A career recommendation for students interested in people and technology

Using scientific psychology to save and improve lives.

By Ronald G. Shapiro, PhD

Did you really enjoy your neuroscience, sensation and perception, memory and cognition, cognitive-neuroscience, physiological psychology and research methods courses? Are you also fascinated by technology such as aircraft, human computer interaction, medical equipment, space exploration, software engineering, visual design, website development, video games, architecture, military systems or automobiles? If so, you may be an outstanding candidate for a career in human factors, ergonomics, user experience design or engineering psychology.

Professionals in these areas design processes and products, based at least in part upon our knowledge of scientific psychology. Through research and design, we save and improve lives. We do this by designing critical processes, products and systems so they will be much safer and easier to use than they would have been without our involvement. Thus, we prevent fatal, serious and ordinary accidents. We may occasionally work on training programs to help people use our products and systems. Our mission, when we design and evaluate products, is to optimize the products and processes for our customers.

Students going into the field will typically earn a bachelor’s degree in either psychology or engineering. Graduate degrees (master’s or PhD) will typically be in human factors, experimental psychology, mechanical engineering or industrial engineering. Along the way, students will do one or more internships to gain the requisite experience to prepare them to work in industry. There are some notable exceptions to the typical education path. For example, some people will enter our profession with a medical degree, a physical therapy degree or extensive military experience.

Most students begin serious study of human factors at the graduate level, although there is also an opportunity, albeit an unusual one, to begin intensive study of human factors at the undergraduate level. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., offers a program leading to a bachelor’s degree in human factors (Scott Shappell, the department chair, would be pleased to address questions about his program). Tufts University in Medford, Mass., offers a bachelor’s degree in engineering psychology, as well as the opportunity to minor in the field (professor of the practice Daniel J. Hannon would be pleased to answer questions about his program). Upon completing either of these programs, students are eligible to enter the work force or attend a graduate program. West Point Military Academy and the Air Force Academy incorporate human factors study in their cadet training program at the undergraduate level.

A listing of schools offering graduate programs in human factors may be found on the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) website. Some of these programs are accredited by HFES, meaning they have requested and been examined to confirm they meet standards professionals in the field recommend.

During graduate school, students typically do industrial internships. Normally, these are relatively easy to secure and pay well. Funding for graduate school from the university and/or paid internships, while competitive, may be available for students with an excellent track record as a researcher and an excellent academic record. Demand for human factors graduates is strong. Salaries are among the highest for psychology graduates. Typically, we do not get licensed as psychologists, but some of us choose to be certified by organizations such as the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics.

 You may find the following resources to be helpful: 

  • “The Design of Everyday Things, Revised and Expanded Edition” by Don Norman.
  • “Set Phasers on Stun” and “The Atomic Chef” by Steve Casey, which provide examples of poor human factors design.
  • An article in the Encyclopedia of the History of Psychological Theories that I wrote explaining the field.
  • An interactive activity based presentation, “Games to Explain Human Factors: Come, Participate, Learn and Have Fun!!!” (Available to psychology honor societies and club leaders by sending me a note with your name, school name, school address and your telephone number and the your leadership role in the psychology club.)
  • APA Division 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology)
  • Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics 
  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

You are encouraged to attend HFSE’s annual meeting and Div. 21 programs at APA’s Annual Convention to learn more about the field and to meet some of the leaders and practitioners. Contact the Div. 21’s membership chair if you are serious about pursuing a career in our area and would like a complimentary student membership in the division, which includes a subscription to our newsletter, frequent email, our journal and the members dinner on Thursday at APA’s convention.

Special thanks to Martha Boenau, Margarita Posada Cossuto and Dan Hannon for helpful comments.

References

  • Casey, S. M. (1993). Set phasers on stun and other true tales of design, technology and human error. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Aegean Publishing Company.
  • Casey, S. M. (2006). The atomic chef and other true tales of design, technology and human error. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Aegean Publishing Company.
  • Fitts, P.M., & Jones, R. E. (1947). Analysis of factors contributing to 460 “pilot error” experiences in operating aircraft controls. (USAF Air Materiel Command Memorandum Report No TSEAA-694-12). Wright Field: U.S. Air Force Air Materiel Command, Aero Medical Laboratory.
  • Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things, revised and expanded edition. London: Basic Books.
  • Shapiro, R.G. (2012). Human factors psychology. In R. Rieber (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the history of psychological theories (pp. 533 – 542). New York: Springer.

About the Author

Ronald G. Shapiro, PhDRonald G. Shapiro, PhD, is an independent consultant and speaker in human factors/ergonomics, user experience, career development, learning, leadership and human resources. Shapiro completed his master's and PhD at Ohio State University and his bachelor’s degree at the University of Rochester. He is very active in the professional community having been recognized as a fellow in APA, the Eastern Psychological Association and HFES. He is a former president of the Div. 21 and a former secretary-treasurer of HFES.