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Traditional engineers know a lot about the laws of the physical world. They generally don’t know as much about the various human factors, including the potential for human error. That’s where engineering psychologists enter the picture. Some engineering psychologists work on high-stakes equipment, for example, medical technology. Engineering psychologists also look at the usability of more mundane products like cell phones. Engineering psychologists also look at the use of physical space and how it affects usability – and outcomes. One example would be emergency room design.
Engineering psychologists are well versed in methodology, from experiment design to complex forms of data analysis. Among the sub-specialties are human factors, ergonomics, and human computer interaction.
Two professional resources that prospective engineering psychologists may want to familiarize themselves with at the onset are Division 21 of the American Psychological Association and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.
Engineering psychology is generally regarded as a graduate level profession, though there are a few programs at the undergraduate level (http://www.hfes.org/web/Students/undergradprograms.html). (The APA notes that psychology, computer programming, engineering, and product design are all acceptable undergraduate majors.)
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Click Here to learn more about psychology education options based on your current educational attainment.
Individuals can enter the field with either a master’s or doctoral degree, but prospects are best for those with the PhD. Division 21 has a list of graduate programs (http://www.apadivisions.org/division-21/students/graduate-programming/index.aspx). Engineering and human factors psychology programs may be offered as specializations within applied psychology programs. Sometimes engineering or human factors psychology is combined with industrial/ organizational psychology.
Although engineering psychology programs are not APA-accredited, students may want to seek out programs that are accredited by the HSEF.
Students will learn what Division 21 terms ‘human performance factors’ – things like perception, sensory processes, attentional processes, decision making, and motor skills. Engineering psychology students also get a strong foundation in experiment design, research methodology, and statistics.
Health service related psychology programs require students to do a year of formal internship under very specific standards. This is not necessarily the case with engineering psychology and other related fields. Nonetheless, an internship can provide valuable experience for a student who will be seeking a position in industry or government. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society has provided some advice and compiled a list of resources for students in these practice areas. Click here to view those resources.
The following is a list of companies that may employ interns in these fields (http://www.hfes.org/Web/EducationalResources/InternshipOpportunities.pdf).
Like other psychologists and advanced psychology students, engineering psychologists carry out research. The Department of Psychology at Clemson University lists a sampling of research projects: everything from night vision and driving to the human factors of teleoperation.
Division 21 has competitions for outstanding papers and dissertations (http://www.apa.org/about/awards/search.aspx?query=%22Division%2021%22).The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society also lists a number of competitions for student papers.
Once education is complete, the new professional can again turn to Division 21 for mentoring and career resources.
Will an engineering psychologist need state licensing? Probably not, though it’s always important to check with one’s licensing agency to determine what duties one can perform and what titles one can use. Licensing policies in many states are geared toward the health service provider. Some states do license psychologists in a broad range of psychology specialties, including those who do not provide direct health services.
Engineering psychology has been described as a ‘postgrad growth area” by the American Psychological Association.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists an average salary of $98,800 for industrial/ organizational psychologists in 2012 and an average salary of $86,380 for psychologists outside the traditional psychology practice areas.
Data from the HSEF is somewhat older, but does indicate the relative salaries by employment setting and educational and experience level (http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2007/03/engineering.aspx). Average salaries for doctoral level professionals ranged from $92,614 in academia to $111,368 in the private sector; average salaries for master’s level professionals were approximately $15,000 to $20,000 less. Starting salaries ranged from $48,000 to $75,367.