Clinical Psychologist Role and Training

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.

The Clinical Psychologist's Role

Clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications to treat mental illness, except in a handful of states where they do have that authority. Rather, they use psychological techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalytic therapy.

Clinical psychologists must usually complete a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in clinical psychology before being able to see patients and use 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 the delivery of psychotherapy, psychologists may perform psychological testing or research, or they may teach.

Clinical Psychologist Certification

While board certification is not required to practice clinical psychology, The American Board of Clinical Psychology (ABCP) offers board certification for clinical psychologists, which includes basic competencies for practicing, teaching, or conducting research. These competencies include:

  • Being aware of ethical and legal principles and employing them effectively
  • Building effective relationships with others, including clients, fellow practitioners, and the public
  • Continually practicing self-evaluation and always striving to improve treatment methods
  • Being fair, respectful, a clear communicator, and able to handle potentially difficult situations with understanding and diplomacy
  • Keeping up with the latest research and identifying how it can improve clinical practice
  • Having a professional attitude, values, and behaviors that are apparent in interactions with others
  • Being sensitive to individual and cultural diversity and understanding how these factors affect who we are and how we think
  • Being skilled in collaborating with others from different disciplines and organizations, employing respect, appreciation, and communication
  • Understanding different scientific disciplines that relate to psychology and how they may impact treatment

Specific Skills for Clinical Psychologists

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

  • Performing research and collecting data to enhance the understanding of clinical psychology
  • Consulting with a variety of other behavioral and health professionals and organizations about violence, suicide, and severe mental distress
  • Possessing extensive knowledge of mental illness and how to diagnose and treat it
  • Understanding the broad expanse of mental health issues and how they may occur at any age

Psychologist vs. 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.

Psychiatrist
  • Board certification through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

  • Can diagnose psychological illness

  • Can prescribe medications

  • May provide talk therapy

  • Medical Doctor (MD)

Clinical Psychologist
  • Board certification through the American Board of Clinical Psychology

  • May diagnose psychological illness

  • Cannot prescribe medications (with some exceptions)

  • May conduct talk therapies

  • Master's degree, Ph.D., or Psy.D.

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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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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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