Human factors psychology – careers and degrees
Like other areas of psychology, human factors psychology is the study of people and their behavior. It differs in that human factors psychologists tailor their research towards improving products, equipment, or the working environment. Typically, the overarching goal is to either increase safety or maximize productivity.
This sector stands at the intersection of technology and psychology, meaning the opportunities are huge.
Although, human factors psychology sounds like a very specialized field with narrow career path potential, the reality is the opposite. This sector stands at the intersection of technology and psychology, meaning the opportunities are huge. Today, there are a wide variety of workplace options for human factor psychologists, from government and corporate, to healthcare and heavy industry. Most of these professionals work for private companies in automotive, aerospace, computers, and manufacturing.
It is important to mention that ‘human factors’ is often used interchangeably with ‘ergonomics.’ Note that specializations such as ‘engineering psychology’ and ‘aviation psychology’ can also fall into the human factors bracket. Wherever psychology deals with the interconnection between people and machines, people and tasks, and people and environments, it tends to be related to the field of human factors.
Successful human factors psychologists are often fond of technology, but equally important, they have a heightened sense of empathy.
Those drawn to this profession like the fact that the psychology is applied. Research is more than just theoretical, it is tested and used. For example, a human factor psychologist may redesign a recalled product, plan a new office space, or look at ways to ensure hospital equipment best serves the needs of the patients.
Successful human factors psychologists are often fond of technology, but equally important, they have a heightened sense of empathy. They tend to have the capacity to put themselves in the shoes of the people who use a product or workspace and recognize the factors that lead to human error. So, if you are constantly noticing the inefficiencies of a workplace, or cursing at non-intuitive products, then a career in human factors psychology could be for you.
Human factors psychology has its roots in World War II. At that time, many tools and weapons were poorly designed and ineffective. Psychologists honed in on how the control and workspace design affected the performance level of those who used them.
What are the educational requirements for a career in human factors psychology?
The first step on the road to becoming a human factors psychologist is an undergraduate degree. A typical bachelor’s program takes 4 years to complete. Most students opt for either a B.A. in psychology, or a B.S. in psychology. The main difference being that B.A. students have more opportunities to take elective courses outside of psychology. A B.S. may be more beneficial as the emphasis is more on science and math. Certain B.S. and B.A. programs offer a concentration in human factors, which is worth considering when researching schools and programs.
Some students major in another related field, such as technology, design, or engineering.
Although majoring in psychology is a popular choice for would-be human factor psychologists, it is not essential. Some students major in another related field, such as technology, design, or engineering. All these majors have practical application for a human factors psychologist, and so are usually accepted during the master’s application process. Note, applicants without a background in psychology may experience a steep learning curve at the beginning of their M.A program due to the absence of foundational knowledge in the field.
In recent years, some schools have made it possible to get a B.S. in human factors. Depending on the reputation of the school and the contents of the program, this can also be a viable choice. A B.S. program in human factors can include:
- conducting user research and evaluations
- analyzing and interpreting human data
- applying human-centered design practices to a range of technical problems
- learning about ethical and professional responsibility in human factors research and design
Although at the undergraduate level, internships are not usually a requirement, it is recommended to sign up for any internship opportunities that arise. Employers look favorably upon graduates who already have work experience in the field. An internship also represents an excellent opportunity to forge relationships that can be useful when you are entering the job market.
There are human factors psychology jobs that only require a bachelor’s, but most of them—including private practice positions—necessitate at least an M.A. To be accepted into an M.A. program, students usually require an undergraduate degree in a related field, a GPA of 3.0 and minimum GRE scores. Most master’s degrees take 2 years to complete.
There are 2 main study subject options. The first is an M.S. in psychology with a concentration in human factors. During this program, practicums and research are usually completed either in a laboratory or industrial environment. Such courses offer students a strong grounding in psychology, user-focused design process, and methods to evaluate human-machine interfaces.
A typical program might include:
- research and statistics courses
- required applied cognitive psychology courses
- human factors psychology electives
- the option to either complete a graduate internship, or master’s thesis research
- core psychology courses, e.g., sensation and perception, advanced cognitive and affective psychology
The second option is an M.S, or occasionally an M.A., in human factors psychology. Typically, this includes courses in:
- human factors psychology
- human factors methodology
- cognitive neuroscience
- group processes and intergroup relations
- cognitive ergonomics
- industrial engineering
Students usually conduct their own research during the program. They are also encouraged to get involved with the research of their supervisor in an apprentice capacity.
A doctorate degree qualifies graduates for the most prestigious jobs in the field. Typically, the program comes in the form of a Doctor of Philosophy, Ph.D., in human factors psychology, which takes 4-6 years to complete.
To be accepted into a Ph.D. program, students usually require a master’s in a related field. There are some programs that accept applicants directly after their bachelor’s, and other programs that integrate the master’s and Ph.D. into a single program. This can cut down on the years of study but is also a big commitment to make all at once.
A Ph.D. in human factors psychology might include courses in:
- advanced research methods
- biological/philosophical foundations of behavior
- teaching of psychology – principles, practice, and ethics
- psychological principles of human factors
- software psychology
In most doctoral programs, students enroll in a specified number of research hours. They also need to show that they are highly competent in the principal areas of their specialty before moving on to work on their obligatory dissertation.
The internship combines supervised experience and intensive training in a position related to human factors.
Commonly an internship of around 3 months duration is required. The internship combines supervised experience and intensive training in a position related to human factors. Some schools even offer paid internships with companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Dell.
Google’s team of human factor psychologists focus on the fonts and font-related tools users want in various countries around the world.
Paying for your education
An education in human factors psychology requires a considerable investment of time and money. Fortunately, several ways to fund your degrees at all levels do exist. Firstly, be sure to fill out the FAFSA, which can lead to federal grants, student loans, state, and school-based financial aid. Other options include scholarships within the human factor psychology field or applying for a federal loan. Although at undergraduate level it may be possible to support yourself by working a part-time job, this becomes more difficult as you climb the degree ranks and the coursework becomes more challenging. You can also minimize the costs of your education by choosing affordable schools, just be sure to check they are accredited by the requisite governing bodies.
The next steps
Following their doctoral degree, graduates need to complete a few more requirements to become a licensed human factors psychologist. These may vary slightly between state, but usually involve:
- completing the number of hours of supervised clinical experience as specified by the state you wish to practice in
- passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), and additional exam requirements depending on the state
- applying for the license from the state’s psychology board
What career options are available to human factors psychologists?
Overall, the career outlook across all psychology fields is excellent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that psychologists’ employment will rise by 8% from 2020 to 2030. Additionally, an increasing number of companies are recognizing the importance of human factors psychologists, so this career path appears to come with good prospects. The jobs you can realistically apply for depend on your level of qualification.
A bachelor’s degree qualifies you for numerous entry-level jobs. Some jobs can lead to more prestigious positions further down the line, and if not, there is always the option to return to college and supplement your work experience with the appropriate degree. Below are a few of the jobs available with a bachelor’s degree.
An industrial designer works in product development, helping to create concepts for various manufactured items. A background in human factors psychology can be useful in guiding the direction the product takes and predicting the experience of the end user. Such roles are not always office-based and can involve laboratory or factory settings.
Tasks and duties
- liaising with clients over design requirements
- researching how a product might be used and what customers want from it
- evaluating the safety of the product
- contributing to the creation of prototypes
Occupational health and safety specialists and technicians
The typical route into this position is a degree in occupational safety, although due to the overlap of the 2 fields, many employers accept degrees in human factors. The role of an occupational safety specialist primarily involves collecting data on work environments and procedures, usually to check safety standards are met and improve procedures.
Tasks and duties
Specifically, occupational health and safety specialists and technicians complete the following tasks:
- inspecting and testing equipment and environments
- creating written reports based on these tests
- designing new procedures to improve safety and productivity
- educating employers on how to minimize human errors
- investigating accidents with a view to preventing them from happening again
Graduates of master’s programs in human factor psychology often work in industrial and organizational psychology. They may be eligible for some teaching positions, although advanced teaching positions require a doctorate. Often their work is supervised by a more highly qualified psychologist. Some interesting jobs that a master’s level graduate is eligible for include:
ErgonomistMedian salary: $75K
Often referred to as a human factors specialist, an ergonomist works on a particular worksite to improve systems and practices. Ergonomists study the interaction between humans and machines, hence put many of the skills from their degree to effective use. Some graduates of human factor programs consider this position a dream job because it involves human factor psychology in its purest form.
Human factors engineerMedian salary: $83K
Human factors engineers design objects and environments by taking into consideration human behavior and its impact on performance. Typical tasks include:
- observing workers and collecting data
- assessing the usability of products and conducting feedback surveys
- preparing reports and recommending changes in either product design or the working environment
Human factors engineers work in various sectors, including software and technology, government, academia, or consultancy.
Human factors psychologist, Alphonse Chapanis, worked on the button design of telephone handsets. His research in the 1950s led to the layout of keys on many of today’s devices.
Doctoral degree holders are involved in specific fields of research. Depending on this research, they can be in high demand as companies seek their expertise to solve issues.
Some of the jobs a doctoral degree holder might be interested in are:
Human factors psychologist
A lot of human factors psychologists work in government agencies, such as the department of transportation, the federal highway administration, and NASA, where they design and improve products and systems. There are numerous job opportunities in the private sector, too. A human factors psychologist may run their own research team, focusing on solutions to specific workspace or design faults, for example.
Professsor in human factors psychology
A professor in human factors psychology passes their hard-gained knowledge on to the next generation of students. Typically, they are also involved in their own research with students sometimes operating as assistants. This is a field that never stands still, so it is important that a professor remains current with all the latest developments by reading the relevant journals and understanding the new research.
The largest scientific association for human factors and ergonomics professionals.
This organization has a board on human-systems integration, which aims to use human factors and human-centered design principles to improve the performance of individuals and organizations.
The APA is a scientific and professional organization that represents psychology in the U.S. Its members include 122,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students.