It is difficult to describe the methods to become an imam since the term means different things to the different Islamic sects. For example, anyone who leads prayers at a prayer service is temporarily an imam. To become an imam in this sense, one may merely need to be an adult male. The term imam is also given to some heads of Arabic states, so the Shiite Islamic sect considered Ayatollah Khomeini an imam, for example. The word can simply mean "leader" and can be more a title of honor than a job for which a person prepares.
Some Islamic congregations do hire an imam to work in much the same function as a parish priest or rabbi. He may help guide the congregation, but often the job of discussing the Qur’an is left up to a sheikh.
It is very rare for any Islamic sect to accept a female imam. Like in many denominations of Christianity, there is some debate as to whether the traditional prohibition against female leaders is based on historical patriarchy and sexism, or on the spirit of the faith. Though very exceptional, in some places, it's possible for a woman to be accepted as an imam; she must have significant study in the Qur’an, be virtuous, and may have to stand behind the men to lead prayer, as is often the custom in mosques.
More regularly, a woman may serve as an imam and prayer leader only for groups of women, or only for her family. This subject of who can become an imam is still under debate since the Qur’an does not explicitly express that a women cannot serve in this capacity. In fact, one of the wives of Muhammad is said to have led the women in prayer. In 2005, Turkey became one of the first countries to welcome women who wished to be imams, and the country is educating quite a few women who wish to serve as vaizes, or preachers.
In general, however, the imam as leader of a community still tends to be male, and men are usually more easily accepted in this position. Often, the imam will have an advanced education and will be very knowledgeable about sharia, the Islamic law set down in the Qur’an and further writings. This helps the imam who works in a pastoral capacity to counsel members of the mosque.
Sometimes, those who study sharia are called clerics by the western world, but these people are actually more accurately called imams. For those wishing to become an imam, the best course of action may be to consult someone serving in this role already in one’s sect of Islam. He will be most familiar with the topic and can help the person learn the specific requirements for study within that sect.