What's the difference between a psychologist and...?



As it’s National Psychology Week we thought we’d blog about psychologists! We get asked quite a few questions about psychologists, including:

  • What does a psychologist do?
  • What’s the difference between the different types of psychologists?
  • What’s the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist? Between a psychologist and a counsellor/therapist/psychotherapist? Between a psychologist and a coach?

Well stay tuned because we will help shine a light on these questions.


Everybody has heard the term psychologist, but how well do we understand what that word means?

In Australia the term “psychologist” is a protected title, registered under national law. This means that to be able to call yourself a psychologist (or “Registered psychologist”), you must be registered with the national regulation agency – in this case, the Psychology Board of Australia (PBA).  The PBA is part of a larger national body known as the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).  All sorts of registered health professionals – social workers, dentists, nurses etc are regulated by this agency.

Psychologists must meet certain criteria –to have completed a minimum six-year sequence of study and training in psychology at an accredited university. We then need to meet an ongoing professional development requirement each year to maintain that registration, and meet strict ethical guidelines.

You may have noticed that we at The Skill Collective call ourselves Clinical Psychologists. Psychologists can do further study to specialise in a certain area of psychology, and this involves an additional minimum of two years postgraduate study, plus a further two year supervised registration period, to qualify for “specialist endorsement” from the PBA.

There are only certain areas of specialisation recognised for psychologists in Australia, so the following terms will be ‘protected’ meaning that you must have completed the necessary additional training before you can use these titles. These are:

  • Clinical Psychologist
  • Clinical Neuropsychologist
  • Counselling Psychologist
  • Organisational Psychologist
  • Community Psychologist
  • Educational and Developmental Psychologist
  • Forensic Psychologist
  • Health Psychologist
  • Sport and Exercise Psychologist

Other terms that you may have seen paired with the title Psychologist likely denote their position within the organisation (e.g. Senior) or their working arrangement (e.g. Consultant). Such terms aren’t regulated by the Psychology Board of Australia.


When considering between similar sounding professions, there are two main things to look out for:

1. Whether the title is regulated by a professional body and protected by law

Why is this important? Because it guarantees that the only people who have completed the minimum training requirements and comply with particular ethical standards can hold the title, which gives the public reassurance that there is a minimum level of training and ethical practice attached to these professionals. That is, not anyone can just call themselves psychologists or psychiatrists if they do not have the proper training, and can be prosecuted by the law. 


2. What minimum training is required to hold the title

How much training would you like your health professional to hold if you are placing your wellbeing in their hands? With regulated professional bodies that have the ability to enforce the amount of training, you can expect that across the profession all individuals that hold that title have at least a minimum level of training.

For example, all psychologists have a minimum of four years of university training, plus either another two years of postgraduate studies or two years on-the-job training while being supervised regularly by a psychologist.

And, for all psychologists that hold endorsement, you know that they have had a minimum of the four years of university training, plus a further two years of postgraduate studies, plus another two years of on-the-job training while being supervised by a psychologist who holds a specialisation.



Psychiatrists are medical practitioners who have undertaken additional training to specialise in mental health. The term psychiatrist is protected by law so only those who complete accredited training, complete ongoing professional development every year to maintain their registration, and abide by ethical standards, are able to use this title.

Psychiatrists can provide medical and psychological interventions. They can also provide interventions such as electro convulsive therapy or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation for mental health problems. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication and admit people to hospital if needed.

Psychologists do not prescribe medication or admit people to hospitals, but instead focus more on looking at how a person’s thoughts and behaviours maintain how they feel, and applying skills and strategies to help people make sustainable changes in their lives.



Unlike the term psychologist or psychiatrist, the term counsellor is not protected by law. Neither are the terms psychotherapist or therapist. That means that there is no national registration agency, or accreditation system for these professional titles. There are groups out there, such as the Australian Counselling Association, whose aim is to set professional standards for the industry, however it is up to the individual counsellor to adhere to these standards. 

A person advertising themselves as a counsellor or psychotherapist may have completed tertiary level education, done further ongoing training, belong to a professional club or society and have a wealth of experience. Or they may have no experience or training at all.

This is not to say that you will receive poor care if you seek the services of a counsellor; indeed there are many well-qualified, highly professional counsellors out there. All is means is that you will have to do your homework.

If the mental health professional you are seeing does not have use of a protected term like psychologist, find out what kind of training and experience they have.



The terms ‘coach’ and ‘life coach’ aren’t protected terms, and there are no minimum training requirements. So, while some may choose to adhere to the International Coaching Federation’s guidelines, it is important to note that not everyone who calls themselves a coach needs to.

In fact, some psychologists also call themselves a coach because this reflects what type of work they do. That is, they help people assess their situation, identify what changes are required, and help them in the changes process.

One of the advantages of seeing a psychologist to ‘coach’ you in life is that we are trained in assessment, goal setting, problem-solving, and have specialised in studying human behaviour and how to make sustainable life changes to achieve personal and professional growth.

Psychologists are also trained in identifying mental health issues that may get in the way of making changes in life. Examples that we have worked with include:

  • Difficulties in transitioning into a new work role because of difficulties managing work conflict, or anxiety about doing public speaking or chairing meetings.
  • Problems with procrastination when it comes to studying or working because of underlying depression affective motivation to study.
  • Feeling overwhelmed at work because of a lack of work-life balance, however underlying perfectionism gets in the way of feeling truly effective in any one area.
  • Conflict within teams impacting on performance may stem from how you interpret other’s actions and comments.

In such instances psychologists draw upon their training to provide clients with the best scientifically-validated ways of bringing about sustainable changes. So, you can see that we do ‘coach’ individuals in life to achieve their goals.


Hopefully the information above has been helpful in working out the distinction between psychologists and other similar-sounding professions. Thanks for reading. We hope that you enjoyed it as much as we did writing it.

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