Broadly stated, psychology is the scientific study of the human mind, of how we think, how we feel, and how we act on our own and in our interactions with others. It is a foundational behavioral science that, not surprisingly, has found applications throughout the realm of human experience, from early childhood development to issues associated with aging, and from the construction of individual identity to the dynamics of family and other interpersonal relationships. And, since we tend to spend a great deal of our adult lives at our jobs, it only goes to follow that the principles and methodologies of psychology would not only find their way into the workplace, but would emerge as invaluable tools for addressing concerns about employment conditions, hiring strategies, organizational structures, productivity optimization, and consumer behavior. This is the specialization known as industrial-organizational psychology, or I-O psychology (sometimes written as I/O psychology). As defined by the American Psychology Association (APA), “The specialty of industrial-organizational psychology is characterized by the scientific study of human behavior in organizations and the work place. The specialty focuses on deriving principles of individual, group and organizational behavior and applying this knowledge to the solution of problems at work.”

Although the analytical tools, theoretical foundations, and clinical practices of I-O psychology aren’t necessarily new, the field itself is a relatively young one. The APA recognized the utility of psychology in the workplace as early as 1945, when it formally established a division devoted to “Industrial and Business Psychology.” Division 14 of the APA, as it is know, was later renamed the division of “Industrial and Organizational Psychology.” But, it wasn’t until 1982 that Division 14 of the APA created its own profession organization, the Society of Industrial-Organizational Psychology. And, the first edition of The APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology wasn’t published until July of 2010. Nevertheless, I-O psychology is, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not just the fastest growing specialty within psychology, but one of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S., with projected job growth of more than 50 percent between 2012 and 2022.

PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology Concepts

  • Psychological research methods
  • Organizational development concepts
  • Critical human resource methods
  • Job design and analysis
  • Organizational culture assessments
  • Training and employee development
  • Talent management
  • Data analysis and program evaluation
  • Data-driven inquiry
  • Development and maintenance of high performing workforce
  • History and functions of I/O psychology professionals
  • Analyses of new trends and concepts in the organizational psychology field
  • Encouragement of lifelong learning
  • Critical thinking skills and assessment
  • Social psychology
  • Human behavior
  • Psychopathology

Benefits of Earning a PhD in I-O Psychology

To practice psychology professionally, or in many cases to even use the title “psychologist,” requires a license in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The requirements for licensure do vary from state to state. But, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes in its Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), “Most clinical and counseling psychologists need a doctorate in psychology, an internship, at least 1 to 2 years of professional experience, and to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.” In other words, a PhD, or the largely equivalent PsyD (doctor of psychology) degree, isn’t merely optional in most fields of psychology.

There are jobs in the realm of I-O psychology open to candidates with a master’s degree. But, competition for positions in I-O psychology is high, and while meteoric growth is indeed expected in the field, a closer look at the BLS data indicates that this is partially due to it being a relatively small field. For example, the BLS’s 2012 Occupation Outlook Handbook estimated the number of I-O psychologists in the U.S. to be just 1,600. In comparison, there were more than 100 times that number of professional psychologists — 160,200 — employed in 2012. So the BLS offered this qualification: “Employment of industrial-organizational psychologists is projected to grow 53 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Organizations use industrial-organizational psychologists to help select and keep employees, increase productivity, and improve office morale. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast employment growth will result in only about 900 new jobs over the 10-year period.”

To translate, demand for I-O psychologists is clearly on the rise, and yet competition for those new positions is likely to be high as well. A PhD in industrial-organizational psychology offers a competitive edge for those seeking jobs in the business world, and the degree is also a requirement for college and university teaching and research positions.

What to Expect an I-O Psychology PhD Program

The typical PhD program in industrial and organizational psychology, or I-O psychology, includes 60 credits of coursework, including a doctoral dissertation requirement. The coursework includes foundational psychology methodology classes, such as research methods and design; general psychology classes covering cognitive and behavioral psychological evaluation and counseling; organizational psychology classes in the principles of leadership, motivation, and group emotional dynamics; and classes that deal specifically with the field of I-O psychology.

The APA provides accreditation for all graduate-level programs in psychology. In addition, the SIOP website has a list of approved graduate training programs in industrial and organizational psychology and related fields. The SIOP guidelines are based on a list of 25 areas of competence that doctoral-level I-O psychology programs should address. These include:

Areas of Competence

  • Consulting and Business Skills
  • Ethical, Legal, and Professional Contexts of I-O Psychology
  • Fields of Psychology
  • History and Systems of Psychology
  • Research Methods
  • Statistical Methods/Data Analysis
  • Attitude Theory, Measurement, and Change
  • Career Development
  • Consumer Behavior
  • Criterion Theory and Development
  • Health and Stress in Organizations
  • Human Performance/Human Factors
  • Individual Assessment
  • Individual Differences
  • Job Evaluation and Compensation
  • Job/Task Analysis and Classification
  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Leadership and Management
  • Organization Development
  • Organization Theory
  • Performance Appraisal and Feedback
  • Personnel Recruitment, Selection, and Placement
  • Small Group Theory and Team Processes
  • Training: Theory, Program Design, and Evaluation
  • Work Motivation

Industrial-Organizational Psychology Coursework

Doctorate programs in I-O psychology follow the scientist/practitioner model, which means students must develop a foundational understanding of general psychology and psychological research methods, as well as knowledge specific to the field of I-O psychology. A key part of the PhD in I-O psychology is exploring the practical application of psychological theories and research in the workplace, in organizational structures, and in relation to consumer behavior. Here is a list of some typical doctoral-level I-O courses:

  • Organizational Assessment and Optimization — The application of psychological theory and research methods to the analysis of how different kinds of organizations operate.
  • The Psychology of Leadership and Group Dynamics — The cognitive and behavioral aspects of decision making, leadership, and group dynamics in the workplace.
  • Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology in the Workplace — The various ways in which psychological triggers impact behavior, productivity, job satisfaction, and other important qualities on the job.
  • Compensation and Reward Systems in Organizations — The psychology of motivation in workplace environments.
  • Human Resources Assessment and Personnel Selection — Using the principles of psychology to hire and promote people within an organization.
  • Quantitative Research Methods and Data Assessment in I-O Psychology — Using the analytical tools of psychology and psychological research to assess and improve the workings of an organization.

Areas of Specialization in Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Industrial-organizational psychology is itself an area of specialization within the larger discipline of psychology, a specialization which tailors clinical and behavior psychological principals and methodologies for use in large organizations and business settings. However, there are different ways to approach earning a PhD in industrial-organizational psychology, and these may depend on what kind of career you have in mind. As the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology explains, “Industrial-organizational psychologists (called I-O psychologists) are versatile behavioral scientists specializing in human behavior in the work place. I-O psychologists are: scientists who derive principles of individual, group, and organizational behavior through research; consultants and staff psychologists who develop scientific knowledge and apply it to the solution of problems at work; and teachers who train in the research and application of I-O psychology.” In addition, SIOP points out that, “I-O psychologists work with organizations in a variety of areas such as selection and placement, training and development, organizational development and change, performance measurement and evaluation, quality of worklife, consumer psychology, and engineering psychology.”

Career Options and Salary Outlook in I-O Psychology

Industrial-organizational psychology is, indeed, an expanding field. In fact, it topped the BLS list of fastest growing occupations in January of 2014, and, as you can see in the chart below, it was easily the highest paying profession in the top five.

OccupationJob Growth, 2012-20222012 Median Pay
Industrial-Organizational Psychologists53%$83,580
Personal Care Aides49%$19,910
Home Health Aides48%$20,820
Insulation Workers, Mechanical47%$39,170
Interpreters and Translators46%$45,430

I-O psychology specialists have traditionally done institutional research and consulting with large organizations, and they’ve also taught and helped implement policies designed to optimize efficiency and improve working conditions. Often this has meant taking a job at a research institute or university, setting up a private consulting practice, or some combination of the two. But, companies are increasingly looking to hire qualified I-O psychologists in various capacities.

For example, a March 2011 cover story by Peggy Novotney for the APA’s gradPSYCH magazine, provided this assessment: “As a result of the growing respect and influence I-O psychologists have garnered in the global business world, psychologists now head human resource departments at major companies.” The same story includes a quote from Rob Silzer, PhD, a professor of I-O psychology at City University of New York’s Baruch College, and the author of the 2010 book Strategy-Driven Talent Management, about another crucial role I-O psychologists now play in the business world. “Companies now understand that talent resources are as important as financial resources to achieving organizational success, and that I-O psychologists are well prepared to help organizations select and retain effective employees.”

As the APA’s assessment of I-O psychology points out, “I-O psychologists are scientist-practitioners who have expertise in the design, execution, and interpretation of research in psychology and who apply their findings to help address human and organizational problems in the context of organized work.” The APA goes on to list some of the typical roles I-O psychologists fill in the business world:

  • Identify training and development needs
  • Design and optimize job and work and quality of work life
  • Formulate and implement training programs and evaluate their effectiveness
  • Coach employees
  • Develop criteria to evaluate performance of individuals and organizations
  • Assess consumer preferences, customer satisfaction, and market strategies

Along with the 53 percent growth rate projected by the BLS for I-O psychologists, the earning potential in I-O psychology is quite good, even in comparison to other professions within psychology. Overall, job growth in psychology is projected to remain at a level of roughly 12 percent through 2022. Here’s how the salaries stack up, as of the BLS’s latest data from May 2014:

OccupationJob Growth, 2012-20222012 Median Pay
Industrial-Organizational Psychologists53%$83,580
Personal Care Aides49%$19,910
Home Health Aides48%$20,820
Insulation Workers, Mechanical47%$39,170
Interpreters and Translators46%$45,430
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