What is a Psychologist Anyway?

One of the coolest things about my career as a psychologist, is that I often get a chance to talk to reporters and other media folks about psychology and mental health.  I typically get asked questions like “What can people do to reduce their stress?” and “What can parents do to raise psychologically-healthy kids?”  These are great questions and each time I get asked them, I try to come up with interesting, unique, and useful responses.

Today I am preparing for another interview, but this time the question is a little different.  It is: “What is a psychologist anyway?”  I love this question because lots of people ask me, and I know even more people wonder about the answer to this – and related questions.  So here are my answers to questions I often hear about who we psychologists are anyway.

How much schooling do psychologists get? After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from college, the psychologist-to-be (PTB – my term, for simplicity’s sake) applies to a graduate program in psychology.  This process often includes writing essays, going through interviews, taking the GRE, obtaining recommendations, and proving an interest in (and usually experience in) working with people.  Once in the graduate program, our PTB takes lots of classes on psychology, neuroscience, statistics, etc.  The PTB also does clinical work (working with patients under close supervision) in the community and possibly within their school at a counseling center.  After 2-3 years of full time study, our PTB is eligible to earn their master’s degree – which usually means writing a thesis and/or completing super-anxiety-provoking oral and written exams.  Once that hurdle has been jumped over, the PTB can start working on their doctorate – often in the same program/school – and sometimes at a different school.  The doctoral program is similar to the master’s program, but typically involves more research, more advanced clinical work, and intense coursework.  Another 2-4 years are spent in this process until the PTB is ready to apply for their year-long clinical internship.  This is grueling process, as there are many fewer internship slots than candidates.  If our PTB is lucky enough to secure a position (at a medical center, community mental health center, or state hospital for example) they will spend the next 12 months there doing even more intensive clinical work.  After that year is completed (and all other research and academic requirements have been filled) our PTB can graduate with their doctorate (PsyD or PhD)!  Yahoo!  But it’s not over yet!  After graduation, our PTB still has to complete one year of supervised practice and only once that is completed can they sit for the licensing examination.  States vary in exactly what they require for this process, but it often includes a written or multiple choice examination, and an oral examination.  Once all that is done (5-8 years AFTER college) our PTB is officially a psychologist! Finally!

Is a psychologist a real doctor? Yes.  Psychologists really earned a real doctorate.  If by real doctor you mean a medical doctor (someone who went to medical school), then no – we aren’t real doctors by that standard.

Can psychologists prescribe medication? In a few states psychologists can earn prescriptive authority (meaning they can prescribed medication) after more intensive schoolwork, clinical work, and supervision.  Most of us do not prescribe medication, however most of us are happy to refer you to someone who can.

Is the psychologist the same thing as a counselor? No. Some psychologists might call themselves counselors, and some counselors might be psychologists, but the terms are not the same.  The term “counselor,” like “therapist,” is a pretty general term.  Social workers, marriage and family therapists, and other non-licensed folks might call themselves counselors or therapists.  “Psychologist” is a term reserved for people who have undergone the above training and licensing process and represents a much smaller group.

What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? Psychologists have PhD’s or PsyD’s (doctorates in the field of psychology) whereas psychiatrists have gone to medical school and completed a specialization in mental health/psychiatry.  In general (meaning – not always), psychologists do psychotherapy (counseling, talk-therapy) and psychiatrists work with their patients on medication management.

Which questions did I miss?

4 thoughts on “What is a Psychologist Anyway?

  1. Shaun Fischler says:

    Overall, I like your site. It is informative and interesting. I do want to make a distinction that you don’t mention in defining a psychologist versus other similar professions. I am a professional counselor (this term isn’t clear to many folks either) who has my licence in Colorado, which allows me to call myself a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). I think it is helpful to include us in the conversation of different, protected titles. You are right that many people call themselves “therapists” or other similar terms, but the language is broad and sometimes too ambiguous. In Colorado, we have the unfortunate situation where our state allows folks to provide therapy in a private practice setting without much training (they can register with the state as an “unlicensed psychotherapist). Clients ought to be protected through licensure, educational training, etc. Thanks so much!

    • drstephaniesmith says:

      Shaun
      Thanks for your comment. You are right that we have some unusual laws in Colorado regarding unlicensed therapists, and also a broad range of mental health folks who are able to practice independently. As this blog is read in many states other than Colorado, and because I am not an expert in license requirements for master’s level therapists, I chose not to include a discussion of those topics. I appreciate your feedback, though – you are right that it is confusing for consumers (and professionals!) to know what the distinctions are. Thanks again for your comments and thanks for reading!

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