Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists

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Ever wonder what the difference is between psychologists and psychiatrists? Maybe you have a bachelor’s degree in psychology and you are not sure which destination you’re interested in as a career. Or, maybe you need mental health treatment and you don’t know which you need to see. The guide below explains the most important differences between the two mental health providers.


One of the biggest distinctions between psychologists and psychiatrists are their educational backgrounds. Psychologists are called doctors because they have earned doctoral degrees in a psychological specialty. This comes after successfully completing a bachelor’s degree, and sometimes, a terminal master’s degree, too. Psychologists are not, however, medical doctors. Psychology is the study of human behavior, so their educational backgrounds cover both normal and abnormal human development and functioning. Most doctoral psychology students conduct research and compose a dissertation summarizing their study and its results that goes toward the fulfillment of the PhD On the other hand, individuals working towards a PsyD do not have such a research intensive curriculum and do not complete a dissertation.

Psychiatrists are essentially medical doctors who specialize in mental health care. Aspiring students typically major in biology, psychology or pre-medicine in undergraduate school. After earning the bachelor’s degree, students must compete for acceptance into medical school. Early medical school education focuses on biology, pathology and the basic fundamentals of medicine. The latter part allows students to do clinical rotations with physicians covering various specialties. Here, students might learn the introductory knowledge and skill-set required to practice psychiatry.

Training and Licensing

In all, psychologists-in-training have completed approximately 8 to 12 years of education plus an internship experience working in the field. Internships offer doctoral students the chance to receive supervised training with a specific client population, specialty, or mental illness that they are interested in working. Successful completion of both an APA-approved predoctoral and postdoc internship makes an individual eligible to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) and earn state licensure.

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After earning an MD, psychiatrists-in-training go on to complete a 4-year medical residency in a clinical setting. While some rotations of the residency may be spent practicing general medicine or other disciplines, at least three of the four years must be completed within their area of interest–psychiatry. After a combined 11-16 years of educational training and residency completion, graduates then take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and the board certification exam through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Scope of Practice

Psychologists can practice in dozens of specialty and sub-specialty areas depending on their research and training backgrounds. They conduct basic and applied research. They diagnose and treat mental disorders using a wide range of therapeutic modalities. They conduct psychological assessments to determine intelligence, achievement, personality, attention skills, and memory in children, adolescents, and adults. They work with whole communities and organizations to develop more effective solutions for both work and play. They may work independently in private practice or with other providers on a multidisciplinary treatment team. They work in hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, prisons, and research laboratories. Psychologists do not prescribe medicine.

Psychiatrists use the medical model to diagnose and treat patients with psychiatric disorders. They discern between the biological or psychological causes of emotional and mental states and prescribe treatments accordingly. Treatments may include medications, therapies, and hospitalization to help their patients improve. They may specialize in general psychiatry, geriatric, child and adolescent, forensics, psychosomatic medicine or addiction medicine. They work in private or group practices, in government, community, and state psychiatric hospitals and clinics. They also frequently teach at medical schools.

Client Populations

Psychologists may work with clients from a variety of backgrounds and with a number of illnesses. Contrary to popular belief, psychologists do not just treat individuals with mild mental disorders. They may work with patients who have more severe forms of psychiatric illnesses like bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia. However, in serious cases when their patients require medication for the management of their illnesses, psychologists will refer them to psychiatrists.

Psychiatrists have patient rosters that include individuals from all walks of life, regardless of race, ethnic group, or culture. They generally see patients with severe mental illness like schizophrenia. In some cases, psychiatrists provide therapy to their patients, although they may refer these patients to a psychologist instead. Many psychiatrists only do medication management that helps to correct brain imbalances that cause disturbances in behavior and emotion.  Psychiatrists monitor their patients to detect improvements in symptomology that allow them to reduce dosages or apply different treatment approaches.

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In sum, psychologists are PhD’s who can practice in a spectrum of careers ranging from clinical psychology to industrial-organizational psychology. These clinicians may use differential diagnosis as well as psychological assessments to diagnose a disorder. For treatment, their main focus is conducting psychotherapy to help patients develop adaptive coping mechanisms. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who diagnose and treat mental disorders. Psychiatrists may treat particularly severe patients with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. Psychiatrists focus on improving the organic causes of mental illness that occur due to brain chemistry imbalances.

About the Author: Veranda Hillard Charleston

Veranda received her Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern State University of Louisiana. She has nearly five years of experience as a trained mental health professional. As a freelance writer, Veranda creates quality content for topics such as mental health, self-help, general health, fitness, and relationships. Off-line, Veranda conducts psychological assessments of children and adults in a private-practice setting.

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