So you’ve chose industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology as your career. Good choice since it has shown up on various lists of best careers. IO is a great career because of the continuing strong job market and flexibility in the sorts of careers you can have. But that flexibility can also represent a challenge because there are so many things you can do with that career. This means choosing your industrial-organizational psychology career can be a challenge.
What You Can Do with an I-O Degree
I-O psychology is a field concerned with the human side of organizations. I-O psychologists can be found in many settings dealing with people issues. It takes a graduate degree, either a master’s or PhD, to become an I-O psychologist. The master’s degree is sufficient for many career paths, but a PhD is necessary for those wanting to become professors. Generally, those with PhDs earn higher salaries, and their potential for advancement can be higher.
I-O careers can be roughly divided into two categories. Academics are college professors who teach and do research. Practitioners use their skills in the applied world to solve every-day problems of organizations. They can be found in a variety of settings using their I-O tools including:
- Consulting Firms. Many I-Os work for consulting firms that provide I-O services for a fee. These consulting firms operate much like an accounting or law firm, providing the services of professionals for a fee. Some of these firms are large multi-nationals serving clients throughout the world.
- Government Agencies. Some I-Os work for government at both the local and national levels.
- Military. I-O psychologists work for military organizations as both active-duty service members and as civilian specialists.
- Private Corporations. Many large corporations have their own I-O psychologists on staff. Often those psychologists are attached to a human resources department where they might provide technical assistance with employee recruitment/selection, training, and other HR functions.
- Private Practice. Some I-O psychologists start their own practices, providing services to client organizations for a fee.
A challenge for I-O psychologists is to decide on the setting, as well as the area of specialization. Some I-Os focus primarily on employee recruitment/selection whereas others focus on employee training and development. But there is a wide range of topics that I-Os can focus on including diversity, employee-health and safety, ergonomics, leadership, organizational culture, and team-building just to name a few.
Perhaps the most important choice is between an academic and practitioner career. In North America and many other places, the academic career path requires a PhD for most jobs, so a decision to pursue the MA degree is a decision to become a practitioner. Over the years I have talked to many PhD students about how to decide which one to choose.
Academia Is the Best Career
Academia is the best career for the right person. I tried both and settled on academia largely because I liked the freedom and flexibility it provided. As a professor, I had almost complete control to perform the job as I saw fit within reasonable limits. I was required to teach, mentor doctoral students, and conduct research. I was given tremendous latitude but was held accountable for my accomplishments. I got to decide the classes I taught and how I taught them. I chose my research topics and how I approached them. I got to pick the PhD students I worked with, and I developed my own mentorship style. Those who choose this path often do so for the same reason. We don’t like being supervised, and an academic job allows us to manage ourselves.
The downside of the autonomy of an academic job is the lack of structure and the uncertainty that comes with it, particularly in the research domain. No one assigns you research projects; you are expected to develop your own research program on your own. Furthermore, it can be difficult to publish research results, and publication is required. When I talk to PhD students about their career direction, this is the thing that discourages many from an academic career. I recall one student telling me that he enjoys doing research, but the idea of having to come up with his own ideas was unattractive. He preferred having a boss who gave assignments. The other issue for some students is that they do not enjoy teaching. They prefer doing technical work, and so they gravitate to a practice career that allows them to do just that.
Practice Is the Best Career
Practice is the best career for the right person. With a practice career, clients and/or supervisors are calling the shots. This means you are given projects to complete, generally within a specified time frame. You rarely have the luxury of spending a long time thinking about and conducting a research project. I have some academic projects that took years to complete. Most practice projects must be conducted quickly as they are meeting an immediate organizational need. Thus, the pace of the practice world moves more quickly than the academic one, which appeals to many.
A practice career provides the opportunity to see the impact of your work on people and organizations. Whereas academics are often dealing with theoretical issues, practitioners are affecting the day-to-day operations of organizations.
Many practitioner jobs are 9 to 5, especially when you work for government or a private company. Consulting jobs can require more working hours as consulting projects can be on a tight time frame. With my practitioner jobs, I rarely thought about them on weekends. My academic job is always with me because I am working on my own projects.
Choosing Your Industrial-Organizational Psychology Career
It is difficult to know if you will like something unless you try it. If you are contemplating an I-O career, seek out experiences that will provide samples. For an undergraduate student, this means getting as much research experience as you can. Volunteer to be a research assistant to help with research projects. Conduct an honor’s thesis or the equivalent, which is an independent research project that you conduct with the guidance of professors. If you like research, you might enjoy an I-O career as both academics and practitioners conduct research projects.
As a graduate student continue to gain research experience and look for opportunities to experience teaching. This can range from providing guest lectures in a professor’s class to teaching your own. Some of my former PhD students decided on a practitioner career because they did not enjoy teaching.
One thing to keep in mind is that an I-O career is flexible. Many, like me, try their hands at both academia and practice before making a final decision. A strong I-O job market for both practitioners and professors makes transitioning from one to the other possible so that choosing your industrial-organizational psychology career can be a work in progress.
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