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Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brain Science for Non-Scientists by Wilf Nelson

What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? When I was lecturing and teaching in my Ph.D. I would meet lots of psychology students in their second year who wanted to become psychiatrists, and that conversation was not fun. You see to become a psychiatrist you need to be a medical doctor, not a Bachelor's in Psychology and so the people I was talking to were on the wrong course. This lesson is going to teach you what a psychologist and psychiatrist do, what they mean for a student wanting to pick a career, and how to save yourself all that stress, even if you are a psychology student listening to this now.

So what is a psychologist, well a psychologist studies the brain through research methods. A psychologist at the end of the day wants to use interviews and experiments and brain scans to understand what makes the brain tick; they do not treat patients. I am a psychologist and a neuroscientist, and I am not qualified to treat patients or provide medical advice. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor that chose to specialise in the brain and mental disorders and treats through behavioural therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy where people talk about how the mind works and through medication. So if you want to be onwards, treating patients, then you do a medical degree and later on, choose to be a psychiatrist.

Since I did my undergraduate there is another option which is a medical conversion degree some universities offer, and this means you can do a bachelors in psychology, or any topic you pick, and from there you do a masters effectively that trains you to become a doctor, then onto being a psychiatrist. The other option is to become a clinical psychologist, that is where you research mental health for a living, but it is a researcher job, again you aren't treating patients you are studying the disorders to help doctors and other academics understand the brain better. It is a valuable job, psychiatrists are incredibly busy people, and that means it is not always easy to test new hypotheses about diseases and disorders when the day to day job is to treat people. That is what we want psychiatrists to be doing. Clinical psychology is the solution, an academic field that understands how disorders work, which treatments are effective and the lived experiences of those going through the toughest periods of their lives.

Say you decide you don't want to be a psychiatrist, that is fine, but the idea of being one of the people who actually get to study mental health disorders is what you want to do. What have you got to do? Well, I'll be honest with you, it is likely the hardest psychological profession to enter into, not because the requirements are any higher but because so many people want to do it. That is good, it is good, so many people want to help cure and treat mental disease but conscionable I should inform you.

Ok, first get your bachelors, almost definitely in science, but psychology is a great place to start, that will give you the chance to study the mind and do mental health academic courses, understand it as a science not just as a medic or doctor who is focused on treatment. Then you are going to need a Master's, the Master's in and of itself is just a stepping point, and here we come to the truth of becoming a clinical psychologist. It is very competitive, the more you can pile onto your cv the better. Then once you have done your masters and got top marks at the end of both degrees, top marks at the end, not throughout is all that matters, you go get a clinical psychology Ph.D. Just being interviewed for one is a massive achievement, if you get on congratulations, you are a percentage point of a percentage point. You will study how to make experiments that study mental health, how to do it safely, learn, and work with medical doctors to make new treatments, or just understand how diseases progress. And then it is onto the world of research jobs in government research labs and universities. There is one more thing I missed out; you have to do placements in as many clinical wards, help centre, and clinical psychology units as you possibly can. This is a world where you are affecting people's lives, experience has to be met with a theory even before your Ph.D. and if you have experience and your competitor doesn't you get to have the job, sorry to say it is that competitive.

Ultimately psychology and psychiatry are doing the same thing, trying to understand the mind and help people live better lives. As I taught, I saw people who thought they wanted to be in the trenches treating people but found they loved the research more, others spent time in research labs and craved a life with clear impact and not just papers that only experts could read. It is up to you, but this lesson has been about teaching you what a psychologist does, what a psychiatrist does, and how to reach those two goals.

This is a topic that has been discussed on my show WaterCooler Neuroscience so please check it out and whatever you choose to do the world is lucky you have put your efforts there. My hope is that you are now informed and don't go down a degree or career path ignorant of the truth and stuck like so many that I taught during my time in top research labs and at university.

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Written by

Wilf Nelson