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Difference Between Psychologist and Psychiatrist in 2021

October 14, 2021 | Staff Writers

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There are many different job titles within the field of mental health. Two fields that are often confused are psychology and psychiatry. The names of the professions sound similar, but the work they do is quite different.

Both of these professions are focused on mental health, but the approaches they take are rather different. A psychiatrist uses medicinal means of treating mental illness, while a psychologist uses a more therapy-based approach to helping people cope with their issues. Both types of mental health professionals may work with people with the same mental health conditions, and they often work in cooperation to help people find long-term solutions.

If you’re interested in working in counseling, social work or mental health in a clinical role, you’ll need a medical degree. The scope of practice you’ll have in your work depends on which specialization you choose and the level to which you’re educated.

Schooling requirements for a psychologist versus a psychiatrist

There are some distinct differences in the education requirements for psychologists and psychiatrists.  Both study pathways lead to a job as a mental health professional and are quite rigorous, but the focus of the degrees are different.

Training as a psychologist requires a shorter education pathway, but the study is still rigorous and in-depth. It’s possible to become a counselor with a master’s degree, and specialist psychology positions are open to those who hold a Ph.D., Psy.D., or a similar doctoral qualification.

After completing the doctoral degree, a psychologist will need to complete a residency under the supervision of a licensed professional, and sit a practice exam such as the Psychopharmacology Examination for Psychologists or the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology.

Psychiatrists have a similar initial entry pathway into their professions, but after completing cour years of college they must undertake four years of education at medical school. However, after those four years of training a psychiatrist must complete a four-year residency, obtain a license and certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Obtaining this license requires completing a multi-step examination process.

Psychiatrists are required to hold a valid license for the state in which they practice, and must engage in continuing education to keep their license current.

What are the fieldwork or clinical requirements of graduation for psychologists versus psychiatrists?

Both psychologists and psychiatrists are required to have extensive clinical experience. The exact licensure requirements for both positions vary from state-to-state. However, as a general rule:

  • A clinical psychologist is required to have about 3,000 hours of supervised professional experience before they are permitted to practice.
  • A psychiatrist must complete a four-year residency (about 6,000 hours) before they can practice.

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

The programs of study required for psychology and psychiatry are both academically rigorous and demanding. The main difference, other than the duration of the programs, is the focus of the course.

A clinical psychologist’s program would cover subjects such as:

  • Adult psychopathology
  • Clinical interviewing
  • Advanced cognition
  • Psychodynamic theory
  • Social psychology

Psychologists learn how to assess people’s cognitive difficulties, diagnose and treat mental disorders, establish positive relationships with their patients, and build healthy, appropriate treatment protocols.

A psychiatrist completes a medical degree covering topics such as:

  • Behavioral science
  • Cognitive, affective and behavioral neuroscience
  • Psychopathology
  • The social context of mental health and illness
  • Neurobiology

Where psychologists focus on therapy and counseling to help people cope with mental illness and build positive behavioral and thought patterns, psychiatrists consider how the brain works and how biological factors influence mental health.

How long are programs for psychologists versus those of psychiatrists?

It takes 4 to 6 years of academic study, plus 1 or 2 years of supervised practice to become a psychologist, meaning it’s possible to qualify as a psychologist in five to eight years.

Psychiatrists are expected to complete a four-year college program, then a four-year program at medical school, followed by a four-year residency, meaning qualifying as a psychologist takes a minimum of twelve years, assuming direct entry into medical school.

Salary differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary of a psychiatrist is $220,430. A clinical psychologist has an average annual salary of $87,450. This means qualified individuals in both professions can expect to earn at least twice as much as the average American.

What factors into the salary differences between psychiatrists and psychologists?

The difference in earnings can be attributed to the difference in qualification requirements and scope of practice. It’s possible to work in some psychology-related roles with just a master’s degree, whereas a psychologist is required to complete medical school and a four-year residency.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists provide an invaluable service to those who are living with mental health issues, however, psychologists often focus in areas such as social work, or serve as a therapist or counselor.

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor. This means that they can prescribe medication and have a broader scope of practice than a psychologist. There are currently only five states where psychologists have prescriptive authority:

  • Louisiana
  • New Mexico
  • Illinois
  • Idaho
  • Iowa

There is a growing movement of psychologists who are campaigning to see those working in clinical psychology roles granted prescriptive authority, so in the coming years the scope of the professions may change, just as nurse practitioners are seeing their job role expand to cover more of the things traditionally reserved for doctors.

For now, however, these mental health professionals work in tandem, supporting each other to help their patients achieve the best possible outcome.

Differences between the fields of psychology and psychiatry

While psychologists and psychiatrists may see the same patients, the work they do with those patients can vary dramatically. Psychiatrists take a more pharmaceutical and medical-based approach, while psychologists rely on talk therapy, counseling, and cognitive behavioral therapy to help their patients.

What is a typical day of work like for a psychiatrist versus a psychologist?

The work of a psychiatrist may vary depending on the setting in which they work. A psychiatrist who works in a hospital setting, for example, may have several patients under their care and have to review logs and charts, prescribe medications and make sure every patient is receiving the care they need.

A psychiatrist who works in a clinic may see several patients passing through each day, with one or two new patients a day and many more regular follow-up patients who need long-term care.

Psychiatrists work with patients with a variety of mental health issues, ranging from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to depression or even Alzheimer’s disease. Much of the work they do is one-to-one with patients who are presenting with a serious mental health condition.

A psychiatrist may also offer advice and support to loved ones to help them care for family members who are dealing with complex, difficult or long-term issues.

Patients may be living with a long-term condition and working with a psychiatrist to control it, or may be presenting for the first time after serious trauma, incident or episode. They rely on psychological testing and the DSM for diagnostic criteria and guidance and use a combination of pharmaceutical treatments and referrals for cognitive behavioral therapy or work with a psychologist to support their patients.

The work of a clinical psychologist is slightly different. They still observe and test patients, and have some scope to recommend treatments for them. Psychometric tests and standard procedures are used to evaluate patients. Clinical psychologists must maintain detailed records of the mental health of their patients and the treatments recommended to them.

In most parts of the United States, clinical psychologists are not permitted to prescribe medication, although they can refer someone to a psychiatrist who is allowed to do so. The role of a psychologist is typically to use CBT, talk therapy, and other similar treatments to help patients learn to cope with their mental health condition.

In some cases, rather than dealing with patients on a one-to-one basis, a psychologist will work with patients in groups. Some psychologists work in a specific setting or with a particular demographic, for example helping veterans with PTSD, or serving as a school psychologist to assist vulnerable young people.

What types of jobs are available for psychiatrists?

Psychiatry is a broad field that includes several specializations, including:

  • Child and adolescent psychiatrists
  • Addiction psychiatrists
  • Forensic psychiatrists
  • Geriatric psychiatrists
  • Neuropsychiatrists
  • Organizational psychiatrists

Child and adolescent psychiatrists

Specialists in child and adolescent psychiatry work with patients under the age of 18. This is an important specialism because many of the medications used to treat adults with mental health difficulties are not appropriate for younger people. Child and adolescent psychiatrists have devoted their time to learning about the most suitable treatments for young people.

Addiction psychiatrists

An addiction psychiatrist works with people who have drug or alcohol addiction. Many people who are prone to addiction have additional mental health issues, and a psychiatrist who is trained in this area can diagnose the underlying cause of the addiction, help patients cope with the biological symptoms of withdrawal from the substance they’re dependent on, and also work with them to help them cope with the underlying mental health issue.

Forensic psychiatrists

Forensic psychiatrists work within the criminal justice system. These psychiatrists specialize in mental health and how it relates to criminal activity. They may help the courts decide if an offender is fit to face trial or if they have a mental health condition which means they require institutionalization.

Geriatric psychiatrists

A geriatric psychiatrist works with older adults. Elderly patients are more prone to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Patients with these conditions have unique, specific needs. In complex cases, an older adult could have depression or anxiety as well as an age-related condition. Geriatric psychiatrists understand how to effectively manage those conditions in tandem.

Neuropsychiatrists

A neuropsychiatric works with people who have experienced brain injuries or are suffering from a disease that affects the nervous system. These psychiatrists help people cope with the mental health issues that result from their injuries. Treating this kind of illness requires highly specialized knowledge that a general psychiatrist might lack.

Organizational psychiatrists

Psychiatrists who work within a workplace or an organization, or who consult for large organizations, are known as organizational psychiatrists. These specialists help companies to develop procedures and policies to promote good mental health, and arm workers with the skills they need to cope with occupational-related stress.

What types of jobs are available for psychologists?

Just as there are different types of psychiatrist, there are many psychology specializations too. Some of the most common specializations in the field of psychology include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Child psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • School psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Sports psychology
  • Addiction psychology

Clinical psychology

Clinical psychology is perhaps the biggest specialty area within the field of psychology. Those who focus in this area work in the health service and focus on helping people develop healthy behaviors and cope with their mental health disorders.

They may also offer preventative services for those who are dealing with chronic illnesses or other difficulties that put them at risk of mental health issues; for example, helping people who have just received a serious diagnosis understand what the diagnosis means and how it may impact their lives.

Child psychology

A child psychologist provides counseling and therapy services for those under the age of 18. They may work with children who have behavioral issues and those who have experienced a traumatic event such as severe bullying or child abuse. Some child psychologists work with children who are on the autism spectrum or who have developmental disorders, helping them build the skills they need to lead a normal and productive life.

Children often lack the vocabulary, life experience and mental tools required to communicate how they are feeling and process what has happened to them. This is why it’s so important for them to work with someone who has experience in helping children specifically.

Counseling psychology

Counseling psychologists work with people who are experiencing emotional or mental health issues. They help these individuals resolve crises, alleviate feelings of distress and improve their mental well-being. They’re also trained to assess those with more severe mental health issues, diagnose them and recommend further courses of treatment where necessary.

School psychology

School psychologists support students and teachers in educational settings. They are a part of a school’s support team and they help students succeed academically, socially and behaviorally by giving them the tools they need to handle their emotions, get through difficult times, and improve their mental health.

Forensic psychology

Forensic psychologists work in the criminal justice system alongside forensic psychiatrists. Where psychiatrists assess patients and may make recommendations about whether a patient is sound of mind, psychologists may play a slightly different role, assessing their patients, offering their professional opinion during the court process, and also working with offenders to rehabilitate them and reduce the risk of individuals reoffending.

Sports psychology

Sports psychology is a highly specialized field focused on helping athletes perform their best. A sports psychologist works with athletes to help them better cope with stress, reduce competition anxiety and maximize their ability to perform under pressure. Some sports psychologists work with adults, others work with younger athletes. Many have coaching experience.

Addiction psychology

Addiction psychologists help people who are struggling with substance abuse, gambling addiction or other compulsive behaviors. Depending on the nature of the addiction, this kind of psychologist may work by themselves with a patient or support a psychiatrist or a doctor who is overseeing the patient as they go through withdrawal.

Some addictions are purely biological but in many cases there is an underlying mental health issue that the patient is dealing with, and finding that root cause can help the patient make a long-term recovery.

How to decide whether you should pursue a degree in psychology or psychiatry

Choosing between a psychology or psychiatry degree can be difficult, especially for a young person who knows they want to help people and who is interested in mental health.

Understanding the skillsets required, and the day-to-day roles of each professional can help a would-be mental health professional understand which role they would prefer to take.

What personality types are best suited to psychology versus psychiatry?

Psychologists are expected to have good communication skills, be empathetic, and be able to work with patients both individually and in groups. They need to have an understanding of the clinical side of things but aren’t expected to study pharmaceuticals and neurobiology in depth.

Because a psychologist does a lot of talk therapy, they need to be confident in how they talk to patients. Being able to build a rapport and make patients comfortable is something that’s important in both professions but that is critical to the success of talk therapy, CBT, and similar treatment pathways.

Psychiatrists work with patients individually rather than in groups and focus on medication management. They do need to have good patient skills in order to assess and diagnose patients appropriately, but those skills aren’t as critical to the job as they are for those who are working in psychology.

Psychiatrists may oversee the medication regimens of a high number of patients, and refer those patients to a psychologist for ongoing therapy and care. Their job focuses more on medication than on social work or counseling, which could be seen as a positive for someone who has a more scientific way of thinking. However, those who are more empathetic may prefer the personal touch of psychology.

How do you know if your skills are better suited for psychology or psychiatry?

Psychology and psychiatry both require a person to have a postgraduate-level education and extensive clinical experience. However, the focus of the studies are different.

The academic rigor required of people who are pursuing a career in psychology or psychiatric is significant for both professions. Those who have good memories, critical thinking skills, and attention to detail would do well to pursue a career in psychiatry. Psychiatrists are expected to undertake intensive continuing education, which means a thirst for knowledge and passion for lifelong learning is essential.

On the other hand, those with more empathy, rapport-building skills, patience and the ability to get patients to identify with them, listen and invest in their care would do well in a career in psychology. Psychologists still need to be good at record-keeping and at following professional boundaries and regulations.

To an extent, both of these sets of skills can be taught. However, if you choose the right professional you will be more likely to enjoy your job and succeed in it long-term. Indeed, because it takes so long to get qualified to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, choosing the right profession to begin with will increase your chances of successfully completing the program of study.

How should your overall career goals factor in to whether you pursue psychology or psychiatry?

If you’re planning to start a career in psychology or psychiatry, you should remember that it will be a long road, and most likely an expensive one. Most students who are studying for these careers pursue their degree and postgraduate qualifications on-campus, because of the need for clinical practice hours.

Whether you’re going into clinical psychology or psychiatry, you cannot become a licensed mental health professional without thousands of hours of clinical experience.

The time and expense of this study means it’s a good idea to have some long-term goals in mind. For example, someone with a passion for criminal justice who wants to work in criminal rehabilitation might choose to study to become a forensic psychologist.

Those who are passionate about helping vulnerable people who are struggling with trauma might opt to go into social work, and again would find psychology a good starting point for that.

Someone who has a friend or relative who has struggled with mental health issues and who has been helped by a psychiatrist may choose to pursue that profession in order to help others in the same way. For example, if a grandparent was struggling to cope with the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia and benefited from assistance by a psychiatrist in a memory care facility, a grandchild may decide to go down the same career path to ‘pay it forward’.

Not everyone who goes into psychology or psychiatry has a definite idea of what they want to do when they graduate, or whether they wish to specialize. It’s entirely possible to qualify as a psychologist or psychiatrist and do general mental health care for a few years before pursuing a specialization.

Indeed, many people opt to stay as general psychologists or psychiatrists for the whole of their careers. People working in those roles can do a lot of good for the general public.

How can you fund your studies to become a psychologist or psychiatrist?

Studying to become a psychologist or psychiatrist is an expensive undertaking because of the number of years of study required. There may be federal funding available for low-income students to support them in their studies.

Those who are not eligible for federal funding may wish to apply for scholarships, either from the institution they wish to study with or from grantmaking organizations.

The National Health Service Corps is one institution that offers fully-funded scholarships for students who meet the academic requirements and who are interested in studying at the undergraduate or postgraduate levels.

These scholarships are open to people seeking careers in a variety of health care professions and are offered on the condition of the graduate completing a period of service in the corps upon graduation.

Grants and scholarships offered by smaller organizations are often over-subscribed, and competition to get them is fierce. This means you should apply early if you wish to have a chance. Remember you can apply for multiple scholarships and may be able to receive more than one up to the total cost of your studies.

If you’ve already taken out student loans for your undergraduate studies and are worried about the repayments, you may have options to help you cover the cost of those loans.

Health care professionals who work in nonprofit hospitals have the opportunity to participate in student loan forgiveness programs that will see all or part of their loans written off after they have been with the hospital for a set period of time. How long you need to serve depends on the level of qualification that you have earned.

To qualify for student loan forgiveness, a psychologist or psychiatrist would need to be working at a nonprofit. Commercial operations do not count. This means it’s not something that will work for all mental health professionals or social workers.

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