How to Choose Between A Career as a Psychologist or Psychiatrist

Despite their similar names, psychology and psychiatry serve different purposes. Psychology, the study of the mind and behavior, encompasses working with patients in the role of counselor or therapist, with the goal of using psychotherapy to help patients cope with mental illness and trauma. Psychiatry, the study of treating mental illness or abnormal behavior, takes a more clinical, medicinal approach to working with clients dealing with these issues. Psychologists generally work closely with clients to identify and work through personal issues and develop healthy coping mechanisms for emotional problems while psychiatrists focus on identifying medicinal or pharmacologic treatments for mental illness or abnormal behaviors.

Although both of these professions require good people skills and a desire to help others, training for them differs. Typically, both professions require a doctorate; however, students may pursue some careers in counseling with a specialized master's degree. This guide introduces each profession and explains how to begin a career in both fields.

Although psychiatry and psychology share some qualities, each field serves different purposes when it comes to the treatment and diagnosis of mental illness and patient care. A career in psychology would best suit someone interested in talking through a patient's personal issues. A career in psychiatry would best suit someone with an interest in the clinical side of treating mental issues and with an inclination toward the scientific and medical aspects of diagnosis and treatment. Keep reading to learn more about skills and education each career requires.

Skill Sets

Psychiatrists often possess a strong background in medicine and human biology and how each contributes to mental illness and abnormal behaviors. Psychologists generally have stronger skills in communication and an understanding how brain processes can affect a person's emotional wellbeing. The table below outlines common skills for both professions.

Psychologist Skill Set Psychiatrist Skill Set
Focus on treating emotional and mental suffering Focus on medication management
Emphasize supporting people through trauma Have a basic foundation in medicine
Focus on identifying and using psychotherapy to work through problems Focus on identifying and medically treating disorders
Work with individuals and groups Work with patients individually

Education

The academic paths that psychiatrists and psychologists take differ greatly. For example, psychiatry involves a stronger emphasis on medicine, biology, and pharmacology; psychology generally emphasizes psychotherapy and human behavior. The table below outlines requirements for each degree path and highlights similarities and differences.

Psychologist Program Requirements Psychiatrist Program Requirements
Must complete around 2,000 clinical hours in an internship Must complete around 2,000 clinic hours in a residency
May earn Psy.D. or Ph.D. May pursue a medical degree or Ph.D.
Coursework emphasizes human development and behavior Coursework emphasizes medicine and human biology and anatomy
Examine and analyze current research in the field Participate in hands-on labs in pathology and pharmacology
Complete a formal dissertation research project Conduct and present formal scholarship in the field

Patient Care

The ability to prescribe medications marks one of the primary differences between psychiatrists and psychologists. As a result of their extensive medical training, psychiatrists have the authority to write prescriptions to treat patients. When psychiatrists meet with patients, they generally work towards managing dosages of medication, weighing the benefits of trying new dosages or new medications, and monitoring the patient's progress and symptoms while on medication. Unlike with a psychologist, patients generally don't engage in talk therapy with their psychiatrist. These medical doctors take a clinical approach to treating mental illness and abnormal behavior.

Psychologists approach a holistic approach to treating patients. They emphasize the study of human behavior and socioemotional development rather than the biological aspects of behavior. They work with patients in a therapeutic role, acting as counselors to help patients work through difficult issues through methods like talk therapy. Psychologists work with patients to create treatment plans, which may include a referral to a psychiatrist if they feel medication could supplement treatment and further alleviate symptoms. Psychologists also utilize tests used to diagnose patients and understand the breadth of a patient's issues and symptoms.


Generally, both psychologists and psychiatrists can make a comfortable living working in various industries and environments. However, according to data from PayScale, psychiatrists have the potential to earn significantly more than psychologists. Fortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects significant growth in both fields (14% for psychologists and 13% for psychiatrists).

Psychologist

When considering psychology or psychiatry, the day-to-day work of each professional differs greatly. Contrary to popular belief, psychologists do more than sit and listen to clients during talk therapy. While earning their degree, many psychology students participate in research studies concerning human behavior and different types of brain functions. Once licensed and in the field, some psychologists continue working on research committees either in place of or in addition to working with patients individually. Commonly, psychologists work one-on-one or in small groups with clients and patients, using talk and psychotherapy to address, work through, and cope with emotional distress or mental illness.

Psychologists work in all kinds of environments, including private practices, hospitals, and universities. Some even work for large corporations as organizational psychologists, or within government agencies in roles like forensic psychology. Psychologists at universities or schools may work in counseling centers or student health facilities alongside medical doctors. As licensed psychologists must hold a doctorate, some choose to teach in postsecondary institutions as professors in psychology.

According to the BLS, most employed psychologists work in clinical or counseling practices. What a practicing psychologist can earn varies based on geographic location, industry, and experience. California employs the most psychologists and offers the highest mean wage for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists at $108,350, much higher than the national median salary of $79,010. The BLS projects jobs in psychology to grow 14% in the coming years.

Psychiatrist

Psychiatry classifies as a medical science, requiring a medical degree to practice. Those pursuing careers in psychiatry enter medical school after earning a bachelor's degree whereas psychologists pursue a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Psychiatrists go through the same process to earn licensure and certification as other medical doctors, entering a residency following the completion of medical school. Their extensive medical training qualifies psychiatrists to prescribe medications, treating patients for mental disorders and illnesses in a clinical way.

Psychiatrists work daily with patients on an individual basis to identify behavioral issues and disorders and determine the best course of medical treatment. They may also work alongside psychologists to implement appropriate treatment plans that may include psychotherapy in tandem with medication.

Psychiatrists work in hospitals, private practices, psychiatric facilities, and government facilities. Commonly, psychiatrists take a patient's medical history and work in collaboration with their other medical providers to identify ongoing issues, diagnose mental illness and disorders, and create and implement treatment plans without interfering with any other medications or treatments the patient requires.

A psychiatrist's earning potential varies based on location, industry, and experience level. According to the BLS, the majority of psychiatrists work in physicians' offices or private practices, substance abuse and psychiatric facilities, and general hospitals. Hawaii, Connecticut, and Maine offer the highest mean salaries for psychiatrists, with the national median pay averaging around $220,380.

Key differences between psychologists and psychiatrists lie within their training, certifications, and education. To enter either job field, students must pursue education past the bachelor's degree. Often students begin studying psychiatry or psychology in their undergraduate years, pursuing necessary prerequisites for graduate or medical school admissions. Some psychology graduate programs exist for students with bachelor's degrees in other areas; however, for psychiatrists, admission to medical school usually requires specific course prerequisites and an admissions exam.

Psychiatrists must hold a medical degree and a license to practice. After earning a bachelor's, psychiatry students then enter medical school to earn their M.D., followed by a residency period. Residencies last around four years and entail formal practice as a physician under the supervision of licensed psychiatrists and other medical doctors.

During residency, psychiatrists generally complete the designated number of required supervised practice hours as outlined by the state licensing board. Exact requirements for earning licensure through the state board may vary from state to state, so candidates should check with their state board for guidelines. Upon completing residency and meeting licensure requirements, psychiatrists can apply for licensure and begin practice.

Psychologists must meet different requirements in order to earn licensure and practice. Again, after earning a bachelor's, psychology students enter graduate school rather than medical school. Typically, students earn their MS in psychology and then their Psy.D. or Ph.D., but some combined master's and doctoral programs exist to streamline the process.

While in graduate school but following coursework, students sometimes complete required supervised clinical hours and training prior to graduation. Some states require additional postdoctoral supervised clinical hours. Upon meeting degree and licensure requirements set by the state board, students may earn licensure and begin practice in psychology. Most state boards require psychologists to complete continuing education throughout their career to maintain licensure.

Now that you know more about what it takes to become a psychologist and a psychiatrist, you might wonder what careers graduates with these degrees ultimately pursue. Fortunately, both psychologists and psychiatrists qualify for a variety of career paths and work in many industries and environments. The sections below offer further information on careers in psychology.

Careers in Psychology

Psychologists work in all kinds of settings, not just in private practices. Many psychologists go on to work for large organizations as organizational psychologists, and others even work for the federal government as forensic psychologists. Learn more about the exciting and rewarding careers available to psychologists here.

Psychology Programs

Earning your degree in psychology serves as the first step to beginning a career in the field. Choosing the right program means considering factors like on-campus or online formats and available concentrations. Use this page to kickstart your search for the best psychology programs.