What is a Psychoanalysis Degree?

Sigmund Freud was the original psychoanalyst. He observed that traditional methods of psychotherapy – listening and talking – were often just a temporary fix for some patients and that they reverted to their starting point or developed another problem. Based on this finding, Freud discovered the human psyche’s unconscious resistance to change and offered a way to address the unconscious factors which support a person’s tendency to stay stuck in their difficulties. He called it analysis of resistances.

Psychoanalysis aims to bring the content of the unconscious into conscious awareness. Its basic tenets are that behavior is influenced by unconscious drives, that emotional and psychological problems are often rooted in conflicts between the conscious and unconscious mind, that personality development is heavily influenced by events that occur by the age of five, and that people use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from information contained in the unconscious.

Training programs in psychoanalysis start with the assumption that three functions exist within every personality – the id, ego, and superego. The id or unconscious energy is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains sexual and aggressive drives and hidden memories. The ego or conscious mind is the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the external reality or moral conscience of the super ego.

Students of psychoanalysis learn how to help alleviate the tensions that exist between the id, ego, and superego. They study and practise strategies in psychoanalysis therapy, such as dream analysis and free association, in which a therapist asks a person to freely share thoughts, words, and anything else that comes to mind.

Program Options

It is uncommon for psychoanalysis to be offered as a standalone degree. To become a certified psychoanalyst, a therapist must undergo specialized intensive training at a psychoanalytic institute approved by the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA). To be accepted into one of these training programs, candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in any discipline as well as a master’s or doctoral degree in a health-related field. They must also have some prior training and experience as a therapist.

These are the three types of graduate degrees which qualify applicants for APsaA approved training:

Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)

  • having completed a four-year residency in psychiatry
  • in some cases applicants can enter psychoanalytic training while they are still psychiatry residents

Other Mental Health Doctoral Degrees

  • a Ph.D. in clinical aspects of psychology, social work, or another mental health discipline

Master’s Degree

  • in fields in which a master’s is the highest clinical degree, such as marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, and psychiatric nursing
  • additional coursework and clinical work is required before applying

The Psychoanalytic Training Program – Four to Five Year Duration
The psychoanalytic training program typically comprises three components: a personal analysis, a didactic (instructional) curriculum including psychoanalytic theory and case studies, and intensive supervised psychoanalytic clinical work. Specialization programs are offered in adult psychoanalytic training, child and adolescent psychoanalytic training, psychoanalytic psychotherapy training, and psychoanalytic research and academic training.

Below is an overview of the psychoanalytic concepts at the center of these training programs. Concepts are presented alphabetically, so some terminology used may be explained further down the list.

Confrontation is done prior to an intervention where the patient is encouraged to attend to experiences that they have been avoiding.

Countertransference refers to the analyst’s feelings and attitudes towards the patient, their reaction to the patient’s transference, how their own experiences impact their understanding of and their emotional responses to the patient.

Defense Mechanisms operate at the unconscious level and are used by the ego as a way to reduce negative feelings such as anxiety and guilt, and deal with conflict or problems in life. Common defense mechanisms include repression, denial, and projection.

Denial is an individual’s refusal to confront aspects of a given reality to avoid potential feelings of discomfort. While commonly defined as a type of defense mechanism, denial – which Freud called ‘disavowal’ – plays a role in all defense mechanisms.

Dreams are mental events that consists of hallucinations involving imagery and emotions. According to Freud, current concerns and unconscious childhood wishes are present during the day and require gratification, and dreams allow us to respond to these demands while continuing to sleep. For example, a person who is thirsty dreams about drinking water which allows them to continue sleeping rather than having to wake up and satisfy their thirst.

Ego is that portion of the human personality which is experienced as the self or ‘I.’ Freud theorized that the mind was divided into three parts: id, ego, and superego. The function of the ego can be described as running interference between the id and the superego. It is the mediator between the drives of the id and the need for self-preservation. The ego is responsible for the development of the skills needed to function in the world, such as impulse control, perception, evaluation, and judgment.

Ego Ideal is a part of the superego that contains standards, values, and moral ideals. Failure to meet these standards can cause feelings of guilt or shame, while success can enhance self-esteem.

Fantasy loosely refers to an imagined situation that expresses certain desires or aims of the imagining individual. It can occur at the conscious level, also known as a daydream, or unconsciously, sometimes referred to as phantasy.

Fixation is a state where a person becomes attached to or overly invested in another individual or object. According to Freud, fixation is the result of conflict occurring during the psychosexual stages of development. The id’s libido becomes focused on different areas of the body, leading to problematic behaviors. For example, an individual with an oral fixation may engage in nail biting.

Id, according to Freud, is the part of the mind that contains one’s most basic and instinctive drive. It is governed by sexual and aggressive desires and pleasure seeking. The contents of the id are entirely unconscious. Freud stated that the goal of analysis is to uncover what is repressed in the id so that, ‘where id was, there ego shall be.’

Libido refers to one’s sexual desires or more specifically, the mental energy responsible for one’s sex drive. This concept represents Freud’s notion that sexual interest exists throughout life and that it is responsible for activities that involve sexual desire and/or affection.

Oedipus Complex Freud used the Greek myth of Oedipus to illustrate a childhood developmental stage, occurring between the ages of three and six, when a child desires to have the parent of the opposite sex all to him/herself, to the exclusion of the other parent. In the myth, Oedipus kills Laius, who he does not realize is his father, and then marries his widow Jokasta, who is actually Oedipus’s mother.

Parapraxis (Freudian Slip) reveals an unconscious desire or conflict through a mistake such as a slip of the tongue or forgetting someone’s name.

Pleasure Principle refers to one’s desire to obtain immediate gratification of needs by obtaining pleasure and avoiding pain. It is the driving force of the id. When our basic needs are not met, feelings of anxiety may develop.

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy is a form of psychotherapy modeled after a psychoanalytic model of mental functioning. It is primarily for individuals who will benefit from a method of treatment that is active and focuses on the realities of one’s daily life. Other terms include psychoanalytic psychotherapy, insight-oriented psychotherapy, and expressive psychotherapy.

Repression is a defensive process where an individual’s impulses and instinctual desires are blocked from entering one’s conscious. Regarded by Freud as the cornerstone of defense mechanisms, the process of repression involves unconsciously censoring ideas or memories deemed unacceptable.

Resistance refers to a patient’s unconscious opposition to the unveiling and exploration of painful memories during psychoanalysis. It is often conveyed through mental process, fantasies, memories, character defensives, and behaviors. While it initially occurs unconsciously, it may persist long after the patient is made consciously aware of this behavior.

Superego is the part of a person’s mind that helps keep the id in check, guiding the person to follow learned rules rather impulses; according to Freud, the superego is where morals and conscience come from.

Transference is the projection onto another person (example: the analyst) of feelings, past associations, or experiences. This is an important concept in psychoanalysis because it demonstrates that past experiences impact the present. Interpreting transference in the psychoanalytic setting can shed light on unresolved conflicts.

Unconscious Freud proposed that there are three parts (levels) of the mind: the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious. The unconscious is the part of the mind that stores feelings, thoughts, and urges unaware to the individual. These mental contents and processes often influence the conscious experience even though we are unaware of their existence.

Students of psychoanalysis learn how to apply these concepts in the treatment of a variety of conditions and emotional problems in both adults and children. Issues that typically respond well to psychoanalytic therapy include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive behavior
  • Trauma
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-esteem problems
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Relationship problems
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Somatic symptom disorder – involves a person having a significant focus on physical symptoms, such as pain, weakness, or shortness of breath, that results in major distress and/or problems functioning; the individual has excessive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors relating to the physical symptoms

Degrees Similar to Psychoanalysis

Child Psychology
Degree programs in child psychology prepare students to work in one or more of the three main concentrations in the field.

Adolescent psychology is focused on issues relevant to children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18. These issues include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, depression, and eating disorders.

Developmental child psychology is concerned with the emotional and cognitive developments that impact children as they age. Among these developments are language, formation of identity, and understanding of morality.

Abnormal Child Psychology focuses on the treatment of children and adolescents dealing with atypical issues like physical abuse, trauma, personality disorders, and sociopathy.

Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychologists focus on pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.

Human Development
Degree programs in this human development explore physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development through each stage of human life – prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying.

The physical domain is concerned with growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive human development comprises learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships. Students learn how these three domains of human development influence and impact every aspect of our lives – from self-respect and self-esteem to how we interact with family, peers, and society at large.

Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between couples and within family units. Degree programs in the field teach students how to lead and facilitate this kind of therapy.

Medical school attendees can choose to pursue a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree or a Doctor of Medicine (MD) Degree. MDs generally focus on treating specific conditions with medication. Their approach is less holistic than that of DOs, who focus on whole-body healing, with or without medication.

Mental Health Counseling
The mental health counseling curriculum teaches students how to help people dealing with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. Coursework often includes the holistic or mind and body approach to counseling.

Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system and how they affect behavior. The field of neuroscience borrows principles from biology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, immunology, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Degree programs in neuroscience, therefore, reflect this multidisciplinary nature.

At the graduate level, programs include the study of neurological disorders, the impact that injury has on the brain, and approaches to neurological therapy and rehabilitation.

Osteopathic Medicine Medical school attendees can choose to pursue a Doctor of Medicine (MD) Degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) Degree. MDs generally focus on treating specific conditions with medication. Their approach is less holistic than that of DOs, who focus on whole-body healing, with or without medication.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Degree programs in psychotherapy prepare students to work as psychotherapists. The curriculum covers the use of talk therapy to help patients manage various types of mental illness and emotional anxiety.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Substance Abuse Counseling
Degree programs in substance abuse counseling prepare students to counsel people suffering with alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral problems. The curriculum covers topics such as coping mechanisms and treatment plans.

Skills You’ll Learn

The work of navigating the human mind and finding solutions for people battling mental, social, and emotional afflictions is at best challenging and rewarding and at worst daunting. Learning how to do this work leaves students with skills that are valuable in any career and in life in general:

Active Listening
Many disorders and problems are complex and not easily communicated, particularly when patients themselves do not understand what is going on. The capacity to pay attention, listen intently, and read between the lines is imperative to reach a diagnosis and determine the appropriate course of action.

Putting patients’ interests first may require that psychoanalysts convince them of ideas with which they initially disagree. This may involve finding creative solutions when traditional approaches fail. The dedicated psychoanalyst is first and foremost a patient advocate.

Appreciation for Diversity
Psychoanalysts are exposed to people from different backgrounds and home environments. They are called upon to cultivate an understanding of and an appreciation for diversity.

Assessment and Report Writing
Psychoanalysts must track, assess, and record their clients’ progress and development. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Without doubt, the ability to convey information, impressions, and ideas is vital when dealing with patients and in research settings.

Critical Thinking
Well-reasoned and logical thinking is the foundation both of patient care and of research. Diagnosing patients, developing treatment plans, designing experiments, and interpreting results all rely on the ability to examine problems from different perspectives and consider alternatives.

High-order Analysis
Sometimes, facts and information appear unrelated or random. Accomplished psychoanalysts are skilled at sorting through data to detect possible patterns and relevance.

Scientific Reasoning
Even outside of the research realm, the work of psychoanalysts is rooted in scientific principles and concepts. The mastery of these doctrines and the skill to apply them to patient treatment are crucial to practising in the field.

Social Perception
Patients’ internal ‘data’ – their feelings and emotions – may sometimes be accessible only through thoughtful observation of non-verbal cues. While patients cannot always accurately or clearly express what is wrong, their behavior may provide clues to the factors affecting them. Psychoanalysts must be empathetic and perceptive to these clues.

Sound Judgement
Psychoanalysts invariably face dilemmas. Not all circumstances are simple or straightforward. In fact, most of them are not and require carefully considered decisions informed by clinical knowledge and compassion.

When introducing new or complex concepts to patients or colleagues, psychoanalysts need to be able to explain not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of an issue.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital when working with patients. The ability to build trust is valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

What Can You Do with a Psychoanalysis Degree?

Individuals trained in psychoanalysis generally follow one of four possible career paths. They may, of course, choose to use their knowledge and skills in more than just one of the following:


Outside of the clinical realm, opportunities exist in ‘applied psychoanalysis:’


  • University teaching
  • Research
  • Consulting to school districts – mediating disputes, developing mental health programs, combating bullying and violence, helping teachers and administrative staff manage behavioral problems, helping students improve their performance, helping parents engage in their children’s education
  • Consulting to law firms and as a jury consultant


  • Corporate / business management consulting – engaging employees, managers, and clients; managing changes to corporate structure or culture, increasing employee morale

Authorship and Publishing

  • Writing – books, articles, blogs which provide insight into the theories, principles, and methods of psychoanalysis or which shed a psychoanalytic light on historical, political, and societal events


Discover what you’ll learn—and what you can do after you graduate.

Read about Overview