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Types of Therapists: Psychologist vs Psychiatrist

When it comes to the world of psychology and mental health treatment, two words are very often interchanged for one another despite being very different: psychologist and psychiatrist. While these professions may sound similar and share a few common grounds, they are not synonymous with each other and take very different approaches to treat mental health disorders. If you are considering ways to improve your mental health and emotional stability, it’s important to know which one is better suited to your needs, even though it is fairly common to be treated by both in many cases. 

The Shared SImilarities Between Psychology and Psychiatry 

The list of similarities between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is much smaller than one would think, especially for as often as their names get interchanged. Both professions will take many years of education and experience before being officially licensed, and there would naturally be some overlap in classes taken. However, given their different approaches for treatments, even those may be less than you may be thinking. 

These are a few examples of the shared similarities between the two mental health professionals:  

  • Must have a license in order to practice
  • Work to treat mental illnesses and mental health-related issues
  • Educated and trained in matters relating to how the brain works, emotions, feelings, and thoughts

Arguably, the longest list of similarities between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is where they perform their jobs. Even though the two occupations have much more differences than similarities, they are still in the same medical field. 

The locations that both mental health professionals perform their work include:

  • Hospitals
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • University medical centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Prisons
  • Rehabilitation programs
  • Hospice programs
  • Private practices

The Vast Difference Between a Psychology and Psychiatrist 

The number of differences between these two similar-sounding occupations may be surprising. While they work in a similar field and share many of the same goals, there is a vast difference in both educational requirements and treatment styles.

Educational Differences 

It will take around a decade or so of education and training for both of these mental health professionals to become certified in their respective fields. However, the paths that are taken to reach that certification are very different. 

Psychologists. After receiving an undergraduate degree, the next step is to attend a graduate school program and receive doctoral-level training. Typically, a psychologist pursues their doctorate in either philosophy (Ph.D.) or psychology (PsyD). It will take several years in order to earn one of these degrees and once a psychologist has, then they will complete another year or two of hands-on training that involves working directly with people. After this, they may take an exam in order to become certified to practice in their state. The various forms of psychologist career paths will require different levels of training and education.

 These are some examples of the various jobs and the minimum requirements:

  • Social worker: Bachelor’s degree (four to five years of undergraduate school)
  • License Counselor: Master’s degree (two to threes of graduate school)
  • Sports Psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school)
  • Industrial-organizational psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school)
  • School psychologist: Varies by state but typically a few years of graduate school
  • Forensic psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate, doctorate degree is preferred)
  • Criminal psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school, doctorate degree is preferred)
  • Health psychologist: Doctorate degree (four to seven years of graduate school)
  • Social psychologist: Doctorate degree (five to seven years of graduate school)
  • Child psychologist: Doctorate degree (five to seven years of graduate school)

Some of the additional areas that a psychologist will often receive specialty training in may include: 

  • Clinical psychology
  • Geropsychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Forensic psychology
  • Childhood and adolescent psychology 

Psychiatrists. Once they receive an undergraduate degree, the next step for an aspiring psychiatrist is to attend medical school. The biggest difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is, arguably, that one is a medical doctor while the other is not. 

Most often, a psychiatrist will graduate from medical school with a doctorate degree in medicine (MD) or osteopathic medicine (DO). Once they have successfully completed their doctorate program, they will take a written exam in order to get licensed in their state to practice medicine. In order to become a practicing psychiatrist, they will be required to complete a four-year residency and, during the program, will work with patients in hospitals and outpatient settings. They will be further educated on how to diagnose and treat mental health conditions using medication, therapy, and various other treatments.

In order to become officially certified as a psychiatrist, they must take an exam given by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. This certification only lasts for ten years, and they will have to be recertified when it expires.

Some areas that psychiatrists often receive extra training and specialize in may include:

  • Addiction medicine
  • Childhood and adolescent psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Pain medicine
  • Sleep medicine

Differences In Treatments 

Other than education, this is the most striking difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. The end goal is the same, to help their patients with their mental health-related issues, but the path they take in order to get there is wildly different. 

Psychologist. In order to diagnose a patient, a psychologist will use interviews, surveys, and personal observations. Once they have completed their diagnosis, the most commonly used treatment employed is by using psychotherapy or talk therapy. This treatment involves sitting with the patient and talking through their issues.

 Over a series of sessions, the psychologist will work with the patient in order to help them to better understand their symptoms and what causes them, along with ways to better manage them. One of the most common versions of talk therapy used is called cognitive-behavioral therapy. This approach heavily emphasizes the patient’s negative thoughts and dysfunctional patterns of thinking that may be contributing to their mental health issues. 

Talk therapy comes in several different forms and may include private one on one sessions, family therapy, and group therapy. One of the key differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is the tendency to use medication in their treatments. The reason for this is that psychologists are not legally able to prescribe medication in 45 states. 

The exceptions where a psychologist can prescribe medication, outside of military service, Indian Health Service, or living in Guam, include the states of:

  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • New Mexico

Psychiatrist. The path to diagnosing a patient for a psychiatrist will include psychological testing, one on one evaluation, and lab tests in order to rule physical causes of symptoms. Once they have made their diagnosis, a psychiatrist will decide to either refer their patient for psychotherapy or prescribe them medication. Some of the most common medications that a psychiatrist will prescribe include:

Antidepressants: Mainly used for patients suffering from depression. These work to balance neurotransmitters in the brain in order to help promote a more positive mood and to stabilize emotions.

Anti-anxiety: A medication designed for patients suffering severe anxiety ranging from chronic to acute onset disorder.

Mood stabilizers: This medication is used to help patients that suffer from constant and uncontrollable mood swings.

Stimulants: Mostly prescribed to patients in order to help them better control their disoriented and unorganized thought patterns, primarily used for patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Sedatives: In order to help slow down brain activity, a psychiatrist may prescribe sedatives. They help to make the patient feel more relaxed and are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders.

After prescribing medication, a psychiatrist will closely monitor their patient for signs of improvement or signs of negative side effects. They will work with the patient in order to find the best type of medication and dosage required to treat their issues.

Which Is Better: Psychologist or Psychiatrist? 

There is no real answer to this question as they are both the best option available, depending on the issues being faced. A brain surgeon may require more education than a dentist, but they won’t be very effective in treating a toothache. Furthermore, psychologists and psychiatrists will often work together to treat the same patient.

A psychiatrist may prescribe medication to their patient and refer them to a psychologist in order to work through their issues. Although they may take different approaches to solve problems, there is no clear-cut way to say that one is better than the other.

The Takeaway 

Despite being constantly confused for one another, there are many differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. The easiest way to view the differences is that a psychiatrist describes medication to treat symptoms while a psychologist provides therapy to heal the wound.

Even though their names are similar, there are extreme differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. It will take a psychiatrist much longer in order to be certified to practice, but this doesn’t mean they are a better or more qualified professional. They are medical doctors first and foremost, and this will require much more training. While the differences in education required may be easily apparent, both of these professionals are often required to solve mental health-related issues.


  1. The Relationship between Psychiatrists and Psychologists (achievewellnessgroup.net)
  2. What Is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist? (healthline.com)
  3. Psychiatrists and psychologists: what’s the difference? (yourhealthinmind.org) 
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