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Overview

Engineering psychology is the science of human behavior and capability, applied to the design and operation of systems and technology. As an applied field of psychology and an interdisciplinary part of ergonomics, it aims to improve the relationships between people and machines by redesigning equipment, interactions, or the environment in which they take place. The work of an engineering psychologist is often described as making the relationship more “user-friendly.”

Engineering psychology started during World War I (1914). The reason why this subject was developed during this time was because many of America’s weapons were failing; bombs not falling in the right place- to weapons attacking normal marine life. The fault was traced back to human errors. A more identifiable application of the science was the redesign of the mailbags used by letter carriers. Engineering psychologists discovered that a mailbag with a waist-support strap, and a double bag that requires the use of both shoulders, reduces muscle fatigue.

These psychologists contribute to the design of a variety of products, including dental and surgical implements, cameras, toothbrushes, cell phone usage in cars, and bucket seats for cars.

Education

A handful of colleges, such as Tufts University School of Engineering, offer a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Human Factors Engineering. This program of study leads to a degree in Human Factors Engineering (or Engineering Psychology). This degree is intended for students who wish to be recognized as human factors professionals.  Students typically enter this program after successful completion of the first year program common to all engineering students.

The Tufts Human Factors/Engineering Psychology program is an interdisciplinary field of study that is concerned with the interaction between humans and their environment, be it with technology or social structure, at work or at play.  The goal of the human factors engineer and engineering psychologist is to understand the capabilities and limitations of human performance and to design safe and productive items, matching the functionality of the technology to the task requirements and human capabilities.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida claims to be the only university in the United States- and possibly the world- offering a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. program in Human Factors engineering. According to this university, their  primary focus is on Human Factors, followed by Ergonomics, so the main emphasis is on psychology, not machinery. Students study fascinating interdisciplinary topics like Psychology, Aerospace Life Sciences, Ergonomics, and Human-Computer Interaction. The programs emphasize applications almost from the first day.

About 70 American universities offer Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES)-accredited graduate programs in engineering psychology. Although master’s-level workers can find good jobs in industry, engineering psychologists with a PhD often have higher salaries and greater control over their projects. Academic and some government positions also require PhDs.

Employment

Engineering psychologists work in a variety of environments, including academia, the government and private industry. Whether their specialty is human factors, ergonomics, human-computer interaction or usability engineering, engineering psychologists aim to improve lives. These specialists also advise car companies, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and NASA. In addition, they consult with architects and designers of consumer products like telephones, cameras and home appliances-to name a few.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has one category for industrial psychologists with a median annual salary of $79,680, as of May 2013, for those employed in the industrial sector. For psychologists in scientific research, the median salary is $110,700. The website PayScale.com reports the median income for Human Factors Engineers at $80,956 as of 2014, inclusive of salary and any applicable bonuses.

“The demand for engineering psychologists is thriving because industries are realizing that involving psychologists in the design process helps final products be more functional and enjoyable to use,” according to Ronald G. Shapiro, PhD, former technical learning manager at IBM and current Consultant in Human Factors and Ergonomics.