Human Factors Psychologist Careers

What is Human Factors Psychology?

Human factors psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on human thoughts, behaviors, strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and abilities. This branch explores human factors that influence the design, evaluation, and implementation of a variety of systems, products, environments, tools, and jobs. What is the purpose of human factors psychology? Well, it is to produce safe and effective products and services. More specifically, human factors psychology examines perceptual and cognitive process, along with system performances, in an effort to create effective human/machine relationships.

The primary goal of this branch of psychology is to research the main components of various systems (i.e. human, environmental, and product). It is important to note that human factors psychology is not the same as counseling, clinical, or organizational psychology. In other words, this branch of psychology does not explore or address individual problems (i.e. psychological distress, mental illnesses, relationship issues, etc.). It does, however, explore how systems function together and apart. Human factors psychology typically involves a heavy workload of researching issues that affect human functioning (i.e. perceptions, behaviors, thought processes, and cognition, in an effort to make products and services more “user friendly”).

Some of the main topics researched and addressed in this branch include: workplace safety, ergonomics, product designs, human errors, human abilities, and the interaction between humans and computers. In addition, a variety of non-psychological industries, such as military, engineering, and government agencies, apply human factors psychological methods and techniques to their business approaches, product creations, and designs. The ultimate goal of human factors psychology is to create usable products and services, while promoting employee safety, productivity, and efficiency.

The field of human factors psychology involves the following tasks:

  • Designing products and services that are both safe and easy to use
  • Developing systems that accommodate specific user groups
  • Improving the accumulation of information, in an effort to reduce human errors
  • Increasing employee productivity by focusing on human performance
  • Decreasing training program costs
  • Preventing, reducing, and/or eliminating mistakes and damages caused by human errors
  • Revamping products and services to make them safer and more “user friendly”
  • Refining workplace environments, in order to make them more acceptable to employees
  • Creating effective workstations, and developing procedures that boost productivity, and lower the risk of fatigue and burnout

What are the Job Duties of a Human Factors Psychologist?

Human factors psychologist studies human behaviors (i.e. capabilities and limitations) by using specially-designed instruments, completing specialized tasks, and working in a particular work environment. More specifically, human factors psychologists use a combo of psychological concepts/theories/methods and engineering techniques to create products and services that will benefit human (people). In other words, human factors psychologists work with engineers to help design products (for consumers) that will improve their quality of life.

These products and services are designed to be safe, user-friendly, and comfortable for consumers. These psychology professions usually work in research laboratories, where they develop, conduct, and supervise human behavior experiments. The results are analyzed, and passed on to engineers, who craft the products or develop services for consumers. Where are these psychologists normally employed? Well, many human factors psychologists work with the military, at government agencies, social service agencies, colleges/universities, businesses, and research laboratories. One of the goals of this type of psychologist is to educate organizations, academia, and consumers on human behaviors (i.e. why people behave in certain ways), in an effort to develop products that will better their lives.

For instance, a human factors psychologist may way work for an automotive company and conduct regular studies on how drivers interact with the equipment inside of the vehicle. In other words, they may test dummies or survey drivers to see how well the airbags work at saving lives or whether or not to add certain amenities to the car to improve safety and function. In this example, a human factors psychologist will study how drivers make decisions, what factors can make a driver high risk, and how perception plays a role in car accidents.

A human factors psychologist may also study and evaluate how humans (people) process information, and/or how this task affects job performance (i.e. productivity and quality). Business may employ this type of psychologist to help boost employee morale and/or improve productivity, quality, and revenue for the company. Lastly, human factors psychologists must be proficient in computer technology, applied psychology, qualitative and quantitative research methods, the concept of methodology, statistics, and physiological psychology methods.

What is the Employment Outlook for Human Factor Psychologists?

The employment outlook for human factors psychologists appears to be strong. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not provide employment data specifically for human factors psychologists, it does provide data for psychology as a whole. The BLS estimates that psychology jobs will grow at an average rate, at about 12 percent annually, for the next several years.

However, the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that human factors psychology is a very hot area of employment at this time, with long periods of steady growth in jobs, highlighted by shorter periods of explosive growth. While the APA doesn’t provide any specific numbers in terms of job growth, they do note that what is driving interest in human factors psychology is the desire for companies to be more functional in their operations, as well as have products that are designed to be more intuitive and enjoyable for consumers to use.

What is the Salary for a Human Factors Psychologist?

According to Indeed, human factors psychologists on average earn around $71,000 per year, as of August 2015. (indeed.com)

What Degree is Required for a Human Factors Psychologist?

The level of education required for human factors psychologists depends on the type of employment that is desired. Entry-level positions, such as research assistant, can be found with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Bachelor’s degree programs usually last four years and include courses on basic psychological topics, such as abnormal behavior, psychological statistics, history and systems of psychology, and the psychology of learning.

However, to be able to conduct research independently or work in the private or public sector, a minimum of a master’s degree in psychology is required. Psychologist licensure and advanced job positions require either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology. In most states, licensure is required before one can call him/herself a “psychologist”.

To be accepted into a master’s degree program, one must first have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Once admitted, graduate students study advanced topics in psychology, in this case, subjects related to human factors psychology. This might include studies in cognitive behavior, human-technology interaction, engineering psychology, and advanced statistics. There is also a very strong research component to human factors psychology graduate programs, with students conducting research in field and laboratory settings under the supervision of faculty members.

Recommended areas of study in doctorate programs include brain science, cognitive science, and research psychology. Each of these disciplines, with a specialized area of study as part of the doctoral dissertation, would be well suited for a career in human factors psychology. Doctoral programs usually involve at least 4-5 years of training, including 1-2 years of postdoctoral work in a setting in which human factors subjects can be researched in-depth. Common courses at the doctoral level include quantitative methods, human factors, computer science, and judgmental processes.

What Do You Learn in a Human Factors Psychology Degree?

Human factors psychology degree programs focus on a number of subjects related to the interrelationship between humans, machines, and their environment, as well as maximizing human performance. Central topics of study include:

  • Human-computer interaction, including how to design computer technologies such that their usability is optimized for human use.
  • Tool and system design, such that worker productivity is increased.
  • Human performance optimization, including methods to improve sensation, perception, cognition, and skills acquisition in a variety of environments.
  • Aviation psychology, especially with respect to improving the ability of aviation workers to remain alert, make appropriate decisions in high-stress situations, and utilize aviation technologies to maintain a safe environment.
  • Engineering psychology, particularly in the realm of product design and development.
  • Environmental design, such as the best layout for operating rooms to minimize the risk of medical personnel making errors.

What students learn in their human factors degree programs depend heavily on their area of concentration. For example, a human factors psychology student whose interest is in improving the performance of workers in an industrial setting might take more industrial-organizational courses than a human factors student who seeks to study ways of improving the cognitive performance of fighter pilots in a high-stress situation.

What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Human Factors Psychology?

Human factors psychology focuses on the study of the relationship between humans and machines or the environment, or the interplay between workers and their tasks. Since the field is relatively broad in that respect, there are a variety of careers in many different settings that an individual with a master’s degree could easily enter into.

Some human factors psychologists work with product designers to study the manner in which people interact with machines and systems. For example, a human factors psychologist might consult with an automaker to make design improvements to a machine such that the worker running it is more productive.

Likewise, many human factors psychologists are involved in user experience design, such that products from mobile phones to websites to the dashboard in a vehicle are designed to improve usability and functionality for the end-user. In this capacity, a human factors psychologist might consult with designers to recommend the ideal placement of buttons or the optimal size of labels.

Another job opportunity for a human factors psychologist is to work in academia. In this context, human factors psychologists teach undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level courses in order to facilitate the development of the next generation of human factors psychologists.

Some human factors psychologists work in the business and industry sector. In that environment, career options might include working with employees to increase their productivity and motivation to work. Additionally, human factors psychologists might work with management to improve workplace environments in order to make them more conducive to high productivity.

An essential feature of many human factors psychology jobs is the focus on reducing human error. This might involve working with airlines to improve pilot training programs or helping in designing the cockpit layout in order to make it as intuitive as possible. Human factors psychologists also work with businesses that have had a product recalled in order to help them redesign the product to make it safer for consumers.

Important: In most states, licensure is required to use the title “psychologist”. Requirements for licensure generally include an APA accredited doctoral degree in psychology, supervised experience under a licensed psychologist, and passing licensure examination (some states may have additional requirements).

What Careers are Similar to Human Factors Psychology?

Several careers in psychology share the goal of human factors psychology to better understand human behavior, improve human systems, and design better products. Related fields include:

  • Engineering psychology, which is concerned with ergonomics, human-machine interactions, and studying human cognition, much like human factors psychology.
  • Aviation psychology uses human factors principles to design better airplane cockpits, improve airline employee training programs, and screen pilots and flight attendants for employment.
  • Industrial-Organizational psychology is the study of human behavior within systems such as the workplace. It seeks to improve group dynamics such that the functioning of the overall system is streamlined and improved while also increasing worker job satisfaction.
  • Cognitive psychology is concerned with the processes of human thought and how to improve our ability to acquire information, process it, and store it for the short and long term.
  • Research psychology seeks to understand various human behaviors and how to describe, explain, predict, and control those behaviors.

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