Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: Understanding the difference

September 9, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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A lot of people use the terms ‘psychologist’ and ‘psychiatrist’ interchangeably. It’s not surprising as both of these professionals work towards the well-being of their clients and their job descriptions are almost similar. However, despite the fact that their job descriptions overlap in certain aspects, there are a several pivotal differences between these two professions, the most significant difference being the nature of the treatment. For anyone who is considering a career in this field, it is important to understand the differences between psychiatry and psychology in order to make the right decision.

Gap Medics students during their hospital placement Differences in treatment

Psychologists focus extensively on psychotherapy and on treating mental and emotional suffering in patients using behavioural intervention techniques. They are qualified to conduct psychological testing, which is often required to evaluate a person’s mental state so as to determine the most effective course of treatment.

Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who specialise in afflictions of the mind. Because they are qualified physicians, they can prescribe medications and use medication management as one of the treatment courses.

Differences in education

In terms of education, there is a vast difference between these two professions.

To practice as a psychologist you need to obtain a PhD or a PsyD doctoral degree. This can take from about four to six years. During the course of your education, you would focus on studying personality development, the science of psychological research and the history of psychological problems. Graduate schools provide extensive preparation for a career in psychology by teaching students to diagnose mental and emotional disorders in varying situations. Upon graduating, psychology students are required to complete an internship that can last one to two years. The internships give them exposure to behavioural therapy, psychological theory, analytical testing, problem solving techniques and methods of treatment. Licensure to practice requires another one to two years practical work experience that is done under the supervision of an authorised mental health professional.

Psychiatrists attend medical school and are trained in general medicine. After graduating from med school and obtaining an MD, they must complete four years of residency training in psychiatry. During this time, clinical experience is typically obtained through working in the psychiatric unit of a hospital with several different types of patients, from children and adolescents with behaviour disorders to adults with severe cases of mental illness.

Differences in practice

Most patients come to consult with a psychologist after referral by their primary physician. Psychologists work regularly with a particular patient, helping them address their behavioural patterns. If necessary, the psychologist may refer the patient to a psychiatrist to prescribe medication and monitor the progress of the patient. Psychologists and psychiatrists work together to treat patients’ symptoms from both a behavioural and a clinical perspective.