Psychology engages in scientific study of the mind and its functions. An applied subfield, industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology uses psychological principles and methods to address workplace issues.
Corporate I-O psychologists typically work in tandem with human resources, research and development, and marketing teams. Focus areas for these professionals often include labor relations, conflict resolution, and personnel recruitment, training, and assessment. Many I-O psychologists find employment in industries such as postsecondary education, consulting, and state and local government.
Earning an industrial-organizational psychology degree can pave the way to lucrative careers across diverse industries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an average annual salary of $150,910 for I-O psychologists employed in research and development and $104,470 for those working in postsecondary education as of May 2020.
What Does an I-O Psychologist Do?
When industrial-organizational psychology first arose as a discipline, most psychologists held academic posts. Psychologists who worked outside of academia typically did so as part-time consultants. In the early twentieth century, only about 5% of American Psychological Association (APA) members worked primarily in applied settings.
Many I-O psychologists still pursue academic careers today. However, most industrial-organizational psychology graduates conduct applied professional psychology in corporate workplaces as either full-time employees or consultants.
Applied — or professional — I-O psychologists improve workplace productivity, evaluate leadership styles, assess employee satisfaction, and resolve workplace conflicts. These professionals rely on a variety of tools and strategies, including questionnaires, observational methods, interviews, mediation, educational workshops, and policy changes.
I-O psychologists in academic positions typically teach classes, supervise students, perform administrative duties, and conduct scientific research. Popular research areas include employee motivation, leadership styles, and the changing nature of careers.
Industrial-organizational psychology may appeal to both experienced HR specialists seeking career advancement and budding professional and academic I-O psychologists. Individuals attracted to this discipline tend to possess strong analytical abilities, interpersonal skills, and research expertise.
Day in the Life of an I-O Psychologist
I-O psychologists perform a variety of job duties. Routine responsibilities include recruiting and training new hires, assessing and analyzing employee performance and satisfaction, implementing workspace and policy improvements, and conducting consumer research to improve marketing strategies.
During a typical workday, an I-O psychologist might administer a personality test to job candidates in the morning, then mediate a dispute between coworkers before lunch. In the early afternoon, they may advise company leaders on negotiating a potential merger. The day might conclude with an employee workshop on recognizing and speaking out against microaggression.
In addition to managing routine responsibilities, I-O psychologists must also respond to unforeseen contingencies. For example, an I-O psychologist may need to address low employee morale resulting from a hostile workplace environment or a company manager’s inefficient leadership style.
We provide further details about five key responsibilities for this position below.
I-O Psychologists’ Main Responsibilities
- Personnel Selection: Design assessment tools for recruitment purposes, analyze findings, and present results to management or professional recruiters. Tests may address factors such as employee workstyle, work ethics, and personality.
- Management Assessment: Design and administer leadership style tests to identify inefficient management practices which can lead to miscommunication, lowered employee morale, employee burnout, and decreased organizational productivity.
- Employee Training and Education: Develop informational and training materials to educate employees on company policies, organizational changes, foreign influence, conflicts of interest, workplace discrimination, and workplace harassment.
- Hostile Work Environment Intervention: Design interventions to stop workplace bullying, mitigate factors leading to burnout, and help managers develop successful leadership styles. Measure these interventions’ effect on job satisfaction, employee motivation, work performance, and organizational success.
- Customer Behavior Studies: Assess customer satisfaction and conduct studies about why people purchase goods or services, then present findings to marketing managers.
Career Spotlight: Valerie Sessa, Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology
Valerie Sessa is a tenured Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology in the Department of Psychology at Montclair State University. Prior to Montclair, she worked as a research scientist and director at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). During her tenure at CCL as the director of executive selection, she managed a start-up operation designed to provide cutting-edge research and knowledge on executive selection to the academic and business communities.
Valerie has also worked as a consultant, most recently using behavioral assessment centers. Her consulting activities include Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals, New York Hospital System, Citibank, Bellevue Medical Center, and Xerox.
How to Become an I-O Psychologist
Why did you decide to pursue a career in I-O psychology? What influenced you to choose your particular area of expertise?
This is a bit of a long story. In sixth grade, I knew I wanted to be a research psychologist (my father is a research chemist, so I knew that was possible). I wanted to be a parapsychologist and study things like extrasensory perception, otherwise known as ESP. I read books on the topic and my parents encouraged me. I had the goal of going to Duke University because they had a parapsychology laboratory. In high school, however, Duke removed the lab and I couldn’t find any other psychology program that had this option. I sort of got the clue that maybe parapsychology was not going to be an option. I still wanted psychology; I didn’t want clinical, but didn’t know exactly what I wanted. My mom had heard about Industrial and Organizational (I-O) Psychology. Then, my dad was dating someone whose ex was an I-O psychologist, so I looked into it (and talked to the ex) and thought that sounded interesting.
What education did you need to pursue this career?
In my case, as I wanted to do research, I needed to have a Ph.D. What is really wonderful about I-O psychology, though, is that unlike most fields of psychology, you only need a master’s to use your degree. Most people work in organizations, for the government, or as a consultant — for those lines of work, you can at least start off with a master’s degree. You can go back later to get your Ph.D. if you decide you need it.
How did your degree program(s) prepare you for your current career?
The classes prepared me with knowledge about I-O. I also learned which topics I liked and wanted to pursue more on my own and which topics weren’t as interesting to me.
What kinds of internships, practicums, or other hands-on experience did you have?
I did research, published, and taught courses as an adjunct instructor while earning my Ph.D. I also did a year-long formal internship, then a year-long internship on my own (as well as a few summer internships), and a few consulting gigs. These internships/consulting also helped me pay for my education.
What was the job search like after graduating with your degree(s)?
During graduate school, I found out about research institutions, so I did a combined job search. I applied for academic jobs, but I also applied to a place called The Center for Creative Leadership — that was my dream job. They turned me down! I applied again and they brought me on even though they didn’t have a job opening. I was there for nine years and loved every day of it. I left that job as I was planning to get married and needed to move. At that point, I applied for academic positions and was hired by Montclair State University.
What aspects of a career in I-O psychology are most rewarding to you?
I love doing research. In addition, I love working with aspiring I-O psychology students to help them prepare for their own careers.
What are some challenges in this field?
A positive challenge is that knowledge and skills continue to change. You need to stay on top of literature (better yet, as a researcher, you need to provide the new literature!). You need to stay on top of the technology, too. So you need to learn continuously to stay in place.
I know some students don’t really know what I-O is before they enter into it. They are attracted because they hear that you can make a lot of money in this field (which you can). But if you are not interested and you just want the money, this is not the field for you. You will have a hard time being engaged and will probably burn out. Do your research and make sure this is the field for you. Don’t be swayed by the money.
What does a typical day at work look like for you?
I do not have a typical day, it is more like a typical week. I teach three classes, but that isn’t just booting up my Zoom and teaching. You have to prepare for the class, work one-on-one with students, and grade. So three classes actually take up most of my time. I also work with students on four separate research projects, so I have weekly meetings with them as well. In some projects we are collecting data, in some projects we are analyzing, and in some projects we are writing. I also do service and serve on committees within the University and within my profession. For example, someone has to peer review and critique all those journal articles that get published. I serve on review boards, and also serve as a reviewer for a number of journals.
What do you think is the most important skill I-O psychologists need to succeed?
Internal motivation. Like I said, there is continuous change in this field, so knowing an area or knowing a skill is not enough. You need to be willing to continuously learn and update. The information I learned in school is now “ancient history” to my students today.
What advice would you give to students considering your career?
Do your due diligence. Explore, read, talk to people, and make sure that this is right for you. If it is, then go for it.
Areas of Expertise in I-O Psychology
Consulting I-O psychologists determine how to implement workplace reform by investigating factors such as employee satisfaction, company culture, training gaps, group dynamics, job assessments, and ergonomics.
We broke down consultants’ four primary specializations to provide a clearer picture of their professional responsibilities.
Talent Development and Training
Talent development specialists design programs to help employees build essential job success skills.
Examples of Company Issues Addressed
Consultants develop skills review procedures based on value and competency frameworks. With this overview, they identify employee education gaps and craft effective strategies to overcome them.
Common Job Titles
Hiring and Recruitment
Professionals in this area specialize in determining not only the type of person best for a role, but how to locate and hire desirable candidates.
Examples of Company Issues Addressed
Similar to talent development consultants, these individuals identify the skills needed for a position through job analysis. After assessing the necessary competencies, they design pre-employment screenings and create unique interview processes designed to identify well-suited candidates.
Common Job Titles
Performance Assessment and Recognition
Performance management involves developing and implementing employee assessment techniques.
Examples of Company Struggles
An I-O psychologist consulting in this area determines critical position skills, establishes company goals through internal interviews, and develops review and commendation processes reflecting their findings.
Common Job Titles
Organizational Development and Management
Professionals consulting in this arena analyze a company’s efficiency, productivity, and profitability.
Issues Consultants Help With
Organizational development specialists use an array of tools, including mediation, competency models, and candidate assessment to identify and resolve corporate issues.
Common Job Titles
I-O Psychology Salary Overview
The BLS reports a median annual salary of $82,180 and a median hourly wage of $39.51 for I-O psychologists as of 2020 — significantly higher than the national median for all occupations.
Many factors, such as industry, can affect potential salaries in the field. According to the BLS, I-O psychologists in scientific research and development services earn the highest average salaries, followed by those employed at colleges, universities, and professional schools.
Highest degree earned and experience level also affect income. Ph.D.-educated I-O psychologists typically earn more than those with a master’s or a bachelor’s. However, for HR positions, work experience can often make up for lack of education.
Certification from the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) or the American Board of Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology (ABOBCP) may also influence earnings potential. SHRM does not require applicants with substantial work experience to hold a degree in the field. ABOBCP, in contrast, requires a Ph.D. and two years of work experience in three of 11 practice areas.
Where Can I Work as an I-O Psychologist?
Careers in I-O psychology provide opportunities across diverse industry sectors and geographic locations. Both location and job sector can affect careers and personal lives. Location, for instance, affects living expenses and lifestyle, while the job sector influences position availability and advancement opportunities.
Job location can affect an I-O psychologist’s career. For example, professionals working in Miami, Florida face a significantly higher cost of living than in the state’s largely rural panhandle. However, while more expensive, living in Miami may prove more attractive to individuals who prefer urban amenities.
Location can also affect job concentration, which in turn influences demand. According to the BLS, 3 out of every 100,000 employees work in I-O psychology in Virginia, whereas only 1 out of every 100,000 employees in California work in I-O psychology.
The BLS reports an average annual salary of $119,100 for I-O psychologists working in California but $64,820 for those in Texas as of 2020. The table below provides further data on variations in average I-O psychologist salaries across different states.
Mean Wages by State for I-O Psychologists, 2020
||Hourly Mean Wage
||Annual Mean Wage
The industry in which an I-O psychologist works can also affect career aspects such as salary and job duties. The BLS reports an average annual salary of $112,020 for I-O psychologists employed in local government, excluding schools and hospitals, but $86,460 for those working comparable state government jobs.
I-O psychologists’ responsibilities vary across other industries. Scientific research and development services experts study consumer behavior to improve marketing efforts, analyze employee satisfaction and productivity, and design personality tests for hiring purposes.
I-O psychologists in academic positions teach industrial-organizational psychology courses and conduct research. They also perform administrative and professional duties such as serving on university committees and editorial boards and reviewing submissions to peer-reviewed academic journals. The table below provides further data on salary variations for I-O psychologists across different industries.
Mean Wages by Industry for I-O Psychologists, 2020
||Hourly Mean Wage
||Annual Mean Wage
|Scientific Research and Development Services
|Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation)
|Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools
|Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services
|State Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation)
I-O Psychologist Upward Mobility
Earning a master’s or Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology can lead to leadership positions in human resources, compensation and benefits, or marketing. Below, we describe some of these advancement opportunities for I-O psychology graduates.
I-O Psychology Organizations
Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology
The main professional organization in the field, SIOP promotes the science, practice, and teaching of industrial-organizational psychology. The organization also operates as an APA division.
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
Dedicated to studying human efficiency in the workplace, HFES maintains an interdisciplinary membership. As of 2020, HCEF operated 67 chapters throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Society of Psychologists in Management
SPIM serves psychologists who work as, or consult with, corporate leaders and managers. Members represent various sectors, including local and state government, research and development, and healthcare.
Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations
The EI Consortium promotes emotional intelligence concepts understood in terms of five factors: self-monitoring, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy, and social skills. Members conduct research on emotions and emotional intelligence in the workplace.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are an I-O psychologist's duties?
I-O psychologists working in corporate settings may assess employee satisfaction and productivity, manage personnel selection, and conduct consumer behavior research.
What specializations can I-O psychologists have?
I-O psychologists can specialize in areas such as teaching, recruitment, performance management, compensation and benefits, organizational change, and consumer behavior analysis.
Where is an I-O psychologist's workplace?
Many I-O psychologists work in corporate departments such as human resources or marketing. Corporate consultants may be self-employed or work for a consulting firm. Academic I-O psychologists work in colleges, universities, and professional schools.
How much do I-O psychologists make?
The BLS reports a median annual salary of $82,180 for I-O psychologists across all industries as of 2020. Earnings depend on factors such as geographic location, industry sector, highest degree earned, and work experience.
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