, I would also recommend that you volunteer for hospitals and medical clinics, as it shows dedication to the medical profession. I would also recommend that you get paid work, as it demonstrates maturity, experience, knowledge, skill, and organization that an employer is willing to compensate.
For college, you should attend a top tier private or public university. People recognize brands, so go to a brand university that everyone knows. And if you have to pick between an Ivy League university and a top state university (of which you are a resident of that state, as in-state residents get the lower tuition costs), pick the top state university, as it is cheaper, and it is easier to be at the top of the class at a state school. Remember, medical schools are looking at those from the top of their class, so if you are at the bottom of the class at Harvard, then you will most likely not be accepted to medical school. It is easier to be a big fish in a little pond. As an example, in Texas, the top private university is Rice University, and the top public university is the University of Texas at Austin. I chose UT-Austin, graduated at the top of my class, and was granted admission to a state medical school, the University of Texas Medical Branch School of Medicine at Galveston. I’m sorry Texas A&M and Baylor, but in Texas, Rice and UT-Austin are tops for undergraduate universities (and for graduate school in UT-Austin’s case).
You have to go by the numbers and follow them…this is not about allegiance to a particular school…it is about getting into medical school, which is highly competitive. As an example, when you look at the 8 allopathic (MD) medical schools in Texas, the majority of the medical school enrolees have undergraduate degrees from Rice or UT-Austin. So the formula to get into the medical school of your state of residence is to try to gain admission to the top private school or the top public school in your state for your undergraduate degree…in Texas it is Rice and UT-Austin; in California, it is Stanford and UCLA; in Nebraska, it is Creighton University and University of Nebraska; in Massachusetts, it is Harvard and University of Massachusetts; in Illinois, it is University of Chicago (Northwestern is probably tied) and University of Illinois.
Once you gain acceptance to your top-tier state private university or top-tier state public university for your undergraduate degree, you can pick any major, but the majority of students who get accepted into medical school have a science degree. This is a matter of convenience for the premed student, as the requirements for applying to medical school are full of science courses. Certainly, you can focus on a non-science major, but you will have to work harder to fulfill all the science courses for pre-med, which will not be included within your non-science degree. From the time you enroll at university, start looking at MCAT test preparation, as a high MCAT score is also needed for acceptance to medical school.
So you made it to medical school…congratulations. In these tough economic times, the competition is fiercer, as the unemployed will join the ranks of returning to graduate schools or professional schools. During the basic science years, focus on neuroscience, behavioral sciences, brain and central nervous system (CNS) dissection in anatomy, pharmacology, genetics, epidemiology, statistics, research methodology, medical ethics and clinical trials. During the clinical clerkship years, focus on family medicine, internal medicine, psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery, neuroradiology, neuropsychiatry, and psychiatric research.
For psychiatry residency, pick one that is going to give you the best chance of becoming a competent, modern, biological psychiatrist. The future of psychiatry is what I have been discussing above, so you need a program that does research into the neurobiology of mental illness. This type of program will best position you to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to be a modern biological psychiatrist. Although psychiatrists need to learn and utilize psychotherapy, it is not something that is utilized in daily psychiatric practice as a primary modality, as psychiatrists are just too expensive to relegate them to just talk therapy. Avoid psychiatric residencies that focus on psychotherapy only, as you will not learn the biological approach to psychiatry at those programs.
As you see, the modern biological psychiatrist wields diverse knowledge and skill set. The modern psychiatrist also requires an analytical mind to synthesize the various subjective data and produce a formulation for each patient. Hopefully, in the coming years, psychiatrists will be able to utilize objective biological tests to aid with diagnosis and treatment planning. This is an exciting time to join psychiatry, given it is at the brink of finding the cause (and cure) of mental illness.