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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 1999

Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 1999| Volume 3 | Number 3


Industrial-Organizational Psychology: The Psychology of People Working Together

Samuel B. Pond III, PhD
North Carolina State University

Well, I wouldn't say that the world is full of industrial-organizational psychologists, but it is true that you are likely to find us in a wide variety of places holding a variety of job titles. In this article I will provide you with a very brief description of I/O psychology. I will note some of the types of career paths I/O psychologists pursue. Finally, I will point out the type of graduate training required to be an I/O psychologist and what you can start doing right now to become an I/O psychologist, assuming that is what you want to do!

My Quest

One of the things I've enjoyed most about being an industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologist is being first a psychologist. As an undergraduate my interests in psychology branched in many different directions. I found biological psychology very appealing, as well as social psychology, and developmental psychology, and cognitive psychology, and statistics, and . . . well, you get the idea! I was pleased to discover that many of my interests in psychology could be fulfilled and find application within a specialty area of psychology dedicated to undfirstanding the behavior and experience of people at work--industrial-organizational psychology. What was also appealing to me was the multidisciplinary flavor of the field. I found that in I/O psychology I could also pursue my interest in management, in political science, and in sociology. Basically, behavior in organizational settings fascinated me. So, after progressing about three years into my undergraduate training, I discovered I/O psychology.

What is I/P Psychology?

I/O psychology, in brief, is concerned with the scientific structuring of organizations and of work to improve the productivity and quality of life of people at work. For most of us, time at work accounts for a very large chunk of our lives. It made a lot of sense to me that somebody in psychology ought to be looking closely at this facet of life and its impact upon other life domains.

The field of I/O psychology is certainly a very applied field, but many I/O psychologists also address relatively basic research questions. In other words, I/O psychologists very much want to produce solutions to problems in the workplace, but they also usually want to develop a fuller undfirstanding of life at work to produce a solid scientific knowledge base. I/O scientist/practitioners like being in an environment that has problems that need to be solved, but they also like to discover and collect scientific facts about work and organizational settings that they can apply to problems yet to be faced. There is a lot of justification for this kind of activity because, quite frankly, the world of work is such a fast-moving target of study that many issues are hard to anticipate.

Traditionally, I/O psychologists have focused on understanding individual behavior and experience in organizational settings. That is, the worker has received the most attention. This, of course, continues today. Today more than ever, however, I/O psychologists explicitly acknowledge the importance of considering the whole work system.

For example, they conduct research at the group and organizational levels of analysis as well as at the individual level. Also, they formally address the impact on work of environmental factors such as labor markets, economic conditions, and governmental regulations. In fact, operating within a systems approach to undfirstanding people at work has allowed I/O psychologists to contribute to cutting-edge issues in the design of work. For example, I/O psychologists have contributed to the design and development of team-based organizations and have developed strategies for designing organizational structures for work that are flexible enough to ride through turbulent environmental times.

What Do I/O Psychologists Do?

Table 1 lists some of the kinds of activities in which I/O psychologists are involved. They might be doing basic or applied research in these areas or actually implementing solutions to problems found across these areas of specialization.

Broadly put, I/O psychologists are scientists, consultants, teachers, and often, something of a combination of all three of these. I/O psychologists don various titles depending upon their places of em-ployment, specializations, and interests. I/O psychologists also often work in more than one organizational setting. For example, many professors do consulting work for organizations outside of their employing institution. A number of I/O psychologists employed in research organizations or private industry choose to teach in colleges and universities on an adjunct basis. Table 2 lists some of the job titles that are given to I/O psychologists and lists examples of places where I/O psychologists are likely to be working.

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According to a survey requested by the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP), the salaries of I/O psychologists are comparable to those of other trained professionals in other graduate areas. An overview of salaries earned by I/O psychologists is provided in Table 3. As you can see, how much money an I/O psychologist earns varies by level of education and place of employment. Of course, experience in the field makes a difference, too. The figures that are reported in Table 3 are not presented in a way that illustrates this important factor. Also, these data are about four years old. (Results of a SIOP Member Income Survey conducted in November 1998 will be published in the April 1999 issue of The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist.) Table 3 does, however, illustrate the relative differences in income level across organizational settings. For more details, take a look at the article from which the information in this table originates ("Income of Members in 1994," The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist). For more current salary information (albeit less detailed about the various types of I/O work) see the American Psychological Association's (APA's) "Salaries In Psychology 1997: Report of the 1997 APA Salary Survey" located at

What is the Right Career Path for You?

The "right choice" really depends on what you like to do. If you like to travel a lot and live at a fairly fast pace, then life as an external consultant might be for you. If you like to teach and do research, then you might find a career in higher education appealing. Many I/O psychologists have chosen to work in management departments rather than psychology departments. There is usually a financial advantage to this choice. However, many other I/O psychologists see an advantage to working among psychologists who specialize in other areas of psychology in a psychology department. If you primarily like to do research, you'll make a different career choice than if you like to train, evaluate, produce, and sell I/O psychology products.

Of course, you may find that you like to research, teach, and consult. There are jobs out there that require different skill mixes to suit your interests. You need to think about what you like to do, however, to know the kind of job with the kind of mix that might interest you.

Becoming an I/O Psychologist

To become an I/O psychologist you are going to have to go to graduate school. How long it takes to become an I/O psychologist after getting your undergraduate degree depends on what degree you are seeking and how steadily you work at completing your graduate education. Generally, it will take about two to three years to obtain a master's degree and then an additional two to three years to earn a doctoral degree. The type of degree you earn plays a significant role in determining what kind of jobs you are qualified to hold.

The majority of I/O psychologists have doctoral degrees. You will find them at work in any of the areas of I/O psychology mentioned earlier. I/O psychologists with master's degrees, however, often find themselves in organizational settings that emphasize the more traditional I/O areas of personnel psychology, training, tests, and measurement (Erffmeyer & Mendel, 1990). For the foreseeable future, career opportunities are quite good for people with either I/O master's or doctoral degrees. According to surveys conducted by APA, 85% of new I/O psychologists are employed on either a full- or part-time basis. (That is with approximately 5% not looking for work!) For details, link up with the following two URLs:, and

Things to Do Right Now

If you are an undergraduate psychology student interested in pursuing a career in I/O psychology, you can start right now by thoroughly exploring this specialty area. Learning more about the field of I/O psychology now will help you identify the right graduate schools and get into the career that's right for you later. For example, when applying to graduate school you will probably be asked to describe the area of I/O psychology in which you would like to conduct research. This will almost certainly be the case if you apply to doctoral programs. This is not a trivial academic filtering tactic. Just as you want to get into a graduate school that will meet your needs, that graduate school is trying to assess how to make the best use of its resources. The right match helps assure better graduate training and increases the likelihood of your entering the kind of career in which you are interested. In fact, your graduate training is the beginning of your career in I/O psychology.

Gathering the Data!

Where do you get the data upon which to make decisions about graduate training and careers in I/O psychology? You could start by taking a course in I/O psychology. If that's not an option, then go to the library. Locate and read one or two of the many introductory I/O psychology texts that are available. Get a feel for how the field is conceptualized. While you are there, look at the many other books in I/O psychology and organizational behavior. You can also explore the field of I/O psychology by reading information published by professional organizations in psychology, e.g., APA, SIOP, and the American Psychological Society (APS). For example, SIOP's official newsletter is The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist. It is full of information about the science and practice of I/O psychology. Visit SIOP's Website at

Spend some time talking with faculty in your department about your interests. They will likely have some important advice about preparing for graduate school and will perhaps be able to give you some guidance regarding the graduate schools to which you should apply. If possible, be sure to speak with I/O psychologists.

Exploring I/O Psychology Graduate Programs

A number of resources are available to assist you in making choices about a graduate education. Many universities and colleges now have I/O psychology programs. To find out about these programs, check out the following resources:

  • Graduate Training Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Related Fields (from SIOP). See
  • Graduate Study in Psychology and Associated Fields (published by APA)

Once you have identified the schools that interest you, take some virtual site visits by reviewing their homepages on the Internet. Look for information that describes the faculty members that are teaching in the I/O psychology programs you have targeted. For example, perhaps you will find faculty members' statements of interest and descriptions of research they are conducting. Often you will find a list of the material they have published. All of this will help you decide whether faculty members' research interests match up (or could match up) with yours.

From these Internet resources you can sometimes learn what the graduate curriculum is like. Most programs in I/O psychology require courses in psychological measurement; research methods; social psychology; individual, group, and organizational dynamics; statistical methods; selection and placement; and training and development. In addition, there may be other required courses out of the area of I/O, such as biological and cognitive psychology. These courses are often included to satisfy state licensure requirements. The resources mentioned here also often give you an idea of the grades and test scores you need to earn to be a competitive graduate school applicant. Sometimes they will tell you whether or not funding for your education is typically available.

All of the information you gather and evaluate will help you to determine whether or not graduate school is really for you. In short, graduate school requires a commitment to formal study that goes far beyond the minimal efforts of attending class. Graduate programs in I/O psychology, particularly at the doctoral level, emphasize training in research methods. In all likelihood, if you don't appreciate research design, statistical theory and procedures, and computers, you are not going to care much for graduate training in I/O psychology.

If you have the chance, try to assist with research that is being conducted by professors or graduate students in your department. Ideally, assisting with I/O research would give you the best opportunity to assess your interest in I/O research. Regardless, reports of research experience in any area of psychology on your graduate application will be looked upon favorably by most admissions committees. In many schools this kind of experience is weighted more heavily than work experience outside of the school setting. Of course, given that you will be studying people at work, some kind of work experience is always helpful.

Now you have a better idea about what I/O psychology is, what I/O psychologists do, and where they work. Feel free to contact me should you have other questions about the field.


Erffmeyer, E.S., & Mendel, R.M. (1990). Master's level training in industrial/organizational psychology: A case study of the perceived relevance of graduate training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 21(5), 405-408.

Samuel B. Pond III, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University, where has served as a faculty member since 1981. He received his bachelor's degree in 1976 from East Carolina University and his master's and doctoral degrees from Auburn University in 1978 and 1980, respectively. He is the author of several journal articles and, since 1978, has also been a consultant in the area of human resource management for various manufacturing, government, and service organizations. His research interests include studying how activities at work (and away from work) shape people's judgments about their capability to do good work and how these judgments are associated with their actual job performance and work attitudes. He is a member of the Academy of Management, the American Psychological Society, the North Carolina Industrial/Organizational Psychology Group, Sigma Xi, and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to: Samuel B. Pond III, PhD, Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University, Box 7801, Raleigh, NC 27695-7801; e-mail:

Copyright 1999 (Vol. 3, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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