Becoming a Psychiatrist, What about Tattoos?

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Reader’s Question

I’m a college student who wants to be a clinical psychiatrist and I was wondering how I go about doing that. I am currently a psychology major and am probably going to also follow a pre-med curriculum. I also want to get a tattoo on my wrist — nothing major, just a small semicolon. How would that affect me when looking for a job? I would be able cover it up with tattoo cover up or a watch or long sleeves.

Psychologist’s Reply

Your letter allows me to clarify something important that many people don’t realize: psychologists and psychiatrists have very different training and orientations towards treatment of mental and emotional disorders. Psychiatrists are physicians, so they undergo the same core medical education experienced by all physicians. It’s only after the core that individual medical students specialize, through internships and residency programs.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the brain. Accordingly, their orientation is toward a biological understanding of causes and treatments for mental disorders, and so they prescribe medications. That’s not to say that psychological issues or interventions are ignored, but those tend not to be the specialty of psychiatry. Psychologists specialize in the non-medical understanding and treatment of problems; primarily counseling.

Knowing the difference between psychiatrists and psychologists with regard to their general orientation and training helps many students avoid going down an educational and career path that doesn’t fit. Assuming that psychiatry is still the better fit for you, the next step after college is medical school. So, you would want to ensure that you have a strong background in the natural sciences to help you score well on pre-admissions tests for medical school.

Now, what about that tattoo? While I was growing up, tattoos tended to be associated with bikers and prison inmates. Over the past several years, however, tattoos have become mainstream to the point of approaching the statistical norm among young adults. In other words, for your generation, tattoos are typical, as I’m sure you’re aware from noticing your peers. As long as your future tattoos are not considered “excessive” (extremely large or colorful) or distracting (say, on the neck or face), they should not pose a problem professionally.

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