How to Become a Human Factors Psychologist

The Basics

As technology progresses and our tools become ever more sophisticated and capable of doing more for us, the human factor becomes ever more important. A carriage driver who had an accident during the 19th century could have caused some property damage, serious injuries, or even death to a few people. His descendant working as an air traffic controller could cause the death of hundreds of people in a jumbo jet collision.

Human factors psychologists look at how to ensure that the human factor is the best it can be. They study workplaces and work with engineers and other designers to make sure that factories, offices, and other places of employment are comfortable and safe for workers. They study why errors are made and what factors should be changed to prevent their happening again.

What Does a Human Factors Psychologist Do?

Human factors psychology (also known as ergonomics or human engineering) is an interdisciplinary field that enhances the design of products, systems and environments, making them safer, more productive and more “user-friendly.”

Though this is largely an applied field, human factors psychologists can conduct various types of psychological research, including interviews, scientific experiments, and various types of psychological tests. They can perform research in a multitude of areas, including safety, efficiency, human fatigue, worker morale, management systems and training techniques.

These psychologists can work in just about any environment that includes people, products or machines, and they can help design anything from toothbrushes to electronic equipment to nuclear power plants. They often work for companies who design tools, machines, computers, telecommunications, equipment, entertainment or other products. But they can also work for the Federal Government in the designing of housing, transportation, weapons, ships, or aerospace equipment. They can also serve as general consultants for governmental officials.

Not only do human factors psychologists concern themselves with worker safety, but also with the long-term well-being of workers. They design equipment and machines that reduce the repetitive actions and movements that can cause long-term physical ailments like tendonitis, over-use syndrome, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome in workers.

These psychologists also consult with managers and workers in order to develop better safer and more efficient work habits and methods. They can provide training or re-training of employees and managers in order to increase productivity. This can lead to less down time and fewer health problems for workers while also improving worker efficiency and decreasing a company’s costs.

Human factors psychologists can also help improve the work environment itself, making it safer, cleaner and more efficient. They can improve environmental factors like the lighting or temperature of the work environment, as well as decrease negative factors like vibration, dirt and pollution.

Human factors psychologists work with a wide assortment of people from various other fields, so they must have a basic knowledge of at least some of these fields, such as biomechanics, cognitive psychology, anthropometry, industrial design, industrial engineering, industrial and organizational psychology, information design, kinesiology and physiology.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Human Factors Psychologist?

The education required for an entry level psychologist is a doctoral degree in psychology. The degree can be either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).

To become eligible for graduate studies, an aspiring human factors psychologist needs to enroll in a baccalaureate degree program. A Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) with a major in psychology can be attained in four years of full time study at a university. A bachelor’s degree is usually composed of at least 120 semester units. A full course load is considered 15 units, and full time students typically spend 8 semesters matriculating. General education courses include English, political science, history, humanities, science, and foreign languages, which make up approximately three quarters of a typical student’s undergraduate work. Students usually complete 30 or more semester units in psychology.

Related: Difference Between Applied Psychology and Experimental Psychology

Some universities that offer a bachelor’s degree in human factors include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida and Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. Embry-Riddle’s program includes exciting courses designed for the cutting edge in technology, including subjects like human factors in space, aviation psychology, and simulating humans in complex systems, to name just a few. Texas Tech offers courses such as psychology of lifespan development and aging, cognitive ergonomics, and several other interesting courses.

High school students looking toward a career in human factors psychology should see the schools’ catalogs and speak to guidance counselors at the schools. Many other online and campus-based universities offer bachelor’s degree programs in general psychology with at least some of the same course material.

Graduate Degree

Aspiring human factor psychologists should apply to graduate school during their senior year of undergraduate work. Schools that offer graduate programs in human factors psychology include, but not limited to, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Undergraduate students should study catalogs and discuss their plans with faculty advisors at the universities in which they are interested.

PhD Degree

Doctoral programs usually offer students the opportunity to have actual supervised experience in their field. A dissertation is also required. A doctoral candidate selects a faculty adviser and faculty committee to guide him or her in selecting a topic for research, designing a study, carrying it out, and interpreting results. The student then writes a report, or dissertation, which he or she presents to his or her faculty adviser and committee. If the dissertation is acceptable to the faculty, the candidate is granted his or her doctoral degree. Graduate studies at the doctoral level can typically take 3 to 5 years.

What is an Online Program in Human Factors Psychology?

Online human factors degree programs focus students’ attention on developing a deep understanding of the psychological, biological, physical, and social characteristics that influence the manner in which humans interact with machines, technology, and everyday products. Students in these programs acquire the ability to take that knowledge and apply it to design products such that they are more intuitive, usable, and function better for the end user.

Typical classes in an online human factors psychology program will include statistics, experimental methodologies, industrial engineering, and, of course, various psychology courses. Much of the coursework in these programs centers around a research component, as psychologists that work in the human factors field will conduct a lot of research, regardless of the work setting.

Online studies in human factors have the same goal as traditional on-campus programs: to prepare students for employment in government, academics, research, or industrial settings. As a result, online programs will seek to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to get hands-on experience via practicum or internship placements.

Graduates in this field may find work in a wide variety of fields and applications. Many graduates work in business and industry where they provide insights into the manner in which customers interact with certain products. Other human factors psychology graduates strictly conduct research for independent research facilities or government entities. Still other graduates work with designers to provide insight into how a product should be designed, such as the size or shape of the product, or the size and placement of any buttons or labels.

Getting Licensed

States, territories, and provinces require every practicing psychologist to have a license issued by their Board of Psychology or Board of Psychology Examiners. To become licensed, psychologists must show proof of attaining their doctorates as well as fulfilling other requirements created by each board. The majority of boards require a passing grade on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). The examination was written by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards based upon a 2010 survey of professional psychologists. The Association charges $600.00 to take the test and local testing boards may charge additional fees.

Most psychology boards also require practical experience, Michigan, for example, requires candidates to have 500 hours of practicum during training and 2000 hours of experience with a temporary license before psychologists can be awarded a permanent license. Some boards require special tests on their own state laws as well.

Future psychologists should check with their state boards for individual licensing requirements. Licenses are usually granted for 2 years, and psychologists are required to take continuing education courses to keep abreast of new discoveries in psychology and to maintain their licenses.

What are the Careers in Human Factors Psychology?

Human factors psychologists can work for government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Heatlh Administration (OSHA) or the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA). They can study how to make the human/machine interface more efficient in industry or help design training simulators and test pilots for ability to handle airplanes safely. They can work for industry finding ways to make electronic devices more user-friendly. They can do basic research on perception and working with machines in universities.

As technology and people interact in more ways the field of human factor psychology will continue to present an ever-changing challenge.

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