What Is the Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?

PsychologistThose interested in a career in the mental health profession may not fully understand the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in treating mental conditions with medication and other treatments. A psychologist is a person who studies behavior and mental health for a variety of purposes. While psychologists and psychiatrists may often work together for the good of patients, they have very different careers and educational paths.

Becoming a Psychiatrist

Since a psychiatrist is a medical doctor, to become one, you need to attend medical school. Following medical school, psychiatrists must participate in a residency program for a minimum of four years. During this time, you will spend three years studying aspects of medicine unique to psychiatry, and you may also choose to participate in psychiatric research projects.

Most psychiatrists choose a specialization during their residency period. Specializations in psychiatry include

  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation
  • Child psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Trauma treatment
  • Psychosomatic medicine
  • Clinical neurophysiology
  • Sleep medicine

Becoming a Psychologist

According to the American Psychological Association, most practicing psychologists have doctoral degrees, either a Ph.D. in psychology or a specialized Psy.D. However, training to become a psychologist often begins at the undergraduate level. If you want to become a psychologist, you can get a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Depending on your area of interest, you may wish to obtain a second major in a related field. For example, a biology major will help you get into some research programs offered at graduate schools, and a business major will help you in a career as an industrial research psychologist. A major in social work will help you if you wish to become a counselor or psychotherapist.

After completing a bachelor’s degree, psychologists need to complete at least a master’s degree. To practice psychology as a licensed practical counselor, this may be all you need, depending on the state where you choose to practice, and some industrial psychologists never go beyond a master’s program in their education. Most clinical psychologists, however, will complete a doctoral program.

Doctoral programs in psychology are extremely competitive, and students should apply to multiple programs in order to gain acceptance into one. Acceptance into these programs is based on grades and test scores, and participation on research teams may also improve your chances of acceptance. The graduate programs a psychologist chooses will play an important role in the career path she or he ultimately follows. Specializations and careers for psychologists include

  • Clinical psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Research psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Cognitive and perceptual psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Rehabilitation psychology
  • Industrial or organizational psychology
  • Sports psychology

Related Resource: MBA in Counseling

As you can see, psychiatry and psychology, while related, are very different career paths. The choice is yours. Given what you now know about the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, which field would you prefer to enter?