What Are the Differences Between Psychology Specialties?

A dissection of neuroscience, psychology, and neurology professions.

Posted Sep 19, 2018

Snezana Ignjatovic/Shutterstock
Source: Snezana Ignjatovic/Shutterstock

It is time to end the confusion. I have found that in both casual and business settings, it is common for questions to arise about the differences between neuroscientists, neurologists, neuropsychologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. For those not intimately familiar with the psychology and medical fields, these terms may seem interchangeable. In reality, they each have their own distinct purpose. The confusion and lack of knowledge about each of these specialties can be frustrating when you realize that you need a doctor or therapist, or when you need to evaluate a product developed by such a professional.  

To start, it is helpful to have a general definition of neuroscience, so that you can understand why some specialties may use it extensively, and some may use it little or not at all. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord, and neurons. It is an interdisciplinary field that integrates anatomy, chemistry, biology, psychology, and even physics. 

Although the five previously mentioned specialties (neuroscientists, neurologists, neuropsychologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists) are all related to brain and behavior, each takes a different approach to the field. Some professions are clinical, and some are non-clinical. A clinical professional is trained to assess and treat patients and, if active, will hold a license to practice. Medical boards bestow license qualifications of M.D., RN, D.O., etc., to clinicians. Usually, the state psychology or mental health board will oversee the licenses of Ph.D. psychologists and other professionals in mental health practice, such as clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists. A non-clinical professional, in comparison, does not see patients and instead conducts research in their chosen field.

What are the differences between these specialties? Let’s go through them one by one.

Neuroscientist

neuroscientist is a specialist in the field of neuroscience. There are many career paths that a neuroscientist can pursue, either clinical or non-clinical. A non-clinical neuroscientist’s training and focus is research and data analysis. A non-clinical neuroscientist has a Ph.D. in basic neuroscience or neuroanatomy and is not trained or qualified to assess, diagnose, or treat patients. A clinical neuroscientist has either a clinical Ph.D. or an M.D. They can be a neurologist, psychiatrist, or psychologist who uses neuroscience methods (i.e., functional neuroimaging) to explore treatment and rehabilitation methods for a patient with a damaged or injured nervous system. 

Neurologist

neurologist completed a four-year medical school program to earn an M.D. or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree. They specialize in neurology and treat disorders that have an effect on the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Some disorders a neurologist may focus on are strokes, ALS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy. Since these diseases are complex, most neurologists will choose one to specialize in. Treatments are determined after a series of tests to determine what a patient responds best to. Although a neurologist is a doctor, they do not perform surgery. If a patient requires surgery, they are referred to a neurosurgeon. 

Neuropsychologist

neuropsychologist has a clinical Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree and focuses on the brain’s cognitive functions, such as attention, language, and memory. They are the only profession specifically trained to use task-based metrics (i.e., the Trail-Making Test) to evaluate the functional capabilities of a person’s brain. They address neurobehavioral disorders that are considered developmental disorders of the nervous system (i.e., dementia, Alzheimer’s, and ADHD). Neuropsychologists have specialized training in brain behavior and how to form treatments from a diagnosis based on a series of cognitive tests taken by a patient. If also trained as a neuroscientist, a neuropsychologist might incorporate imaging evidence into their diagnosis and treatment planning. 

Psychologist

Psychologists are perhaps the most well-known of these five specialties. Psychologists have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. and can either be clinical or non-clinical. Clinical psychologists see patients and commonly conduct psychotherapy (talk therapy). They treat people with chronic problems (anxiety and depression), as well as people with short-term problems (stress and grief). Clinical psychologists help their patients learn to cope with their disorder and break past barriers that interfere with daily life. A clinical psychologist differs from a neuropsychologist, because they primarily focus on emotions and behaviors, as well as the associated therapies. A clinical psychologist cannot prescribe medications. They do not typically draw upon neuroscience during their day-to-day work.

non-clinical psychologist has a Ph.D. in psychology, but they do not receive any clinical training and are not licensed to see patients. A non-clinical psychologist researches how the mind works, the development of humans throughout their lives, as well as how various conditions might affect populations. Positions held by a non-clinical psychologist include research, higher education, consulting, business, and government consulting roles. 

Psychiatrist

psychiatrist is an M.D. or D.O. focused on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They can also specialize in substance abuse disorders. Since psychiatrists are medical doctors, they often examine both the mental and physical aspects of mental illnesses. They can order medical labs and perform the psychological assessments necessary to diagnose a patient. Most psychiatrists today are not trained extensively in talk therapy, and the most common approach to treatment by most psychiatrists is based on or includes pharmaceutical therapy. Psychiatrists differ from psychologists in many aspects of training, but most notably, psychiatrists can prescribe medication.  

Each of these five professions has a specific skill set and training that adds to basic science knowledge and/or assists people with the diagnosis and treatment of illness. Each is valuable to our advancement and understanding of the brain and behavior, but it can be stressful to pick a specialist or evaluate a health product developed by a specialist without an understanding of the significant differences between them. While not exhaustive in nature, hopefully this short article will be useful to anyone seeking to understand what a person in any of these specialties is trained and qualified to do professionally.

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