Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

It is not uncommon for the casual observer — and patients, especially — to pose the question, “What is the difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist?” They are each scholars of psychology and can both be client-facing professions. They practice psychotherapy, obtain doctorates, and thrive on helping others.

It’s no surprise the differences between psychologist and psychiatrist are less obvious — even if they are, in fact, quite substantial. Let’s explore the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between psychologists and psychiatrists, what their vocations entail, and understand more about the path to practice each of these disciplines. 

What is Psychiatry?

Without question, the major difference between psychologist and psychiatrist is the educational backgrounds required for each.

Plainly put, a psychiatrist must have a medical degree. 

Psychiatrists undergo the same experience of medical school that is required of any other type of  practicing doctor. That academic experience is then followed up with four years of a residency program that students apply to and are matched with on the third Monday of March, as is standard practice in medicine. Psychiatrists also must be licensed as a physician — again, much like any other doctor. 

Notably, this licensure is why a psychiatrist can prescribe medications, such as antidepressants or benzodiazepines, to a client without the consultation of a primary care doctor, while psychologists cannot. (While this is a general rule, there are, however, exceptions to this under some state laws.) This equips psychiatrists with a heftier toolbox when aiding their patients. 

Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists can provide a more seamlessly comprehensive standard of care to clients. They combine therapy with medication in a way that applies their experience in clinical psychology and draws from experiences as a psychiatry resident. They focus on biology and medicine in their education and specifically study the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness during their residencies, working with inpatients and outpatients, children, emergency cases, and more. 

Because of this, they are able to better target their treatment, closely monitor the relationship between physical and mental health, and order tests, should they need to. Genealogy and other biological factors may be taken into consideration during diagnosis and treatment.

Psychiatrists are also authorized to oversee electroconvulsive therapy, used in severe cases of depression and bipolar disorder.

What is Psychology?

A psychologist is well-versed in the cognitive behaviors of people and the therapeutic interventions used to treat clients struggling with their mental health. Similar to psychiatrists, they study the inner workings of the brain and processing of emotions but may apply these skills more broadly. 

Clinical psychologists, for example, also diagnose and treat patients, but use psychotherapy (sometimes referred to as “talk therapy”) and cognitive behavioral therapy as their primary tools. They may also have jobs that are not typically held by psychiatrists, such as a career in social work or in a clinical counseling setting. 

Psychologists tend to work in consultation with psychiatrists and physicians when diagnosing a patient and recommending medication, which means patient interactions with a psychologist necessitate a licensed doctor if they are recommended a prescription. 

Psychologists may also find themselves intensely involved in research. They pose questions about social interactions, decision-making processes, brain activity, and more. They take on roles as educators, research team leaders, and consultants. Moreover, they may branch out into specialties ranging from child psychology to forensic psychology, and other types of therapy. This is another key difference of how psychologists and psychiatrists are different in practice. If this interests you, learn more about how to become a therapist here.

Where these branching paths take psychologists is generally determined by the decisions they make during their academic lives. 

Psychologist or Psychiatrist: How to Choose?

Fundamentally, people who weigh the choice between the two professions are deciding what element of psychology to focus on — that is, the biological basis of behavior, or the therapeutic elements of treatment. There are also time and financial investments to consider, as a psychiatrist can spend as much as 11 years in training. 

Qualifications for a psychologist are varied, but they often begin with a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field. A psychologist can obtain a Ph.D. or PsyD, choosing a specialty in clinical or counseling psychology and deciding whether they want their focus to be in research. A PsyD will place emphasis on practice; a PhD candidate will have more balance between practice and research. Some opt to work toward an EdS, which can be applied toward practicing psychology in school settings.

Aspiring psychologists must then pass a national exam and fulfill licensing requirements that vary by state. It is recommended that psychology students know the details of a state’s licensing requirements at the outset of their education. 

Nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, psychiatrists earn a mean annual wage of $208,000 per year. By comparison, a psychologist’s median pay in 2019 was $80,370. The job growth outlook from 2019 to 2029 for psychologists is approximately 3 percent, while that of psychiatrists is slightly higher at 4 percent. 

Thus, while the psychologist/psychiatrist difference is negligible in terms of current job opportunities, there is a more-than-twofold difference in salary outcomes. Examine a psychologist vs psychiatrist salary comparison chart and you will immediately notice yawning gaps between the two. 

Ultimately, there is much more that psychiatrists and psychologists share in common than make them differ. These are compassionate, observant, analytical, strong communicators who earnestly want to improve the lives of others and passionately believe in resilience. They combat depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders on a daily basis. Along with all this, they constantly work against the public stigmas that sometimes can be associated with mental health. 

These are practitioners and healers, yes, but also fierce advocates.

Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at National University

National University’s Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program sets the foundation for entering the field of psychiatry or psychology, introducing core concepts of psychology that lend well to further graduate- and doctoral-level education. The program details major theories and concepts used in today’s practice of psychology while supporting students in being able to interpret numbers and analyze statistical procedures. These are all necessary skills whether entering the field as a psychologist or psychiatrist.

The program at National University equips and emboldens scholars to embark on the path to licensure as a psychiatrist or psychologist. Ultimately, whichever path you choose to pursue is up to you. Both offer a rewarding career that can positively impact the lives of others and entire communities. Get in touch with a member of our admissions team today to learn more about enrolling in National University’s Psychology program. 


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