Jamison began her study of clinical psychology at University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1960s, receiving both B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1971. She continued on at UCLA, receiving a C.Phil. in 1973 and a Ph.D. in 1975, and became a faculty member at the university. She went on to found and direct the school's Affective Disorders Clinic, a large teaching and research facility for outpatient treatment. She also studied zoology and neurophysiology as an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
After several years as a tenured professor at UCLA, Jamison was offered a position as Assistant Professor and then Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Jamison has given visiting lectures at a number of different institutions while maintaining her professorship at Hopkins. She was distinguished lecturer at Harvard University in 2002 and the Litchfield lecturer at the University of Oxford in 2003. She was Honorary President and Board Member of the Canadian Psychological Association from 2009–2010. In 2010, she was a panelist in the series of discussions on the latest research into the brain, hosted by Charlie Rose with series scientist Eric Kandel on PBS.
Throughout Jamison's career she has won numerous awards and published over one hundred academic articles. She has been named one of the "Best Doctors in the United States" and was chosen by Time as a "Hero of Medicine." She was also chosen as one of the five individuals for the public television series Great Minds of Medicine. Jamison is the recipient of the National Mental Health Association's William Styron Award (1995), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Research Award (1996), the Community Mental Health Leadership Award (1999), and was a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship recipient. In 2010, Jamison was conferred with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of St Andrews in recognition of all her life's work. In May 2011, The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, New York, made her a Doctor of Divinity honoris causa at its annual Commencement. In 2017 Jamison was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (CorrFRSE).