Psychiatrists and psychologists – what’s the difference?

Have you ever found yourself wanting to nurture the growth of a person’s physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual well-being? If so, a career in the helping profession may be the right fit for you. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a helping profession can be defined as a career that provides health and education services to individuals and groups. These professions cover several different areas of study and industries such as social work, psychology, psychiatry, counseling and public health.

All mental health professionals have been through the required education for their specific area of expertise in which they have earned a type of credential (i.e., PhD, PsyD, LMFT, LCSW). Each credential requires their own unique skills, required education and job responsibilities but they all strive for the same result: to make a difference in the lives of others.


M.D., D.O., and they will have Dr. before their name

A psychiatrist is a medical doctor whose main focus is on diagnosis, treatment, management and prevention of mental health and emotional problems. Oftentimes psychiatrists will work alongside another mental health professional who manages the patient’s therapy; together, they help the patient improve their quality of life in all aspects. A career in psychiatry can be extremely rewarding; however, an extensive educational background is required. 

Psychiatrist education requirements, and prerequisites:

  • Bachelor’s degree 
    • typically in biology or psychology
  • The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) 
    • A standardized test for potential medical school applicants
  • Doctor of Medicine and Medical Residency
    • Four years of medical school
    • Residency program after completing medical school
  • Licensure
    • Must pass the U.S. Medical Licensure Examination (USMLE) for an M.D. degree
    • Must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) for a D.O. degree
  • Certification
    • Certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) to legally practice


Psychologists: Doctorate & Masters Level

PhD, PsyD (also have Dr. before their name) & MA, MS, LGPC, LCPC

Psychologists often specialize in the study of behaviors and mental processes (i.e., cognitive processes, how people interact with their environments). They are trained to make diagnoses and can provide individual and group therapy. Their treatment can include psychotherapy, or also known as talk therapy; it is one of the most common types of treatment used by all psychologists. Though psychologists can diagnose and treat mental illness, they are not medical doctors. Which means they cannot prescribe medication.

Depending on the credential you are working towards, psychologists must earn:

  • Bachelors in psychology (4 years)
  • Masters in psychology (2 to 3 years)
  • Doctorate in psychology (4 to 7 years)

Additionally, one to two years of training and licensing. In order to become a licensed psychologist, one must earn either a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology).

If you’re interested in only pursuing a masters degree in psychology, you can still do counseling. You may earn a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) and in addition, you can become a Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor (LGPC) or a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. Requirements for each license may vary by state, so it is advised to research what your state requirements are. 



The word “therapist” is an all encompassing term that refers to psychotherapists, psychologists, and counselors. They are a clinically trained helper whose objective is to offer support, positive regard, compassion, and guidance using clinical advice. 

There are several different types of education, degrees, and licenses for therapists:

  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

And many more. As mentioned, a “therapist” is a mental health professional seeking to improve the quality of life and well-being of their patients. Therapists can also work in many locations such as community centers, hospitals, online, private practice, schools and universities, and mental health clinics. 

Social Workers

Similar to a psychologist, a social worker can engage in diagnosis and offer counseling, but cannot prescribe medications. Other careers surrounding the field of social work can include administration and management, advocacy and community organization, justice and corrections, health care, and public welfare. The practice of social work focuses on the person and environment; they utilize social theories to understand human behavior. 

While some positions and states only require a bachelor’s of social work (BSW), individuals will continue to pursue their master of social work (MSW) in order to advance their career. Additionally, it can take between 4 to 6 years to become a social worker:

  • Bachelors (4 years)
  • Masters (2 years)
  • Additional 2 years of supervised work experience before earning a license


License requirements and names vary by each state, however, these are the most common licensures of social work:

  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
  • Licensed Social Worker (LSW)

The helping profession encompasses a variety of different credentials, education requirements, licenses, but each person pursuing a career in the helping profession is seeking to make the world a better place, each individual at a time.

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A career guide for high school students about helping professions. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2021, from
American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). What is psychiatry? Retrieved February 26, 2021, from
American Psychological Association. (2019, December 11). What do practicing psychologists do?
Writers, S. (2020, October 07). How to become a social worker. Retrieved February 26, 2021, from
Haley, E. (2020, April 16). Therapist credentials: What do all those letters mean? Retrieved February 26, 2021, from


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