How does one get into Human Factors?

We got a great question from reader Matt:

I’m still unsure whether I want to make the leap into lots of school…and I was wondering if I could ask you about your human factors stories…How did you get into HF/E?…How do corporate and academia differ? In addition to teaching and research, do you or have you done any other HF/E work? What’s a day in your lives like?

Before we show you our responses, it is useful to note that Anne are both in academia so we have only one perspective.  If any of our readers have other ideas, please comment!

[Rich] HF is a multidisciplinary field and you certainly don’t need a PHD in psychology to get into it.  Some practitioners may have no formal training in HF but they might have been in situations where they had to design or evaluate products within their company.  This is quite common.  One thing I might do is look up your local chapter of the Human Factors & Ergonomics Society.  I bet there are good chapters in your area.  Try going to their meetings to see what it’s about–I think you’d be more than welcome.  If that doesn’t work, try getting on the mailing list of the talk schedule of your local college or university.  If they have a psych program or industrial design, or HCI program, they probably have talks that would be relevant to your interest and are probably open to the public.

I got into HF quite late.  I didn’t know it was a field until one year into graduate school.  I then switched into the program (called Engineering psychology at my school).

A typical day is roughly 40% reading/writing/researching, 40% meetings with grad/undergrad students, and 20% teaching.  This distribution would change if you were at a primarily teaching institution or research institution (I’m at a mainly research institution).  I mentor 3 grad students so that takes a lot of time but I enjoy it.  It’s sort of like an office job where you are the boss in a advisory role for the grad students.  I rely heavily on the grad students to help run basic lab operations (running subjects, etc).  It varies with the season, but some days are crazy busy while others are very slow.

And Anne’s perspective:

[Anne] I agree with Rich that a good way to get started is to join a local chapter of HFES. You can find a list at: http://www.hfes.org/web/Chapters/local_chapters.html.

I was a psychology/English Lit major in college and didn’t know HF existed until my last semester when a guy from Brooks Airforce base came in to teach a special topics class. I was hooked. Of course, I’d missed all the grad school applications, so it took a few years before I went back to school. I always assumed I’d go into industry, because I like applying human factors to real problems, but in grad school I started to like the idea of being my own boss and looking into whatever problems *I* was interested in, rather than being constrained by an industry. I couldn’t be happier, but many of our friends and colleagues are happy in industry.

If, after reading all this, you’re still interested in HF as a career, I’d advise taking some psychology classes and applying. Take classes like intro, psych stats, cognitive, and applied psychology if you can… courses in counseling or clinical psychology won’t help you much. There are a number of MS programs out there, if you don’t think you want to spend the time on a PhD.

I’d describe my day the same as Rich. Mentoring grad students and watching them develop projects is the most rewarding part of this job. We both teach, but it’s not a heavy load, so it leaves most of our time for research.

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About Richard Pak

Associate Professor at Clemson University/Department of Psychology

3 Responses to How does one get into Human Factors?

  1. Paul January 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    Here are some good resources:

    Academia vs. Industry vs. Gov vs. Consulting: http://www.hfes.org/Web/EducationalResources/careerresourcesmain.html

    Other info on HF: http://www.hfes.org/web/EducationalResources/educresourcesmain.html

  2. Neil July 19, 2009 at 10:03 am #

    Matt,

    I am really late to the party on this, but I’d like to offer the industry perspective. Like Anne and Richard, I found out about HF very late in my academic career (after I already had a BS) because of a chance conversation with a professor at the coffee shop. I had assumed that I would end up working in government, since the majority of my grad school work was done in support of government grants. When it came time to look for a job, though, I thought back on the classes that really resonated with me (HCI) and opted to go into industry, since I wasn’t finding HCI-related options in government at that time.

    As Paul has posted, there are differences between the areas that you can go into. I will say that I have gotten some very unique opportunities while working in industry that I believe have made me a better professional. My day involves a lot of work and a lot of phone calls with other team members in different areas. It has also given me the opportunity to do some traveling. Unlike Richard and Anne, you generally do not get to choose the things that you work on. I do get to work with a lot of interesting technologies before the public sees them.

    I hope that you’ve continued to pursue HF work and that you find enjoyment there.

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