What Do Psychologists and Psychiatrists Do?

Psychologists and psychiatrists both work in the mental health field, and there is quite a bit of overlap in their jobs. In fact, many people use the titles interchangeably. However, the scope of their practices varies, and there are several key differences in their day-to-day work.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have completed medical school and residency. They can prescribe medications as well as other forms of therapy to treat mental illness. While psychiatrists can provide psychotherapy, they often refer clients to mental health professionals to provide these services. The clientele they serve typically includes those with more severe forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and panic disorders.

While psychologists have earned a doctorate, they are not medical doctors. They provide psychotherapy services to clients, which often involves cognitive and behavioral interventions. They also can administer psychological or intelligence tests to inform treatment.

Despite the critical differences in psychologists and psychiatrists’ job, there are many parts of the jobs that overlap. Both can diagnose mental illness, write treatment plans to help clients reach emotional goals, and conduct research in the field.

Both psychologists and psychiatrists must be licensed and certified. Licensing is done by either the state medical board or the state board of mental health. Certification is earned through the American Board of Professional Psychology or the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN)

While there can be overlap between the duties of a psychiatrist and psychologist, there are many differences. Below are the typical job duties for psychologists and psychiatrists.

Psychologist Job Duties

Psychologists work with a variety of patients providing mental health care services. A detailed list of types of psychologists is included below, and job duties can vary based on the specialization a psychologist works under. Here are the day-to-day clinical psychologists’ responsibilities, which is the most common type of psychologists:

  • Meeting one on one with clients
  • Assessing a client’s mental health disorders and needs
  • Diagnosing mental health disorders
  • Providing therapy in a variety of formats including talk therapy, psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or even humanistic
  • Writing treatment plans to help clients meet their emotional health goals
  • Administering tests to inform the type of care provided, including personality and intelligence tests
  • Maintaining careful client records
  • Performing research on behavioral or emotional problems
  • Writing papers based on research findings and conclusions
  • Supervising office staff, interns, or mental health counselors

Psychiatrist Job Duties

Psychiatrists have a deep understanding of mental and physical health. They work with clients from diverse backgrounds who experience mental health illnesses. Job duties can vary based on the specialty field. A list of specialties is included below. The typical day to day duties of a clinical psychiatrist, the most common psychiatrist, are:

  • Meeting one on one with clients or families to discuss mental health issues
  • Diagnosing mental health disorders
  • Referring clients to mental health therapists for talk therapy
  • Prescribing medications to help clients with diagnosed mental health disorders
  • Coordinating care for a patient with other professionals including physicians, social workers, and therapists
  • Providing biofeedback, electroconvulsive, and other therapies as indicated
  • Maintaining client records
  • Supervising office staff and psychiatrists in residency
  • Researching clinical mental health illnesses and disorders
  • Publishing the findings and conclusions of the research completed

Places of Employment for Psychologists

There are over 192,300 psychologists working in many different settings across the country. If a psychologist has a specialization, that often determines where they are employed. Places where psychologists work include:

  • Private clinics
  • Prisons
  • Schools
  • Universities
  • Government agencies
  • Mental health practices
  • General medical centers
  • Public health clinics
  • Community agencies

Places of Employment for Psychiatrists

Which specialization a psychiatrist has chosen typically dictates where they work. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), about half of the 45,000 psychiatrists in the US maintain a private practice. The other half of the psychiatrists work in a variety of settings, including:

  • General hospitals
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Community agencies
  • University medical centers
  • Prisons
  • Hospice centers
  • Mental health clinics
  • Schools

Types of Psychologists

Within the field of psychology, there are numerous specializations professionals can choose to pursue. Working in a specialization allows psychologists to pursue their interests, work with a specific population, or become experts in a form of treatment. Specializations include:

  • Biopsychologists – These psychologists study how different biological factors can influence the brain. They are typically heavily involved in research. Often they examine how injuries and diseases impact behavior.
  • Clinical psychologists – This is the type of psychologist most people think of. They often have individual practices, work with clients one-on-one, and use psychotherapy techniques to help clients.
  • Cognitive psychologists – Psychologists in this specialization are interested in how and why people think the way they do. They examine problem-solving and decision-making. They can be in research or work directly with clients.
  • Developmental psychologists – These psychologists work primarily with children and adolescents, although they can also work with aging adults. The focus of their work is on developing brains, developmental delays, and aging. They work directly with clients to help them move through their developmental related cognitive issues.
  • Educational psychologists – School, teachers, and education administrative staff rely on educational psychologists to not only help students but also to help develop curriculum, teach socio-emotional skills, and implement emotional intelligence programs. They can be employed in a school, at a school district, or even at universities.
  • Forensic psychologists – Forensic psychologists work at the intersection of mental health and the law. They do investigative work, provide consultations, make mental health evaluations, and offer therapy to crime victims. Often they are called to testify in courtrooms.

Types of Psychiatrists

  • Pediatric psychiatrists – These psychiatrists work with children and adolescents who have behavioral or mental health issues. They are employed in clinics, hospitals, and inpatient treatment programs.
  • Geriatric psychiatrists – Psychiatrists who work with an aging population are geriatric psychiatrists. They address mental health disorders such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, and anxiety. While they can work in traditional clinics, they often work in memory care centers or long term care facilities.
  • Clinical psychiatrists – These are the most common kinds of psychiatrists. They work in hospitals, clinics, and mental health centers. They can diagnose mental illnesses, prescribe medication, and refer to mental health therapists for psychotherapy.
  • Forensic psychiatrists – Mental health disorders that lead to criminal activity are the specialty of forensic psychiatrists. They can assist with investigations, provide treatments for criminals, and provide court testimony. They can also help determine if a criminal is likely to re-offend or should be paroled.
  • Addiction psychiatrists – Alcohol, drug, and other substance addictions are treated by addiction psychiatrists. Working with clients who have addiction issues takes specialized knowledge of how substances affect the brain and how to help clients overcome their daily struggles. Often the work must include discovering the underlying condition that precipitated the addiction.
  • Neuropsychiatrists – Illnesses related to brain injuries, cognitive disorders, and nervous system issues are treated by neuropsychiatrists. These psychiatrists have an understanding of how physical changes in the brain and body can affect mental health and behavior.
  • Organizational psychiatrists – These psychiatrists focus on workplace or organizational behavior. Large enterprises or human resource departments can employ them, and their primary objective is to help provide good mental health for employees. Often they work to improve work-life balance, management strategies, and training opportunities.

Education and Licensure Required of Psychologists

The education necessary to become a psychologist or a psychiatrist is very different. Professionals in this field need to decide which path they are pursuing after completing a bachelor’s degree. Upon completing advanced degrees, certification and licensing are required for both careers. Here are the necessary steps towards becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Psychologists must first earn a bachelor’s degree. Typical majors can include education, psychology, biology, and even chemistry. Next, graduates must complete a master’s degree in psychology or a related field. Finally, to practice as a psychologist aspiring professionals must earn either a doctor of philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) in clinical or counseling psychology. It takes between 11 to 13 years to complete all the necessary education to enter this field.

Courses typically completed to earn a PhD or PsyD include research methods, personality development, cognitive therapies, theories of psychology, and approaches to treatments. As part of completing a program, students will complete a one or two-year internship to gain valuable hands-on experience.

Students will need to meet their state’s psychologist licensing board’s requirements in addition to earning the necessary degrees. These requirements can include passing an exam such as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), completing a required number of supervised work hours, paying a licensing fee, and passing a background check.

As part of a PhD or PsyD program, students will often complete the necessary supervised internships required for licensure. However, sometimes these hours must be completed post-graduation. Some states also require jurisprudence exams where candidates demonstrate their knowledge of state laws surrounding the practice of psychology.

Education and Licensure Required of Psychiatrists

The first step towards becoming a psychiatrist is to complete a bachelor’s degree. Students who wish to enter this field must attend medical school and should ensure they take the appropriate classes to be eligible for admission. Typical majors include biology, chemistry, psychology, physics, math, and pre-med. While completing their undergraduate degree, students must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and apply for medical school.

Medical school takes four years to complete and covers all aspects of medicine, including pediatrics, family, obstetrics, and psychiatry. Upon completing medical school, students then move on to a psychiatric residency for four more years. It is during residency that students gain specialized knowledge and training to be a psychiatrist.

Physicians must be licensed by their state’s medical board and hold board certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) in order to practice as a psychiatrist. Both licensure and certification require meeting the educational requirements, passing exams, having clear background checks, and paying fees.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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