The Role and Training of a Clinical Psychologist

Female therapist talking to a couple

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A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional with highly specialized training in the diagnosis and psychological treatment of mental, behavioral and emotional illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

What a Clinical Psychologist Does

Clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications to treat mental illness. Rather, they use psychological techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalytic therapy.

Clinical psychologists must usually complete a Ph.D. in clinical psychology before being able to see patients and utilize these techniques. However, in some states and provinces, a Master’s degree is sufficient. In most states and provinces, the professional activities of clinical psychologists are regulated by a licensing board and/or professional college.

In addition to delivery of psychotherapy, psychologists may undertake a variety of activities, including psychological testing, research, and teaching.

ABCP Basic Competencies

The American Board of Clinical Psychology (ABCP) examination makes certain that board certification for clinical psychologists includes basic competencies in order to be able to practice, teach, or conduct research. These competencies include:

  • Making and maintaining effective relationships with others, including clients, fellow practitioners, and the public. The clinical psychologist must also be fair, respectful, a clear communicator, and able to handle potentially difficult situations with understanding and diplomacy.
  • Sensitivity to individual and cultural diversity and understanding how these factors affect who we are and how we think.
  • An awareness of ethical and legal principles and employs them effectively.
  • A professional attitude, values, and behaviors that are apparent in interactions with others.
  • A continual practice of self-evaluation and always striving to improve treatment methods.
  • An understanding of different scientific disciplines that relate to psychology and how they may impact treatment.
  • Skill in collaborating with others from different disciplines and organizations, employing respect, appreciation, and communication.
  • Keeping up with the latest research and identifying how it can improve clinical practice.

Specific Skills

Clinical psychologists have a whole host of specific skills that they employ in their work, including:

  • Consulting with a variety of other behavioral and health professionals and organizations about violence, suicide, and severe mental distress.
  • Understanding the broad expanse of mental health issues and how they may occur at any age.
  • Assessing personality and standardized psychological test scores in order to be more effective in treating patients.
  • Having extensive knowledge of mental illness and how to diagnose and treat it.
  • Being able to perform research and collect data to enhance the understanding of clinical psychology.

The Difference Between a Psychologist and a Psychiatrist

The biggest difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist is that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor (MD) who can prescribe medications while most psychologists are not medical doctors and typically cannot prescribe medication.

While psychologists may also have a doctorate, it is not a medical degree. Psychiatrists go through a year of medical internship followed by three years of residency in treating and diagnosing mental illnesses. Psychologists usually do one to two years of internship after completing their degrees.

  • Medical Doctor (MD)

  • Can prescribe medications

  • May provide talk therapy

  • Can diagnose psychological illness

  • Board certification through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

Clinical Psychologist
  • Master's degree or Ph.D.

  • Cannot prescribe medications (with some exceptions)

  • May diagnose psychological illness

  • May conduct talk therapies

  • Board certification through American Board of Clinical Psychology

Should You See a Psychologist or a Psychiatrist?

One major difference between the two approaches is that while a psychologist will typically look at your behavior, a psychiatrist is more likely to look first at the biological factors behind your mental health problems.

Whether you pick a psychologist or a psychiatrist may depend on several factors. Some psychiatrists only prescribe medication and do not do psychotherapy, so you may choose to see both a psychiatrist and a psychologist to get both medication and therapy. Many psychiatrists do both, however.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Board of Professional Psychology. Competency Requirements - Foundational & Functional.

  2. American Psychological Association. What Is the Difference Between Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Social Workers?

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