As our world becomes increasingly technologically driven, more and more time and energy is being spent on how to make technology, tools, and work systems more productive, efficient, and easy to use. From the way that buttons are designed on our remote controls to the way that dials on a car dashboard are organized to the setup of an emergency room, there is much thought given every day to how we interact with technology and the environments we create. The pursuit of improving upon these tools and systems is never ending.
Engineering psychology operates at the crossroads between human behavior and performance of technology. Students pursuing a degree in this field of study typically focus on psychological topics, such as research methods, psychological statistics, and human behavior. But they also study how to apply psychological principles to improve upon the elements in our everyday lives and workplaces that are outlined above. Although degree programs in this field are quite rare, those that are offered to students provide the coursework and practical experiences they will need to be effective engineering psychologists.
What is an Engineering Psychology Degree?
Students that pursue an education in engineering psychology prepare themselves to make contributions to businesses, organizations, and agencies regarding everything from the design of new products to the layout of office spaces to research and development of human-machine systems. Essentially, engineering psychology degree programs help bring together knowledge and understanding of human traits, strengths, and weaknesses with knowledge and understanding of engineering principles of equipment design, architecture, and ergonomics, to name a few.
To work in the field of engineering psychology, one must complete a master’s degree program at a minimum. However, it is far more common for workers in this field to complete a doctoral program.
Programs of study in engineering psychology are relatively new. And while there are some graduate programs dedicated to the study of engineering psychology, the bulk of graduate programs seem to be in human factors psychology, performance psychology, research psychology, or experimental psychology, with the opportunity to specialize in engineering psychology.
Regardless of the type of program, students should expect to spend at least 2-3 years completing their graduate work. The number of credits required to complete graduate programs is extremely varied. Some programs may require as few as 30-36 credit hours while others may require more than 60 credit hours to graduate. The admissions requirements for graduate programs are similarly varied. However, all programs will require applicants to have a satisfactory undergraduate GPA and scores on aptitude tests that meet minimum standards. Common areas of study in a graduate program in engineering psychology include:
- Engineering psychology – Students explore the how humans process, store, and retrieve information and how the design of machines, technologies, buildings, and other systems can be developed to improve that flow of information. Courses in this area also explore human performance.
- Methods of engineering psychology – Coursework on methods of engineering psychology shift the focus of study to analysis of protocols, costs and benefits, user interactions, and reliability analyses, to name a few.
- Cognitive neuroscience – This class helps students develop a better understanding of how humans think, including the neural structures and processes responsible for thought. Additionally, students examine specific cognitive processes, such as attention, perception, memory, and language.
- Quantitative methods – Graduate students explore concepts related to statistical analysis, including how to gather, analyze, and report on data in experimental and research situations.
- Thesis research – Most graduate programs in engineering psychology require students to complete a thesis. This involves advanced research into a topic related to engineering psychology, and often must include some level of experimentation as well. Students must then present and defend their findings to a panel of professors.
As mentioned above, most engineering psychologists hold a doctoral degree. These programs commence upon the completion of a graduate degree program. In fact, most doctoral programs require applicants to the program to already have a graduate degree in hand. Other common admission requirements include having a satisfactory GPA, experience in conducting psychological research, graduate coursework in human factors and engineering psychology, and approval of a committee of professors to be admitted to the program.
Doctoral studies in psychology typically focus on one of two areas: research or clinical practice. Because engineering psychology focuses on research and practical application of psychological principles to the design and implementation of human-machine systems, doctoral programs in this field are designed to be reflective of those duties.
In fact, the vast majority of a doctoral student’s time will be spent conducting research in a specific area of interest. For an engineering psychology student, this might mean spending several years researching how to improve the ergonomic design of office products, such as office chairs or desks, that improve worker productivity. Additionally, a doctoral dissertation is required. The dissertation also requires in-depth research into a specific topic, which must include theory analysis and experimentation to test one’s hypothesis. Dissertations often take several semesters to research and develop, and culminate with an oral defense toward the end of the period of study.
Another requirement doctoral students commonly must complete includes seminars on subjects of interest or relevance to their research. For engineering psychology students, this might include studies on ergonomics, systems design, or human-technology interactions.
What is an Online Engineering Psychology Degree?
At present, there are very few – if any – online graduate or doctoral programs specifically in engineering psychology. However, students interested in obtaining an online degree in a closely related field, such as human factors psychology or experimental psychology, may be able to tailor their studies toward engineering psychology.
Like on-campus studies, online master’s and doctoral degrees in this field focus on developing strong research and design skills so that students have the tools they need to address issues related to engineering and psychology. While courses are similar to those offered on campus, obviously online classes are much more flexible in terms of when students complete their studies. However, some classes may require students to participate in an online forum or discussion at specific times.
To fulfill research, internship, or fellowship requirements, graduate and doctoral students pursuing an online degree often are given the opportunity to work at a location close to their home. In instances in which this is not a possibility, students may have to travel to campus to complete those requirements.
Online degree programs typically have similar admissions requirements as on-campus programs. In psychology, online students typically must demonstrate the academic and research abilities needed to complete these studies, as evidenced by adequate grades at the undergraduate or graduate level and appropriately high test scores. Often, online programs will require students to submit other documentation to demonstrate their abilities, such as a personal statement or letters of recommendation from professors.
What Does it Take to Get a Degree in Engineering Psychology?
Aside from having the time and money needed to complete an advanced degree in this field, there are numerous personal qualities and characteristics that a graduate student or doctoral student must have if they are to be successful. These include:
Strong work ethic – Years and years of attending school full-time with heavy class loads, extensive research requirements, internship placements, and defenses of theses and dissertations require students to be dedicated to their studies. There will be many instances in which students must choose schoolwork over spending time with family and friends.
Motivation – Years of schooling can cause students to lose sight of their end goal. Maintaining a high level of motivation is necessary if students in this field are to achieve their goal of obtaining an advanced degree.
Technical understanding – Engineering psychology students must be able to cross the boundary between engineering and psychology. This requires not only a deep understanding of psychological principles, but also of highly advanced concepts in math, science, and technology.
Strong analytical skills – Engineering and psychology alike require students to be highly analytical. Success in engineering psychology is found for individuals that are naturally inquisitive, can examine situations, and envision ways to make things work better and more efficiently.
Strong problem-solving skills – Engineering psychology students must also have exceptional problem-solving skills. Not only do engineering psychologists work to solve problems related to human factors, but they must also be able to solve problems on the engineering side as well.
What Can You Do With a Degree in Engineering Psychology?
Individuals that hold a degree in engineering psychology have a wide variety of career options available to them. Among the most common is in the research sector. Here, engineering psychologists conduct studies to examine the relationship between humans and machines. For example, an engineering psychologist might work for a mobile phone manufacturer to research how people interact with their mobile phones and provide that information to developers such that they can create new designs to better meet mobile phone users’ needs.
Many engineering psychologists also design materials and systems that are easy for humans to use. An example might be working with a satellite television provider to design a guide system that is easy to understand, intuitive, functional, and aesthetically pleasing. In this capacity, engineering psychologists use their understanding of human traits, like hearing capacity and field of vision, to create machines, tools, and other items that humans can easily manipulate.
Some engineering psychologists work for businesses and organizations in a consultative role. The duties associated with this type of employment are generally focused on improving worker performance or enhancing the safety of a workplace. For example, an engineering psychologist working for an automobile manufacturer might consult with the company to devise safety regulations and assembly line design that minimize or prevent human injuries. Other engineering psychologists work with architects and engineers to design entire buildings. The role of engineering psychologists in this setting is to impart information regarding how humans tend to use space so that the building design enhances productive use of that space.
Another popular employment setting for engineering psychologists is in the field of academics. Psychologists with training in this field might work with graduate or doctoral students on specific courses of study that involve engineering psychology. However, some engineering psychologists may work with undergraduate students and teach courses in more mainstream areas of psychology, such as physiological psychology, developmental psychology, and abnormal psychology. Engineering psychologists that work at the university level are usually responsible for conducting research as well. This would be undertaken in the field or in laboratories on campus, with the purpose of contributing advanced knowledge to the field through a published study.
A final area of employment for people with a degree in this field is with government agencies. The Department of Transportation, NASA, and the Federal Highway Administration all employ engineering psychologists. A psychologist employed by NASA would likely contribute to the design of systems, dials, and the layout of spacecraft cockpits. In a transportation role, engineering psychologists would assist in developing a traffic plan that improves traffic flow and reduces stress on both the traffic systems and on the drivers that use them.
What Degrees are Similar to Engineering Psychology?
Engineering psychology is a fairly unique degree program. However, there are several other areas of study within psychology that share some common characteristics. These include:
Human factors psychology – The primary point of study in a human factors psychology program is the relationship between humans and machines. Human characteristics such as hearing, vision, decision-making, and hand-eye coordination as they pertain to using technologies are also studied.
Aviation psychology – Like engineering psychology students, individuals pursuing a degree in aviation psychology study elements of engineering. In this context, however, psychologists are concerned with how aviation systems, gauges, and displays are designed and how pilots and other crew interact with them.
Sports and performance psychology – Studies in sports and performance psychology focus on how humans perform in various situations, as well as how to improve performance. This might include studying programs to help athletes maximize their performance on the field. It might also involve research and design of specialized programs for individuals to improve things like concentration and memory.