Human Factors Psychology Degree and Career Guide
Human factors psychology (also known as human factors and engineering psychology or ergonomics) studies how humans and machines coexist, specifically how people interact with technology and mechanical products. Though it is not currently recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a specialty or proficiency in professional psychology, the field is still important in implementing safety and improving the performance of systems and devices humans use every day. Programs in human factors and engineering psychology are usually graduate degrees (mostly at the master’s level), but some undergraduate and doctoral programs also exist. According to a recent survey by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), 55% of human factors and ergonomics professionals responding to their survey were PhD-holders.1
Table of Contents
- Human Factors Psychology Degree Requirements and Coursework
- Select Human Factors Psychology Degree Programs
- Human Factors Psychologist Career Information
- Becoming a Human Factors Psychologist
- Job Description
- Salary and Job Outlook
- Additional Resources
- Frequently Asked Questions
Degree Requirements and Coursework
Degrees in human factors psychology typically place equal 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 another related field) and a GPA of 3.0 or higher with minimum GRE scores. Students in human factors psychology programs learn about human performance and how the design of tools, systems, and working environments and processes can improve and enhance performance. They also learn about human and computer interaction as well as production system design in the workplace. Human factors psychology degrees do not typically offer further areas of specialization since human factors is already a specialization (also known as concentration, specialty, or emphasis) within psychology. 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
Profiles of Human Factors Psychology Degree Programs
Traditional Graduate Certificates and Master’s Programs
Penn State World Campus offers a Graduate Certificate 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 (BS) degree in engineering or a related field from an accredited institution, an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0, and English proficiency.
George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences offers a Master of Arts (MA) degree and a Doctor of Philosophy (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 MA 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. Past graduates of the MA program have typically secured jobs within two months of graduation, many of them from internships that led to job offers. A total of 30 to 32 credits are required for the master’s degree. The doctoral degree requires 72 to 76 graduate credits of coursework and 12 credits of dissertation research if no prior master’s degree has been earned. 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). At least 15 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 offers a Master of Science (MS) in Human Factors Engineering. Applicants should have a BS in Engineering or a science field, or at least relevant coursework and research experience. The program is offered as a thesis or non-thesis option and both options are 30 credits. It offers training and research opportunities for human-centered aspects of engineering activities, such as medical devices, product design, ergonomics, and workplace safety. For students in the thesis option, focused coursework relevant to each student’s thesis work, a non-credit seminar series, and a thesis are also required for degree completion. Students in the non-thesis option will take two or three additional classes in lieu of a thesis. Courses include Human-Machines Systems Design, Analytical Methods in Human Factors Engineering, Advanced Probability and Statistics, and Human Factors in Product Design. 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.
Traditional Doctoral Programs
Cornell University’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 multidisciplinary, 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 should 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 38 to 59 credits plus a dissertation, the program requires students to maintain a minimum grade of B- in major courses.
The University of Central Florida (UFC)’s Psychology Department offers a PhD in Human Factors and Cognitive Psychology (HFC) 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 the authorization of an adviser). A dissertation is required in addition to coursework completion, and the program takes four to five years of full-time study and a minimum of 74 semester hours to complete for baccalaureate students and three to four years full time 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’s (NC State) 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. Only 30 students are usually enrolled at one time in the program, which follows a scientist-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 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 GRE scores and letters of recommendation are considered, as well as previous research experience. 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 of graduate study are required for the PhD program; with a prior master’s degree, at least 54 hours of PhD study are required.
Online and Hybrid Programs
The College of Aeronautics at the 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 and 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 have found 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.
At the University of Idaho’s Department of Psychology and Communication Studies, students can pursue a Master of Science (MS) in Psychology: Human Factors in a fully-online format. The MS degree teaches graduates to understand and improve the way people interact with technology, including computers and other products as well as facilities and other environments. With this understanding, they will be able to improve performance, safety, and efficiency in a variety of settings. Graduates of the master’s in human factors program have been employed in software usability, product development, consulting, healthcare, and public safety. To be admitted, an undergraduate degree is needed in psychology or a related field (including engineering, computer science, and business) with a GPA of at least 3.0. An introductory statistics course is also required. Coursework includes Sensation and Perception; Engineering Psychology; Human Factors in Engineering Design; Ergonomics and Biomechanics; and Advanced Human Factors.
Human Factors Psychologist Career Information
How to Become a Human Factors Psychologist
A doctoral degree is needed in order to become licensed as a psychologist, so human factors psychologists must earn a PhD or PsyD if they wish to become licensed and use the title of psychologist. In addition to a doctoral degree, psychology licensure also requires supervised clinical experience in your chosen field as well as passing tests including the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). While the steps to become a psychologist vary by state, the general steps for prospective human factors psychologists include:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree and (optionally) a master’s degree in human factors psychology with a specialization in human factors, ergonomics, or human factors and engineering psychology.
- Get hired by a business, government, or other organization as a human factors specialist, if desired.
- Earn an accredited doctoral degree in psychology specializing in human factors and engineering psychology or ergonomics.
- Complete the hours of supervised clinical experience required by your state.
- Pass the exams required by your state, including the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).
- Apply for and receive a psychology license from your state’s psychology board.
- Begin practicing as a licensed human factors psychologist in your state.
- Complete required continuing education each year in order to maintain your license.
Human factors psychologists work in a broad range of jobs. Some try to find out why some products work better than others. Others help design successful products and systems that will work best for users. They may work in businesses, government, or academia. According to a survey of 4,500 members by the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), nearly half of respondents reported working for for-profit businesses, while 27% reported working for universities.1 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 also study human traits such as vision, attention, and decision-making to inform companies on how to effectively design machines and systems to best serve their customers. Their expertise draws upon both technology and psychology to improve people’s interactions with equipment, even that which we use every day, sometimes 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
- Human behavior scientist
- Human factors engineer
- Human factors professional
- Human factors psychologist*
- Information architect
- Interaction designer
- Software engineer
- Usability specialist
- User experience (UX) analyst, architect, engineer, or researcher
- UX designer
*A doctoral degree is usually required for this job title.
Salary and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists earned a median salary of $80,370 as of May 2019.2 The HFES reported that the average salary for a human factors and ergonomics professional is highest in the Southwest at $146,759, followed by that of professionals in the Northeast at $131,514.1 Among the other regions, base salaries averaged from $108,381 in the East Central region to $126,208 in New England.1 Additionally, the HFES survey reported that human factors and ergonomics professionals with doctoral degrees earned 9% to 13% more than those with master’s degrees.1 With the field of psychology expected to grow by 14% through 2028 and with technology being ever-evolving, those looking to enter the field of human factors and engineering should be able to expect a promising career.3
- Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES): 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 (IEA): 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.
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 one to two years of full-time study to complete and doctoral degrees take between four to seven years on average.
Do I need a doctoral degree to be a human factors psychologist?
To be a licensed psychologist in any state requires a doctoral degree and human factors psychologists are no exception. However, it is possible, and even common, for people in the field of human factors and ergonomics to have a master’s degree. The HFES reports that those professionals in the field with doctoral degrees earn 9% to 13% more per year than those with master’s degrees.1
What do human factors psychologists do?
Human factors psychologists examine how people interact with products and processes. They may help to create and improve products, equipment, focusing on usability and safety issues. They may also work to improve the design and safety of workplaces to improve the effectiveness of employees and to minimize job-related injuries and illnesses. Ergonomics draws upon several disciplines including but not limited to biomechanics, physics, social psychology, applied psychology, and anthropometry (measurements of the human body).
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.
1. Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES), HFES Bulletin September 2017: https://www.hfes.org/news/hfes-bulletin/2017-september#Survey
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-5/