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It’s pretty common to hear the terms “psychiatrist” and “psychologist” used interchangeably; many don’t understand the differences between the two careers. Understandably, too — psychologists and psychiatrists oftentimes work together for the benefit of patients, so a lot of overlap exists. It’s important to understand, though, that there are critical differences between the two professions, the primary difference being the nature of the treatment each can provide.
Psychiatrists are physicians who have earned a medical degree and are board-certified in psychiatry. They are able to diagnose mental illnesses and write prescriptions for medications. Because of this, one big part of their job is to manage their patients’ medications for the duration of treatment. Psychologists, on the other hand, rely heavily on talk therapy or “psychotherapy” as a means to alleviate symptoms. In addition to counseling, a psychologist is qualified to run tests to evaluate the mental state of clients and make decisions about treatment.
Patients who need mental and emotional help oftentimes take the following course of action: They get a referral from their primary care provider to see a psychologist for evaluation. From there, the psychologist may refer the patient to a psychiatrist who can prescribe and monitor medication. At that point, the psychiatrist and the psychologist work together to treat the client from a dual perspective: clinical and behavioral.
When it comes to the amount of education required to become a psychologist versus a psychiatrist, a major difference is medical school. Psychiatrists must graduate from medical school and then complete a psychiatric residency. During residency, students of psychiatry are exposed to children, adolescents and adults with varying degrees of mental illness. Residency provides real-world experience that teaches future psychiatrists how to treat patients of all kinds.
Psychologists, on the other hand, must earn a master’s or doctoral degree after graduating with an undergraduate degree (often in psychology). The level of education required depends upon the position. Graduate studies typically take four to six years and delves into the science of diagnosing mental and emotional disorders for patients of all ages.
Psychologists must complete an internship. Internships are invaluable in that they provide hands-on experience in treatment methods, psychological theory, testing methodology and problem solving. To become a licensed psychologist, most states require one to two years of supervised experience.
While an undergraduate degree in psychology provides an ideal background of knowledge, additional study and qualifications are required for psychologist and psychiatrist careers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual wage for psychologists is $72,580. The projected growth of this job is 19 percent by 2024, especially bright compared to the average for all occupations. Psychologists who specialize and have a doctoral degree will have the best opportunities.
Despite differences in day-to-day responsibilities, required education and salary, the core goal of both psychiatrists and psychologists is to help people get better; this common denominator makes both career paths very attractive for many.