What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?

By psychologyjobs.com Staff Writer

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One major misconception about the field of psychology is that a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist are the same thing. Some believe the terms Psychologist and Psychiatrist can be used interchangeably to describe mental health professionals. While their jobs are similar and can have some overlap, each of these workers has a unique role.

Both Psychologists and Psychiatrists help treat their patient’s mental health disorders, but their care methodologies and focuses differ. Each practitioner performs a unique function. There are differing educational and training requirements for these fields as well.

While either position can lead to a fulfilling, stable career, there are big differences in what Psychologists and Psychiatrists do every day and what it takes to become one. Before embarking on your psychological career path, make sure you understand which field is a better fit for you.

What is a Psychologist?

Psychologists are mental health professionals who help their patients develop healthy ways to cope with the difficulties of their lives. These practitioners watch, interpret, and record the ways in which people act in environments and around others to better understand mental, emotional, and social processes.

Through observation, assessment, and experimentation, Psychologists learn about human behavior and the motivations behind it. Their work can improve their patient’s mental wellness and give them stronger emotional stability and coping mechanisms.

There are several methods Psychologists use to get data and interpret behavior: psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and lab-based experiments. If they’re working with patients, they may use something like a personality or intelligence test to assess their mental health.

Psychologists are searching for repeated patterns in human behavior and how people act in certain situations to better understand humanity and to help their patients.

At Work, Psychologists Can:

  • Provide therapy to patients in an individual or group setting
  • Assess their patients to develop the best treatment for their needs
  • Confer with other doctors and mental health workers to better care for patients
  • Conduct experiments to study behavioral patterns
  • Share their findings with others by publishing articles and reports

What is a Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists evaluate, diagnose, and treat their patient’s mental illnesses. They work with people with diseases of varying degrees of severity. Some of their patients may have chronic, last-lasting conditions, while others are facing a temporary diagnosis.

This psychological specialty is also a branch of medicine. Psychiatrists are mental health professionals with medical doctorates, and they study the biologic causes of mental, emotional, and cognitive disfunction. While they recognize there can be environmental and other non-genetic causes for mental illnesses, they focus on these aspects.

When they are completing intake evaluations for patients, Psychiatrists focus on their medical history. These professionals want to know about other conditions their patients have or the medications they’re taking because these factors can impact both their current symptoms and treatment.

At Work, Psychiatrists Can:

  • Admit their patients to the hospital for treatment, when needed
  • Give medical care and prescribe medicine to someone experiencing mental illness
  • Help their patients navigate their symptoms
  • Work as a part of a medical team to create a treatment plan for the patient
  • Refer their patients to other doctors and care professionals

What Are the Differences in Education and Training for Psychologists and Psychiatrists?

The educational process for Psychologists and Psychiatrists has the same beginning — future practitioners must first earn a bachelor’s degree. This is where the process splits into two distinct paths.

Psychologist Education and Training Process

After earning their bachelor’s degree, Psychology students must attend graduate school. If they’re interested in becoming a therapist, they have a few options for degrees.

Many Psychologists choose to earn a doctorate, with a Ph.D. in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) being the most common choices. Taking this route means spending about 5-7 extra years in school.

This isn’t their only option. Practitioners may earn a master’s instead and still be able to practice, depending on their location. Earning a master’s takes about 2-3 years.

Once they’ve earned their graduate degree of choice, they must complete a certain number of hours as an intern. The amount of time differs based on the state, but the average is 1,500-2,000 supervised hours of practice.

Before they can be a therapist, they must also pass the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology and any other remaining licensure requirements for the state in which they wish to practice. Once they’ve completed all of this, they are a licensed therapist.

Psychiatrist Education and Training Process

The first step to becoming a Psychiatrist, after earning your bachelor’s degree, is attending medical school. While students aren’t required to have a specific major to get into med school, it helps to major in pre-med.

Medical students are expected to have already taken biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, calculus, and physics before med school — all of which are requirements for pre-med majors.

Prospective Psychiatrists must also pass the MCAT, the medical school entrance exam. It takes 7.5 hours for this test. Then, after taking the exam, it’s time to apply to (and hopefully) get into medical school. When they’re accepted into a program, they spend the next four years studying medicine.

Once candidates have graduated, they submit an application to be a licensed doctor. This process includes passing a state board examination and other random requirements (like a background check) depending on which state they’re planning to practice in.

Then, it’s time to complete a psychiatric residency, which takes another four years. As a resident, future Psychiatrists will normally work in a hospital and care for patients with a wide variety of medical conditions.

When your residency is finished, Psychiatrists then get certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This step is optional, but most Psychiatrists choose to do it. This needs to be renewed every ten years. Unless there are any remaining state-specific licensing requirements, this is the final step to being a Psychiatrist.

Following this career path means committing to at least another 12 years of education and training after high school — the youngest practicing Psychiatrists are about 30. It’s a long process, with a rewarding end.