For those not too familiar with the field of psychology, the terms psychiatrist and psychologist often get confused. While the professions overlap in many respects – dealing with the study of human behaviors and understanding the mind – their approach to doing so come from different perspectives, and as a result require different qualifications to become a practicing professional.
Here, we compare and contrast the professions, to help you understand which one might be a better career pathway for you to pursue.
To better understand the differences between psychiatrists and psychologists, we can look at what roles and responsibilities trained professionals carry out in their practices.
Importantly, both psychiatrists and psychologists are usually trained to practice psychotherapy – the method of talking with patients about their problems. However, it is their specific training which distinguishes the different approaches they have to resolving their patient’s mental health issues.
One of the primary responsibilities of psychologists is to treat either emotional or mental suffering in a patient through behavioural solutions. This means their interest lies in the behaviour, thoughts, feelings, and motivations that drive our actions. Psychologists will study aspects such as sleeping patterns, eating patterns, and negative thoughts that may be at the root of the mental health issue in the patient. To assess a patients’ mental state, psychologists are qualified to carry out psychological testing to diagnose the most effective treatment methods.
On the other hand, because psychiatrists are trained medical doctors, they have the authority to prescribe medications to their patients, with a focus on how they can be used as an effective course of treatment. Psychiatrists’ educational background means they have a stronger sense of biology and neurochemistry. This means they focus on the physical aspects of what might be causing someone’s increased stress or anxiety – maybe a vitamin or hormone deficiency, for example.
Therefore from this perspective, a psychiatrist is more likely to prescribe a medical solution for dealing with the patients’ issues, whereas the psychologist might refer the patient to treatments such counselling, psychodynamic therapy, family therapy, or art therapy.
As we’ve seen, both professions overlap in many aspects, and ultimately work towards achieving the same goal – in understanding and treating patients’ mental health issues. However, their different approaches for doing so are down to the educational pathway professionals follow to get there.
If you want to pursue a career as a psychologist, your education need most likely begin with a bachelor degree in psychology. After earning either a BA or BSc in the field, you need to go on to complete a master’s degree in the same field, and follow it with a doctorate degree also. During these years students have a chance to specialise in a particular field within psychology, such as cognitive, educational, forensic, behavioural, and clinical psychology to name but a few. With additional training a psychologist may also practice as a psychoanalyst, using the technique psychoanalysis – popularised by psychology titan Sigmund Freud.
To become a psychiatrist, students must start their educational pathway at medical school. This means starting with a bachelor’s in a science-related discipline, and follow it with a postgraduate programme to complete the medical degree. As with all doctors, after graduating with a master’s, the student would then do a four year residency (supervised work experience and practice), in which the training would be in psychiatry.
This work experience would usually take place in a hospital or psychiatric unit, and gives the student a chance to specialise in areas such as child, psychotherapy, forensic, or general psychiatry. Having completed the internship and residency, you’ll then go on to pass an exam in order to become a licensed medical practitioner – with the possibility of an additional exam to achieve the status of licensed physician.
While both routes may sound long and daunting from the starting line, as any professional will attest to, it can be one of the most rewarding and interesting fields to work in, and well worth it when you reach the top!
Both professions offer excellent salaries as specialists in the medical health field. Psychiatrists tend to be able to earn more due to their extensive medical training, but fully trained psychologists also demand significant salaries for their expertise.
Both psychiatrists and psychologists can be found working in hospitals and GP surgeries. Psychiatrists and psychologists often work together when diagnosing and finding a solution for the patient – the psychologist may refer the patient to a psychiatrist who can then prescribe a medication. At the best of times, both professions work alongside each other to treat patient symptoms from both a behavioural and clinical standpoint, for the most effective results.
Which pathway you choose to take depends on your personal career aspirations, but both will see you working towards helping people with mental health issues overcome their difficulties.
BA (Hons) Psychology & Sociology
Explore and study human behaviours at different levels of the social sciences with an interdisciplinary undergraduate programme.