A Guide to the Difference Between Psychology and Psychiatry

Psychologists and psychiatrists provide mental health services to people of all ages, but their credentials differ. The differences between psychology and psychiatry come down to education, job training, and scope of practice.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists need a graduate-level education, but whereas psychologists hold a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., psychiatrists must earn a medical degree. Psychologists and psychiatrists may also work together to care for patients and provide therapy, but only psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Psychologists and psychiatrists both use analytical skills to assess mental health; observe patients; and communicate with individuals, their families, and colleagues about care. Differences between the two professions -- along with steps they undergo to prepare for a career -- fall into several categories: years of schooling, degree type, career options, and job duties, to name a few.

Main Differences Between Psychology and Psychiatry

Psychology Psychiatry
Does not prescribe medication Can prescribe medication
Writes a dissertation or master's thesis Participates in a residency
Does not have a medical degree Has a medical degree
Earns state licensure for psychology Earns state licensure for medicine and psychiatry

Both psychologists and psychiatrists talk to their patients about mental health. Psychologists assess issues from a behavioral perspective, working with patients to identify underlying problems, concerns, or patterns that may contribute to their concerns. Psychiatrists work with patients from a biological point of view, addressing problems from a perspective of chemical imbalances and medicinal treatment.

Similarities between psychology and psychiatry extend to diagnostic methods as well. Both psychologists and psychiatrists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but psychiatrists may also use CT scans and other medical tests to diagnose patients.

Psychologist and psychiatrists can specialize in subfields such as forensics, children and adolescents behaviors, and geriatric issues. Psychologists work with patients through counseling, often administering written tests and prescribing tools such as cognitive behavioral and interpersonal therapy. They engage in psychotherapeutic techniques to help patients understand and manage their emotions and feelings.

Psychiatrists talk to patients as well, but they perform physical assessments and conduct medical tests to determine causes of problems such as memory loss, sleep difficulty, and hyperactive behavior. Psychiatrists also work with patients with complex conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Finally, psychiatrists may prescribe medications to combat mental health problems in combination with counseling sessions and other forms of therapy.

Patients can see psychiatrists or psychologists, or they may work with both to get a diagnosis for their mental health issue(s). Psychiatrists provide medical evaluations and often refer patients to psychologists for psychotherapy. Similarly, psychologists work with patients in a counseling setting, but they may refer clients to psychiatrists for medical diagnoses and medication.

In hospitals, psychologists and psychiatrists often cooperate with each other to administer mental health and medical tests to diagnose patients. In outpatient settings, psychologists and psychiatrists also use each others' assessments to guide treatment plans.

While psychologists and psychiatrists may not communicate directly, their goals are the same. Patients do not need a referral to see a psychologist. Working with the former allows for patients to find support from mental health and medical professionals alike.

Looking for Help?

Mentalhealth.gov provides fundamental information about mental health issues along with how to identify problems and ask for help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness website offers content on types of mental illnesses, statistics on mental health, support resources for individuals of all ages and backgrounds, and information on mental health advocacy. Finally, in addition to funding and training opportunities, the National Institute of Mental Health website offers statistics, outreach, and research for mental health professionals and individuals with mental health conditions.

If you have a bachelor's degree in psychology and want to continue studying the discipline, several psychology and psychiatry options exist. A psychology program includes 5-6 years of graduate work that emphasizes research and supervised training in counseling. Psychiatrists generally complete at least eight years of graduate training, first earning a four-year medical degree and then completing a medical residency.