I/O Psychology/Psychologists

I/O psychology, in brief, is concerned with the scientific structuring of organizations and of work to improve the productivity and quality of life of people at work. For most of us, time at work accounts for a very large chunk of our lives. It made a lot of sense to me that somebody in psychology ought to be looking closely at this facet of life and its impact upon other life domains.
The field of I/O psychology is certainly a very applied field, but many I/O psychologists also address relatively basic research questions. In other words, I/O psychologists very much want to produce solutions to problems in the workplace, but they also usually want to develop a fuller understanding of life at work to produce a solid scientific knowledge base. I/O scientist/practitioners like being in an environment that has problems that need to be solved, but they also like to discover and collect scientific facts about work and organizational settings that they can apply to problems yet to be faced. There is a lot of justification for this kind of activity because, quite frankly, the world of work is such a fast-moving target of study that many issues are hard to anticipate.
Traditionally, I/O psychologists have focused on understanding individual behavior and experience in organizational settings. That is, the worker has received the most attention. This, of course, continues today. Today more than ever, however, I/O psychologists explicitly acknowledge the importance of considering the whole work system. For example, they conduct research at the group and organizational levels of analysis as well as at the individual level. Also, they formally address the impact on work of environmental factors such as labor markets, economic conditions, and governmental regulations. In fact, operating within a systems approach to understanding people at work has allowed I/O psychologists to contribute to cutting-edge issues in the design of work. For example, I/O psychologists have contributed to the design and development of team-based organizations and have developed strategies for designing organizational structures for work that are flexible enough to ride through turbulent environmental times.

Industrial organizational psychology is the branch of psychology that applies psychological theories and principles to organizations. Often referred to as I/O psychology, this field focuses on increasing workplace productivity and related issues such as the physical and mental well being of employees. Industrial organizational psychologists perform a wide variety of tasks, including studying worker attitudes and behavior, evaluating companies and conducting leadership training.

While industrial organizational psychology is an applied field, basic theoretical research is also essential. With roots in experimental psychology, I/O psychology has a number of different sub-areas such as human-computer interaction, personnel psychology and human factors.

What Do I/O Psychologists Do?

They might be doing basic or applied research in these areas or actually implementing solutions to problems found across these areas of specialization.
Broadly put, I/O psychologists are scientists, consultants, teachers, and often, something of a combination of all three of these. I/O psychologists don various titles depending upon their places of em-ployment, specializations, and interests. I/O psychologists also often work in more than one organizational setting. For example, many professors do consulting work for organizations outside of their employing institution. A number of I/O psychologists employed in research organizations or private industry choose to teach in colleges and universities on an adjunct basis.

What Is the Right Career Path for You?

The "right choice" really depends on what you like to do. If you like to travel a lot and live at a fairly fast pace, then life as an external consultant might be for you. If you like to teach and do research, then you might find a career in higher education appealing. Many I/O psychologists have chosen to work in management departments rather than psychology departments. There is usually a financial advantage to this choice. However, many other I/O psychologists see an advantage to working among psychologists who specialize in other areas of psychology in a psychology department. If you primarily like to do research, you'll make a different career choice than if you like to train, evaluate, produce, and sell I/O psychology products.
Of course, you may find that you like to research, teach, and consult. There are jobs out there that require different skill mixes to suit your interests. You need to think about what you like to do, however, to know the kind of job with the kind of mix that might interest you.

Becoming an I/O Psychologist

To become an I/O psychologist you are going to have to go to graduate school. How long it takes to become an I/O psychologist after getting your undergraduate degree depends on what degree you are seeking and how steadily you work at completing your graduate education. Generally, it will take about two to three years to obtain a master's degree and then an additional two to three years to earn a doctoral degree. The type of degree you earn plays a significant role in determining what kind of jobs you are qualified to hold. The majority of I/O psychologists have doctoral degrees. You will find them at work in any of the areas of I/O psychology mentioned earlier. I/O psychologists with master's degrees, however, often find themselves in organizational settings that emphasize the more traditional I/O areas of personnel psychology, training, tests, and measurement

One of the advantages of being an I/O psychologist is that there are so many different sorts of jobs and settings in which you can work. We often divide jobs into academic (university professors) versus nonacademic or practitioner jobs. In a general sense academics conduct research and teach, whereas practitioners apply principles of the field to problems of organizations. However, there is a great deal of overlap, in that academics often practice, and practitioners often teach and do research. Academics work primarily in colleges and universities, whereas practitioners work in a variety of settings, including consulting firms, government agencies, the military, and private corporations. Many operate from their own private offices as consultants, selling their services to organizations.

It is difficult to describe an "I/O job" as they are so varied. However, it is possible to give an overview of typical jobs and tasks that I/O psychologists do. Below I will describe what a university professor's job is like, and what a practitioner job is like. Keep in mind that within each of these categories, there can be a lot of variability.

Academic Jobs

About a third of U.S. I/O psychologists are academicians. They work for both colleges and universities. There are three areas of responsibility: research, teaching, and community service. The first two are the most important, and depending upon the institution, greater emphasis will be placed on research or teaching. Large universities will normally emphasize research whereas smaller colleges emphasize teaching (which is one reason many students prefer to attend smaller liberal arts colleges where the faculty put most of their efforts into teaching). At many large research oriented universities, faculty do little teaching at all (leaving that to their doctoral students), spending most of their time doing research and writing grant proposals. These are "publish or perish" institutions that place a great deal of pressure on their faculties to conduct research, and see that as their greater (but not only) mission.

The typical university professor is expected to cover all three areas. This makes for a busy and varied job, and requires a lot of juggling of many different projects/tasks. With many demands, it is rare to have long periods of time on which to work on a single project or task. However, there is a great deal of latitude in how professors conduct their work, as they receive no day-to-day supervision. They might have their classes assigned by a department chair, but the rest of their activities they decide themselves. This high level of autonomy is a major reason many I/O psychologists decide to pursue an academic career where they can follow their own interests.

Practitioner Jobs

These jobs are more varied than a professor job, and tend to be more specialized. Whereas the scope of practice might be even larger than the scope of academics, most practitioners tend to work in a limited area. For example, one practitioner might do only research while another might only conduct employee surveys. This makes for a wide range of different types of jobs.

Practitioner jobs can be placed into two broad categories--consulting and in-house. Consultants sell specific services to various organizations, much like accounting or law firms sell their services to various clients. These psychologists might be in their own single-person private practices or in large consulting firms that employ hundreds of people (e.g., Development Dimensions International, DDI or Personnel Decisions International, PDI). In-house psychologists work for a single organization as an employee. These include both private companies and government agencies including the military.

Specific Tasks: Although it is unlikely one person would do all of these things, this is a sample that represents the variety of I/O activities.

1. Meet with clients or managers to discuss the nature of a problem/project (e.g., the turnover rate among employees is too high)

2. Conduct interviews or send out questionnaires to employees to determine the nature of their job tasks

3. Design a psychological test that assesses a job skill

4. Conduct a study to determine if a test or procedure is effective in achieving it's objective (e.g., does a new test predict who can perform their jobs well?)

5. Analyze data (usually done with computer, e.g., SAS or SPSSX)

6. Write a technical report

7. Present results of a project to a group of managers

8. Meet with potential clients to sell services

9. Conduct a study to determine what training is needed.

10. Design a training course for employees

11. Conduct a training session for employees

12. Evaluate the effectiveness of a training course

13. Conduct sessions with groups of employees to help them resolve conflicts

14. Survey employees to determine how they feel about their jobs

15. Conduct structured interviews of potential employees to ascertain their suitability for hiring

16. Testify in court as an expert witness

17. Train others in how to implement new procedures that were developed (e.g., how to use a new test for employee selection)

18. Score results of tests and other selection tools and write reports of candidate suitability

19. Write a proposal for a project

20. Supervise a function (e.g., employee training and development) or people

21. Provide advice and assistance to managers in the organization

22. Help implement a new method or procedure (e.g., a new employee reward system)

23. Figure out a solution to an organization's problem (e.g., too much employee absence)

In addition practitioners will often do the same tasks as professors, often teaching as adjunct instructors at universities, conducting and publishing research, and performing community service to both the profession (e.g., SIOP) and the general public.

An I/O Career

Most I/O psychologists in the U.S. have a Ph.D. (things are different in many other countries). It is possible to have a practice career but not an academic with an M.A. in the field, but opportunities for advancement are fewer and salaries are lower without the Ph.D. Academic careers require a publication record of research articles. Since few practitioners consistently publish results of their work (and most don't often conduct publishable research), academics and practice tend to be two distinct career paths. A doctoral student must begin to publish to achieve an academic position, and a practitioner must maintain a reasonable publication record to make a transition to academia. In most cases decisions made early in the career, often in graduate school, determine the career path, and few switch.

At the current time, career opportunities are excellent in the field, and there are few unemployed I/O psychologists in the U.S. The field has been getting increasingly popular, as more and more people have been applying to a growing number of graduate programs (as of this writing there are about 100 in the U.S., about 2/3 Ph.D. and 1/3 M.A.) Salaries tend to be higher for practitioner jobs than academic, as professors pay a price for their greater autonomy. However, professors are able to make up the difference with part-time consulting and other activities (e.g., writing books).




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