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From the moment most people wake to when they shut their eyes for the night, they're immersed in a technology-saturated world. In addition to everyday interactions with home appliances, computers and telephones, people find themselves at the mercy of technology when they drive their cars, ride the subway to work, board an airplane or check into the hospital for surgery. How well a particular system is designed has a lot to do with whether each of these experiences is smooth, safe and positive.

The rapidly growing field of engineering psychology offers a wealth of opportunities to students who are interested in the interaction between people and machines, tasks and environments, says Deborah Boehm-Davis, PhD, a former president of Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering). Moreover, the practical applications have their own rewards, which Boehm-Davis found when she tested a prototype navigational device for a car company.

"I can say that people traveling on the road are safer because the company took the time to evaluate the product before it went into service," she says. "That's satisfying in a way that publishing a paper isn't."

This feeling is echoed by students in the field. "There are so many things that can be improved, from stop signs on the road to the type of scissors you use," says Ricardo Prada, a fifth-year engineering psychology graduate student at George Mason University. "These are designed by someone and should be tested. The purpose of engineering psychology is to deliberately make someone's life better."


WHY IT'S HOT:

The demand for engineering psychologists is thriving because industries are realizing that involving psychologists in the design process helps final products be more functional and enjoyable to use, says Div. 21 Past-president Ronald G. Shapiro, PhD, manager of IBM's Enterprise Technical Learning Curriculum. Further, a product or system that is well designed from the start will help eliminate frustrated customers and costly redesigns, increasing the company's bottom line.

"Part of the reason engineering psychology is so hot is that people are really starting to understand there is a need for psychologists--specialists-who can evaluate data on a product's or system's use and provide recommendations," says Carl Smith, a fifth-year doctoral student at George Mason University who's worked at Motorola designing cell phone interfaces. "What many companies are realizing is that engineers can't account for every interaction within a system because they aren't as familiar with the human system."

Recent media reports on medical errors have also increased demand for engineering psychologists, says Haydee Cuevas, PhD, a research associate at S.A. Technologies, a human factors consulting company. Engineering psychologists help design medical equipment and the layout of operating rooms to minimize the risk of errors, she says.

Because engineering psychologists often work in private industry, the job outlook closely tracks the economy. However, demand has been steady, and at times, very high, says Boehm-Davis, a psychology professor at George Mason University. Some of her students have received job offers while still on their internships, she notes.


WHAT YOU CAN DO:

Engineering psychologists work in a variety of environments, including academia, the government and private industry. Whether their specialty is human factors, ergonomics, human-computer interaction or usability engineering, engineering psychologists aim to improve lives.

"We tend to work in places where we are most needed, like aviation, which is safety critical. By understanding the abilities of the pilot, we can design away safety problems," notes Prada, who has helped evaluate systems used in the cockpit at Boeing.

Engineering psychologists also advise car companies, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and NASA. In addition, they consult with architects and designers of consumer products like telephones, cameras and home appliances.


EARNINGS OUTLOOK:

Salaries are highest for engineering psychologists in private industry and lowest for those in academia, with government work falling somewhere in between, according to the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society's (HFES) 2005 Salary and Compensation Survey. Doctoral-level engineering psychologists working at for-profit businesses earned an average of $111,368 that year, while those in academia earned an average of $92,614. With the same level of education, average salaries were $107,314 for engineering psychologists with government jobs. Master's-level professionals earned $90,164 in business settings, $90,500 in government and $75,150 in university positions. Starting salaries across all sectors range from $48,000 to $75,367.

Consultants with PhDs who work in industry fared the best, earning $179,160 on average.

HOW TO GET THERE:

About 70 American universities offer HFES-accredited graduate programs in engineering psychology, according to their online listing. Students come into these programs with a wide range of undergraduate degrees, including psychology, engineering, computer programming and product or Web design, says Boehm-Davis.

Although master's-level workers can find good jobs in industry, she adds, engineering psychologists with a PhD often have higher salaries and greater control over their projects. Academic and some government positions also require PhDs.

Graduate students take courses in human cognition, development, learning and perception. In addition, they should seek out classes in research methods and statistics, says Patricia DeLucia, PhD, a psychology professor at Texas Tech University. "Engineering psychologists need good analytical abilities to figure out how to approach a problem, attack it and interpret the results," she adds.

Strong oral and written communication skills are the key to communicating your ideas with team members or supervisees, she adds, and they are among the top things employers seek in new hires.

Engineering psychology students should also be open to taking classes or training in areas far afield from psychology, Prada says. For example, both Prada and Smith attended flight training sessions at a commercial airline to inform their communication with pilots and learn about cockpits firsthand. To design medical equipment that incorporates what psychologists know about depth perception, DeLucia once observed a gall bladder removal.

Engineering psychologists also recommend cultivating a professional network by volunteering with related societies and organizations, like Div. 21, HFES and the Usability Professionals' Association, attending conferences and getting real-life experience through internships with the military or consumer-product corporations.

PROS AND CONS:

That the field is relatively new is both a boon and a drawback. On one hand, engineering psychologists are free to apply their expertise to countless areas, but on the other hand, they must also know how to market themselves.

"Not all companies understand what we do," Smith notes. "You have to come in and educate them on how what you do can provide a benefit for the company."

Engineering psychologists can work on many kinds of projects, with timelines that range from two days for a corporate design to several years for a long-range academic project. One common challenge in industry is that employers want things done quickly and with the least amount of money in order to maximize their own bottom line, says Shapiro.

"In industry there is a lot of time pressure," says Cuevas. "Often we're trying to juggle completing a monthly report for one project with an annual report for another while dealing with a hectic travel schedule to meet with clients and continuing to write proposals for new funding."

Additionally, some corporate structures make it difficult for psychologists to share their expertise, says Prada. "It's not everywhere you have the authority to go up to an engineer and tell them you have a better way for them to do things."

Challenges aside, says Boehm-Davis, the major benefit of a career in engineering psychology is the pride of making a difference in people's everyday lives.

Engineering psychology resources

  • Div. 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering): www.apa.org/divisions/div21

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: www.hfes.org/web

  • The Usability Professionals' Association: www.upassoc.org

  • The Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction: http://sigchi.org

  • Casey, S. (2006). The atomic chef: And other true tales of design, technology, and human error. Santa Barbara, CA: Aegean Publishing Company.

  • Cooper, A. (2004). The inmates are running the asylum. Indianapolis, IN: Sams.

  • Norman, D. (2002). The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.

  • Salas, E., & Fiore, S.M. (2004). Team cognition: Understanding the factors that drive process and performance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Vincente, K. (2004). The human factor. London: Taylor & Francis