What's An I/O Job Like?

One of the advantages of being an I/O psychologist is that there are so many different sorts of jobs and settings in which you can work. We often divide jobs into academic (university professors) versus nonacademic or practitioner jobs. In a general sense academics conduct research and teach, whereas practitioners apply principles of the field to problems of organizations. However, there is a great deal of overlap, in that academics often practice, and practitioners often teach and do research. Academics work primarily in colleges and universities, whereas practitioners work in a variety of settings, including consulting firms, government agencies, the military, and private corporations. Many operate from their own private offices as consultants, selling their services to organizations.

It is difficult to describe an "I/O job" as they are so varied. However, it is possible to give an overview of typical jobs and tasks that I/O psychologists do. Below I will describe what a university professor's job is like, and what a practitioner job is like. Keep in mind that within each of these categories, there can be a lot of variability.

Academic Jobs

About a third of U.S. I/O psychologists are academicians. They work for both colleges and universities. There are three areas of responsibility: research, teaching, and community service. The first two are the most important, and depending upon the institution, greater emphasis will be placed on research or teaching. Large universities will normally emphasize research whereas smaller colleges emphasize teaching (which is one reason many students prefer to attend smaller liberal arts colleges where the faculty put most of their efforts into teaching). At many large research oriented universities, faculty do little teaching at all (leaving that to their doctoral students), spending most of their time doing research and writing grant proposals. These are "publish or perish" institutions that place a great deal of pressure on their faculties to conduct research, and see that as their greater (but not only) mission.

The typical university professor is expected to cover all three areas. This makes for a busy and varied job, and requires a lot of juggling of many different projects/tasks. With many demands, it is rare to have long periods of time on which to work on a single project or task. However, there is a great deal of latitude in how professors conduct their work, as they receive no day-to-day supervision. They might have their classes assigned by a department chair, but the rest of their activities they decide themselves. This high level of autonomy is a major reason many I/O psychologists decide to pursue an academic career where they can follow their own interests.

Specific Tasks: A university professor will typically do many or all of the following

1. Teach class

2. Prepare activities, lectures, materials, or tests for a class

3. Grade assignments or exams

4. Plan a research project

5. Collect data

6. Analyze data (usually with statistical software such as SAS or SPSSX)

7. Write research articles, book chapters, and books

8. Supervise research of graduate students (thesis or dissertation)

9. Advise students concerning course requirements and careers

10. Supervise independent study of students

11. Serve on department or university committees

12. Serve on committees for national associations, such as Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP)

13. Review manuscripts submitted to journals (people who publish in journals are asked to serve as peer reviewers for manuscripts submitted by other researchers)

14. Provide information to the public (e.g., talk to newspaper reporter or do a television/radio news segment)

15. Consult with private and public organizations about their problems related to I/O

16. Write grant proposal

Practitioner Jobs

These jobs are more varied than a professor job, and tend to be more specialized. Whereas the scope of practice might be even larger than the scope of academics, most practitioners tend to work in a limited area. For example, one practitioner might do only research while another might only conduct employee surveys. This makes for a wide range of different types of jobs.

Practitioner jobs can be placed into two broad categories--consulting and in-house. Consultants sell specific services to various organizations, much like accounting or law firms sell their services to various clients. These psychologists might be in their own single-person private practices or in large consulting firms that employ hundreds of people (e.g., Development Dimensions International, DDI or Personnel Decisions International, PDI). In-house psychologists work for a single organization as an employee. These include both private companies and government agencies including the military.

Specific Tasks: Although it is unlikely one person would do all of these things, this is a sample that represents the variety of I/O activities.

1. Meet with clients or managers to discuss the nature of a problem/project (e.g., the turnover rate among employees is too high)

2. Conduct interviews or send out questionnaires to employees to determine the nature of their job tasks

3. Design a psychological test that assesses a job skill

4. Conduct a study to determine if a test or procedure is effective in achieving it's objective (e.g., does a new test predict who can perform their jobs well?)

5. Analyze data (usually done with computer, e.g., SAS or SPSSX)

6. Write a technical report

7. Present results of a project to a group of managers

8. Meet with potential clients to sell services

9. Conduct a study to determine what training is needed.

10. Design a training course for employees

11. Conduct a training session for employees

12. Evaluate the effectiveness of a training course

13. Conduct sessions with groups of employees to help them resolve conflicts

14. Survey employees to determine how they feel about their jobs

15. Conduct structured interviews of potential employees to ascertain their suitability for hiring

16. Testify in court as an expert witness

17. Train others in how to implement new procedures that were developed (e.g., how to use a new test for employee selection)

18. Score results of tests and other selection tools and write reports of candidate suitability

19. Write a proposal for a project

20. Supervise a function (e.g., employee training and development) or people

21. Provide advice and assistance to managers in the organization

22. Help implement a new method or procedure (e.g., a new employee reward system)

23. Figure out a solution to an organization's problem (e.g., too much employee absence)

In addition practitioners will often do the same tasks as professors, often teaching as adjunct instructors at universities, conducting and publishing research, and performing community service to both the profession (e.g., SIOP) and the general public.

An I/O Career

Most I/O psychologists in the U.S. have a Ph.D. (things are different in many other countries). It is possible to have a practice career but not an academic with an M.A. in the field, but opportunities for advancement are fewer and salaries are lower without the Ph.D. Academic careers require a publication record of research articles. Since few practitioners consistently publish results of their work (and most don't often conduct publishable research), academics and practice tend to be two distinct career paths. A doctoral student must begin to publish to achieve an academic position, and a practitioner must maintain a reasonable publication record to make a transition to academia. In most cases decisions made early in the career, often in graduate school, determine the career path, and few switch.

At the current time, career opportunities are excellent in the field, and there are few unemployed I/O psychologists in the U.S. The field has been getting increasingly popular, as more and more people have been applying to a growing number of graduate programs (as of this writing there are about 100 in the U.S., about 2/3 Ph.D. and 1/3 M.A.) Salaries tend to be higher for practitioner jobs than academic, as professors pay a price for their greater autonomy. However, professors are able to make up the difference with part-time consulting and other activities (e.g., writing books). SIOP provides results of periodic salary surveys.

How Can You Tell If An I/O Career Is For You?

This is always a tough question. Keep in mind that at its core, I/O is a scientific field that is devoted to discovery and application of scientific principles to human problems in the workplace. What makes us a little different from many scientific fields is that we are an applied science. Thus we have both a scientific and a practitioner side (much like engineering). Although some I/O psychologists might do primarily one or the other, we are trained to be both scientists and practitioners. The training and the nature of the work tends to be technical, requiring a strong background in methodology and statistics.

Perhaps the first thing to do before deciding is to take an I/O course (or at least read an I/O textbook) to give you an overview. The SIOP website is a good source of information about the field, as well. Also consider your ultimate career objective. If it is to get a nice corporate position with opportunity for advancement, perhaps an MBA (or other business degree) might be a better choice. Why spend 5 or 6 years (or longer) working on a Ph.D. if an easier road to your goal exists? However, if the idea of being a scientist/practitioner is appealing, you like psychology, and enjoy the technical aspects of the field, I/O might be a good choice. If your leaning is more scientist, then an academic career might be the way to go. If you'd rather do application, then be a practitioner. I/O psychology can be a great career with many opportunities to pursue your particular interests and objectives.

How Can I Begin?

Since you need a graduate degree to be an I/O psychologist, you must enter a graduate program. Admission is competitive and difficult, so you must prepare while still an undergraduate. You must have good grades and for most programs a solid score on the Graduate Record Exam, GRE. Top programs accept a small percentage of those who apply, so undergraduate preparation is necessary. See Pursuing An I/O Career for details.


Copyright Paul E. Spector, All rights reserved, July 1, 1999.