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Dr J Sharkey discusses the speciality of psychiatry.
A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specialises in mental health problems. We are involved in assessing, diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. One question we often get asked is what’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. We’re very similar, and in effect, we’re two sides of the same coin. We’re both involved in assessing and treating patients with mental health disorders. A psychiatrist is a doctor, who has gone through medical school, and can undertake talking therapies and prescribing medications. A psychologist goes through undergraduate and postgraduate psychology degrees and generally specialises in talking therapies. The day job in psychiatry is very varied, and that’s one of the things that I really like.
Most of my time is spent working with patients. I work between in patients in hospital and seeing patients in the community, at clinic, and on home visits. When I spend time with patients, really, I’m working with them to think about things, like diagnosis, treatments, and medications. But I also do lots of other things. So for example, I spend some of my time during the week doing psychiatric research and some of my time doing teaching at medical school. Psychiatry is a really good specialty, because it’s really patient focused. The best part of the job for me is spending time with patients and their families and really getting to know them.
It’s really rewarding building that relationship, especially when you help a patient to recover. The work itself is also extremely varied. You can work in a general psychiatry field or in a more specialised field, like old age psychiatry, which I work in. And that deals with older patients who have mental health problems and conditions, like dementia. You can also work with child and adolescents in CAMs, which deals with things like autism and ADHD, or more in the legal system with mentally disordered offenders in forensic psychiatry. It’s very team focused, which I enjoy. Psychiatrist’s work with a big multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and social workers. It’s also an excellent specialty for work life balance.
Trainees are very protected and supported. And although it’s busy, the working hours
are much closer to 9:00 to 5:00 with less frequent on calls. So how to train in psychiatry. Usually, you can get a rotation working in psychiatry from second year of foundation training, what we call FY2. After FY2, you can usually apply to join psychiatry training. You spend three years as a core trainee gaining the basic skills of being a psychiatrist, and during this time, you usually do your postgraduate psychiatry exams. After that, you choose what subspecialty you’d like to go into. So for example, I chose old age. That’s a further three years as a registrar, where you learn the skills to become a consultant after which you can apply for consultancy.
It’s an exciting time to work in psychiatry as it’s a specialty that’s old, but in many ways, it’s also in its infancy. And at the moment, we’re on the cusp of a lot of breakthroughs in terms of neurobiology and genetics with a lot of mental health conditions. In a practical sense, there are lots of good job opportunities across the UK. Trainees are well supported and have lots of protected time to pursue research and other special interests.

The field of psychiatry is one with which most undergraduates aren’t particularly well acquainted. However the specialty offers a range of unique challenges and rewards.

In this video Dr Jo Sharkey discusses his career in psychiatric medicine.

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