Actor Kelsey Grammer’s character, Dr. Frasier Crane brought psychiatrists to life in the hit sitcom Cheers and then Frasier. But seeing psychiatrists portrayed on T.V. or hearing friends and family members mention they visit one doesn’t always paint a clear picture of exactly who psychiatrists are, what they do and what their credentials entail. Read on to get in the know.

What is a Psychiatrist?

A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health and emotional problems.[1]

What Credentials Do Psychiatrists Have?

Psychiatrists earn a medical degree from a medical school and then go through four years of residency training at a hospital’s psychiatric department. After completing their residency, they can be licensed to practice psychiatry. Many psychiatrists continue training beyond the initial four years to specialize in a particular area like child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and addiction psychiatry. Others receive additional training in psychoanalysis at psychoanalytic institutes.[1,2]

The psychiatrist’s medical education gives him or her the background needed to understand the body’s functions and the complex relationship between emotional illness and other medical illness. This qualifies him or her to distinguish between physical and psychological causes of both mental and physical distress.[1]

What’s the Difference Between a Psychiatrist and a Psychologist?

The main difference is education. Psychologists go through five to seven years of academic graduate study to earn doctoral degrees, and then participate in at least a one- or two-year internship (depending on their state) in order to apply for a license to practice psychology. Psychiatrists earn medical degrees, go through residency training at a hospital’s psychiatric department and then they can be licensed to practice psychiatry. Both professionals treat people with a wide range of mental health problems through psychotherapy, and both can conduct research. However, psychiatrists can prescribe drugs, whereas most psychologists can’t (some states like New Mexico and Louisiana allow psychologists to write prescriptions after consulting with a psychiatrist).[2,3]

How do Psychiatrists Treat Patients?

As physicians, psychiatrists can order or perform a full range of medical and psychological tests to get a full picture of a patient’s physical and mental state. They use a wide variety of treatments, such as psychotherapy, medications and hospitalization, tailored to each individual’s needs.[1]

Where do Psychiatrists Work?

Psychiatrists work in a variety of settings including general and psychiatric hospitals, university medical centers, community agencies, courts and prisons, nursing homes, industry, government, military settings, schools and universities, rehabilitation programs, emergency rooms and hospices, to name a few. With 42,000 psychiatrists in the nation, about half of them work in a private practice.[1]

How do I Become a Psychiatrist?

People planning to become psychiatrists must complete an undergraduate degree and then attend medical school for four years, which involves two years of a standard curriculum, including chemistry, biochemistry, and physiology, as well as courses in psychiatry, behavioral science and neuroscience. The last two years of medical school are spent in “clerkships,” or internships, where students study and work with physicians in at least five different medical specialties. During psychiatry clerkships, students care for mentally ill patients in hospitals and outpatient settings. Once graduated, physicians must take written examinations for a state license to practice medicine. Also after graduation, students begin their first year of residency training caring for patients suffering from a wide range of medical illnesses. Those training to become psychiatrists then spend at least three more years in psychiatry residency learning the diagnosis and treatment of mental health, gaining skills in various forms of psychotherapy, and in the use of psychiatric medications and other treatments.[1]

Additional training is needed for psychiatrists who want to specialize in sub-specialties of psychiatry such as child and adolescent psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, forensic psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine.[1]


  1. American Psychiatric Association. What is a Psychiatrist? Retrieved April 10, 2013, from
  2. WebMD. Psychology vs. Psychiatry: Which is better? Retrieved April 10, 2013, from
  3. American Psychology Association. What is Psychology? Retrieved April 11, 2013, from

By C. J. Newton, MA, Editor

Visit BetterHelp, our Top rated online therapy provider.


This blog post is sponsored by BetterHelp, but all opinions are our own.”

“ may receive compensation from BetterHelp or other sources if you purchase products or services through the links provided on this page.”