Organizational psychology is a discipline that combines psychology with business operations. Organizational psychologists strive to develop effective working conditions for workers, enhance employee morale, and improve overall operational efficiency, among many other things.
These tasks are accomplished via many different mediums. In some cases, organizational psychologists will build new programs from the ground up that benefit employees and employers. In other cases, they might work with a team of other professionals from the company to identify problems and potential solutions to those problems.
No matter what an organizational psychologist’s task, their training in psychology and business comes into play. On the one hand, organizational psychologists must look at organizational behavior – and individuals’ behavior within it – from a psychological perspective. In other words, their goal is to describe, explain, predict, and seek to control behaviors in the organizational environment.
On the other hand, organizational psychologists must assess situations from a business perspective as well. They might consider questions like:
- How can we increase employee efficiency?
- What needs to change in the production workflow to minimize costs?
- What does the organization need to do to retain employees?
So, while organizational psychologists are interested in human behavior and why people act the way they do, they must also think about hard numbers – dollars and cents – and how to maximize an organization’s efficiency and profitability while also maximizing the potential of each employee.
With this in mind, there are a number of components you can expect to find in a typical organizational psychology degree program.
Study of Psychological Health
A basic element of an organizational psychology degree program is a study of what constitutes psychological health.
So, in an organizational psychology degree program, you’ll learn about basic human behaviors in an effort to understand what drives people to behave in certain ways. Since organizational psychologists are charged with optimizing the psychological health and wellbeing of employees and management in the workplace, these psychological studies often focus on behaviors that are specific to work environments, such as:
- Interpersonal relationships
- Authority and obedience
- Social psychology
- Ergonomics psychology
These are but a few examples, but you can begin to see how deeply rooted psychological principles can be in a typical work environment.
Let’s examine one of these examples in more detail.
Assume that you’re in an organizational psychology degree program and that you’re in a social psychology class. In that class, you might learn about interpersonal relationships, feelings of belonging or exclusion, cliques, and peer pressure, among other topics.
As a future organizational psychologist, learning about these phenomena can help you understand workplace dynamics and your role in making those dynamics function as well as possible. So, in a workplace in which employees are segregated by cliques, you would use your understanding of why cliques develop to devise a program that helps break down those barriers, fosters the development of healthier workplace relationships, and focuses employees on a common goal.
Study of Abnormal Psychology
Another essential element of an organizational psychology degree program is a study of abnormal psychology.
The study of abnormal psychology revolves around psychopathology and behaviors that are not considered to be part of normal human behavior. The range of abnormal behavior runs a very wide gamut, and includes:
- Mood disorders
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Bipolar spectrum disorders
- Personality disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Psychotic disorders
Again, this isn’t a complete list of the types of abnormal behavior that you will learn about in your studies of abnormal psychology, but it does offer a glimpse into the highly complex and varied behaviors that qualify as “abnormal.”
As an organizational psychologist, your dealings with abnormal behavior can take many forms. For example, you might be asked to help identify accommodations that can be made at work for an employee that has Asperger’s Syndrome. As another example, you might be asked to develop an employee mental health program that connects employees with local mental health resources in their community. As yet another example, you might be called upon to offer training on abnormal behavior to managers and executives so they better understand what abnormal behavior is and how they can offer their support to employees that are struggling with mental health issues.
Technology and Mental Health
As is the case with other aspects of life, technology continues to play an ever-increasing role when it comes to psychology. Consequently, a degree program in organizational psychology will include at least some focus on technological developments as they pertain to psychological health and support.
This is likely to include a consideration of the growing number of applications available to assist and support psychological health. For example, you might learn how to use phone apps to help remind workers that it’s time to change their positioning, say, from sitting to standing. While this is a physiological exercise, a worker’s mental health might be improved if their physical health is also improved.
As another example, graduate students in organizational psychology will likely learn how to use technology to administer assessments. So, for example, you might learn how to give an employee an interest inventory using psychological assessment software, and then use that same software to quickly score the assessment for obtaining faster results.
You might also learn about the positive and negative effects that technology has on mental health. For example, as noted above, a benefit of technology is that it has improved access to mental health resources. On the other hand, technology can negatively impact a person’s mental health, such as the development of an internet addiction.
An organizational psychology degree program will also focus on individual psychological testing.
A commonly used practice in the field of organizational psychology is to administer different types of psychological tests with individual employees. Testing of this nature at times is helpful in identifying a mental health issue or concern with a particular employee. This testing also is designed to identify ways in which the work environment itself can be improved to better benefit the mental health of employees.
Of course, mental health screenings aren’t the only type of testing you can do in the workplace. Many organizational psychologists administer interest inventories and skills-based tests to help identify an employee’s particular strengths and weaknesses. This often helps place employees in positions where they can maximize their potential and maximize their on-the-job success, too.
Learning how to administer tests like these usually does not occur at the undergraduate level. Instead, you’ll need graduate training in organizational psychology to be able to conduct psychological assessments.
Yet another aspect of a typical organizational psychology degree program is hands-on clinical training. The reality is that while “book learning” is terribly important, hands-on experience in a clinical setting is necessary in order to best prepare an organizational psychology student for work in the proverbial “real world.”
This type of training can take many different forms.
For example, you might simply work in mock situations with your classmates to get a basic understanding of how to conduct necessary organizational psychology tasks. So, if you’re learning about techniques to improve communication between two people, you might conduct a mock session with your classmates in which you model the communication techniques and then ask your classmates to try the techniques you’ve taught them.
Training might also take place in a work-study or shadowing situation. In these types of hands-on training, your job is to simply observe how an organizational psychologist goes about their daily work. You don’t participate in their work, but you shadow them and see how they implement their organizational psychology skills while on the job.
Of course, work-study and job shadowing experiences include the opportunity to sit down with the person you’re shadowing and ask them questions, discuss their job, and solicit advice. This usually occurs at the end of the shadowing experience.
Another option for getting hands-on experience in organizational psychology is in a practicum or internship experience.
Usually, practicum experiences are fairly short – perhaps a few weeks – but are typically more hands-on than a simple work-study or job shadowing situation. During a practicum, you might be asked to participate in some basic on-the-job tasks with your mentor. Additionally, you might have the opportunity to follow other psychology professionals within the same business or organization.
Perhaps the best hands-on training, though, is an internship.
Internships are long-form experiences that typically have an hours requirement of around 1,000 hours of contact time. Throughout the experience you are tasked with having direct interaction with people in the capacity of an organizational psychologist in training.
So, you might work with your supervisor to develop a new training program for a business that identifies employees’ strengths and pairs them with job openings that best fit their talents, skills, and interests. While you wouldn’t work on this kind of project by yourself, you would have far more responsibility than in a job shadowing or practicum experience.
As another example, you might be asked to work on conflict resolution between two employees that are butting heads. In that context, you might interview each employee, identify the source of their angst, and develop interventions for both employees such that they can deal with their problems and get back to working in a productive and efficient manner.
Again, everything you do in an internship is supervised by an experienced organizational psychologist. You have a lot of leeway to work independently, but at the end of the day, your supervisor is there to guide and support you in your development as a professional.
Aside from the obvious benefit of getting a lot of hands-on experience as an organizational psychologist, an internship can often lead to employment after graduation. In some instances, a positive internship experience might lead to a job offer from the company with which you interned. In other cases, the experiences you had during your internship can provide a boost to your resume and help generate job offers from other businesses and organizations. Either way, an internship is a hugely important component of many organizational degree programs.
How Long are Organizational Psychology Degree Programs?
As mentioned earlier, to be an organizational psychologist, you’ll need at least a master’s degree. This means that you must first complete an undergraduate degree program in psychology, which takes about four years to complete if you attend school full time.
During that four years, you’ll complete general education requirements like science, math, and humanities, as well as introductory courses in psychology, such as:
- General psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Psychology of learning
- Physiological psychology
- Psychological statistics
Then, upon graduation from your undergraduate program, you will need to complete a master’s degree in organizational psychology. Usually, these programs can be completed in two or three years of full-time study, depending on the specific graduation requirements.
Graduate programs in this field combine coursework with practicum and internship experiences that we discussed earlier. This gives you a nice mix of classroom learning, theoretical practice, and skills development, as well as the opportunity to put your learning to the test in real-world situations.
For some, a doctoral program in organizational psychology will be desired or necessary. To get a doctorate in this field, you can expect to spend another 4-5 years in school, much of it in advanced research and practice. For example, whereas your undergraduate studies are mostly classroom-based learning opportunities led by instructors, doctoral work is often done independently while focusing on very specific aspects of this field. You might work for 2-3 years on your doctoral dissertation alone.
Why is an Organizational Psychology Degree Program a Good Idea?
An increasing number of corporations and other types of businesses are seeking the professional assistance of organizational psychologists. These mental health professionals are being sought for an array of different reasons, including during a business launch to assist in structuring an ideal work environment. In addition, organizational psychologists are in demand on an ongoing basis to continuously monitor and work to enhance the work environment in a way that will benefit the overall mental health and wellbeing of a business’s employee team.
In other words, having a streamlined, efficient, happy, and healthy workforce is crucial to businesses and organizations. With the help of a qualified organizational psychologist, businesses can make a significant impact on how their employees work, which, in turn, can have a significant impact on a business’s bottom line. So, in a very real way, organizational psychology is big business. As long as businesses are seeking ways to improve their operations, organizational psychologists should remain in high demand.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated November 2021