What's the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

Psychologist or psychiatrist conducting therapy
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What exactly is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? The question sounds like the setup for a joke, but it's an important difference to understand whether you are a student of psychology or a consumer searching for a mental health provider.

The terms "psychologist" and "psychiatrist" are often used interchangeably to describe anyone who provides therapy services, but the two professions and the services provided by each profession differ in terms of content and scope.

While psychologists and psychiatrists both conduct psychotherapy and research, there are significant differences between the two professions.

Education, Training, and Credentials

The simplest answer lies in the educational background required for each profession. The two professions vary considerably in terms of education. A psychiatrist has a degree in medicine and a psychologist has a doctoral-level degree in psychology. However, there are a number of other distinctions that make each profession quite unique. 

Educational Requirements for Psychologists

Psychologists receive graduate training in psychology and pursue either a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) in clinical or counseling psychology.

Doctorate programs typically take five to seven years to complete and most states require an additional one or two-year long internship in order to gain licensure. Other states require another year or two of supervised practice before granting full licensure.

During their education, those pursuing either a PhD or PsyD doctoral degree take courses in personality development, psychological research methods, methods of treatment, psychological theories, cognitive therapies, and behavioral therapies among other topics.

The title of "psychologist" can only be used by an individual who has completed the above education, training, and state licensure requirements.

Informal titles such as "counselor" or "therapist" are often used as well, but other mental health care professionals such as licensed social workers can also claim these titles.

Educational Requirements for Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are physicians that have specific training in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses. In order to become a psychiatrist, students first earn an undergraduate degree before they attend medical school and receive an M.D.

After finishing their medical training, they also complete an additional four years of residency training in mental health. This residency often involves working in the psychiatric unit of a hospital. They also work with a wide variety of patients ranging from children to adults who may have behavioral problems, emotional difficulties, or some sort of psychiatric disorder.

Some also receive additional training in a specific area of interest such as geriatric psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, addictions, and other areas.

The Ability to Prescribe Medications Is Another Key Difference

A second important distinction between the two careers is that psychiatrists can prescribe medications, while, in most states, psychologists cannot.

However, there has been a recent push to grant prescribing powers to psychologists. Some states such as New Mexico and Louisiana now grant prescribing privileges to medical psychologists holding a post-doctoral master's degree or equivalent in clinical psychopharmacology.

Kevin McGuinness, chairman of the Commissioned Corps Mental Health Functional Advisory Group, writes, "For those interested in a career in psychology as a prescriber, it is important to know that certain federal employees and uniformed commissioned officers (Army, Air Force, Public Health Service, Navy, etc.) that are licensed in one state as a medical psychologist may prescribe any other state to which they are assigned by the federal government."

How Do They Treat Patients?

While the two professions are distinct, psychologists and psychiatrists both play important roles in mental health treatment. In many cases, they may also work in collaboration and contribute to an individual's unique treatment plan.

For example, a patients may begin by seeing their primary care physician about the psychological symptoms that they are experiencing. Their doctor may then refer them to a psychologists for further evaluation. That psychologist may observe, assess, and diagnose the patient before referring them to a psychiatrist who can prescribe and monitor medications. The psychologist and psychiatrist may work together, with the psychologists offering behavioral interventions and the psychiatrist providing medication, in order to best address the symptoms.

How Does the Job Outlook and Pay Differ?

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the job outlook for psychologists and psychiatrists is expected to grow at a fairly similar rate. They predict the demand for psychiatrists to rise at a rate of 15 percent between the years 2014 and 2024, amounting to an increase in around 4,200 jobs. The demand for psychologists is expected to grow at a somewhat larger rate of 19 percent between the years 2014 and 2024, amounting to an increase of about 32,500 more jobs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median salary for psychologists as of May 2016 was $75,230 per year. The median annual salary for psychiatrists in May 2016 was considerably higher at $245,673.

Which Is Better?

If you are considering a career as a therapist, you will need to determine which career path is best for you. Are you interested in conducting psychotherapy, administering psychological tests, and conducting research? If so, a career as a psychologist may be the best choice for you.

On the other hand, if you have an interest in medicine and want to be able to prescribe medications to your patients, a career in psychiatry might be your ideal choice.

If you do not want to invest five to eight years in graduate training, consider pursuing a career as a licensed social worker or counselor. These professionals are also qualified to provide mental health services depending upon training and experience. Both social work and counseling typically require two or three years of graduate study.

Psychiatric nursing is another great career option for students interested in medicine. Advanced Psychiatric Nurses hold a master's degree or higher in psychiatric-mental health nursing and are able to assess patients, diagnose disorders, provide psychotherapy, and prescribe medications.

A Word From Verywell

Psychologists and psychiatrists represent distinctive professional designations, but both play a critical role in the field of mental health. Key differences between psychologists and psychiatrists come down to educational background and prescribing powers, but both share the important goal of helping patients feel better. 

There are many important differences between psychologists and psychiatrists and mental health consumers should be aware of the distinctions between the two professions. Despite these differences, both psychologists and psychiatrists are equipped to provide mental health services to people suffering from minor to more serious mental illness.

Both receive extensive training in psychology and mental health, so the type of professional you choose to see might depend on accessibility in your area and whether or not you need medications to treat your illness. Neither one is "better" than the other, but your needs and specific symptoms may play a role in which professional is best equipped to assist you in your treatment. Discuss your options with your doctor and seek references to find a mental health professional in your area who can help you deal with the issues you are facing.

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Physicians and Surgeons; 2015.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Psychologists; 2015.

McGuinness, KM. Personal communication. May 19, 2011.

Plotnik, R. & Kouyoumdjian, H. Introduction to Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2014.

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