Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner vs. Psychologist: What's the Difference?

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. Have you completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree?
Have you completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree?

Roughly half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What’s more, 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental illness each year. Given the prevalence of mental health disorders, many dedicated health professionals focus on diagnosing and treating depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and similar conditions.

Those considering a job in mental health care may benefit from reviewing some of the primary career options, such as psychiatric nurse practitioner vs. psychologist. Both roles offer opportunities to provide direct mental health care, but what are the differences?

Take a moment to learn more about these two important roles and the value in seeking an advanced education in a rapidly growing field such as nursing.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner vs. Psychologist Job Descriptions

A review of the basic job descriptions illustrates how the roles differ.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

A psychiatric nurse practitioner is an advanced practice nurse who specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as substance use disorders. Though the specific responsibilities of a psychiatric nurse practitioner (PNP) can vary from one state to the next, many PNPs are permitted to practice autonomously and prescribe medication as needed.

Specific duties of the psychiatric nurse practitioner can include:

  • Diagnosing and treating psychiatric conditions
  • Providing individual or group psychotherapy
  • Counseling patients as they experience mental health crises
  • Educating patients on how to safeguard their mental and emotional health


A psychologist is a professional who studies cognitive, emotional, and social behaviors. In a health care setting, psychologists diagnose, treat, and counsel patients who have experienced psychological disturbances or demonstrate ongoing behavioral issues.

Some duties associated with the psychologist role include:

  • Studying patient behaviors to help identify and diagnose problems
  • Counseling patients who are experiencing mental health crises
  • Conducting individual or group psychotherapy
  • Referring patients to other mental health providers as needed

A psychiatric nurse practitioner is counseling an older woman suffering from depression.

How to Become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner vs. Psychologist

These two career paths differ in some important ways, including the actual process of becoming a qualified professional.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner requires completing the following steps:

  • Becoming a registered nurse (RN). Earning an RN license requires earning either a two-year associate degree in nursing or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing, followed by sitting for a nursing exam.
  • Gaining experience. Psychiatric nurse practitioners need experience providing care to patients. Seeking a position working with patients who have psychiatric issues can be especially helpful.
  • Earning an advanced degree. The psychiatric nurse practitioner role requires either a Master of Science in Nursing or a Doctor of Nursing Practice. Earning an advanced degree will take an additional two to four years.
  • Obtaining nurse practitioner licensure. To qualify for the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner certification exam, candidates need to have at least 500 hours of supervised clinical practice, plus coursework focused on psychiatric health.
  • Getting licensed. NP licensure requirements can vary from one state to the next but usually require submitting transcripts and exam scores to the state licensing board.


Becoming a licensed psychologist requires:

  • Earning a degree. Psychologists must earn a doctorate, but they typically begin with an undergraduate program focused on medicine, psychology, or a related field. Psychologists may earn either a PhD in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology, but the latter is better suited for clinical work. They must also complete a one-year clinical internship.
  • Obtaining a license. The licensing process can vary from state to state, but candidates typically need at least one to two years of supervised clinical experience to qualify.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner vs. Psychologist Salary and Outlook

Salary expectations and job outlook for these two roles also differ. Nurse practitioners, including PNPs, earn a median annual salary of $111,680, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which projects a 45% increase in jobs for these professionals between 2020 and 2030.

Psychologists earn a median annual salary of $105,780. The BLS projects jobs in this field to grow by 8% between 2020 and 2030, which is about as fast as average.

Pursue an Advanced Education to Accelerate Your Career

As you seek to achieve your professional goals and to play a meaningful role in delivering mental health care to patients in need, consider enrolling in a Master of Science in Nursing program.

Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online MSN program offers a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner concentration, including courses such as Psychopharmacology Across the Lifespan, Advanced Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing, and Advanced Nursing Research. Earning this degree will provide you with the skills you need to deliver mental health care and to enjoy a successful career in psychiatric nursing. Learn more about our MSN program today.

Recommended Readings

Developing a Wellness Toolbox for Your Mental Health

Empathy in Health Care: The Role of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

What Is Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About Mental Health

Incredible Health, “An Overview of the Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner Role”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Psychologists

VeryWellMind, “How to Become a Psychologist”