How are Psychologists Different From Psychiatrists?

While the terms psychologist and psychiatrist are sometimes thrown around interchangeably, they are two very distinct professions with many very different features.

One of the biggest differences between the two is that psychiatrists are medical doctors that specialize in providing psychiatric services. Psychologists, on the other hand usually have a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. in psychology (and are therefore called doctors, but are doctors of philosophy or psychology). Although these are terminal degrees that take years to complete, they are not medical degrees.

Of course, there are many other differences as well. Let’s take a look at a few of the primary reasons why psychologists are different from psychiatrists.

Educational Differences

Let’s explore the educational differences between psychologists and psychiatrists a little more in depth.

A psychologist typically follows the pattern of obtaining a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree, and then a doctorate. Usually, the degree at each level is in psychology, although this isn’t always the case.

For example, a psychologist might have an undergraduate degree in social work, a master’s degree in counseling, and a doctorate in psychology.

Whatever the specific degrees, psychologists will usually be in school for about 10-12 years (four years for an undergraduate degree, two to three years for a master’s degree, and four to five years for a doctorate).

A psychiatrist, on the other hand, would spend four years getting an undergraduate degree, four years in medical school, and another four years in psychiatric residency. In many cases, future psychiatrists major in psychology for their undergraduate studies, but other popular choices are more medically-focused, like biology or pre-med.

What Do Psychologists Study?

What psychologists and psychiatrists-in-training study in school also varies.

For example, psychologists-in-training will study the principles of psychology, therapeutic treatments, theories of psychology, and the like. Additionally, they will participate in psychological research and psychology practice in the form of practicum and internship experiences.

As psychologists-in-training advance in their studies, their coursework often becomes more specialized. In graduate school, for example, they might take advanced courses in specific types of treatment, like solution-focused therapy, therapeutic techniques for children, and psychopharmacology.

Likewise, their research and practice opportunities become more and more focused. So, a doctoral candidate in psychology might write their dissertation on the efficacy of play therapy with children that have experienced abuse and spend clinical training time working specifically with children.

What Do Psychiatrists Study?

Psychiatrists-in-training follow a similar pathway. Their undergraduate and medical school educations are far more general, but during residency, they specialize in psychiatry.

Where psychologists-in-training tend to have more academic and classroom learning experiences – even at the doctoral level – psychiatrists-in-training have much more in the way of practical learning experience in the real-world. After all, the residency period of about four years is nothing but getting on-the-job experience in the field.

Obviously, the subject matter that psychiatry students learn during medical school is vastly different from what psychology students learn in their graduate studies. Medical school focuses on general medical principles, so students learn about anatomy and physiology, surgical procedures, drug treatments, ethics, and take part in rotations in different types of medicine, including psychiatry.

So, while both psychologists and psychiatrists will spend around a dozen years in school, there are important differences in what their educational journey looks like.

How Do Psychology and Psychiatry Practice Differ?

Once psychologists and psychiatrists complete their education and enter the workforce, the way they practice might vary greatly.

On the one hand, psychologists tend to approach the treatment of psychological disorders from a holistic perspective. That is, they might engage their clients in individual therapy, behavior modification, and drug therapies (though, most psychologists cannot prescribe medication – more on that in a moment).

On the other hand, psychiatrists tend to approach the treatment of their patients using the medical model. In other words, psychiatrists often use drug treatments as a primary means of helping their patients manage their psychological condition.

Now, this isn’t to say that all psychiatrists do is prescribe medication – far from it. But it tends to be a large part of their focus.

As Medical Doctors, Psychiatrists Can Prescribe Medications

As mentioned earlier, psychiatrists are medical doctors, and as such, they are able to prescribe medications to their patients as part of a therapeutic treatment for a psychological disorder.

Since psychologists are not medical doctors, they typically cannot prescribe medications. However, in some states, psychologists are allowed to prescribe drugs so long as they are supervised by a medical doctor.

Ultimately, both psychologists and psychiatrists are after the same goal – to help people with psychological, emotional, or behavioral problems live a healthier, more stable life. Though their educational backgrounds are different and the treatments they use might not be the same, the services of psychologists and psychiatrists have proven to be invaluable to many people suffering from a psychological issue.

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