A specialized psychology career, industrial-organizational psychologist, is one of the highest-paying social science careers. The larger field of psychology refers to the study of the mind and behavior, but industrial-organizational psychologists focus specifically on applying psychological concepts, theories and research methods to the workplace. Working in the field of industrial-organizational psychology places you at the intersection between psychology and business. The question is, which discipline is more important in this interdisciplinary career field? While psychology is more central to the field of industrial-organizational psychology than business is, you will need to develop knowledge in both fields to do well in this career path.
A Subfield of Psychology
If pressured to place industrial-organizational psychology in just one discipline, psychology would have to be the winner. Traditionally, industrial-organizational psychology degree programs have been offered through psychology departments, rather than business schools. The core coursework of master’s degree programs in industrial-organizational psychology has tended to emphasize psychology principles and methods. In these programs, students are taught primarily by psychology instructors and develop a perspective based on the study of psychology.
That isn’t to say that your business knowledge is lacking when you study industrial-organizational psychology. Even courses in statistical methods tend to focus on research and statistical analysis in a work setting, rather than in conducting other types of psychological research. You may also take classes in business fundamentals, talent development, performance management, strategic organizational change and compensation and benefits. However, these classes often come from a psychologist’s perspective, not a businessperson’s.
The single most important area of knowledge for industrial-organizational psychologists is psychology, according to O*NET. This category includes the understanding of behavior, personality, learning, motivation, research methods and treatment of behavioral disorders.
The Need for Business Knowledge
If knowledge of psychology is the most important requirement for industrial-organizational psychologists, it’s safe to say that business is a close second. O*NET lists knowledge of personnel and human resources, administration and management practices, training principles, customer and personnel service and sales and marketing as other important areas of knowledge for this career path. Internship and practicum experiences place students directly in an organization like a business, consulting firm or government entity to gain hands-on work experience applying their knowledge to workplace problems, according to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
Why is business knowledge so crucial? Even if you have a thorough understanding of human behavior, you need to also understand workplace dynamics and organizational structures and behaviors. Changing behavior in a workplace is somewhat different from modifying an individual’s behavior to address mental and behavioral health concerns or even addressing problematic behavior patterns in an interpersonal relationship.
Besides having a more comprehensive grasp of the business world in which you will be applying your knowledge of psychology, knowing more about business can help you better build a rapport with employers or clients who bring you on to help their business.
Blending the Principles of Psychology With a Focus on Business
Business functions are only getting more complicated. The greater the depth of your understanding of business principles and practices, the better you will be able to apply your knowledge of psychology. Ambitious industrial-organizational psychology students who want to expand their business knowledge can make choices that emphasize the business component of their studies more than a traditional industrial-organizational program might.
One option is to look for a program that offers a more balanced curriculum. You might, for example, study the principles of industrial-organizational psychology and social psychology through your psychology department but take business courses in organizational behavior, leadership and human resources management. You can also enroll in a dual-degree program that combines a traditional Master of Arts or Master of Science degree in industrial-organizational psychology with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. You might complete the requirements for both degrees simultaneously or enroll in a master’s program in industrial-organizational psychology that allows for optional admittance into, and advanced standing in, the school’s MBA program after graduation.
Another option, if you decide early on that you want to grow your knowledge of business, is to dual-major in business and psychology as an undergraduate. The benefit of this is that undergraduate courses don’t carry as high a price tag as graduate courses.