What is industrial-organizational psychology? I/O psychology, as it’s commonly called, is the study of work, the workers, and the workplace.

Dr. Rebecca Loehrer, faculty chair of the Industrial/Organizational Psychology specialization within Capella University’s Harold Abel School of Psychology, outlines how I/O psychology is different from clinical psychology, and career paths available with a degree.


Q. What is I/O psychology?

A. There are a number of ways to define it. The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) says it’s the scientific study of the workplace and work—a study of the worker. That includes anything related to work from the viewpoint of psychology. It involves all the psychological dynamics and processes, including motivation, performance, teamwork, leadership, work-life balance, and how to select a career. Human behavior has an impact on all of these factors.

Overall, I/O psychologists are interested in improving the performance of workers and the workplace, through studying how people get along and work together, and how they are affected by group dynamics.


Q. What is the focus of I/O psychology degree programs?

A. A big piece is research, as strategies come from evidence-based research. However, there’s also a lot of applied work using that research to develop training, coaching, and consulting within the workplace. What students focus on depends on whether they want to stay with high-level research or apply their expertise directly in the workplace. It’s different from counseling, as it’s not usually focused on mental health issues, but on the workplace and people within it.


Q. Who would be interested in studying I/O psychology?

A. People with many different backgrounds find themselves drawn to study I/O psychology. Most of our students come to us from the field. They’re more likely middle-aged and have considerable work experience. Any workplace that has problems of some sort can create a demand for this type of learning.

We’ve had students from law enforcement, health care, mental health, nursing, psychology, and business. They’re really interested in the human behavioral component in the workplace and want to understand that piece. Or we’ll see counselors who have become a bit burned out and want a fresh approach, and they find I/O psychology a bit more positive since it doesn’t deal so directly with mental health problems. It’s also popular with people in corporate settings, especially those handling hiring (like human resources), coaching, and training.


Q. What characteristics or traits should someone in I/O psychology have to be successful?

A. A successful I/O psychologist needs to be able to write well and have the ability to understand research. An interest in human behavior and working directly with people is essential. If you like numbers but not human interaction, this is not the field for you.

It also helps to have good intuition related to human relationships, and the ability to stay calm—this field can involve a lot of conflicts, with lots of personalities and people mad at each other. Good communication skills are a must, as effective feedback needs to be tailored to various audiences.


Q. What types of careers are available for people in this specialization?

A. It depends on the degree attained. Doctoral graduates are prepared for an academic position, whether in research or teaching at the graduate level. It’s possible to work on research with just a master’s, but probably as an assistant rather than a lead researcher. Additionally, there are numerous government research positions that require a PhD.

With a master’s, careers can include consultancies, undergraduate-level teaching, or corporate positions. Companies hire master’s graduates for jobs such as:

  • Director of training and development
  • Talent acquisition manager
  • Coach
  • Leadership coach
  • Manager or director of human resources


Learn more about Capella’s online MS in Psychology, Industrial-Organizational Psychology and PhD in Psychology, Industrial-Organizational Psychology degree programs.