While psychologists and psychiatrists both conduct psychotherapy and research, there are significant differences between the two professions.
Education, Training, and Credentials
The simplest answer lies in the educational background required for each profession. A psychiatrist has a degree in medicine and a psychologist has a doctoral-level degree in psychology. However, there are a number of other distinctions that make each profession quite unique.
Psychologists receive graduate training in psychology and pursue either a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) in clinical or counseling psychology.
Doctorate programs typically take five to seven years to complete and most states require an additional one or two-year long internship in order to gain licensure. Other states require another year or two of supervised practice before granting full licensure.
The title of "psychologist" can only be used by an individual who has completed the above education, training, and state licensure requirements.
Informal titles such as "counselor" or "therapist" are often used as well, but other mental health care professionals such as licensed social workers can also claim these titles.
Psychiatrists are physicians that have specific training in the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses.
In order to become a psychiatrist, students first earn an undergraduate degree before they attend medical school and receive an M.D. After finishing their medical training, they also complete an additional four years of residency training in mental health. Some also receive additional training in a specific area of interest such as geriatric psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, addictions, and other areas.
A second important distinction between the two careers is that psychiatrists can prescribe medications, while in most states psychologists cannot. However, there has been a recent push to grant prescribing powers to psychologists. Some states such as New Mexico and Louisiana now grant prescribing privileges to medical psychologists holding a post-doctoral master's degree or equivalent in clinical psychopharmacology.
Which is Better?
If you are considering a career as a therapist, you will need to determine which career path is best for you. Are you interested in conducting psychotherapy, administering psychological tests, and conducting research? If so, a career as a psychologist may be the best choice for you.
On the other hand, if you have an interest in medicine and want to be able to prescribe medications to your patients, a career in psychiatry might be your ideal choice.