Difference Between an MBA and a Master’s in Industrial Organizational Psychology [2024]

Industrial organizational psychology is a unique field of study and practice because it focuses specifically on using psychological principles to improve the workplace. This can be done in any number of ways, from improving the onboarding experience for new employees, working with human resources to develop employee retention programs, or mediating between workers and management, to name a few.

Another reason industrial-organizational psychology (I-O) is unique is that you can use several different degrees to start your career. At the master’s level, this includes two popular options: a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an emphasis in I-O psychology or a master’s degree in I-O psychology, which is offered as a Master of Arts or Master of Science, depending on the program.

The question is, should you pursue a traditional I-O psychology degree, or should you get an MBA with an emphasis in I-O psychology? Let’s investigate!

MBA Vs. Master's in Industrial Organizational Psychology

MBA Vs. Master’s in Industrial Organizational Psychology

An MBA focuses on broad business management skills, ideal for leadership roles across industries. A masters in industrial-organizational psychology specializes in workplace behavior, enhancing HR, and organizational development careers.

On the one hand, an MBA comes from a management point of view that prepares you for leadership roles in the business world. On the other hand, an I-O psychology master’s degree is focused less on the specialized skills one needs to be a business leader and instead examines human behavior in workplace settings.

So, how does this fundamental difference play out in a graduate program? The short answer is that these programs have significant differences in the coursework and learning outcomes. Let’s dive in more deeply

Differences in Coursework

As an MBA student, you can expect your program to be anywhere from 20-40 credits, though some programs require more. Generally speaking, you can complete MBA coursework in two years, though, again, this varies from one program to the next. In some cases, you might be able to complete your coursework in as little as a year. In others, you might need three or more years to finish.

There are two primary factors at play regarding how long an MBA takes to complete: the length of the program and the number of courses you take each semester. Enroll in a 33-credit program and take 12 credits in the fall, another 12 in the spring, and 9 in the summer, and you’ll be done in one academic year. However, enroll in a program requiring 40 credits, and you will likely need 3.5 years to finish. Taking classes part-time obviously extends the timeline to graduation even further.

During your time in an MBA program, you will complete traditional coursework in an on-campus or online environment. This might include independent reading, conducting research and writing papers, and participating in class discussions with your peers and professors. You can expect to take business-related courses like the following:

  • Leadership and Organizational Behavior
  • Marketing Management
  • Business Law
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Managerial Economics

You can also expect to take I-O psychology-related courses. For example, MBA I-O psychology degrees commonly require courses like Personnel Psychology, Experimental Design, and Training and Development as part of the curriculum. It’s also common for an MBA I-O program to include a significant research or internship component. In some cases, you might have to do both – a master’s thesis and an internship in a business setting.

A traditional I-O psychology graduate program is a little different. While you will still take some business-related classes, the focus is usually far more in the I-O psychology realm. For example, rather than taking specific courses in leadership, management, accounting, and so forth, your coursework might include topics like Personnel Selection and Evaluation, Principles of Group Dynamics, and Legal Issues in Human Resource Management. Other common coursework in a master’s I-O program typically includes the following:

  • Occupational Health Psychology
  • Organizational Attitudes
  • Psychometric Theory
  • Organizational Psychology
  • Individual and Cultural Differences

As you can see, the MBA coursework is a blend of business-focused and I-O-focused courses. You might even characterize them as standalone courses from each discipline that you take in the same graduate program. But the coursework in a traditional IO psychology program has a greater emphasis on the IO side of the equation and learning how to apply that learning specifically in business environments.

An I-O graduate degree typically includes an internship. But, unlike many MBA I-O programs, traditional I-O programs focus more on getting you real-world experience working in a business environment as opposed to conducting research and writing a thesis. There are always exceptions to the rule, though!

Differences in Learning Outcomes

The differences in learning outcomes between an MBA I-O program and a traditional I-O graduate degree are reflective of their differences in coursework. So, an MBA program’s learning outcomes generally adhere to the tenets of leadership and management preparation, as follows:

  • Demonstrate strong leadership and management skills.
  • Exhibit the ability to think critically, problem-solve, and communicate effectively.
  • Demonstrate self-awareness that enhances your ability to make decisions.
  • Utilize appropriate business tools, analytics, research, and other resources to make effective decisions.
  • Understand the role of individual and group behavior on the functionality of a workplace on a day-to-day basis.

Many MBA I-O programs also require graduates to explore the implications of their business decisions, show an ability to integrate business and psychology skills to solve real-world problems, and lead teams of highly diverse people toward a common business goal.

If you are a student in an I-O psychology graduate program, though, your learning objectives might look and feel a little different. For example, as an MBA student, you might be required to show strong leadership and management skills. But as an I-O student, you might also be asked to demonstrate an ability to facilitate the growth of leadership and management skills in other people.

This isn’t to say that you won’t learn how to help others grow as leaders in an MBA program or that you won’t learn how to be a leader yourself in an IO program. But the primary focuses of these programs remain distinct.

Other common I-O psychology learning objectives include the following:

  • Utilize theoretical frameworks from psychology to enhance the short-term and long-term operation of businesses.
  • Understand how to utilize ethical and legal decision-making processes in workplace settings.
  • Combine technical psychology skills with interpersonal and business skills to effect positive change in the workplace.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in the major areas of IO psychology, including group dynamics, diversity and multiculturalism, career development, and occupational health, among others.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in scientific research, oral and written communication, and report writing.

Differences in Career Opportunities

With a traditional MBA, careers in management and executive positions are extremely common. Many people with an MBA also choose to start their own businesses. An MBA I-O program, though, can open up even more career paths.

For example, you might start your own I-O psychology consulting firm with the combined expertise gained from an MBA and an I-O psychology concentration. As another example, you might find a management position in a large company’s human resources department as a nice fit for your skill set.

Some people with MBAs in I-O psychology work in specific business fields, too. For example, you might begin your career in marketing, working as a marketing manager overseeing a team of diverse business professionals. You could also work as an operations manager and analyze the efficacy of business practices for targeted improvements in operations that can improve employee’s on-the-job performance and satisfaction.

As a graduate of an I-O program, your career prospects can be a little different. Typically, people with a master’s degree in I-O psychology don’t find themselves in executive positions like MBA graduates often do. But, managerial positions are certainly attainable. Using the human resources example from above, you might be in charge of a large company’s HR department, where you design recruitment and retention programs, work to settle employee disputes, and act as a mediator between employees and management.

It’s not uncommon for I-O psychology graduates to work in the organizational management space. This niche career focuses mostly on working with upper-level management to reorganize a business’ structure to improve communication, the business culture, and make the business more capable of achieving its mission and goals.

Yet another possibility to consider with an I-O degree is to work as an executive coach. Managers and executives in businesses of all kinds to assist them in gaining new skills, polishing old ones, and improving their leadership performance.

Clearly, the careers you can pursue with either of these degrees are closely related to business. But, just like coursework and learning outcomes are slightly different, so are the work opportunities after graduation.

Is a Masters in Industrial-Organizational Psychology Worth It?

A master’s degree in industrial-organizational psychology is absolutely worth it. From a career standpoint, you’ll get much further in IO psychology with a master’s degree than you will with a bachelor’s degree. Better still, most I-O psychology jobs only require a master’s, as opposed to a doctorate.

Another benefit of getting an I-O master’s degree is that you can use your skills in any business in any corner of the world. You can work in educational settings, manufacturing, finance, and many other points in between. The wide applicability of your skills makes finding a satisfactory career much easier.

Related to that is the growing need for IO psychologists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I-O psychology jobs will grow at a rate of six percent in the coming years, which is a faster rate of growth than average. With more jobs becoming available and the need for I-O psychologists in a wide range of industries, the job market should be advantageous for master’s-level graduates like yourself.

It’s worth noting the personal and professional benefits you gain by completing a degree like this. It’s a significant accomplishment to get a master’s degree and something you can take much pride in. From a professional standpoint, you will be well-equipped to provide competent, ethical services to your employer or clients – services that can make or break a business’s ability to keep its doors open.

What is the Difference Between an MA and MS in I-O Psychology?

There is a lot of overlap between MA and MS I-O psychology programs, and in some cases, it’s hard to tell any differences between the two. However, some MA programs have a practice focus, whereas some MS programs focus more heavily on research.

So, if you are in an MA program, you might have more coursework in applying I-O principles in the workplace, including an internship in a business environment. But in an MS program, you might take more courses in psychological statistics and research, and write a thesis or complete a capstone project in lieu of a field-based internship.

This difference can be seen in how you apply what you learn in an MA vs MS program in I-O psychology. For example, an MA program might better prepare you to enhance a company’s recruitment, retention, and employee training programs. An MS program, on the other hand, might be better suited to working in analytical fields, like evaluating employee performance to identify ways to improve productivity.

Can You Call Yourself an I-O Psychologist With a Master’s?

Typically, master’s-level I-O psychologists are not called I-O psychologists. There are three primary reasons for this.

First, the term “psychologist” is most frequently reserved for state-licensed professionals with a doctoral degree in psychology. Second, “psychologist” usually infers a clinical position – something that I-O psychology is not. And third, most I-O jobs are better described by another title, like Human Resources Manager, Organizational Effectiveness Consultant, or Staffing and Recruiting Manager.

Related Reading

Copyright © 2024 PsychologySchoolGuide.net. All Rights Reserved. Program outcomes can vary according to each institution's curriculum and job opportunities are not guaranteed. This site is for informational purposes and is not a substitute for professional help.