Therapists vs. Psychiatrists

Therapists and psychiatrists both work in the mental health field, but their roles and responsibilities can vary. While some aspects of their work may overlap, there are key differences you should know about before deciding which career path is best for you.

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Northwestern University

The Family Institute at Northwestern University


Master of Arts in Counseling

Earn a CACREP-accredited master’s in counseling online from top-9 ranked1 Northwestern University.

1U.S. News & World Report: 2022 Best National University Rankings 

  • CACREP Accredited
  • Earn your MA in Counseling from Northwestern in as few as 18 months
  • Accelerated full-time, traditional, or part-time tracks available

Pepperdine University

Graduate School of Education and Psychology


Master of Arts in Psychology

Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Psychology program prepares students to pursue doctoral study or a career in human services.

  • Open to all undergrad majors
  • No GRE required 
  • Can be completed in about 18 months

University of Denver

Graduate School of Social Work


Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Customizable pathway options include Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

Graduate School of Social Service


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.


The Differences Between Therapists and Psychiatrists


A therapist provides counseling services to patients in need of mental health care. They may work as a marriage counselor, child therapist, clinical psychologist, or another licensed position. During therapy, they can perform assessments, make diagnoses, and treat mental health disorders through a combination of approaches and methods.

Therapists are limited in terms of their ability to prescribe medications to their patients. However, there are a few exceptions. Some states allow licensed psychologists trained in clinical psychopharmacology to prescribe certain medications to treat mental health conditions.


A psychiatrist’s medical degree allows them to not just diagnose medical conditions, but also prescribe medications when needed. Psychiatrists work with patients to diagnose, treat, and prevent mental, emotional and behavioral issues. They can work in a variety of settings, including private practice, clinics, community centers, hospice programs, and many other places.

Psychiatric treatment may require different methods, such as psychotherapy (talk therapy) or medications like antidepressants, sedatives, anxiolytics, antipsychotic medications, hypnotics, mood stabilizers, and stimulants.

Is a Psychiatrist a Therapist?

Becoming a psychiatrist comes with different educational requirements than becoming a therapist. That being said, some psychiatrists may offer different types of therapeutic treatment in conjunction with other techniques, however, they are not necessarily the same as those offered by a licensed therapist. Patients may choose to work with both a therapist and a psychiatrist, which can be beneficial when treating certain conditions.

Types of Therapists

A therapist can go by many titles, such as a licensed counselor, social worker, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, or psychologist. Each of these career paths comes with its own educational track, training, and licensure. Their title may differ depending on laws in the state where they practice, and their services and the structure of those services can also vary.

Licensed Counselors

There are many types of counseling careers, including:

  • Marriage and family counselors
  • Mental health counselors
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorders counselors
  • Rehabilitation counselors
  • School guidance counselors

Licensure requirements vary by state. For example, some states require that counselors hold a master’s degree and obtain certification through the National Board for Certified Counselors. Counselors may also be required to pass the National Counselor Examination, the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination, or both in order to obtain a license.

Many states offer different types of counselor licenses. Search board directories by state to see the full list.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical social workers perform under the umbrella of general social work. Social work in general is focused on the policies and practices that promote social welfare and equity. To become a clinical social worker, you need a master’s degree in social work (MSW), and most states also require you to complete a minimum number of hours of supervised experience.

As a clinical social worker, you can work with individuals, groups, and families to assess, diagnose, treat, and prevent behavioral disturbances. Professionals in this role might open up a private practice, treat hospital patients, or work alongside primary caregivers or with healthcare agencies. 

Stanford University

Center for Health Education


Psychology of Addiction and Recovery Online Short Course

Develop an understanding of the neurological and psychological effects of addiction, to facilitate strategies for recovery. 

Stanford University

Stanford Center for Health Education


Psychology for High Performance

The Stanford Center for Health Education (SCHE) provides an online micro course, Psychology for High Performance, that equips you with practical tools to maximize your potential in both your personal and professional life.

  • Tools to improve self-awareness, promote productivity, and optimize performance
  • 2 weeks, excluding 1 week orientation
  • 4–6 hours of self-paced learning per week, entirely online

Stanford University

Stanford Center for Health Education


Child Development: Behavior and Mental Health

The Child Development: Behavior and Mental Health online short course from the Stanford Center for Health Education (SCHE), part of Stanford Medicine, shows how adults, including healthcare providers, teachers, and caregivers, must capitalize on each child’s individual interests to create the context for optimal learning and positive interactions.

  • Gain practical knowledge for supporting child development and mental health as a doctor, pediatric specialist, social worker, or healthcare professional
  • 6 weeks, excluding 1 week orientation
  • 6–8 hours of self-paced learning per week, entirely online

Stanford University

Stanford Center for Health Education


Positive Psychology and Well-Being

In the Positive Psychology and Well-Being online short course from the Stanford Center for Health Education (SCHE), part of Stanford Medicine, you’ll gain practical, evidence-based strategies for taking charge of your own happiness.

  • Foster healthier personal relationships that nourish a sense of wellness
  • 6 weeks, excluding 1 week orientation
  • 5–6 hours of self-paced learning per week, entirely online



A psychologist must earn a doctoral degree in philosophy (Ph.D.) or psychology (PsyD). Depending on the program, applicants may also need a master’s in psychology as well. In order to practice, psychologists are typically required to obtain licensure, which can vary by state and job title. You can review each state’s requirements through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

As with other therapy professions, psychologists can work in a variety of environments. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), elementary and secondary schools, healthcare centers, government organizations, and hospitals are the top employers of psychologists, following self-employment.

Should I See a Therapist or a Psychiatrist?

Individuals struggling with mental health challenges may be wondering whether they should begin treatment with a therapist or a psychiatrist. You may even be wondering about the differences between different types of therapists. Consulting with your primary care doctor can give you a better understanding of the options available.

Working with a therapist can be beneficial for patients confronting emotional, behavioral, or relational issues such as anxiety, depression, stress, trauma, or life transitions. Sessions may involve a combination of therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and more. Through these approaches, therapists can help their clients develop self-awareness, learn coping skills, and make positive changes in their lives.

On the other hand, individuals with psychiatric conditions or those who may need medication to manage mental illness may find that a psychiatrist better fits their needs. A psychiatrist will work with patients to diagnose and treat, or prevent mental health challenges. These may include mood and anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other severe mental illnesses. Prescribed medications can address biochemical imbalances, while psychoeducation can empower patients to confront their conditions and find relief.

In some cases, when symptoms are severe or complex, a combination of therapy and psychiatry may be recommended. Therapists and psychiatrists can work together to develop a holistic approach that addresses both the psychological and biological aspects of mental health. 

Differences in Education

Your educational path to becoming a therapist will depend on the type of therapy you’re interested in. Before pursuing an advanced degree, it is a good idea to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. A master’s degree in counseling or social work, or a doctoral degree in psychology is a logical next step. Finally, you’ll need to gain hands-on experience through supervised clinical training before passing a licensing exam.

A psychiatrist is a doctor of medicine (MD) or osteopathic medicine (MO). In order to become one, you must attend medical school, complete a psychiatric residency, pass written and oral exams, complete a four-year residency, and possibly a fellowship. Many psychiatrists also become board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN).

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist Salaries

Salaries for therapists can vary depending on the license, position, location, and years of experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salaries for therapists in 2022 were:

As doctors, psychiatrists can command significantly higher salaries. The average annual wage for psychiatrists in 2022 was $247,350, according to the BLS.

Therapist vs. Psychiatrist Checklist

Key DifferenceLicensed Counselor (Therapist)Psychologist (Therapist)Psychiatrist
Post-Bachelor’s Degree Education
Master’s degree
Doctoral degree (Ph.D. or PsyD)
Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)
Residency/Internship Requirement
Yes, states require clinical or internship hours
One- or two-year supervised clinical training or field internship
Four-year psychiatric residency, which may be followed by a fellowship
Ability to Write Prescriptions
No (except in select states under specific circumstances)
Mean Annual Salary (BLS 2022)

Two Different Professions With the Same Goal

Therapists and psychiatrists both work with individuals to improve their mental health conditions. They talk with patients to uncover what is wrong before developing treatment programs. Both professions seek to help patients improve their thoughts and behaviors to live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. The difference is in how each goes about achieving those results. While therapists focus on psychotherapy and behavioral changes, psychiatrists rely on medical interventions to treat mental health disorders.


What is the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist?

A therapist is a licensed counselor or psychologist who works with patients to treat their mental health symptoms and improve how they manage stress and relationships. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe medication to treat mental health disorders.

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

A psychologist has a master’s or doctoral degree and applies various psychotherapy methods to improve patients’ symptoms. A psychiatrist has a medical degree and can prescribe medications when needed in order to treat mental health conditions.

Does it take longer to become a therapist or psychiatrist?

If you’re interested in becoming a therapist, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Some aspiring therapists do go on to earn a doctoral degree in philosophy or psychology. Becoming a psychiatrist requires a greater time commitment. After earning an undergraduate degree, you’ll go on to complete medical school and a four-year residency. Some psychiatrists also go through one or two years of supervised clinical training and later become board certified.

Does a psychiatrist or therapist get paid more?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for psychologists in 2022 was $85,330. Keep in mind that therapists’ salaries vary depending on their training and area of expertise. The median for psychiatrists was $247,350 in 2022.

Last updated November 2023