What Is the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

Psychiatrist leading a therapy session

A psychiatrist works in a specialized branch of medicine that focuses on diagnosing, treating and preventing behavioral, mental and emotional disorders. If you’re passionate about helping others with mental health issues, you might consider pursuing this line of work. You can get started on your career research here, where you’ll find answers to common questions such as, What is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist? and How long does it take to become a psychiatrist? You’ll also explore the process of how to become a psychiatrist.

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Psychiatry vs. Psychology

The terms “psychiatry” and “psychology” are often used interchangeably, but they are quite different. A psychiatrist is a physician who has a medical degree, whereas a psychologist is a non-physician professional who has completed a doctoral degree, rather than medical school.

Psychiatrists work with patients, whereas psychologists work with clients. And while a psychiatrist can prescribe medications, psychologists usually cannot.

What Do Psychiatrists Do?

Psychiatrists evaluate patients, discussing their medical histories and symptoms, and sometimes order lab tests or other assessments. They will consider the possibility that the patient is experiencing symptoms related to a physical health problem.

Once a diagnosis is made, a psychiatrist may prescribe medication and recommend other treatments, such as light therapy  and talk therapy. They might also refer the patient to another professional, such as a psychologist.

Psychiatrists often work with patients who have behavioral or mental health conditions that may benefit from medication, such as the following:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety and depressive disorders

Can Psychiatrists Choose a Specialization?

It’s indeed possible for a psychiatrist to pursue further training in a subspecialty area. For example, a psychiatrist may choose to specialize in areas such as the following:

  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Public health

How Long Does It Take To Become a Psychiatrist?

It takes a great deal of schooling to become a psychiatrist. After high school, aspiring psychiatrists must earn a bachelor’s degree, which may take about four years. This is followed by approximately four years of medical school and then a four-year residency program. Some psychiatrists also complete fellowship programs for additional training.1

How To Become a Psychiatrist

As previously mentioned, the process of how to become a psychiatrist is typically a lengthy one, requiring a great deal of academic instruction and hands-on training. Take a closer look at the process below.

What Are Ideal Majors for a Psychiatrist Career?

There are no universally required majors for a psychiatrist career. Some students may start by majoring in psychology, while others may major in a pre-medicine program

Although there is flexibility regarding your choice of degree, it’s necessary to take plenty of science and mathematics courses. This is why a pre-med program is a good choice. If you choose to major in pre-med, consider minoring in psychology

Before choosing an undergraduate degree program, it’s a good idea to take a look at your options for medical school. Examine the entrance requirements for a few different medical schools, and then ensure that the degree program you choose will allow you to meet those requirements.

How Can You Get Into Medical School?

Each medical school has its own entrance requirements. In general, however, you can expect to need a passing score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This rigorous, lengthy exam covers a wide range of topics, including biology, chemistry, biochemistry and psychology, as well as general critical analysis and reasoning skills.1

Which Medical School Track Should Future Psychiatrists Choose?

When you are accepted into medical school, you can choose one of two tracks. You could earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. The difference between these tracks is that a DO takes a holistic view to diagnostics and treatment, whereas an MD focuses on using medications to treat symptoms and their underlying causes.

Do Psychiatrists Need to Complete a Residency?

Yes, an aspiring psychiatrist does need to complete a four-year residency program.2 During the last two years of medical school, students can expect hands-on training at teaching hospitals and similar facilities. A residency is like an extension of this training.  

Residents work in hospitals and clinics, where they diagnose, treat and monitor patients experiencing a broad range of challenges. Since you aspire to become a psychiatrist, you’ll choose a psychiatric residency program. Expect to work under the guidance of licensed psychiatrists.

After completing a four-year residency, some psychiatrists will go on to complete fellowship programs. A fellowship involves additional, in-depth training in a subspecialty.2 For example, a psychiatrist may complete a fellowship in any of the following subfields:

  • Addiction psychiatry
  • Geriatric psychiatry
  • Pediatric psychiatry
  • Neuropsychiatry

Do Psychiatrists Need a Medical License?

All psychiatrists need a medical license in order to practice.2 The specific licensure requirements can vary by state. An MD will take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), and DOs will take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).3

In addition to earning a medical license, you may choose to earn a certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN). Some professionals may choose to earn additional certifications in subspecialties in order to enhance their credentials.2

Potential Career Paths for Aspiring Psychiatrists

If you choose to become a psychiatrist, you may have the option of pursuing one of the following career paths:

  • Rehabilitation psychiatry: Help clients with mental or physical disabilities adjust to their diagnoses and navigate daily life
  • Emergency psychiatry: Provide psychiatric crisis intervention to patients experiencing mental health emergencies
  • Addiction psychiatry: Work with patients who are recovering from substance use disorders and addiction disorders
  • Inpatient care psychiatry: Diagnose, develop treatment plans and treat patients who have been admitted to inpatient care settings
  • Psychiatric research: Add to the body of knowledge in the field by designing and conducting psychiatric research studies

From private clinics to hospitals to academic health centers and beyond, psychiatrists may pursue work across a number of settings.4

Are Psychiatrists Needed?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is responsible for tracking employment data and projected employment demands in the U.S. The BLS doesn’t offer statistics for psychiatrists alone, but rather it categorizes them together with all types of physicians and surgeons.

According to the BLS, the job growth rate for all physicians and surgeons is expected to be 3% from 2022 through 2032, as fast as average. At this rate of job growth, employers expect to hire about 24,600 new professionals through this time period.5

At Grand Canyon University, aspiring psychiatrists can begin their academic journey by choosing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree program. The curriculum features courses that are aligned with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) degree objectives. You may also choose to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine. Fill out the form on this page to begin your academic journey at GCU. 

1 Kaplan. (n.d.). What Is The MCAT? Retrieved Nov. 8, 2023.

2 Monteiro, I. (2023, March 3). How to become a psychiatrist (with salary, skills and FAQs). Indeed. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2023. 

3 Murphy, B. (2018, Nov. 14). DO and MD licensing exams should be viewed equally, says AMA. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2023. 

4 American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). What is psychiatry? Retrieved Oct. 24, 2023. 

5 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 to 2022 may be atypical compared to prior years. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2023, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physicians and Surgeons, retrieved in Oct. 2023. 

Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Nov. 17, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.