Psychologists vs. Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists and psychologists are both doctors in one since of the word. They both have doctoral degrees: the highest level of education in our academic system. But only psychiatrists are medical doctors. Psychologists distinguish themselves as mental health service providers and researchers.

Here is a look at the differences in training and job roles between the two professions.

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Education and Training – Psychiatrist

Psychiatrists attend medical school for four years. They learn the same skills that general practitioners do. They dissect tissue, perform simulated medical procedures, and do clinical rotations in hospital wards. After medical school, they complete a full four years of residency. Only at this point do they specialize in psychiatric medicine. Residency is the stage where psychiatrists begin to draw a small salary – a much lower one than they will eventually command.

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Psychiatrists begin their residency the same way a general practitioner does: with at least a few months spent practicing general medicine; they also get some experience in neurology. In subsequent years, they focus on psychiatric medicine.
Some psychiatrists continue into a fellowship program and do a year or more of work in a sub-specialty. In other words, it may take as many as nine or ten more years after the bachelor’s before a psychiatrist is fully trained.

Education and Training – Psychologist

Psychologists, meanwhile, earn PhDs or PsyD degrees. They study the components of human behavior, from sensation and perception to complex social processes. They learn scientific skills like statistics, research methodology and design, and psychometrics. They may focus on direct or indirect service. Psychologists in applied branches do a one year internship before their degree is conferred. Like doctors, they typically go through a matching process. They sometimes have the option of completing the internship half-time.

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Psychologists typically complete the equivalent of one additional year working under supervision before they achieve full licensure.

Skills and Job Setting

Psychiatrists have the most training in managing the physical aspects of mental illness. They also are best able to judge when psychiatric symptoms may be caused by an underlying physical condition, for example, an autoimmune disorder or hormone imbalance. They may order medical tests. Psychiatrists write prescriptions and monitor patient’s physical health while on medication. In some cases, they even perform other medical treatments.

In most cases, psychologists are prohibited from giving medical care, though they often consult with medical doctors and sometimes offer suggestions. Psychologists are experts at administering assessments like tests of IQ and cognitive function; they often conduct whole batteries of tests. Like other mental health professionals, they may assess emotional status, write treatment plans, and perform psychotherapy. They are more likely to work in educational settings than psychiatrists are. Some give expert testimony and/or determine competence to stand trial.

In rare instances, psychologists do prescribe medication, at least under consultation or with limitations. Two states, New Mexico and Louisiana, allow psychologists who have pursued additional education and training to write prescriptions for psychiatric medications. Military psychologists may also be trained to prescribe medication.
Psychiatrists and psychologists are both allowed to go into private practice, and their duties may overlap; clients are free to choose their favored professional for psychotherapy. Either professional may analyze patient’s problems and talk them through them or perform therapies like biofeedback. Both psychologists and psychiatrists can embark on careers in research.

When they work for managed care and other large organizations, the duties of medical professionals are often compartmentalized – the organization doesn’t want to pay a psychiatrist salary for something another mental health professional could do.

Average Salary per BLS

Psychiatrists make significantly higher salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a mean annual wage of $177,520 in May of 2012. Clinical, school, and counseling psychologists earned $72,220 during that same time period.