Human Factors Psychology Degree Guide

Human factors psychology (also known as human factors & engineering psychology or ergonomics) helps humans and machines coexist, and examines how humans interact with machines and the ever-changing technology around them. Not currently recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a specialty or proficiency in professional psychology, it is still important in implementing safety and improving the performance of systems and devices humans use every day. Programs in human factors and human factors & engineering psychology are usually graduate degrees (mostly at the master’s level), but some undergraduate and doctoral programs do exist.

Degree Requirements and Coursework

Degrees in human factors psychology typically place emphasis on theory, practical application, and research. Advanced program admission requirements usually include an undergraduate degree (preferably in psychology, industrial engineering, occupational therapy, industrial design, human performance or a related field) and a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and minimum GRE scores. Students will learn about human performance and how the design of tools, systems, and working environments and processes can improve and enhance it. They might learn about human and computer interaction as well as production system design in the workplace. Graduates of human factors programs will be prepared to apply basic research skills to help solve real-world problems. Sample coursework may include:

  • Cognitive Engineering
  • Experimental Design
  • Human-Machine Systems Design
  • Motor Learning
  • Psychology of Human-Technology Interaction
  • Research Ethics
  • Research Methods in Human Factors and Applied Cognition
  • Statistics

Profiles of Human Factors Psychology Programs

Graduate Certificates and Master’s Programs

Penn State World Campus: Penn State World Campus offers one of the few graduate certificates in human factors engineering and ergonomics. Geared towards those already working in the design and development of products for human use, this certificate program is designed to give a competitive edge to its graduates. Since it was built for working professionals, the certificate program offers flexibility and a highly relevant curriculum. A total of nine credits and three courses are required to complete the program. The three required courses are Human-Centered Product Design and Innovation, Engineering of Human Work, and Engineering of Cognitive Work. Admission requirements include a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering or a related field from an ABET-accredited institution, an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0, and English proficiency.

George Mason University: George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers a Master of Arts (MA) degree and a PhD in psychology with a concentration in human factors and applied cognition, both of which are approved by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. The program is focused on equipping students to solve real-world problems with the research skills and analytical and empirical methodologies they obtain during their time there. All graduates of the MA program have secured jobs within two months of graduation, many of them from internships turned job offers. A total of 32 credits are required for the master’s degree. The doctoral degree requires 72 graduate credits of coursework and 12 credits of dissertation research if no prior master’s degree has been obtained. Applications must include an official transcript (preferably with a GPA above 3.0), a goals statement, three letters of reference, and GRE scores (preferably in the 50th percentile). Fifteen credits in psychology, including a general/introductory course, a statistics course, and a laboratory course, must have been earned before admission into the MA program

Tufts University: Tufts University offers a Master of Science (MS) in human factors. Applicants should have a BS in engineering or science, or at least relevant coursework and research experience. The program is 10 credits and offers training and research opportunities for human-centered aspects of engineering activities, such as medical devices, product design, ergonomics, and workplace safety. Courses include Human-Machines Systems Design, Analytical Methods in Human Factors Engineering, Advanced Probability and Statistics, and Human Factors in Product Design. Focus coursework relevant to each student’s thesis work, a non-credit seminar series, and a thesis are also required for degree completion. The entire program can be completed in two years as a full-time student. Teaching assistantships and research assistantships are offered to full-time MS students, but positions are competitive. Prospective students should submit GRE scores along with their application.

Doctoral Certificates and Master’s Programs

Cornell University: Cornell’s College of Human Ecology offers a PhD program in human behavior and design with a concentration in human factors and ergonomics. The program is a multi-disciplinary one, bringing together both social sciences and design. Subjects range from products to buildings that promote safe, healthy, and sustainable lifestyles and design. Potential students who are interested in teaching and academia should apply to this scientifically- and creatively-focused program. Those with prior experience in social science, design, or engineering are especially encouraged to apply. Applications will include a statement of purpose, three letters of recommendation, official transcripts, a writing sample, a resume or CV, and GRE scores. TOEFL scores are also required for international students. Consisting of 37 to 64 credits plus a dissertation, the program requires students to maintain a minimum grade of B- in major courses.

University of Central Florida: UFC’s Psychology department offers a PhD in applied experimental human factors (AEHF) psychology that is accredited by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Potential applicants should have either a baccalaureate or master’s degree in psychology or a related field. Students will learn how to design, conduct, and apply human factors research to professional settings using a scientist-practitioner model. They will be trained in statistical procedures, experimental design, computer techniques, and research methodologies. Concentration areas include human-computer interaction, human-machine environment interface, human performance, human factors in simulation and training, or other areas of interest (with adviser’s authorization). A dissertation is required in addition to coursework completion, and the program takes five to six years and a minimum of 84 semester hours of full-time study to complete for baccalaureate students and two to three years and a minimum of 60 semester hours for master’s level students. Coursework includes Human Factors, Sensation and Perception, Visual Performance, Human Cognition and Learning, and Physiological Psychology, along with a first-year research project, and a dissertation.

North Carolina State University: NC State University’s Department of Psychology offers a PhD program in Human Factors and Applied Cognition (previously Human Factors and Ergonomics) that is accredited by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. The program emphasizes a close relationship between students and faculty, through research training and apprenticeship relationships. 25 students are usually enrolled in the program at one time, which follows a science-practitioner model. Students choose from several cognitive and perceptual concentrations to focus on for their degree, and they draw upon the knowledge of both the departments of psychology and industrial and systems engineering (ISE). Prospective students should have a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, and while a degree in psychology is not required, any prior coursework in the subject will be beneficial. Admission is competitive and considers GRE scores and letters of recommendation, as well as previous research experience. The Psychology Subject Test is recommended for entry, but not required. Skills such as computer programming, electronics knowledge, wood- or metal-working skills, and design experience will also be considered by faculty for admission. A total of 72 hours are required for the PhD program, but with a prior master’s degree, at least 54 hours are required.

Online Programs

Florida Institute of Technology: Florida Tech offers a Master of Science (MS) in human factors in aeronautics that can be obtained entirely online. The program is interactive, connecting students and faculty through discussion boards and live chat sessions, allowing them the academic closeness that is sometimes missing from online programs. Human factors in aeronautics is the study of the human element of aviation and how humans interact with machines. Research and field study is emphasized at Florida Tech, giving students real-world and hands-on experience. Graduates of the program find jobs with private airlines, airports, and aviation organizations, often working as consultants helping organizations design more effective technology and systems. A bachelor’s degree or equivalent is required, and some aviation education or background is preferred but not required. The program consists of 36 credit hours including a maximum of six hours of thesis. Courses include Human Performance, Human-Computer Interaction, Sensation and Perception, Impact of Aviation on Human Physiology, and Essentials of Educational Research.

Human Factors Job Description

Human factors psychologists work in a broad range of jobs. Some find out why some products work better than others. Some help design products and systems that will work best and create happy customers. They may work in businesses, government, or academia. The products on which they focus range from can openers and cars to processes that allow pilots to safely fly jets. Human factors and engineering psychologists study human traits such as vision, attention, and decision-making to inform companies how to effectively design machines and systems. They combine technology and psychology to improve people’s interactions with equipment, often equipment that we use every day without thinking about it. Human factors psychologists are part of the reason we don’t have to.

What Jobs Can You Get with This Degree?

  • Contextual researcher
  • Ergonomist
  • Ethnographer
  • Human behavior scientist
  • Human factors engineer
  • Human factors professional
  • Human factors psychologist
  • Information architect
  • Interaction designer
  • Software engineer
  • Usability specialist
  • User experience analyst, architect, designer, engineer, or researcher
  • UX designer

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to get a degree in human factors psychology?

Master’s degrees in human factors and ergonomics usually take around two to three years to complete, and doctoral degrees take between three to five years on average.

What skills are desirable for someone considering getting a degree in human factors?

Communication skills, a curiosity about the way things work, and experimental design skills are important for prospective human factors psychology students. Those with a broad understanding of cognitive, emotional, and motor properties of humans will succeed in the field. Excellent problem-solving skills and analytical skills are also important.

Human Factors Psychology Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, general psychologists earned a median salary of $69,280 in May 2012.3 However, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) conducted a 2013 Salary and Compensation Survey, which reported the base salary for human factors/ ergonomics professionals at $111,762 in 2011.4 According to the same article from the HFES, the US Department of Labor listed human factors and ergonomics as one of eight emerging careers for 2013, with an average annual wage of $78,860, meaning HFES survey participants made about 29% more than the Department of Labor’s estimate.4 Regardless, with the field of psychology expected to grow by 10.7% through 2022, those looking to enter the field of human factors should expect a promising career.5

Additional Resources

Human Factors and Ergonomics Society: The HFES has a mission to promote the discovery of the multi-faceted relationship between humans with systems and devices. They offer a list of schools offering human factors-related programs, a directory of consultants, and webinars for members.

International Ergonomics Association: The IEA offers a wealth of resources for its members and strives to expand the field with more effective communication and collaboration. It offers professional standards and links to projects, publications, and journals.

1. American Psychological Association, Human Factors & Engineering Psychology Helps People and Machines Coexist: http://www.apa.org/action/science/human-factors/education-training.aspx/”
2. American Psychological Association, A Career in Human Factors & Engineering Psychology: http://www.apa.org/action/science/human-factors/index.aspx/
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-5/
4. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), 2013 HFES Salary Survey Shows Rising Income and Optimistic Employer Trends: https://www.hfes.org/web/DetailNews.aspx?ID=305/
5. Projections Central: http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm