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Psychology vs Psychiatry: Do You Know the Difference?

Psychologist vs psychiatrist. Learn which psychology career path is right for you.

female psychiatrist listens to distressed male patient

Because psychologists and psychiatrists often work together for the well-being of the client, their job descriptions may be mistakenly and interchangeably used by people.

However, there are several crucial differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, one being the nature of treatment within the two professions, and another, the education that must be completed to practice for each.

The main difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist

The main difference lies in their qualifications and medical authority. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication, while psychologists hold doctorate degrees but are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication. Psychiatrists often focus on medication management for mental health conditions, while psychologists primarily provide therapy and counseling services. Psychologists and therapists may refer patients to a psychiatrist for their medication management, and the two professionals will confer on the patient’s progress.

First, the definition and scope of psychology

There are many different types of psychologists, but roles under the psychologist umbrella generally fall into one of two categories: research psychologists or clinical and counseling psychologists.

Psychologists usually fall into two categories: those who work with patients and those who do research.

Research psychologists

Research psychologists use scientific and quantifiable data and methods to posit psychological theories, conduct research, interpret data and generate new insights and therapies in the field. Examples of research psychologists, who may also be practitioners, may include:

Clinical and counseling psychologists

Counseling and clinical psychologists work directly with patients to identify emotional, behavioral or mental concerns and develop treatment plans that address each client’s individual needs. Psychologists then work—either in set sessions or in a clinical or institutional capacity—with the patients to enact the treatment plan and help them work through issues that have prohibited them from progressing in their lives.

Psychologists who work with people may also work in schools as school psychologists or with police and law enforcement as forensic psychologists. Some choose to focus on workplace environments and help to make the workplace more productive and healthier as organizational psychologists.

Other examples of clinical psychologists include:

Depending on the exact role, psychologists might work in clinics, hospitals, private practices, universities, secondary or elementary schools, public or private organizations, prisons, rehab facilities, research laboratories or other settings.

Psychological theories and approaches

Practicing psychologists generally use four evidence-based therapies to treat patients. These therapies generally fall under the following categories:

In cognitive therapy, the psychologist helps patients change their thought process, which changes how they feel and thus changes their behavior.
Behavioral therapy studies encompass how people form normal and abnormal behaviors and how they may be de-sensitized to extreme phobias or irrational behavior through repetitive exposure, thus de-sensitizing them to the hold the phobia has upon them.
Existential and Gestalt therapists fall under this category, which strives to help patients make positive choices that will enable them to reach the highest level of functionality and consequently, potential.
This therapy meshes all the other therapies and allows the practitioner to customize treatment for the patient based upon their specific needs. Therapy may also include other treatments such as acupuncture, hypnotherapy or hypnosis, or other holistic therapies.

Next, the definition and scope of psychiatry

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who go through medical school, a residency and the usual educational requirements any medical doctor does. They may choose to become board certified.

They may also specialize in an area and have a private practice or work in settings such as hospitals, research, mental health facilities, military hospitals and in administrative roles or as an administrator in a mental health facility.

Some of the areas of specialty they may choose to focus on are:

  • In-patient care psychiatry
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Military psychiatry
  • Administrative psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry

They may also work for law enforcement to help struggling police officers, testify in court or as forensic psychiatrists.

Psychiatry treatments and approaches

Psychiatrists may use several modes of treatment says the Cleveland Clinic, including the following:

This is the most known and common form of therapy, also called “talk therapy.”
Medication therapy:
Involves prescribing medications to help mood disorders, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), schizophrenia and other debilitating disorders where a patient cannot sustain without help.
More extreme treatments:
These would involve such therapies as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or TMS, which are usually for patients suffering from severe depression or bipolar disporder and do not respond to other treatments.

Some therapies are used together with others. For example, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication for a patient and also have regular psychotherapy sessions every week.

Education paths: psychologist vs psychiatrist

Psychologist education and qualifications

Besides the ability to prescribe medication, the professions of psychiatry and psychology mostly differ in terms of education.

Psychologists must obtain a PhD or PsyD, which are doctoral-level degrees, which can take up to four or six years after earning a bachelor’s in a related field and then a master’s in psychology or a related area. Throughout their education, students study human development, the genesis of psychological problems and the process of psychological research.

Graduate school offers more specialized education for a career in psychology by teaching students how to diagnose disorders in different situations, and this is the time the student will likely choose their area of specialty, such as behavioral psychology, child psychology or addiction psychology.

After graduate school, psychology students are required to complete an internship that can last one to two years. The internships give them supervised hands-on training in these types of subjects:

  • Methods of treatment
  • Analytical testing
  • Problem-solving techniques
  • Psychological theory
  • Behavioral therapy

After they complete their internship, psychologists must be licensed to practice in their state. Most states require one to two years of clinical or practical work experience supervised by an established mental health professional. Psychologists must earn continuing education units to renew their state license—usually every two to four years—throughout their careers, but each state has different requirements.

Psychiatrist education and qualifications

The road to becoming a psychiatrist is also rigorous—and also much longer. Generally, psychiatry students must first earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology, or in many cases, pre-med coursework. Once they complete their bachelor’s they can apply to medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD). According to the American Psychiatric Association, in the first two years of medical school, students will take courses in the following subjects:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology
  • Behavioral science
  • Neuroscience

In the last two years of medical school, students are assigned to a medical clerkship (which is different than an internship, which occurs after medical school) where they study and work with physicians in rotational medical specialties, including psychiatry. Medical students doing rotations through their psychiatry clerkship may take care of patients with mental health problems in hospital and in outpatient settings. They may also work with medical and surgical patients who have mental health problems or related issues due to their illnesses.

Once they complete medical school, they complete a four-year residency in psychiatry. In a residency, psychiatrists provide hands-on care and actually diagnose and treat mentally ill patients. The first year of residency is basically an internship, where the student is referred to as an “intern” and will work under the supervision of practicing and established doctors. In the final years of residency, the student is referred to as a “resident” and is a practicing doctor-in-training.

Once a residency is successfully completed, the psychiatrist must become licensed to practice medicine in their state. This requires passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which assesses the ability to “apply knowledge, concepts and principles, and to demonstrate fundamental patient-centered skills. These skills constitute the basis of safe and effective patient care.” Upon passing, the psychiatrist may practice, and could choose to become board certified through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) by passing an intensive written and oral exam.

Like psychologists, psychiatrists must complete a set number of continuing education units every two to four years, or whatever is required in their state, to maintain their license.

Salaries for psychologists and psychiatrists

A third major difference between the two professions is salary. There are many variables in wages for these two professions, as much of their earning potential depends on where they work and if they are in private practice, how much they work. However, due to the education requirements to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, the disparity in pay is significant. That said, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics supplies the following salary and employment data for the two fields.

Clinical and counseling psychology median annual salaries

Clinical and Counseling Psychologists

National data

Median Salary: $90,130

Projected job growth: 11.4%

10th Percentile: $42,760

25th Percentile: $62,070

75th Percentile: $126,240

90th Percentile: $168,790

Projected job growth: 11.4%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $59,610 $19,330 $151,770
Alaska $99,400 $76,950 $132,200
Arizona $82,210 $51,490 $140,050
Arkansas $64,160 $48,760 N/A
California $120,520 $63,330 $172,750
Colorado $80,270 $52,540 $142,650
Connecticut $102,000 $63,270 $162,770
Delaware N/A N/A N/A
District of Columbia $78,230 $45,180 $220,220
Florida $75,990 $37,370 $173,420
Georgia $65,150 $32,600 $129,090
Hawaii $101,980 $53,250 $123,220
Idaho $64,720 $42,550 $165,060
Illinois $79,140 $30,280 $178,550
Indiana $69,990 $40,280 $135,060
Iowa $84,490 $51,090 $140,960
Kansas $66,720 $29,140 $149,050
Kentucky $93,000 $36,210 $171,990
Louisiana N/A N/A N/A
Maine $85,940 $52,260 $183,040
Maryland $105,440 $61,250 $180,840
Massachusetts $99,150 $40,030 $157,110
Michigan $74,770 $40,000 $129,520
Minnesota $100,510 $50,050 $174,510
Mississippi $67,040 $32,940 $151,370
Missouri $70,530 $28,990 $127,510
Montana $81,200 $56,340 $120,030
Nebraska $83,990 $35,980 $129,730
Nevada $87,770 $55,350 $156,640
New Hampshire $72,790 $30,970 $128,680
New Jersey $145,810 $84,990 N/A
New Mexico $84,150 $53,250 $171,850
New York $104,180 $50,700 $221,170
North Carolina $80,260 $53,710 $149,780
North Dakota $102,430 $62,260 $193,490
Ohio $96,410 $41,760 $165,480
Oklahoma $66,560 $30,400 $122,510
Oregon $126,940 $72,120 $230,490
Pennsylvania $68,800 $39,550 $106,520
Rhode Island $104,950 $52,610 $214,980
South Carolina $84,460 $26,050 $125,440
South Dakota $80,610 $55,660 $116,940
Tennessee $101,960 $51,040 $165,890
Texas $80,370 $36,010 $138,710
Utah $82,280 $42,760 $163,580
Vermont $75,570 $46,390 $202,180
Virginia $84,440 $49,330 $163,220
Washington $105,370 $63,910 $135,430
West Virginia $61,010 $37,080 $105,510
Wisconsin $95,320 $61,530 $162,470
Wyoming $60,840 $23,780 $135,560

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

The BLS cites the following cites as having the highest levels of employment for clinical and counseling psychologists:

Metropolitan Areas Employment
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 4,650
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 4,420
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 2,640
Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH 2,170
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 1,570

Industries that employ the most clinical and counseling psychologists include:

IndustryMedian annual salary
Offices of health practitioners$111,750
Outpatient care centers$106,410
Physicians’ offices$108,440
Individual and family service agencies$91,510
Medical and surgical hospitals$98,550

Psychiatry median annual salaries


National data

Median Salary: $226,880

Projected job growth: 6.7%

10th Percentile: $66,230

25th Percentile: $138,890

75th Percentile: N/A

90th Percentile: N/A

Projected job growth: 6.7%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $109,180 $71,310 N/A
Alaska $120,120 $62,700 N/A
Arizona $235,970 $78,770 N/A
Arkansas $140,870 $52,950 N/A
California N/A $148,580 N/A
Colorado N/A $136,460 N/A
Connecticut N/A $74,640 N/A
Delaware $214,280 $56,330 N/A
District of Columbia $67,170 $39,860 N/A
Florida $200,490 $53,540 N/A
Georgia $200,230 $90,290 N/A
Hawaii $71,100 $22,350 N/A
Illinois $216,380 $50,450 N/A
Indiana N/A $169,030 N/A
Iowa N/A $65,480 N/A
Kansas N/A $22,770 N/A
Kentucky N/A $85,430 N/A
Louisiana $214,990 $53,920 N/A
Maine N/A $204,620 N/A
Maryland N/A $84,880 N/A
Massachusetts $211,330 $67,500 N/A
Michigan N/A $65,460 N/A
Minnesota N/A $130,560 N/A
Mississippi $218,370 $49,880 N/A
Missouri N/A $192,330 N/A
Montana N/A $75,910 N/A
Nebraska $199,600 $74,570 N/A
Nevada N/A N/A N/A
New Hampshire $221,980 $155,370 N/A
New Jersey N/A $144,490 N/A
New Mexico N/A N/A N/A
New York $209,190 $77,490 N/A
North Carolina N/A N/A N/A
North Dakota N/A $60,550 N/A
Ohio $231,220 $70,070 N/A
Oklahoma $212,360 $147,480 N/A
Oregon N/A $163,780 N/A
Pennsylvania N/A $74,090 N/A
Rhode Island $226,220 $95,580 N/A
South Carolina $185,760 $88,010 N/A
South Dakota $196,210 $115,140 N/A
Tennessee N/A N/A N/A
Texas $216,790 $62,980 N/A
Utah $212,840 $62,380 N/A
Vermont $205,990 $139,660 N/A
Virginia N/A $106,120 N/A
Washington $215,730 $65,010 N/A
West Virginia $59,550 $59,550 N/A
Wisconsin N/A $101,870 N/A
Wyoming N/A N/A N/A

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

The BLS cites the following cites as having the highest levels of employment for psychiatrists:

Metropolitan Areas Employment
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 3,850
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 2,260
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 1,100
Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH 730
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 720

Industries that employ the most psychiatrists include:

IndustryMedian annual salary
Physicians’ offices$273,440
Medical and surgical hospitals$207,600
Outpatient care centers$276,570
Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals$253,000
State government agencies$231,510

Psychology vs psychiatry in practice

After seeing a primary physician for a referral, a patient might work regularly with a psychologist to address behavioral patterns and problems. That psychologist may then refer the patient to a psychiatrist if they believe that medication can help, and then the psychiatrist can prescribe and monitor their medication intake.

The psychologist and psychiatrist work in tandem to treat patient symptoms from both a behavioral and clinical standpoint. The relationship between psychologist, psychiatrist and patient may be short-term or can last years depending upon the severity of the patient’s issues and responsiveness to treatment. In some cases, a psychiatrist may refer the patient to another psychiatrist if a patient is non-compliant to treatment.

The fields of psychology and psychiatry are both essential in researching and developing treatments for improving mental and emotional health. Whether the focus is psychological research, academia, administration or patient-facing practice, psychologists and psychiatrists share a common goal: helping people feel better and making research strides in their field for the long-term benefit of others.

Updated: July 10, 2023