Neurologist vs Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference


What is the difference between a neurologist and a psychiatrist? The short answer is neurology takes a tighter focus on the electrical wiring of the brain and ensuring everything is connecting as it should, whereas psychiatry focuses on understanding thoughts and emotions and how patients are feeling and expressing themselves. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

In this post, we break down the differences between each medical specialty and career path, what the day-to-day of both looks like, as well as how to become a neurologist or psychiatrist.


Neurologist vs Psychiatrist: Main Differences

A neurologist is a physician who specializes in the non-surgical management of a variety of central and peripheral nervous system disorders. Their extensive education and training provide them with an intricate understanding of the brain’s structure and function from a neurological lens, empowering them to utilize specialized diagnostic tools to assess and manage neurological disorders. Neurologists diagnose and treat neurological conditions such as headaches, multiple sclerosis, strokes, and epilepsy.

A psychiatrist is also a medical doctor who has received extensive training and education, but they are specialized in the field of psychiatry, focusing on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses and emotional disorders. They employ a comprehensive understanding of psychological and behavioral patterns, offering talk therapy and medication management to address conditions such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other mental and behavioral disorders.

A psychiatrist is like a mind detective. They’re the experts in understanding how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all connect. Think of them as emotional architects, helping build a sturdy mental foundation. A neurologist, on the other hand, is a brain expert. Neurologists are the electricians of the body, making sure all brain signals are firing the right way.

So, while psychiatrists dive deep into thoughts and emotions, neurologists zoom in on the intricate wiring of the brain.

Neurologist vs Psychiatrist Differences

Neurologist Psychiatrist
  • Diagnose and treat neurological conditions, such as headaches, strokes, and epilepsy.
  • Diagnose and treat psychiatric conditions, such as mental illness and emotional disorders.
  • More hands-on work, including interpreting diagnostic tests like MRIs and EEGs.
  • More hands-off work, including interfacing with patients and talk therapy.
  • One of the least competitive medical specialties.
  • One of the least competitive medical specialties.
  • Many neurological disorders are chronic and have few treatment options, which can be draining on physicians.
  • Less demanding hours and fewer emergency calls.


What Is a Neurologist?

Brain figure

Let’s take a closer look at what it means to be a neurologist, including the pros and cons of the specialty.

A neurologist’s work will look different depending on their type of medical practice, but typically, their focus is split between three areas: patient care, diagnosis, and research.

When caring for patients, neurologists conduct thorough examinations, take detailed medical histories, and speak with patients about physical ailments. Neurologists diagnose and treat a wide array of neurological conditions, ranging from headaches and seizures to movement disorders and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS. They carefully analyze symptoms, order and interpret various diagnostic tests, such as MRI scans and EEGs, and develop personalized treatment plans.

Neurologists work closely with other medical professionals to provide patient care, including primary care physicians, neurosurgeons, and specialists in related fields.

Many neurologists are also involved in research. They conduct studies to advance the understanding of neurological disorders, exploring new treatment options, medications, and therapies. Research allows neurologists to contribute significantly to the development of cutting-edge treatments and improve the quality of life for patients with neurological conditions.

Thanks to this research, what were once thought to be incurable diseases now have excellent treatment options. For example, epilepsy treatment has improved greatly thanks to new anti-seizure medications, advances in epilepsy surgery, and implantable devices called vagus nerve stimulators.

What’s Great About Being a Neurologist

Neurology is a challenging but dynamic specialty with a lot of benefits. For one, the majority of neurology work is outpatient, which means it’s less likely neurologists will be expected to work weekends. Neurology also necessitates long-term care with patients, which means there is the unique and fulfilling aspect of building longitudinal relationships with those under their care.

What You Won’t Like About Being a Neurologist

Some drawbacks to being a neurologist include the fact most neurological diseases are chronic, debilitating, and incurable. Because of this, neurologists must be comfortable with palliative and hospice care. There are also fewer procedures in neurology since care is long-term, which puts the compensation on the lower end for physicians. Plus, most neurologists pursue a postdoctoral fellowship, which extends the education requirements by about 5 or 6 years.

Check out our So You Want to Be a Neurologist article and video, which covers the pros and cons of pursuing this specialty, training steps, and how to determine if it’s the right fit for you.


What Is a Psychiatrist?

two people sitting opposite each other - psych meeting

Let’s take a closer look at what it means to be a psychiatrist, including the pros and cons of the specialty.

Similarly to neurologists, a psychiatrist’s workload will vary depending on the type of practice they’re working within, though their focus is generally divided between patient consultation, diagnosis and treatment planning, and therapeutic intervention.

Patient consultation typically involves in-depth discussions with individuals facing mental health challenges. Through these interactions, psychiatrists diagnose mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, by carefully evaluating symptoms and medical history and consulting the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM-V), currently in its fifth iteration.

Once they’ve assessed patients, treatment planning includes a combination of talk therapy and medication prescription, dosage adjustment, and management. Psychiatrists work closely with their patients and their patients’ other medical doctors to define goals, monitor progress, and provide support.

Like neurologists, psychiatrists work closely with other healthcare professionals, including psychologists, social workers, and primary care physicians, which ensures that patients receive holistic support that addresses both their mental and physical health.

What’s Great About Being a Psychiatrist

Psychiatry is a field of medicine that requires a deep level of critical thinking and provides constant challenges, which can be uniquely fulfilling. It’s also a specialty where most of your time can be spent interfacing with patients. The long-term nature of psychiatric care allows for deeper doctor-patient relationships.

It’s a specialty that allows for flexibility with both setting and time since emergency situations or calls in the middle of the night are rare. Psychiatry is also one of the least competitive specialties to get into.

What You Won’t Like About Being a Psychiatrist

On the other hand, there are some things about psychiatry that may be a drawback if you prefer predictable work. Much of our understanding of psychiatry is still developing, so there’s no hard and fast guidebook on how to treat psychiatric patients, and often, the psychiatrist must try several different interventions to find the correct one.

It is also a specialty that usually doesn’t require physical intervention, which can be a drawback for physicians with a preference for hands-on work. Plus, psychiatrists often interact with more difficult populations, such as people with addiction issues, personality disorders, or those with severe mental illnesses.

To learn more, check out our So You Want to Be a Psychiatrist article and video, which covers the pros and cons of pursuing this specialty, training steps, and how to determine if it’s the right fit for you.


How to Become a Neurologist or Psychiatrist

Both psychiatrists and neurologists require a medical degree, so much of the education requirements are the same. For both, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree at an accredited institution, excel on the MCAT, and attend both medical school and residency.

Medical school typically takes 4 years, the last two of which are clinical rotations. During these rotation years, you can experience both neurology and psychiatry, as they are both core clerkships.

Learn how to succeed in your neurology clerkship and psychiatry clerkship with our guides that cover what to expect, knowledge and skills that will help you succeed, and key resources.

Once medical school is complete, the training paths of neurologists and psychiatrists diverge. Neurologists must spend 4 years in a neurology residency program, followed by a 1-2 year fellowship if they choose to subspecialize.

Psychiatry requires 4 years of a psych residency program, followed by a 1 year fellowship, if they choose to further subspecialize. Child psychiatry only takes 3 years of residency, but fellowship programs are 2 years.

It’s much more common for neurologists to pursue fellowships after residency than psychiatrists.

Once educational requirements have been met, both psychiatrists and neurologists must pass the licensure requirements for both national accreditation and state-specific accreditation before being able to practice.


How to Choose the Best Path for You

Deciding between becoming a neurologist or psychiatrist depends entirely on the type of work that appeals most to you.

If you’re more suited to work that relies on established data and has more measurable results, neurology is a specialty that supports this. If you prefer abstract problem-solving and a constantly changing slate of unique, individualized cases, psychiatry may be for you.

Both fields lend themselves to longitudinal patient-physician relationships, deal with the complex science of the human mind, and are rapidly developing with new research and discoveries.

Not sure which path to choose? Med School Insiders offers one-on-one advising with physicians who have already walked in your shoes. We’ll help you choose the ideal path for you and we’ll help you craft a stand out medical school application that will get you noticed by your top choice schools.

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