Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Career Path Differences


There are many different areas of specialization and focus in the mental health profession. But how do you determine which direction to go in? One of the most frequently asked questions for those interested in the mental health field is what is the difference between a psychologist vs. psychiatrist?

In this post, we break down the differences between each profession, what a day in the life of both looks like, as well as how to become either a psychologist or a psychiatrist.


Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Main Differences

The chief difference between psychiatrists and psychologists is psychiatrists are medical doctors while psychologists are not.

A psychiatrist’s responsibilities center around diagnosing illnesses related to the mind. They can prescribe and manage medication for patients and manage treatments for a wide range of mental health-related illnesses and issues. Psychiatrists typically focus more on the neurobiology aspect of mental health, which is why their approach is more medication-focused.

Since psychiatrists are medical doctors, they are required to complete four years of medical school and four years of residency on top of four years of undergrad before earning their license to practice professionally. Some may also choose to further specialize with a fellowship in interventional psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, and many more, which adds on another year or two of training.

Psychologists, on the other hand, study the human mind from a conceptual and theoretical lens. They tend to focus on talk therapy as a treatment method for mental illness. Psychologists usually have doctorate-level degrees in a psychology-related field, but they do not attend medical school, and they are not required to complete internships unless they are also practicing clinicians.

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist Differences

Psychologist Psychiatrist
  • Doctorate-level professional, specializing in mental health
  • 8-12 years of training and education
  • Work in all sorts of environments, including medical
  • Salary approx $90,000
  • Medical doctor, specializing in mental health
  • 12 years of education and training at minimum
  • Work in primarily medical environments
  • Salary approx $280,000


What Is a Psychologist? Job Duties and Day-to-Day

two people sitting opposite each other - psych meeting

Psychologists are experts in the study of mental health and behaviors. They are highly educated professionals who have a strong understanding of the psychological aspect of mental illness. They treat mental illness and behavioral issues using techniques like talk therapy and clinical skills.

In this context, ‘clinical’ does not mean medical. Clinical psychologists instead focus on the psychopathology of clients, which is the study of mental health conditions and illnesses. They treat these using a mixture of theory-based intervention and talk therapy.

Much of a psychologist’s day centers around speaking with clients to either assess conditions or administer talk therapy. Psychologists are also qualified to diagnose individuals with mental health conditions as outlined in the DSM-5, which is the primary guide for mental health diagnoses and illnesses in the United States.

Psychologists can work in a wide variety of environments. While many go into private practice, there are many routes a psychologist can take. They include:

  • Private practice
  • Consultancy firms
  • Corporations
  • Healthcare settings (hospitals, rehabilitation centers, clinics)
  • Universities
  • Research facilities
  • Schools
  • Community centers
  • Law enforcement
  • Government agencies


How to Become a Psychologist

Becoming a psychologist can take anywhere from 8-12 years, depending on how long it takes you to earn your Bachelor’s degree and doctorate. Some programs will combine Master’s and doctorate degrees so that you can truncate your educational requirements to obtain a psychology degree. There are two types of degrees that denote a psychologist: A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).

After you complete your doctoral degree, you must complete an internship. The requirements for these vary on a state-by-state basis, but most require you to work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist for between 1500-2000 hours in your specialized field.

Once you’ve completed your internship, you’ll have to obtain your license. This will require you to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, which is administered by the governing board of psychology, the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).

Once you’ve earned your license, you can begin to practice professionally.


What Is a Psychiatrist? Job Duties and Day-to-Day

"Neurologic" book on table with coffee

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the study of mental health and mental illness through a lens that combines the emotional and intangible with the neurobiological. They have a medical and theoretical-based understanding of mental health and treat patients using medication management, medical and psychological testing, and talk therapy.

The day-to-day duties of a psychiatrist depend heavily on their work environment. A day in the life of a psychiatrist in a medical setting, such as a hospital or treatment facility, may consist of making rounds, visiting patients, and assessing and administering relevant care on a rotating basis. A day in the life of a psychiatrist in private practice will primarily consist of seeing clients for talk therapy sessions and handling medication management.

Regardless of the setting they practice in, all psychiatrists assess, treat, and manage mental illness through psychotherapeutic methods and medically-based intervention.

Like psychologists, psychiatrists are qualified to diagnose patients with mental illness, and as they are also medical doctors, they can make diagnoses beyond the scope of the DSM-5 as well.

Psychiatrists work in many environments, including:

  • Private practice
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Universities
  • Prisons
  • Emergency rooms
  • Hospice programs
  • Law enforcement
  • Military settings
  • Elderly care
  • Community centers
  • Research facilities


How to Become a Psychiatrist

To become a psychiatrist, you must first attend medical school and become a medical doctor.

Becoming a psychiatrist will take 12 or more years, as it requires 4 years of undergraduate studies, 4 years of medical school, and 4 years of residency.

The steps toward becoming a psychiatrist are straightforward but extremely demanding. After you complete a Bachelor’s degree, you must take the MCAT, a behemoth 7.5 hour test, and apply to medical school. Getting accepted to medical school is no mean feat.

During the 2022 application cycle, 55,188 people applied to medical school, but only 22,712 applicants (41%) successfully matriculated.

If you are accepted, you’re in for four of the most challenging years of your life. Studying during the first year of medical school is often described as drinking from a fire hydrant, as the amount of information you’re supposed to not only comprehend but memorize is staggering. First year is a radical adjustment, and you won’t only be learning about psychiatry; you’ll be learning about the entire human body.

The first two years of medical school are considered your pre-clinical years since you’ll spend most of your time in class attending lectures or studying. Your second year will conclude with USMLE Step 1, an 8-hour test and the first of three you’ll take throughout medical school and residency.

Third year will mark the beginning of your clinical years, which continue into fourth year. This is when medical students leave the classroom to practice hands-on training in the hospital or clinic. Every medical student is required to take a series of core rotations before graduating, such as internal medicine, family medicine, general surgery, neurology, pediatrics, OB/GYN, and psychiatry—where you will take care of patients with mental health concerns in the hospital as well as outpatient settings.

So while you may have the ultimate goal of specializing in psychiatry, you will still need to complete rotations in several other fields of medicine. Talk therapy is quite a bit different than surgery, and you will need to learn the ins and outs of both in order to excel in medical school.

Learn more about the Medical School Timeline (All 4 Years Explained).

After medical school comes residency, where you will practice psychiatry under the supervision of an attending physician in a hospital or clinic for four years.

The first year of residency is present training in a hospital and taking care of patients with a wide variety of medical illnesses and issues. The final three or more years of psychiatry residency are spent developing valuable skills in several forms of psychotherapy and learning about the diagnosis and treatment of mental health, including how to utilize and manage psychiatric medications*.*

Once your four years of residency are complete, you must become board certified with the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to practice psychiatry, which could require additional hours or certifications, depending on your state.

Training to become a psychiatrist requires a major investment of time as well as money, as many students graduate medical school with over $250,000 of debt.


How to Choose the Best Path for You

In short, both psychologists and psychiatrists are highly respectable, incredibly fulfilling careers. However, there are some distinct differences that may make it easier to choose the path that’s right for you.

Psychologists tend to work with patients in a theoretical, psychotherapeutic sense, relying on theory and talk therapy to diagnose and treat mental illness.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, approach mental illness with a medical understanding of mental health and are able to treat clients using a combination of medication management and medical-based interventions, as well as talk therapy.

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 if you choose to pursue medical school, we’ll help you craft a stand out medical school application that will get you noticed by the schools you’re most excited to attend.

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