Psychologist or Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

With so many different titles, degrees, and mental health professionals, clients are often confused about the difference between clinicians and often, wind up delaying progress because they get stuck deciding where to turn first. This article will help you navigate the world of therapists so you can get started on the path of progress. Let’s clarify some key titles.


Psychologist: Psychologists are licensed doctoral level professionals who have gone to graduate school and received either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. They have training and experience in both research and clinical work. Meaning they have extensive experience with direct patient care, providing therapy, testing, coaching, consulting to businesses, and many other areas of expertise.

Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are licensed medical doctors. They have gone to medical school just like other doctors, and have completed a residency in psychiatry. These professionals also have training and experience in both research and clinical work. Their focus is most often on prescribing medication to those seeking mental health treatment. However, many psychiatrists also provide therapy in addition to medication management.

Social workers: Social workers are masters-level professionals who can have a variety of areas of expertise. Many social workers provide therapy or coaching to individuals, families, even organizations. Social workers cannot independently conduct psychological testing the way a psychologist could.

Therapist or Psychotherapist: These terms are very loose and refer to anyone providing therapy. It does not indicate if someone is a psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, drug and alcohol counselor, life coach, etc. There are many different backgrounds, trainings, and experiences, which lend people to call themselves therapists.
Like any well-informed consumer, you need to know what you want and from whom you’ll be getting what you want. It is always wise to gather some information about whichever professional you chose to see. As a consumer it is your right to now some basic information about the person who will potentially be treating you. Ask what degree they have and if they are licensed and/or registered by their governing agency. This way you know that they have received the required trainings and are responsible to some organization which oversees their profession. You should also ask about scheduling and fees to determine if you and this provider will have the ability to see one another on a regular schedule.

Now, how to choose. Some people are not interested in taking medications, for those individuals, seeing a psychologist is the best bet. This allows you to have a one-on-one session with a psychologist to talk about anything you’d like. If at some point you and/or your psychologist decide that medication might bolster your progress or assist in some way that talk therapy alone cannot, you may ask for a referral to a psychiatrist and engage in a discussion about whether or not medication is a good idea for you.

If your symptoms are known to be primarily biologically based, meaning they are caused by some underlying medical condition, or if your symptoms are severe enough that medication is needed, seeing a psychiatrist first might be your best bet. Although not all psychiatrists provide talk therapy, many do, and it can be a good idea to receive both your talk therapy and medication management from the same doctor as it eliminates the need to inform each doctor about the other’s treatment plan.

Choosing a psychologist versus a psychiatrist is an important decision. While you can, of course, change clinicians, it is a good idea to find a provider with whom you feel comfortable and stick with them. That way you can build rapport, or a relationship, with that provider and build trust and a sense of safety, that way you can begin working on whatever issues have brought you in ad work together, to overcome them.

If any problems arise between you and your provider, it is a good idea to discuss it with your provider.

The Sachs Center of New York employs psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers as available sources of support for our clients.

Psychiatrist and Clinical Psychologist Differences