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Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

Alliant International University
Published 11/06/2015
5 minutes read
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What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? The question is most often asked by patients seeking treatment, but if you’re considering a career in the field of mental health, it’s an applicable question for you, too. Although the two professions share a lot in common, they also have profound differences that underlie their work. Understanding the similarities, differences and education programs for each will help you determine which career path is right for you.

The Similarities Between Psychologists and Psychiatrists

Just looking at the words “psychologist” and “psychiatrist” tells you that these professions share a common foundation. The root of both words is psy, short for psyche, which is Greek for mind or spirit. Both psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose and treat patients for mental disorders; their work concerns the health of the brain, as well as the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of their patients. Both interview and counsel their patients, and use the criteria from the DSM-V to diagnose mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, dissociative identity disorder and more.

Educational Background

Both professions require a doctoral degree to practice professionally. The doctoral programs for each profession take very different approaches, however.

To become a psychologist: Becoming a psychologist requires a doctorate in psychology. Two degree options are available:

  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology
  • Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

If you are looking to work with patients, you will likely earn a doctorate in either counseling or clinical psychology. As part of the doctoral program, you will participate in an internship to get hands-on, real-world experience. A doctorate in psychology program can take anywhere from four to seven years, depending upon which degree option you choose (a PsyD often takes less time than a PhD), and how long it takes you to work through your courses and internship. Upon completion of the doctorate in psychology program, you will need to complete your state’s requirements for licensure before you can practice professionally.

To become a psychiatrist: The primary difference in the educational background of these two groups is that psychiatrists require medical training, whereas psychologists do not. To become a psychiatrist, you will need to attend medical school and earn an M.D. Most medical school programs take four years; following completion of the M.D., you will typically need another four years of residency training to become a psychiatrist. During this time, many candidates choose a subspecialty or concentration area to focus their studies. To work as a professional psychiatrist, you must be licensed as a physician in your state.

Treatment Differences

The differences in education lead to different treatment focuses for each discipline. Whereas psychologists focus on behavioral approaches, using psychological tests and therapy to diagnose and treat patients, psychiatrists treat patients from a medical standpoint, focusing on disorders as a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Psychologists treat their patients using therapy. The word “therapy” – especially in conjunction with the word “psychologist” – conjures up images of a patient lying on a couch sharing their feelings. This is a very limited view, however. Psychologists use a variety of therapies, based upon years of research, to treat patients1. This variety includes:

  • Cognitive therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Humanistic therapy
  • Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies

Psychotherapy is also a key element in the diagnosis and treatment of a psychiatrist’s patients. However, a psychiatrist has other treatments at their disposal, including medication and hospitalization. Because of their focus and training, psychiatrists often handle patients with more serious mental health issues for which therapy alone cannot help.

Prescribing Medication

The ability to prescribe medication has often been the distinguishing element between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication for the treatment of mental disorders, while a psychologist cannot. In the last 15 years, this distinction has started changing, albeit at a slow pace. Since 2002, three states – New Mexico, Louisiana and most recently Illinois – have begun allowing psychologists to prescribe medications in the treatment of mental health disorders.

In many cases, a combination of therapy and medication is the best treatment option. Because most psychologists do not have the authorization to prescribe medication, they often work in conjunction with psychiatrists or primary care physicians to get their patients access to this necessary care. Allowing psychologists to prescribe medication can makesit easier for those patients to get the most effective treatment.

Which Career Path is Right for Me?

In deciding which career path is right for you, consider your interest in the subject. Are you interested in approaching mental disorders from a medical standpoint, as chemical imbalances in the brain? Or are you more interested in treating patients from a therapy standpoint?

Alliant’s Doctoral Programs in Psychology

If you are interested in studying the treatment of mental health disorders from the psychology side, Alliant’s California School of Professional Psychology offers a variety of doctoral programs in psychology, including:

Alliant also offers a Postdoctoral Master of Science in Clinical Psychopharmacology. Designed for practicing psychologists who live in a state or federal jurisdiction where psychologists are authorized to prescribe medication, this program helps prepare licensed psychologists to safely and effectively prescribe medications in the treatment of patients. Even psychologists who don’t live in a state with this authority can benefit from the program, as it will help them to better answer patient questions about medication and better collaborate with primary care physicians in prescription treatment.


Sources

  1.  American Psychological Association, Different Approaches to Psychotherapy, https://www.apa.org/topics/psychotherapy/approaches, Accessed Nov. 29, 2021

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