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What Is Research Psychiatry?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Research psychiatry is a branch of psychiatric medicine that deals exclusively with trials, drug development, and other research-based undertakings. Professionals in this field are most often medical doctors, but they focus their practice on academics, not on seeing patients. Research psychiatry is in many ways responsible for breakthroughs and advancements in the field, and the work done in labs is often directly employed in practice.

Under most medical systems, specialties like psychiatry have two parallel tracks: research and practice. Doctors who elect research branches of psychiatry devote their attention to understanding the underlying science of brain chemistry and the potential root causes of disorders. Research and practice always go hand in hand, as researchers need insight from practitioners to launch their projects, and practitioners need advancements from researchers to effectively treat the patients that come into their offices.

Clinical trials and lab work are a big part of the research psychiatry job. This is often related to drugs and chemical rebalancing efforts. Researchers are the ones responsible for the development of antidepressant and anti-psychotic drugs prescribed for patients all over the world.

Not all researchers work with drugs, however. Many work more holistically, devoting their study to developing framework for cognitive therapy practices that can help patients recover without the need for medication. The range of research opportunities is vast.

Doctors in the research psychiatry field often work very closely with practicing psychiatrists, but the jobs do not usually overlap. It is rare for a researcher to maintain a regular patient office. His or her time is spent studying, not treating. Practitioners will often refer patients to researchers for certain investigative studies, but even this sort of direct patient contact is not akin to regular evaluation and treatment.

Most of the time, research psychiatry doctors focus exclusively on one type of psychiatry or even one discreet condition. Choosing but one narrow focus often enables researchers to devote all of their expertise to a particular cause. This can and often does result in breakthroughs, new treatment options, and better scientific understanding of conditions that can be used to make actual practice more effective.

Research psychiatrists can work in many different settings. Most work with hospitals or on dedicated medical research teams, but some are hired to work as advisers to pharmaceutical companies and drug developers. Non-profit organizations dedicated to mental health awareness may also have need of research psychiatry services. Many professionals work in universities as well, either conducting cutting-edge trials or teaching the next generation of scholars and psychiatric clinicians.

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