The terms psychiatrist and psychologist are often conflated due to their similar work in supporting the mental well-being of others—and partially because the names are very similar. However, while these careers have similarities, they’re very different. In addition to their contrasting responsibilities, each profession requires different educational and licensure requirements.
As someone considering a career in the mental health field—but not sure whether to pursue psychology or psychiatry—you first need to understand each career path and how they differ from one another. Here’s an overview of the psychology and psychiatry career paths, and how to navigate these different fields to best meet your professional goals.
What Is a Psychologist?
On the surface, a licensed psychologist is a mental health professional tasked with supporting the mental well-being of their clients. The nuances of the career, however, cover a wide range of responsibilities depending on the avenue of psychology you choose to pursue.
A psychologist’s toolkit consists of therapeutic support, such as individual or group therapy, family therapy, as well as assessments and consultations. The specific therapeutic methods used depend on factors like the client’s individual struggles, the psychologist’s therapeutic goals, or the setting in which the psychologist works.
For example, in some situations, the goal might be to address specific challenges a client is facing such as depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, behavior problems, or a learning disability. The type of service required will depend on each situation.
While psychology encompasses a wide range of career paths in both research and practice, some of the most common careers are in applied psychology. Licensed psychologists earn a degree in one of three areas: school psychology, counseling psychology, or clinical psychology.
- School psychology: School psychologists work primarily with children in school settings. They support students’ academic, social, emotional, and behavioral well-being while assisting teachers in behavior management techniques for the classroom. They provide counseling to children individually and in groups, consult with teachers, parents, and administrators, and conduct assessments to determine if children need special education. School psychologists often take a preventative approach to mental health, such as leading social skills groups or teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) lessons to classrooms of students. School psychologists usually follow the school calendar, giving them more flexibility during school vacations and the summer.
- Counseling psychology: Counseling psychologists run individual, family, or group counseling sessions and work mostly with adolescents and adults. Their goal is to help clients navigate the challenges of day-to-day life and overcome everyday difficulties they’re facing. Many work in outpatient counseling centers, and some operate their own private practice, giving them flexibility over their schedule and clientele.
- Clinical psychology: Clinical psychologists have many overlapping responsibilities of counseling and school psychologists, but generally focus on clients who are struggling with more severe mental disorders. They often work in inpatient and outpatient hospital settings, counseling centers, and private practice.
Regardless of the specialty area, the overall objective is to make a positive difference in clients’ lives, whether through mental health services or research.
What Is a Psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who focuses on the biological factors of mental health. They address mental health issues from a medical perspective, assessing how both mental and physical concerns might contribute to psychological challenges and prescribing medication for treatment.
Psychiatrists’ medical training prepares them to perform multiple lab and psychological tests to diagnose physical and mental health conditions patients may be facing and prescribe medication. Psychiatrists work with people across the lifespan, meaning they work with children, adolescents, adults, and older adults.
A psychiatrist typically uses medications to treat their patients. However, psychiatrists occasionally provide counseling in certain instances. Psychiatrists work in various settings, including hospitals and outpatient settings, including private practice.
Psychiatrist vs. Psychologist
Psychiatrists and psychologists have similar objectives but take different approaches to treatment. Here are five key differences between them.
1. Job Description
Both psychologists and psychiatrists are committed to providing support for people who want to improve their mental health and well-being, but psychologists focus on the psychological and environmental factors that impact well-being. They work with clients to teach coping skills and use other interventions to help them manage stressors, behavioral problems, and other challenges.
Psychiatrists, on the other hand, are trained as medical doctors and take a biological approach to the treatment of mental health disorders. While psychologists can treat clients using therapeutic approaches such as behavioral modification, talk therapy, and mindfulness practice, psychiatrists can take treatment one step further by determining whether medication would help and, if so, prescribing it.
2. Educational Requirements
While scope of practice is a key difference in psychiatry vs. psychology, each career path also requires different levels of education. Both careers require an undergraduate and graduate degree, but each track has distinct differences worth noting.
Psychologists typically need to complete a doctoral degree, which is either a PhD or PsyD. However, school psychologists can practice with either a doctoral degree, an Educational Specialist (EdS), or a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) degree. To earn your PhD or PsyD takes approximately 5–7 years to complete and includes a masters degree along the way. If you choose not to earn a doctoral degree, school psychologists can earn their license to practice with an EdS or CAGS, which takes 3 years to complete in addition to a master’s degree. Since psychiatrists are licensed physicians, their line of work requires more education. They must attend medical school to earn a doctor of medicine degree (MD), and complete a four-year residency.
3. Skills Required
In addition to the necessary training and qualifications, psychiatrists and psychologists need knowledge and skills in a wide range of areas to excel in their respective careers. The primary knowledge and skills found in psychologist job postings are:
- Student services
- Special education
- Mental health
- Individualized education programs (IEP)
- Behavioral health
- Treatment planning
- Clinical psychology
Psychiatrist job postings contain many similar areas of knowledge and skills, but tend to reflect the medical side of mental health treatment. Employers hiring psychiatrists typically look for knowledge and skills in the following areas:
- Mental health
- Behavioral health
- Treatment planning
- Medication administration
- Mental diseases
- Primary care
- Mental status examination
Both psychiatrists and psychologists have the potential to earn high salaries. In most cases the exact amount psychologists can earn largely depends on the amount of education they complete and their specializations. However, a psychologist typically makes between $70,000–$170,000 per year.
On average psychiatrists earn over $200,000 annually, most making between $170,000–$270,000 per year. It’s important to keep in mind that this salary results from extensive medical training, as psychiatrists typically complete 12 years of training in total.
Psychologists work in a variety of settings, depending on their job titles, but most work primarily in offices of health practitioners, run private practices, or work in academia or school settings. School psychologists, for example, work in a public school setting.
Psychiatrists primarily work in a hospital setting, but may also operate private practices, or work in other settings like nursing homes, offices of health practitioners, military settings, hospice programs, and more.
How They Work Together
Psychologists and psychiatrists often work together. Both conduct assessments to diagnose mental health disorders. In terms of treatment, many times people benefit from both counseling and medication. In fact, there are times psychologists will refer clients to psychiatrists if they believe medication may be helpful. Other times, psychiatrists will refer patients to psychologists for psychotherapy, which psychiatrists may not have the time or training to conduct. Or psychologists and psychiatrists will directly consult with each other, particularly if they work on the same treatment team in a hospital setting.
Choosing a Career Path
If you’re trying to decide between a career as a psychologist or psychiatrist, it’s important to thoroughly understand the differences between the two professions. While many of the treatment methods used by each position are similar, there are many distinctions that you should evaluate when selecting a career path. Here are three tips to help you decide which field is right for you.
1. Identify Your Interests
Start by asking important questions about what draws you to each line of work. What interests you about each profession? Are you more interested in the psychological reasons behind decision-making, or the impact that medical conditions have on the brain? Would you prefer to use a psychotherapeutic approach, or would you like the ability to prescribe medication?
Some of these questions may seem too specific, but there are plenty of other ways to identify your interests and how they can be applied to a future career. For example, individuals interested in science like biology and chemistry, who see themselves as a future physician, may lean toward a career in psychiatry. Those who want to provide support to individuals with mental health challenges through talk therapy and interpersonal collaboration, may want to pursue a career in psychology. Finding what interests you about each profession and using that information to guide your ultimate decision is a helpful way to choose the right path.
2. Explore Your Career Goals
Whichever career path you choose, it should align with your personal and professional goals. These can include how much money you’d like to make, or how quickly you’d like to move into the profession. Do you want to work with a specific age group or in a certain setting? Create a list of these career goals and determine which path provides the opportunities to accomplish them.
3. Shadow Professionals in the Field
A great way to immerse yourself in any given field, without the commitment of education and training, is shadowing professionals in your area. Reach out to your local psychologists and psychiatrists and see if they’d be willing to let you shadow them for a week or two. Have conversations with people who are already working in the field to better understand what their job is like and what interests them about it. Alternatively, you can leverage platforms like LinkedIn to connect with psychiatrists and psychologists to ask questions and see what advice they can share with you. You’d be surprised how many people are eager to encourage, and even help, individuals who are just beginning their career journey.
Considering a Career in Psychology?
The amount of education required for many of these career paths may be overwhelming. The good news is that not every psychology career path requires completion of a doctoral or medical degree. If you’re looking for a career providing mental health and learning support services to children and adolescents in school settings that doesn’t require a doctoral degree, you may want to consider school psychology. Accredited school psychology programs like Northeastern University’s Master’s/CAGS in School Psychology provide you with the qualifications to obtain licensure and move directly into the field immediately following graduation, allowing you the opportunity to help people as soon as possible.