Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists: A Guide

Psychology and psychiatry differ in a variety of ways. While one of the biggest differences is the fact that psychiatrists prescribe medicine and psychologists typically do not, there are also distinctions between the education and training required, the salaries paid, and in how the two professions interact with clients.

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Profession Education required Residency/internship Prescribing authority? Average annual salary (BLS)
Psychologist Doctoral degree in psychology (PhD or PsyD) Generally two years No, except in three states $80,370
Psychiatrist Medical doctor (MD) degree Generally four years; a specialty fellowship may follow Yes $220,380

Psychologists

The American Psychological Association defines psychologists as professionals who help others deal with mental health in general and life issues specifically. They typically have a doctoral degree in psychology and are trained to evaluate and work with people who are struggling with depression, anxiety, family issues, stressful life situations, trauma, alcoholism or addiction, grief, or mental-health conditions such as bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or eating disorders.

Psychologists use their education, training, research, and experience to talk with patients (commonly called psychotherapy, or talk therapy) and help them work through issues that are troubling them or holding them back in life. With few exceptions, they do not prescribe medication, though they may refer patients to psychiatrists when medication may be indicated.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists treat the same conditions that psychologists treat, but with medication. They are medical doctors (MDs) who have gone to medical school and who specialize in mental health. The American Psychiatric Association says that psychiatrists are able to diagnose and treat patients’ mental conditions by using evaluation, medical laboratory tests, and psychological tests. Psychiatrists use psychotherapy as an evaluation tool, but most often in conjunction with medication to treat their patients.

A psychologist would talk with a patient about depression in regular appointments, while a psychiatrist would talk with that patient to make a diagnosis, prescribe medication to address the problem, and check periodically to monitor how the medication is working.

How Do You Know Whom You Should See?

When struggling with a mental health issue, it can be hard to know whether you would benefit more from seeing a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or both. And it’s hard to know whether medication is right for you.

A good first step is to talk with your primary care doctor and get a recommendation as to which way to go. If you are dealing with a situational issue – depression after the loss of a loved one, for instance, or growing anxiety in general – talk therapy may be most appropriate, so you’d start with a psychologist.

On the other hand, for a depression that’s lasted for more than a few weeks, anxiety attacks that are crippling, or a suspicion that you may be dealing with a serious condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (possibly because you know other family members share the condition), a psychiatrist may be the best place to start, since medication may be indicated.

Don’t be surprised, regardless of which professional you choose, if you get a recommendation to also consult the other; research shows that combined treatment seems to be more effective than medication alone when dealing with a mental health issue such as a panic disorder.

Educational Differences

The essential difference between psychologist and psychiatrist education is this:

  • Students in psychology primarily study human development and behavior.
  • Students in psychiatry primarily study medicine and human biology.

To become a licensed psychologist: Students typically pursue a bachelor and then move on to graduate school. You’ll need a master’s degree in psychology, and you will likely need a doctorate if you are planning to go into counseling.

Most states require a supervised internship or residency of one to two years (or an equivalent number of hours). To get your license, you’ll be required to pass the national Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) as well as an exam on your state’s laws and regulations.

To become a psychiatrist: Students must complete a bachelor’s degree (often in biology or chemistry, as preparation for medical school), take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), complete four years of medical school, and then complete at least a four-year residency program, which includes both general hospital resident training and clinical work in psychiatry.

At this point, residents may spend another year as a fellow, focusing on a specialty. To become certified and licensed, you must pass a national examination from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, in addition to state exam requirements.

Differences in Training

After earning their bachelor’s degrees, psychiatrists attend medical school for four years, studying anatomy, biology, chemistry, neurology, pharmacology, and disease. Their education is, to a point, identical to that of every other medical student. Psychologists do not go to medical school; they may go to graduate school to earn master’s degrees and doctoral degrees in psychology, doing research and studying various aspects of human behavior, emotional health, and therapeutic processes.

After psychiatrists earn their MD or psychologists earn their PsyD or PhD, both careers require supervision and clinical practice before going out on their own.

  • For psychologists, this often is a two-year internship or residency in a clinical health-care situation.
  • For psychiatrists, this is a four-year residency (usually in a hospital) that focuses in large part on the medical and biochemical aspects of mental illness, rotating between various acute-care psychiatric settings and treating patients – including the prescribing of medication – in a variety of situations.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists must pass national and state exams to receive their certification and license; both must regularly review their certifications, though time periods for doing so are different.

Why Choose Psychiatry vs. Psychology?

While both psychiatrists and psychologists work with patients to understand and improve the processes of their brains, the two occupations have very different primary focuses.

  • If you are more drawn to the role of counselor or therapist – listening to patients, helping them unravel their difficulties, and helping them solve problems primarily through talk therapy, psychology may be the more appropriate path to take.
  • If you are more interested in the medical aspects of the brain, body, and biochemistry – and in identifying medical or pharmacological treatments for mental illness or behavior disorders – then psychiatry may be a better fit.

Salary

Just as training for psychologists and psychiatrists differs, so do salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Pay levels within each career can differ based on the type of workplace and on the region of the country. The BLS qualifies both occupations as growing at a faster-than-average pace.

FAQs

What is the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists?

In general, psychologists rely more on therapy and behavioral techniques to treat their patients, while psychiatrists prescribe medicines and/or medical treatments to treat their patients.

Which profession takes longer to achieve?

Psychiatry, by several years. They must complete medical school and earn a medical degree similar to doctors and surgeons.

Which profession pays more?

Psychiatry, due to the psychiatrist’s status as a medical doctor.

Which profession is more fulfilling?

That depends on you. Are you more analytical, more interested in the medical aspects of mental health? You might be more attuned to psychiatry. Are you more intuitive, more captivated by treating mental health through counseling and behavioral modifications? Psychology might be more fulfilling to you.

Can a Psychologist Prescribe Medication?

In most cases, no. However, there are exceptions. In three states – Louisiana, New Mexico, and Illinois – there are additional training requirements that, when achieved, allow psychologists to become “prescribing psychologists.” These requirements generally include advanced training in psychopharmacology and additional supervised hours of practice.

Conclusion

Psychologists and psychiatrists both treat patients by talking, listening, and diagnosing behavioral or mental health issues. At this point, their practices diverge; psychologists practice more through talk therapy and behavioral modification, while psychiatrists prescribe medicines and/or other medical tests or treatments.

If you’re choosing one of these two professions, you’re choosing between a path that revolves more around counseling (psychology) and one that revolves more around medicine (psychiatry).

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Last updated: May 2020