I am an industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologist. My graduate training was in I-O psychology, I have taught I-O psychology, and I have worked in the field for my entire career. When I meet someone new, they often ask me what I do. When I tell them, the typical response is “what is industrial-organizational psychology?”
Psychology Is a Broad Field
Psychology is a field concerned with the connection between the mind and behavior. Besides behavior itself, psychologists deal with cognitive processes, feelings, mental health, motivation, personality, and social interactions. Most psychologists are concerned with these things in people (some study animals), trying to understand why we do what we do.
Psychology as a field has elements of both natural science (e.g., the connection between brain functioning and behavior) and social science (e.g., communication patterns among people in teams). The work psychologists do is largely evidence-based, meaning the methods and principles they use are based on scientific methods.
There are many branches of psychology. Some are primarily concerned with the science of psychology. For example, cognitive psychologists are concerned with cognitive processes, such as factors that affect how long we might remember something. Social psychologists are concerned with interactions among people, such as factors that determine who might emerge as the leader in a group. Other branches are both a science and a practice. The largest of these “applied” branches is clinical psychology. Clinical psychologists are mental health professionals who not only conduct psychological research, they also treat people who have psychological disorders.
What Is Industrial-Organizational Psychology?
I-O psychology is an applied branch of psychology that is concerned with the psychology of people in the workplace. Like clinical psychology, I-O is both a science and a practice, but I-Os are not mental health professionals, so the issues we deal with are different. Practicing I-O psychologists provide services to organizations rather than individuals. They often work with human resource professionals to improve how people are hired, managed, and trained. Their work benefits organizations in helping them get the most out of their people, and it benefits employees by making the workplace better.
The terms used to refer to the I-O field vary around the world. The term “industrial-organizational psychology” is almost exclusively used in North America. Other terms are used in Europe and elsewhere, such as Occupational Psychology, Occupational & Organizational Psychology, Work Psychology, or Work & Organizational Psychology.
To be considered an I-O psychologist requires a graduate degree in most places, either a master’s or PhD. The master’s degree is exclusively a practice degree, as people with an MA work in practice settings as consultants. The PhD is more versatile, as it allows both an academic career as a professor and a practice career working in government or industry.
There are many universities around the world that provide graduate training in I-O psychology. The first chapter of my I-O textbook lists schools in North America and beyond. There are around 150 graduate programs in North America alone that offer degrees at the MA and/or PhD levels.
What Do I-O Psychologists Do?
I-O psychology is a broad field that concerns almost every topic within psychology itself but applied to employees and the workplace. I-O psychologists consult with organizations and conduct research on these topics. A few of those topics include
- Employee Attitudes and Feelings: The most studied topics in the I-O field concern how people feel about work. This includes job satisfaction (the extent to which people like their jobs), organizational commitment (the attachment a person has to their job), and emotional reactions to work.
- Employee Selection: I-O psychologists design tools to match the talents of people to the demands of the job.
- Job Analysis: A job analysis is a study to determine what tasks a job entails, and the talents needed to perform those tasks effectively.
- Job Stress. Job stress concerns conditions at work that people find stressful and the impact it has on physical and psychological health. This includes bullying and mistreatment, organizational constraints (factors at work that interfere with getting the job done), and workload.
- Leadership. I-O psychologists figure out what talents it takes to be a good leader and what leader behaviors are most effective.
- Motivation. It is important to determine work factors that drive employee engagement and motivate people to put their best effort into their jobs.
- Technology. To be most effective, technology must be matched to the needs of people.
- Training and Development. I-O psychologists determine the training needs of employees, help design that training, and evaluate its effectiveness.
Where Do I-O Psychologists Work?
There are many types of jobs that I-O psychologists have, and they work in many settings dealing with the topics already mentioned and more.
- Colleges and Universities. Many I-O psychologists are college professors who conduct research and teach.
- Corporations. Many large corporations employ I-O psychologists as technical specialists who can improve human resource practices. Most of these psychologists assist in designing systems to recruit and hire new employees or assist in developing systems to train employees.
- Consulting Firms. Some I-O psychologists work for consulting firms that sell services to organizations. They operate much like accounting or law firms in that they employ professionals who provide contracted services for a fee. Firms can range in size from a single psychologist with their own private practice to a large multi-national that employees hundreds of consultants.
- Government. I-O psychologists can be found working for local, state, or national government agencies, as well as the military.
I-O psychologists work in so many settings because there are so many things that I-O psychologists are trained to do. If you work in a large organization, particularly in Europe or North America, it is very likely that I-O psychologists have had in hand in some of the human resource practices. I-O psychologists work behind the scenes which is why so often people ask what is industrial-organizational psychology?
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