Doctorate Degrees in Industrial/Organizational Psychology – PsyD and PhD Programs

Any kind of human interaction has psychological implications. Savvy business owners have always understood that. It might be hard to believe now, but there was a time when teamwork wasn’t understood as a psychological game that companies needed to figure out in order to improve productivity. But the rise of production line efficiency experts around the turn of the 19th Century changed all that and marked the beginning of what would eventually become the field of industrial/organizational psychology.

Time and motion studies focused on how workers behaved through the course of the day on their jobs. Real efficiencies were cooked out of that data. If you’ve ever used a foot pedal to open a garbage can, you are using an innovation developed by Lillian Gilbreth, who was breaking ground in several different directions at once by becoming one of the leading efficiency experts of her day. As simple as they were by today’s standards, those early concepts served as the building blocks for the warp-speed innovations in automation, robotics and AI that Amazon fulfillment centers are now known for.

But the idea of redesigning the workplace didn’t stop at locating machines and tools in new places. Smart researchers realized that human factors were at work, too… factors that the newly expanding field of psychology was perfectly placed to address.

Today’s I/O psychologists have moved on to more advanced subjects, measuring interpersonal team dynamics, assessing leadership potential, and evaluating cultural impacts. It’s advanced stuff, and doctoral programs pack it all in.

If you are interested in psychology, but feel like you have a knack for business and how people work together as part of a team in any job setting, industrial/organizational psychology is probably the niche for you.

Frederick Winslow Taylor wasn’t a psychologist, but he’s credited with pioneering the concepts that evolved to become I/O psychology. A mechanical engineer by profession, the field of I/O psychology largely springs from Winslow’s theories of scientific management.

Taylor managed to revolutionize American industry, even in the midst of the quantum leaps in mechanization and productivity already taking place during the industrial revolution. His experimental approaches to determining the most effective production methods are still standard reading for anybody going into the field of I/O psychology.

A simple experiment he conducted at a steel mill uncovered one revolutionary finding that has stuck around for generations: the coffee break. Though it seemed counterintuitive to factory owners and floor supervisors at the time, his research revealed that allowing workers to take breaks increased productivity nearly four-fold.

What Is Industrial/Organizational Psychology? – Job Description of an I/O Psychologist

Industrial/organizational psychology is the study of human behavior in organizations and in the workplace.

Obviously, that’s a broad field that can cover just about any kind of coordinated human activity. And I/O psychologists can indeed be found in just about every kind of organization, from the National Security Administration to Facebook to Wall Street hedge funds.

That diverse range of organizations also folds in a broad array of jobs. I/O psychologists do sometimes work one-on-one with individuals to boost their performance and deal with work-related psychological difficulties. But they also work as analysts and advisors, looking from the top down into organizational morale and resilience and developing new strategies to improve overall performance in companies.

It’s a talent that is tailor-made for human resources departments. While major corporations and big agencies might have I/O psychologists on staff, it’s more common to work for consulting firms that parachute in to analyze situations and make recommendations as needed.

It’s common to use I/O psychologists to create or review hiring and promotion processes, help develop training courses, or analyze human factors in workplace safety and accident scenarios.

Psychologists are also brought in when companies are facing major industry changes or shake-ups to figure out the best ways to communicate. They consult on strategy development and change management initiatives, helping the workforce adapt quickly and smoothly to new situations. Or, less happily, they may be brought in when mass layoffs are on the horizon, to help both those let go and those remaining cope with the inevitable feelings of loss and chaos.

Most psychologists expect to spend their days dealing with people, or at least human organizations, but that’s no longer always the case for industrial/organizational psychologists. More and more, they are being called on to consult on the increasing use of artificial intelligence in business and industrial settings.

A traditional role for the I/O psych has always been creating processes for interviews and job placement. But companies like HireVue are taking those decisions out of the hands of humans entirely, and letting machine-learning trained AI algorithms make pre-hire assessments.

That’s a big time-saver, and potentially a lot more accurate than the subjectivity of human evaluation… assuming the algorithm is trained appropriately. But in 2017, Amazon landed in hot water for trying the same thing, and inadvertently turning it into an automated gender-bias machine.

The team who fed the training data to the algorithm used a historical analysis of resumes for successful Amazon engineers. Except previous sexist hiring practices had tainted that data… 75 percent were male. The algorithm, naturally, prioritized men in its recommendations, ignoring highly qualified female applicants.

Such software projects have all the potential in the world to genuinely reduce human biases and improve industrial processes. As AI is being asked to take control of everything from power grids to hunter-killer drones, I/O psychologists are taking on ever more important roles in understanding and questioning the logic going into the algorithms.

It’s an exciting way to blend a talent for psychological insight and human motivations with the thrill and challenge of business. But it takes an advanced education to really put the two together.

Picking the Right School for Your Industrial/Organizational Psychology Degree

For starters, you probably want to find a school that offers an industrial/organizational specialization in their psychology doctoral program.

It’s not a strict requirement that you specialize in order to get a job in the field. Many practicing I/O psychs didn’t start out on that path. But if you know going in that it’s the field you prefer to work in, it only makes sense to get as much formal training as possible as you earn your doctorate.

It also makes sense to tailor that training as much as possible to your specific interests in the field. Most psychology doctoral programs publish information about their faculty and current research underway at the university. You’ll have both the best chances at getting in, and get the best education, if you pick a school where faculty interests line up with your own.

Is a PhD and a PsyD Better Suited for a Career in Industrial/Organizational Psychology?

As you are browsing schools with I/O specializations, you’ll notice that some of them are offered as PhDs and others as PsyD.

Although there are some differences between the two types of degree, either one is perfectly acceptable in any professional setting where a doctoral degree is required.

PsyD – Doctor of Psychology: PsyD degrees are practice-focused and real world solutions-oriented. They are built around teaching the practical applications of psychology for real industrial applications. Although you will learn about the crucial roles of research and experimentation, your focus will be on applied principles of I/O psychology.

PhD – Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology: A PhD program, on the other hand, is more focused on the theory of I/O psychology and on research and an academic understanding of the principles involved. Although PhD students will get plenty of hands-on clinical skill training, their primary preparation will be for behind-the-scenes work in the field.

There’s nothing preventing a PhD graduate from launching a successful clinical practice, and many PsyD graduates go on to illustrious careers in academics and theoretical work. But the subtle differences between these types of programs is something worth thinking about when deciding on a degree.

Remote Learning Through Online Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology

Another decision to make as you are selecting a doctoral program is whether or not you prefer to study online. Of course, psychology is a very face-to-face business, so even online PsyD degrees are not completely online. You’ll still have to complete your practicum and contact hours in-person at a real world office or industrial setting, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be near the school you are attending. Reputable online programs often have arrangements in place for field placements coast to coast throughout the country.

But even just shifting those regular classroom requirements to remote learning can open up a world of possibilities. Your schedule is no longer constrained by an arbitrary set of timeslots that classes are offered; instead, you can study at any time of the day or night, whenever you are free. It doesn’t even have to be the same hours from day to day or week to week. That opens up enormous flexibility for holding down a current job, or handling family obligations, or just getting things done when you are feeling most productive.

Similarly, you aren’t locked in to having to be in a particular location. Suddenly, that hot program halfway across the country that would have required relocating for seven years suddenly seems a lot more practical. You can consider schools that never would have been an option before, giving you a better shot at both admissions and finding the best fit.

Today’s online degrees are every bit the equal of traditional in-person teaching, so the choice is really up to you and what fits your goals the best.

How To Meet the Entrance Requirements for an Industrial/Organizational Psychology Doctorate

Let’s not forget that picking a program really goes two ways: you can pick what schools you apply to, but they pick who gets in.

That’s a very select group these days, with far fewer doctorates with an I/O specializations than you would find with most other psychology focus areas. And most admit only a handful of students each year.

The competition to get into an industrial/organizational psychology doctorate will be stiff and you’ll need to start thinking about how to qualify long before you fill out your application.

You’ll start at the undergraduate level. Your major doesn’t have to be in psychology, but it will definitely be a plus if it is. No matter what, you’ll need to maintain a GPA above 3.0 for most programs to even bother looking at you.

You’ll also need to cover a few important prerequisite courses. Prereqs in areas like statistics, abnormal psychology and human development are usually included in psychology bachelor’s programs, but you will have to seek them out separately if you didn’t major in psychology.

Relevant experience on your application should show either volunteer hours or paid work in a psychology-adjacent position, both of which go a long way to establishing your intentions and commitment.

You’ll also want to start lining up character references early. You’ll need former bosses or professors to write up some dazzling letters of recommendation to submit; three or more are commonly required.

And you’ll have to do a little dazzling writing of your own as well. Most programs require submission of an essay outlining your interests and what you plan to do with your degree. They want winners, and you need to show you can be one.

Some schools will require submission of scores from a standardized test, usually the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) to show your verbal and quantitative reasoning skills. The results will be weighed with the rest of your packet.

Good luck!

APA Accreditation is an Important Consideration When Picking an I/O Psychology Program

Part of why it’s so hard to get into a psychology doctorate program has to do with something we noted above: there are relatively few APA-accredited programs available.

Every state board of psychology licensing requires that you have a degree from an APA-accredited school in order to practice psychology. To achieve that status, or even just keep the option open, it all starts with getting into one of those accredited schools.

What it boils down to is high standards. The APA has professionals evaluating these programs who know exactly what to look for in a school that can deliver excellence in psychology training, and are all trained to look at factors like:

  • Instructor qualifications and hiring process
  • Grading standards and appeals
  • Ethics and professional psychology values
  • Availability of resources for students
  • Recruitment and advertising standards
  • Administrative support and processes

When you put it all together, it’s the kind of education that employers and clients can count on. And whether you plan to practice clinically or not, that is an endorsement that is the kind of gold standard that is worth paying for.

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Curriculum and Electives in a Doctoral Program in Industrial/Organizational Psychology

A doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology comes along with some of the most focused coursework in the entire field of psychology. There’s a deep and well-researched body of work out there that is very specific to I/O studies, which is one of the reasons you want a program that offers an I/O concentration. Most of your coursework will be very specific to the specialty, even when it addresses more general psychological principles.

Research Methods and Statistics – A lot of what happens in I/O psych is based on careful study and scientific analysis. You’ll usually start off your degree program with coursework in quantitative methods and statistics to give you a solid grounding for conducting such analysis.

Organizational Psychology – The peculiar interactions of people working in groups toward common goals has kicked off its own unique category of psychological knowledge. You’ll learn what historical study and observation has uncovered about how people behave differently in groups than individually, and how the collective will can sometimes lead in unexpected directions.

Human Factors – You will study the individual psyche operating in a work environment, too, with the unique drives and motivations that come from employment. This will also include physical factors such as ergonomics and how they impact health and well-being. The interactions of humans and machinery in the modern world, from industrial equipment to computers, will also be examined.

Leadership and Culture – Shaping the attitudes and engagement of people in organizations is what the science of leadership is all about. You’ll study what makes a leader, and how leaders shape a culture. The impacts of business structure on culture will be analyzed.

Professional and Business Ethics – Ethics figure strongly in ever sort of psychology doctoral program. It’s a field where you are peering inside of people’s minds, so everyone wants to make sure you are playing by the rules. In I/O psych, this extends beyond the conventional elements of ethical and regulatory compliance to look at the role of ethics in business relationships and the conduct of business entities.

Motivation and Performance – Understanding what makes people tick and how to make them more engaged in their work is built up out of the basics that you study in these courses. You’ll look at theories as well as practical examples of employee motivation and different ways of measuring performance in the workplace.

Hiring and Job Selection Factors – Many I/O psychs end up devising ways to make sure that the right people end up in the right jobs. It’s a science to itself, from administering Myers-Briggs tests to interpreting the results in view of the positions that need to be filled. You’ll also learn about how jobs can be structured to bring together duties that are best related to one another so the optimal candidate can be found.

Clinical Assessment and Treatment – Your first-hand clinical skills aren’t neglected in I/O programs. You’ll still get the full helping of doctoral-grade expertise in diagnosing psychopathologies, developing a rapport with patients, and developing and implementing treatment plans. You will likely find all of these topics addressed from the I/O perspective, however, so they will deal with handling stress and conflict in the workplace, or coaching up performance

As with all doctoral psych programs, you’ll polish all that classroom study off with actual hands-on practice in a professional environment. Practicum placements can be made at almost any organization with I/O needs. Picking a good I/O program will often involve checking out what corporations or entities they have relationships with so you can build up practicum experience in sectors relevant to your career goals.

A Dissertation Covering an Aspect of Applied Psychology Caps Off Your I/O Doctoral Program

All your coursework in I/O psychology will be fascinating, but the core of your degree will come when you wrap it all together in a single masterpiece: your doctoral dissertation.

Amounting to around 50 pages of closely-reasoned, well-supported writing, the typical dissertation takes a year or more to produce. But you can also look at it as the culminating effort of all the years you spend in your doctoral studies. It’s designed to represent unique and original ideas that you develop over that period, supported by direct research that you design and conduct.

In I/O psych, this might mean exploring topics like the effects of workplace surveillance, automation or artificial intelligence. You might explore the implications of globalization and international trade policies. Remote work in the COVID era presents dozens of angles to consider alone. When it comes to exploring topics related to how psychology can be applied to workplaces, supply chains and trade policy, there is no shortage of questions and solutions worthy of a dissertation.

PsyD programs now offer the doctoral project as an applied version of the same type of exploration that would involve putting together a direct example using real-world scenarios, a departure from the traditional theory-based PhD dissertation.

Either way, you’ll work closely with your advisor, and have to present and defend your work to a dissertation committee. In the end, you’ll have a publication or presentation-quality piece of work to your name that will show your skills and qualifications as you enter the field.

Certification Options and Licensure in Industrial/Organizational Psychology

The American Board of Professional Psychology used to offer certification in I/O psychology, but it wasn’t a winner; due to low demand, the credential was discontinued.

Instead, a new specialty board was created, combining industrial/organizational with Human Factors and Consulting Psychology into a new Organizational & Business Psychology certification.

It’s a tell that the previous certification was not in demand among I/O specialists—that means employers weren’t too interested in it. With qualifiers that include proof of I/O specific coursework, and a total of two years of postdoc experience in the field, rounded off by an examination and continuing ed requirements, you might decide it’s not worth the hassle either. But, as with licensure, there may also be specific jobs or practice areas in which you will want to look into it more.

Will You Need a License To Work as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist?

Probably not! There are many practicing psychologists working in I/O consultancy firms who don’t even have a doctorate. And you can’t get licensed by any state in the country as a clinical psychologist without graduating from an APA-accredited doctoral program.

The real determining factors will be the state requirements where you plan to work, and the type of practice you will enter. No state allows you to work in direct patient treatment as a psychologist without a license, but that’s not something you’ll be doing in this role anyway.

For some other psychology jobs, the kind that are common in I/O psychology, the rules are fuzzier. In states like Illinois or Oregon, there are specific carve-outs in the licensing laws to allow I/O psychologists to practice in organizational settings without getting a license. In other states, nothing is spelled out, and you’ll have to consult the licensing board and find out on the basis of your duties whether you’ll need a license or not.

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Return on Investment with a Degree in I/O Psychology: Salary and Job Opportunities

According to a 2016 APA survey looking at the cost of psychology doctoral programs, even relatively affordable public university programs cost $11,000 per year. Out-of-state tuition at those schools was more than double that, at $24,000 per year. And if you wanted to attend a prestigious private school, it would set you back a whopping $34,000 every year. We’ll let you do the math on what a seven-year doctorate would total up to at those rates.

If that gives you a case of sticker shock, then finding out what they make will bring a sigh of relief. You’ll have those student loans paid off in no time as you enter one of the most lucrative practices in the entire field of psychology.

According to the APA, in 2016 industrial/organizational psychologists earned a cool average of $149,912 per year. That is far and away the highest average rate of any specialization, coming in almost $40,000 per year higher than the next highest salary.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics backed that up with more recent data. Their 2019 statistics for the field showed an average of $111,150. But it’s worth keeping in mind that the BLS includes I/O psychs who hold only bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as doctorates. You can expect to command the high end of the salary range with your advanced qualifications. That was more than $197,700 for those in the top ten percent of the profession.

The highest salaries came in scientific research and development services and corporate management roles.

Working at major corporations also opens up incentives and bonuses that more traditional psychology roles don’t have. If stock options and performance pay sound good, then I/O psychology may be for you.

(Salary data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019 for industrial organizational psychologists. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Feb 2021.)