I/O psychology: The History and I/O psychologist Career Insight

This article reviews the history and context of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology and outlines I/O psychologists’ professional training, career path, and job roles. Future changes of this field and the shifting of I/O psychologists’ roles in organizations are also discussed. As a branch of psychology, I/O psychology applies the theories and principles of psychology to business and work environments. The purpose of I/O psychology is “to enhance the dignity and performance of human beings, and the organizations they work in, by advancing the science and knowledge of human behavior” (Rucci as cited in Aamodt, 2010, p. 2). I/O psychology is a dynamic and practical field thus I/O psychologists “are brought up to understand the realities of working in organizations and how organizational factors affect the individual and capacity to bring about change” (Passmore, 2009, p. 275).

The History of I/O Psychology

I/O psychology has a relatively short history. While the debate about the precise beginning of I/O psychology continues, the common thoughts agree that I/O psychology began when psychology was first applied to business. Two early psychologists, Walter Dill Scott and Hugo Munsterberg, advocated lab-oriented psychologists to apply psychological theories, techniques, and results to workplace and organizations (Zickar, 2012). Publications of their works were marked as the birth of I/O psychology. In 1903 Walter Dill Scott published The Theory of Advertising, in 1910 Hugo Munsterberg wrote Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, and in 1911 Walter Dill Scott completed the book Increasing Human Efficiency in Business. According to Aamodt (2010), the birth of I/O psychology was around early 1900s whereas the official starting date of this discipline is still arguable.

Prior to World War I, the common terms referring to the field of I/O psychology were economic psychology, business psychology, and employment psychology. According to Zickar (2012), a big opportunity emerged during World War I for I/O psychology to demonstrate its impact and applications to organizations. During that time the U.S. Army hired many I/O psychologists to help recruit ever increasing number of soldiers. I/O psychologists tested these soldiers’ merits and qualifications and then assigned them to proper positions in the army. When the war ceased, I/O psychologists started to market their techniques developed in the army to corporations and civil services thus the practice of I/O psychologists draw great interests from businesses. At that time I/O psychologists primarily address personnel issues such as the selection and placement of employees.

In 1930s, I/O psychologists conducted the Hawthorne studies which became a significant milestone in the history of I/O psychology. Although I/O psychologists initially intended to investigate the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne plant to study the effects of work conditions such as lighting levels, temperature, schedules, and breaks, researchers instead discovered that “employee behavior was complex and that the interpersonal interactions between managers and employees played a tremendous role in employee behavior” (Aamodt, 2010). The results of the Hawthorne studies led I/O psychologists to explorer new subjects such as conditions of the work environment and employees’ attitudes toward their jobs. Since then, I/O psychology greatly expanded its scope in areas of employee placement, work environment, interpersonal relationship and interactions in workplace, and employee behavior and performance.

Today I/O psychology is greatly influenced by the rapid advances in technology. Research, data collection, and statistical analysis are computerized. Many tests and surveys are now administered through computers and the Internet, employers recruit and screen applicants online, employees are being trained using e-learning and distance education, and managers are holding meetings in cyberspace rather than in person.

Education and Training for I/O psychologists

Although people with bachelor’s degrees can find employment in the field of I/O psychology and related areas such as human resource management, having a master’s or doctoral degree certainly increases employment and career opportunities. A doctoral degree is usually needed for higher education and research positions while non-academic I/O psychology jobs require a master's degree. In I/O psychology programs, future I/O psychologists are trained not only in subject matters of I/O psychology but also in advanced statistics for appropriate statistical understanding and interpretation of empirical data (Mills & Woo, 2012).

While the popularity of master’s degrees in I/O psychology have been increasing for over two decades, it cannot be ignored that in tradition negative bias exists towards master’s degrees in I/O psychology due to concerns for the programs’ legitimacy. Therefore employers usually prefer job applicants holding a PhD over those who have only master’s degrees (Rechlin & Kraiger, 2012). Although workers with PhD degrees may be assigned with different roles and responsibilities, employees, no matter with master’s degrees or PhD, often work on similar duties in practice. However, there is a significant difference in their salaries. As outlined by Rechlin and Kraiger (2012), the 2009 income survey by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) illustrated that the average salary for an I/O psychologist with a PhD was $112,728, but those with a master’s degree was just $77,591. Therefore in general a starting salary offered to a PhD graduate is higher than that offered to an applicant with a master’s degree only.

Although internships are not commonly mandatory for graduate degrees in I/O psychology, some graduate programs do require formal, supervised internships. In spite of no empirical evidence to support that internship experience could help acquire one’s first I/O psychology job, I/O psychologists generally believe that the internship experience acquired during graduate studies can lead to more hiring opportunities upon graduation.

Supported by the emerging e-learning technologies, more and more I/O psychology programs for both master’s and PhD degrees are offered online. According to Rechlin and Kraiger (2012), employers generally hold neutral to slightly negative opinions regarding online degrees. Although most HR managers acknowledged that their organizations might prefer job applicants with traditional degrees, studies showed that “online degrees were viewed more favorably than they were 5 years ago” (Rechlin & Kraiger, 2012, p. 37).

The Career of I/O psychologists

Wide choices of workplace and career path are available to I/O psychologists. An I/O psychologist may work for colleges and universities, consulting firms, private corporations, and the public agencies and organizations. I/O psychologists who work at colleges and universities typically teach and conduct research. According to Mills and Woo (2012), the purpose of I/O psychology research is to expand the knowledge and inform practice, and the main method of dissemination of this knowledge is through publication. I/O psychologists who work for higher education as faculty, particularly junior faculty, often face an overwhelming pressure to publish their research by churning out “paper after paper in order to gain reappointment, tenure, and promotion” (Mills & Woo, 2012, p. 51).

Many I/O psychologists work for consulting firms to help a wide variety of organizations become more productive. They help companies build a high quality workforce and train employees to achieve better performance. I/O psychologists design and develop policies and systems to ensure employees are motivated and treated fairly in a legal and ethical manner. I/O psychologists in the public sector work for a local or state government or for the federal government. I/O psychologists who work in the private and public sectors perform similar duties however the work environment may be very different. Though the private sector often pays more than the public sector does, many employees believe the higher job stability of the public sector offsets the potential for lower pay.

There are many careers in I/O psychology, ranging from entry-level jobs to presidents and CEOs of large corporations. I/O psychologists hold diversified job titles, some of which include professor, research scientist, consultant, analyst, HR director, personnel manager, staffing manager, training manager, compensation specialist, VP for human resources, VP for organizational development, president/CEO, etc. Whether one wants to work in the public or private sector, work with data or work with people, spend the day talking, writing, or analyzing, there is one typical job or the other in I/O psychology that fits everyone.

Changes in I/O Psychology and I/O psychologist Job Roles

As Silzer and Cober (2011a) stated, the field of I/O psychology is going through significant changes, and “one central change has been the significant extension of I/O psychology into consulting firms and business organizations” (p. 81). Changes in this field will induce the shifting of I/O psychologist roles and careers. Future I/O psychologists are expected to play roles shifted from research and management to consulting, counseling, and coaching. I/O psychology will recognize new areas of practice and embrace works such as executive coaching into its legitimate job roles (Silzer & Cober, 2011a).

Findings of new research will extend the scope of I/O psychology across other disciplines such as biological psychology. Recent research demonstrated that genetic, physiological, and neurological factors can affect the phenomenon in areas of I/O psychological studies which include job satisfaction, leadership, self-employment, group efficacy, and even the tendency for individuals to respond to surveys among other topics (Arvey & Zhen, 2012). Thus I/O psychologists in research will extend their efforts to address biological impacts to the workforce and workplace. More studies will be conducted to examine interactions among employees’ hormone levels, cardiovascular processes, immune systems, and various physical symptoms in work environments. In practice, I/O psychologists may expect changes of their job roles accordingly because they will need to implement new methods and procedures to analyze physiological responses of employees and use evolutionary processes to help explain organizational behavior phenomenon.

A noticeable trend in I/O psychology is the widened gap between research and practice. Because I/O psychologists are aware of the paucity of research that is relevant to their current practice areas, they have pushed SIOP to look for ways to bridge these major gaps in the knowledge base. According to Silzer and Cober (2011b), in the future I/O psychologists in academic and research fields will develop and pursue more practice-relevant research agendas for the profession. Some of the researches will shift from theoretical focus to practical issues of current industries.


In a short history, I/O psychology was developed rapidly with emphasis on applications of psychology in the business world. The ideas of applying psychology in business were first introduced by Walter Dill Scott and Hugo Munsterberg in 1900s, which was thought to be the start of I/O psychology. During World War I, these ideas were largely applied in the military’s recruiting services. In 1930s the findings of the Hawthorne Studies opened new opportunities for I/O psychologists to extend the scope of this field. The Hawthorne Studies were so significant in I/O psychology and were considered "as the birth of organizational psychology" (Levy, 2010, p. 11).

Today’s I/O psychologists are trained via graduate programs in I/O psychology. Most I/O psychologists hold master’s degrees or higher. Many I/O psychology graduate students would want to take internships which were thought helpful to get jobs after graduation. In the job market, applicants with PhDs are in favorable positions in terms of possibility for getting an interview, getting hired, and getting a higher starting salary. I/O psychologists with PhD degrees are usually paid better even though they often perform similar duties as those with only master’s degrees. There are increasing numbers of students who obtain training though online degree programs in I/O psychology although applicants with online I/O psychology degrees may not be viewed as favorably as job applicants from traditional universities.

I/O psychologies have wide career choices. In addition to academic and research field, I/O can pursue jobs in management, administration, analytical, consulting, counseling, coaching, and more in both private and public sectors. I/O psychology is a dynamic and ever-changing field. Future changes in this field will bring more consulting-oriented opportunities with corporations and organizations. Emerging results from new research will continuously extend the scope of I/O psychology by applying theories and concepts from other disciplines to the work environment. To current and future I/O psychologies, careers in I/O psychology offer great potentials for professional success and personal fulfillment.


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