What is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

Understanding the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is both easy and hard. It’s easy because one is a licensed physician and one is not. It’s challenging because psychologists and psychiatrists have different treatment options, career possibilities and legal restrictions. Hopefully this article will provide a full explanation of the contrasts between psychiatrists and psychologists.


Psychiatrists and psychologists follow different schooling paths. Psychiatrists are medical doctors. They earn an undergraduate degree in any field, complete four years of graduate medical education and an additional four-year residency in psychiatry. They’re licensed by state medical boards. Psychologists who treat patients have either a master’s in clinical psychology or a doctorate in psychology. Some psychologists earn a Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D., and undertake research, but it’s rare for Ph.D. holders to provide therapy services. Patient-facing psychologists usually complete a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Both psychiatrists and psychologists must complete regular continuing education courses to maintain their clinical licenses.


The biggest difference between psychiatrists and psychologists is the treatment options each can offer. As doctors, psychiatrists are able to offer prescription medications like Adderall, Prozac and Zoloft. Psychologists are not allowed to prescribe medication in most states, although some argue they should be granted that ability. For now, many psychologists partner with psychiatrists to manage patients’ needs. You might see a psychologist for talk therapy and a psychiatrist in the same clinic for medication management. Many psychologists specialize in a certain treatment area like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or group therapy.


Although psychiatrists can offer talk therapy services, a big difference between psychologists and psychiatrists is the focus of their treatment. Psychiatrists go into medicine to help patients with complicated cases and serious mental health concern. This means psychiatrists often prefer to concentrate on patients with co-morbidities, or multiple diagnoses. You might find psychiatrists consulting on seriously ill patients who need to continue their psychotropic drug regimen while also taking medication for heart disease or high blood pressure. Psychologists, by contrast, are more likely to accept patients with minor medical health issues like mild depression or anxiety. In many cases, patients with relatively simple illnesses prefer to work with experienced, patient psychologists who are dedicated to giving patients the stress-reducing tools to navigate challenging situations.

Work Environment

According to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals are the biggest employers of psychiatrists. It’s common for psychiatrists to work in out-patient office settings and in-patient hospital facilities; many doctors prefer to split their time between these two job roles. Psychologists are more likely to concentrate on private or group practice settings, although some work in hospitals as well. Many psychologists also work for universities or foundations in research roles. One thing that psychologists and psychiatrists have in common is the ability to choose their preferred work environments.

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Both career fields are financially rewarding, intellectually stimulating and helpful towards society. If you’re thinking about entering one of these helping professions, remember that the main differences between psychologists and psychiatrists are the length of time you’ll spend in school and how many treatment options you’ll be able to offer patients.