What Is The Difference Between A Psychologist And A Psychiatrist?

Psychiatrist and Psychologist DifferencesBoth the psychologist and the psychiatrist are mental health professionals, and both are qualified to treat patients and provide counseling, but there is a crucial difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. The psychologist holds a doctoral degree in psychology, while the psychiatrist is a medical doctor. The differences in their education and training shape different approaches to the care and treatment of mental illness, as well as different interpretations of outcomes for such treatment, and different emphases in research related to mental health and mental illness.


The primary difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist lies in their education. The psychologist pursues a five- to seven-year program of graduate study culminating in the doctorate, either a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). Professionals most interested in clinical psychology, which is working directly with patients in a counseling capacity, as opposed to focusing more on research, often pursue the Psy.D. The coursework and training in a doctoral program in psychology emphasizes psychotherapy, behavioral science, psychological research, and personality assessment. There are a range of specializations within psychology that include neuroscience, cognitive development, and social psychology. Students with a clinical focus receive extensive practical training in counseling techniques. Following coursework and qualifying exams, students undertake a dissertation project that usually takes between one and two years to complete. Most psychology programs also require a year-long internship, which is a prerequisite for a license to practice in most states, according to the American Psychological Association.

The psychiatrist, on the other hand, is trained as a medical doctor. Following the traditional four-year medical school degree, the aspiring psychiatrist embarks on a four-year medical residency with a specialization in mental health, usually in a hospital’s psychiatry department. According to the American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training, the residency training is designed to build a physician’s clinical skills and knowledge in a number of areas, including psychotherapy, neuroscience, and psychopharmacology. Students manage a substantial caseload of patients in a variety of settings, and also gain experience in evaluating scientific literature and even in conducting their own research.

Treatment Methods

Upon graduation from the residency program, the psychiatrist is licensed to prescribe medication, and this marks a key difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Since they are qualified to prescribe drugs, psychiatrists tend to be more involved with pharmacological and other medical interventions, such as electroconvulsive therapy, in the treatment of mental illness. This is not to say that they do not also use counseling and talk therapies as part of treatment, as this is often the primary mode of treatment with less serious illnesses.

While some states allow psychologists to prescribe certain medications, for the most part, clinical psychologists rely on non-pharmacological methods in their treatment of mental illness. Longer sessions that allow for exploration of personal histories, personality assessment, and even techniques like hypnosis, are key to the psychologist’s approach.

Related Resource: Careers in Mental Health

In the end, both the psychologist and the psychiatrist are well-qualified to provide a wide range of treatments and interventions in the care of those with mental illness. Both have undergone extensive training to prepare them to handle a host of mental health issues. The difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is primarily a matter of educational preparation and the resulting treatment focus, but patients can derive important benefits from the care of either professional.