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.

Human factors psychologists 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.

Related Reading: How to Become a Research Psychologist

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.

Human factors psychologists can also 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 also 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.

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.

Some universities that offer a bachelor’s degree in human factors or industrial psychology 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 is an Online Master’s 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.

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

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.

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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