Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists: What’s the Difference?
Updated August 24, 2022 • 6 min read
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While people often confuse the two careers, psychologists and psychiatrists have very different professional responsibilities.
Psychiatrists are physicians with degrees in medicine, while psychologists are primarily therapists. Both types of practitioners treat behavioral and emotional issues, but psychologists focus on talk therapy, while psychiatrists can incorporate a variety of other treatment techniques and prescribe medication.
The following guide explores the differences between these two often-confused professions, aiming to help you decide if you're interested in a career as a psychologist vs. psychiatrist.
What Is a Psychologist?
Psychologists study human behavior and treat emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders. Unlike psychiatrists, psychologists are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication. Instead, these practitioners treat clients through psychotherapy.
Psychologists often specialize in a particular type of therapy, such as clinical, forensic, industrial-organizational (IO), or school psychology.
Clinical psychologists typically need a doctorate and must obtain a license to practice. Additionally, most psychologists must complete 1-2 years of supervised, postdoctoral field experience before practicing independently.
What Is a Psychiatrist?
Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are medical doctors. They are considered specialized practitioners in the broad field of medicine, similar to surgeons, dentists, or neurologists.
Like psychologists, psychiatrists also work in mental and behavioral health, but they have a much broader scope of responsibility. This includes prescribing medication and recommending hospitalization to treat clients with severe mental illness. Psychiatrists typically work closely with other doctors to form treatment plans for patients. They may also work with psychologists to ensure that patients receive the best possible care.
Becoming a psychiatrist requires dedication and commitment. Psychiatrists must earn a doctor of medicine (MD) degree, which means attending medical school. After graduation, they must complete a psychiatric residency program and obtain licensure from their state medical board. Psychiatrists typically specialize in a particular area of mental health, like child/adolescent development, geriatrics, or emergency psychiatry.
While the actual process of earning a graduate degree looks different for psychologists vs. psychiatrists, these professions both require an advanced degree. An aspiring licensed psychologist needs a doctraol degree in psychology, while an aspiring psychiatrist needs an MD. Both professions also require years of field experience before candidates can apply for licensure.
While the actual process of earning a graduate degree looks different for psychologists vs. psychiatrists, these professions both require an advanced degree.
A student pursuing a career as a psychologist needs a doctoral degree in psychology, except for IO psychologists, who only need a master's degree. Regardless of specialization, a psychologist must hold state licensure in order to practice. Graduates of a doctoral program can also become postsecondary psychology teachers. Students interested in mental health careers who don't want to pursue a doctorate can become mental health counselors or social workers: These careers only require a master's in psychology, social work, or a related field.
An aspiring psychiatrist must attend medical school and complete an MD. While less common, a doctor of osteopathy degree is also acceptable. Some students enroll in medical school with only bachelor's degrees, but competitive programs often require applicants to hold master's degrees. Common specializations include general, geriatric, or forensic psychiatry. Psychiatrists must need a state license to practice.
While both psychologists and psychiatrists must meet clinical and residency requirements to obtain licensure, the requirements themselves differ. Aspiring psychologists typically spend four years completing a bachelor's degree, 4-7 years in graduate school, and 1-2 years meeting training and licensing requirements. Psychiatrists typically spend four years in a bachelor's degree, four years in medical school, and 3-7 years completing residency requirements and specialized training.
Licenses and Certifications
While state licensing requirements vary, psychologists and psychiatrists must hold state-issued licenses to become independent practitioners. Most states require each psychologist or psychiatrist to earn a graduate degree and complete a field internship or residency before their licensing exam.
While state licensing requirements vary, psychologists and psychiatrists must hold state-issued licenses to become independent practitioners.
Psychologists must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology and a state jurisprudence exam to obtain licensure. Each state has its own renewal requirements. While most states require a doctorate, some allow students with master's degrees to pursue licensure for independent practice. Select states also allow psychologists to prescribe medication, but only with special training.
Though not required, psychologists can opt to pursue board certification in addition to state licensure. An aspiring doctoral-educated psychologist must complete their internship in a particular area of specialization, such as clinical or child psychology, and pass a certification exam in that specialization to become board certified.
Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists must earn a medical license to practice. This means completing a medical school program and an initial residency training before sitting for the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.
After earning a license to practice medicine, most psychiatrists also pursue board certification to increase their potential job prospects and salaries. This means completing specialized training programs through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) and passing an exam to become ABPN-certified. Psychiatrists must renew this board certification every ten years.
While the path to becoming a psychiatrist or psychologist requires many years of education and experience, both professions can be very rewarding. Both occupations attract compassionate, detail-oriented problem-solvers with excellent communication skills. However, the differences in scope of responsibility means that each profession offers a unique work environment with specific types of clientele.
For example, psychiatrists often treat more severe cases of mental illness than psychologists do. This is because psychiatrists have a more diverse assortment of treatment options, including medication and hospitalization. Thus, most psychiatrists work in hospitals or physician's offices, often working alongside other doctors to treat patients holistically.
Psychologists, on the other hand, train exclusively in psychotherapy and behavioral intervention techniques. With more varied education and licensing options, psychologists outnumber psychiatrists in the workforce by more than 150,000 jobs nation-wide. The most popular specializations include clinical, counseling, and school psychology, followed by IO psychology.
From 2018-2028, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job growth for psychologists and psychiatrists at 14% and 16%, respectively. While psychologists and psychiatrists enjoy similar job growth projections, psychiatrists out-earn psychologists by more than $100,000. BLS data reports that the median annual psychiatrist salary in 2018 was more than $208,000, compared to a median annual psychologist salary of $80,370.
Employment Outlook of Psychologists and Psychiatrists
Median Annual Wage: $80,370
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028): 14%
Median Annual Wage: More than $208,000
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028): 16.1%
Source: Projections Central, BLS
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is the Main Purpose of Psychology?
Psychology is the study of behavior and both the conscious and unconscious mind. It examines the mental and behavioral patterns of people. Psychologists and psychiatrists both use their understandings of psychology to help clients process challenging experiences, modify behavior, and improve mental clarity and fitness.
How Long Is a Psychology Degree?
A psychologist typically spends four years completing a bachelor's degree and 4-7 years obtaining a doctorate in psychology, which qualifies them to pursue licensure for professional practice.
Can You Major in Psychology to Become a Psychiatrist?
Aspiring psychiatrists can major in psychology at the undergraduate level. However, becoming a psychiatrist requires the student to obtain a graduate degree by attending medical school. Thus, a master's or a doctoral degree in psychology cannot qualify you for a career as a psychiatrist.
Do Psychiatrists Have Medical Degrees?
Yes. Psychiatrists need to earn an MD through a medical training program and complete years of medical psychiatric residency training before they can become licensed professionals.
What Is the Difference Between a Therapist and a Psychiatrist?
The therapist vs. psychiatrist distinction hinges on differences in education level and focus, method of practice, and scope of responsibility. In short, unlike therapists, psychiatrists must attend medical school, and they can employ broader treatments than psychotherapy alone, including psychological medications.
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