What Is Industrial and Organizational Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 31, 2022
5 min read

When you think of a psychologist, what images come to mind? You might envision someone with a doctoral degree counseling patients in a serene office. Maybe your mind conjures pictures of a researcher working in an experimental lab. You may not immediately imagine a psychologist working in a corporate office or consulting with business leaders to improve their employees' motivation on the job.

What is industrial and organizational psychology, or, as it's commonly known, I/O psychology? This branch is not as well known as clinical and experimental psychology. Professionals in this field use psychological concepts and theory to optimize places of employment by gathering workplace data, evaluating the effectiveness of training programs, and increasing employee productivity as well as safety on the job. Learn more about why and how employers and employees benefit from I/O psychology.

In the early days of industrial and organizational psychology, the field focused on two separate aspects of the workplace. Industrial psychologists spent their time on practical matters that they could evaluate, fix, and analyze, like employee training programs and performance metrics. In contrast, organizational psychologists focused on the soft skills employees need to succeed in a workplace — like the ability to work as part of a team or lead a group. 

Over time, psychologists combined these two distinct roles into the field of industrial organizational psychology.

An I/O psychologist might spend their day developing a training program for new employees, or they might devote their time to tracking applicants and supervising the company’s employee onboarding process. Another I/O team member may work as a consultant who assists small businesses in improving their interdepartmental communication. 

These professionals apply psychological concepts as well as research findings to real-life business scenarios like the following:

  • Hiring and firing employees
  • Helping new employees fit into the company culture
  • Optimizing training programs
  • Working in human resources departments 
  • Consulting with companies to improve their overall performance or standards
  • Doing research, analyzing data, and presenting their findings to the company
  • Teaching and performing research at the university level

Not all psychologists design experiments in labs or work with patients who are struggling emotionally. I/O psychologists benefit from their training in the science of psychology and their understanding of many psychological theories and principles. In fact, many I/O psychologists have a bachelor’s degree as well as advanced academic training in the subject. 

Unlike researchers and clinicians, who may focus on designing experiments or treating patients, I/O psychologists apply their knowledge to the betterment of workplaces around the world. Read over the following industrial organizational psychology examples to understand the major differences between this branch of psychology and others.  

I/O psychologists do not counsel patients with mental illness. A clinical psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or social worker has a license to counsel people and help them take steps to develop new coping mechanisms. 

An I/O psychologist, in contrast, is not trained to serve people as a counselor or clinician. If you wish to become a psychologist who works one-on-one with patients of any age, you should consider a degree that leads to this type of career, like a Ph.D. in clinical psychology or a master’s degree in counseling or social work.

This doesn't mean that I/O psychologists never consider, or work with, mental illness. For example, I/O psychologists may help a company’s human resources department develop a program for employees who struggle with depression or burnout. These professionals might also evaluate the effectiveness of the company implementing mental health days, employees taking paid time off when struggling with depression, or improving the company’s benefits package to better address employee mental health.

I/O psychologists analyze data more often than they run experiments. I/O psychologists are trained to perform research, but their studies are the type that aim to solve real-world problems in the workforce. 

There are many types of research in the I/O field. For example, one I/O psychologist may analyze metrics gathered from a new training program to assess whether it’s working or not. At the same time, another may design a pilot program for an employer who wants to create a shorter workweek or implement pay incentives for performance.

To gain the most opportunities in the I/O field, you’ll need an advanced degree. Most I/O psychologists hold at least a master’s degree in I/O psychology — as opposed to general or clinical psychology — while some decide to pursue a doctorate.

Ideally, you should have a solid understanding of and interest in human behavior, leadership, common workplace stressors, and psychology as it pertains to groups of people working together. You should try to develop the following skills on your journey to employment:

  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills
  • Experience speaking to groups of people
  • The ability to work both in-person and remotely
  • Research and data analysis skills relevant to places of employment
  • Outstanding attention to detail 

Aspiring I/O psychologists can find jobs in a number of industries, but many of these potential employers do not advertise positions labeled “industrial organizational psychologist”. This can leave an aspiring I/O psychologist feeling uncertain about the job market — or concerned that they’ve chosen the wrong career because there appear to be no jobs. 

But this is far from the truth: There are many positions available, but employers typically advertise them according to the specific skill set required rather than under the general descriptor of “psychologist”. Think about these two points when seeking employment or considering I/O psychology as a career path.

Decide upon an industry: I/O psychologists can work in human resources, but they can also gain employment in places as diverse as large corporations, small businesses, the government, public schools, hospitals, and marketing agencies. If you don't like the first job you choose, it's possible to find a rewarding career in another industry.

Read job postings carefully: Remember that few employers post ads specifically for an industrial organizational psychologist, but many seek data analysts or human resources specialists. This wording is to avoid confusion: The term “psychologist” is often only used by professionals who work with patients and hold the appropriate licenses to offer therapeutic services. 

Look for jobs that include references to human resources, managing projects or teams, or analyzing behavior, workforce, and employee performance.

Choosing industrial organizational psychology can afford you exciting and challenging opportunities throughout your career. Focus on completing the required education and gaining additional skills that you need to succeed in this unique career path along the way.