What is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?
If you're fascinated by the inner workings of the human mind and want to start a career in mental health, you may be faced with a key career choice: whether to be a psychologist vs psychiatrist.
While both psychologists and psychiatrists work with patients to improve their mental well-being and quality of life, they actually have very different roles.
The differences between psychologists and psychiatrists include everything from their education and training to where they work and how they serve their patients. If you’re interested in a mental health career, it’s important to explore which role is right for you.
Let’s take a look at some of the differences and similarities between careers in psychology and psychiatry with insights from faculty members in Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) psychology programs.
What Are Psychologists and Psychiatrists?
Both psychology and psychiatry are key parts of the mental health field. But while each area of study examines the human mind, their focus and real-world application is very different.
“In casual conversation, we tend to use these terms interchangeably,” said Dr. Josh Garrin, an adjunct psychology instructor at SNHU. “However, each of these health professionals is a uniquely qualified specialist in their own right.”
The most significant difference between the two fields is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor and can prescribe medication. While psychologists typically hold doctorate degrees, they do not attend medical school and are not medical doctors.
Instead, a psychologist specializes in the study of human thought and behavior, including the impact of development, environment and social interaction on what we think, feel and do, said Garrin. A psychologist aims to diagnose and treat mental health challenges by listening to and offering practical, behavioral guidance to their clients.
A psychiatrist also specializes in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues, said Garrin. But unlike a psychologist, psychiatrists examine the neurochemical imbalances and other medical conditions that contribute to mental health challenges.
So what can a psychologist do that a psychiatrist cannot do, and vice versa?
Psychiatrists can technically do many of the same things as psychologists, but they often don’t. Psychiatrists can perform psychotherapy, for example, but many refer that work to psychologists or therapists. Psychologists, on the other hand, typically cannot prescribe medication like a psychiatrist can, as they are not medical doctors.
When choosing between a career as a psychologist vs. a psychiatrist, it’s important to dig deeper into the similarities and differences between the two roles, starting with the education and training it takes to work in the field.
Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Education and Training
No matter which career path you choose—psychology or psychiatry—you will have to complete years of advanced coursework. Both careers typically also require hands-on learning through clinical hours or residency programs and state licensure.
How to Become a Psychologist
Becoming a psychologist typically starts with a four-year undergraduate psychology degree program. There are many types of psychology, so specializations may be available in a number of areas, including:
- Addictions degrees
- Applied psychology degrees
- Child and adolescent development degrees
- Forensic psychology degrees
- Mental health degrees
- Social psychology degrees
Earning a master’s degree in psychology is the next step in getting started in the field. Psychology master’s degrees may also be available in a specific area of study, including:
- Master's in child and developmental psychology
- Master's in clinical mental health counseling
- Master's in forensic psychology
- Master's in industrial-organizational psychology
In many states, a master’s degree is enough to get licensed as a therapist or mental health counselor. But to become a licensed psychologist, most states require a doctoral degree, with options for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program.
“The choice would be whether you want to go into clinical work, in which case you should explore a PsyD program and become a Doctor of Psychology,” said Dr. Nickolas Dominello, an associate dean of social sciences at SNHU. “Or, do you want to go into the research realm and get a PhD?”
No matter which doctoral program you choose, additional clinical hours will be required in order to get licensed as a psychologist.
Most states require 3,000 hours of supervised professional experience to qualify for licensure, said Garrin. But the requirements do vary from state to state so it’s important to explore what is required to practice in your area.
How to Become a Psychiatrist
The education required to get a job is a big difference between psychologist and psychiatrist career paths.
Psychiatry is a medical specialization, just like pediatrics, dermatology, internal medicine or obstetrics. As such, your education will be centered around preparing for and attending medical school.
“Psychiatrists attend medical school and then have specialized training in mental health disorders and diagnosing and treating patients with those disorders,” said Dr. Thomas MacCarty, an associate dean of social sciences programs at SNHU.
And although there is no required undergraduate degree program for aspiring psychiatrists, many students do choose to major in psychology or in a pre-medicine program, said Garrin.
A pre-medicine undergraduate degree focuses on courses such as:
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Organic Chemistry
- Public Health
After completing your undergraduate degree, a passing score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is required for entry into medical school. During your four years of medical school, you’ll complete advanced coursework in microbiology, pathology, pharmacology and more and spend time getting hands-on clinical experience.
Once medical school is completed, a four-year residency in a hospital or clinic is required for hands-on experience in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of clients with a broad range of psychiatric issues, said Garrin.
Some students will also go on to complete a fellowship program, Garrin said, which involves additional in-depth training in a psychiatric specialty, such as addiction psychiatry, pediatric psychiatry or neuropsychiatry.
A medical license and certification from a psychiatry licensing board is required before a psychiatrist can practice. Requirements for licensure vary from state to state, so it’s important to explore your state’s regulations before completing your studies.
Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Career Opportunities
Much like there are differences between psychologist and psychiatrist degree programs, there are also differences in how each professional treats patients and where they work.
In many cases, the two fields actually work closely together to improve patient health and quality of life, said Dr. Barbara Lesniak, senior associate dean of social sciences at SNHU.
“A person who suffers from anxiety may visit a psychiatrist, who assesses the severity and prescribes anti-anxiety medication,” Lesniak said. “The doctor may then refer the person to a psychologist who sees them weekly to teach them behavioral strategies for managing their symptoms.”
There is also a range of applications for both psychology and psychiatry, even beyond the traditional helping professions.
Psychologist Career Opportunities
With a career as a psychologist, you could pursue a wide variety of job opportunities. While many psychologists work with patients directly, you don’t have to become a therapist if you study psychology, said Garrin.
In fact, there are job opportunities for psychologists across many industries, including:
- Community services
- Human resources
- Intelligence and homeland security
- Law enforcement
- Public health
- Research analysis
- Sales and marketing
With a career as a psychologist, you could open a private counseling practice and work one on one with patients or be hired as a consultant to help craft a marketing campaign based on buyer psychology. You could work in academia conducting research or work in a hospital setting alongside psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals.
No matter what you choose to do, working as a psychologist can help you secure a job with strong career growth and earning potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists earned a median salary of $81,040 in 2021. Jobs for psychologists are projected to grow 6% from 2021 to 2031.
Psychiatrist Career Opportunities
A career as a psychiatrist can also open the doors to a wide variety of professional roles. Many psychiatrists work in hospitals and other medical institutions, but there are plenty of other ways to use a psychiatry degree.
Psychiatrists can work in settings such as:
- Hospitals or medical clinics
- Judicial systems
- Private practices
And because psychiatrists have the medical background to do more diagnostic work and provide medical treatments, they often work with more extreme or complicated mental health cases, said Dominello.
There are many opportunities for earning and career growth as a psychiatrist. According to BLS data, psychiatrists earned a mean salary of $249,760 in 2021. Jobs for psychiatrists are projected to grow 9% between 2021 and 2031.
Choosing Between Psychology and Psychiatry
When it comes to choosing a career as a psychologist vs. a psychiatrist, it’s important to consider the differences between the two fields and determine which aligns best with your personal interests and goals.
For example, said Dominello, becoming a psychiatrist will mean a much bigger focus on the medical side of mental health, including biochemistry and neuroscience. Earning a PsyD degree to become a psychologist, on the other hand, will mean a larger focus on psychotherapy and working with patients, while a psychologist with a PhD will likely spend more time focusing on research or academic work.
No matter what career path you choose, said Garrin, you will be able to positively impact the lives of others with your work.
“Whether you choose to pursue a career in psychology or psychiatry, you have the unique opportunity to improve the mental stability of those you serve, enhance their quality of life, and help them to become functioning, productive members of society,” he said.
A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU psychology program that can best help you meet your goals.
Danielle Gagnon is a freelance writer focused on higher education. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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