If you were experiencing a symptom, such as a insomnia, and you went to see a physiologist, she would test which of your bodily functions may be malfunctioning. If you went to see a psychologist, on the other hand, she would evaluate what life crises, emotions and feelings you are having that could be keeping you up at night. Physiologists and psychologists would both play an important role in determining what is causing your symptoms. Their approach and training, however, differ markedly.
You'll have to study long and hard for both these professions. Physiologists and psychologists earn at least a master's degree and frequently a doctoral degree. Earning a master's degree in physiology will give you a solid foundation in biology, human physiology and neuroscience, as well as data analysis and research methods. During your master's studies as a psychologist, you would learn about the history of psychology, as well as research and data analysis. Both physiologists and psychologists can further specialize their education on either clinical or research activities.
Boston University advises potential students earning a degree in physiology that graduates of their program typically work in research settings. Opportunities for clinical practice for physiologists include working in hospitals, pharmaceutical and biotech environments. Graduates from Boston University found positions as college professors, physical education instructors, exercise physiologists, vascular technologists, athletic trainers, research physiologists and management roles. A common specialty is exercise physiology, where you would perform physical assessments of your clients before and after starting an exercise program to assess their physiological improvement in areas such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Psychologists work in academic, research, clinical and industrial environments. In clinical settings, they evaluate and treat patients with mental health and substance abuse problems. In research environments, they design new psychometric tests, evaluate the effects of a new treatment or validate past research results. Academic psychologists work in universities, community colleges and high schools. Industrial psychologists consult with companies regarding the best ways to improve quality, employee productivity and work-life balance. Like physiologists, the opportunities are almost endless.
When choosing between the two careers, it's important to evaluate your skills, talents, interests and abilities. To apply for the physiology program at Boston University, for instance, students have to have a science undergraduate background including biology courses, chemistry courses and a math, statistics or computer science elective. You have to have a mind for science and enjoy working with precise instruments and scientific measurements. Students applying for psychology graduate work at Drexel University have to have a solid undergraduate background in psychology, rather than the physical sciences, but also have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of statistics and research methods.
Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.