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Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Career in Human Factors Psychology?

Have you ever thought to yourself - Hey, I could design that gadget better! Why didn't they design it like this?...

If you often have thoughts like this or have an interest in optimizing human experience with products and technology, you may be interested in HUMAN FACTORS PSYCHOLOGY.

Human Factors Psychologists work to design products in a way that takes into account our knowledge of cognition and perception. They apply their knowledge of these areas to optimally design product shape, function, usability, look, and feel. Human Factors psychologists work to foresee potential product misuse and to provide consumers with the best possible experiences with human-made products. They may work in settings such as research,education, industry, and more (e.g., Department of Defense).

Read what one human factors psychologist has to say about his career and the advice that he gives aspiring interaction designers below:

"Lawrence Najjar, PhD, Interaction Designer, TandemSeven
“A Career in Human Factors Psychology”

I design software so that it is easy to use.

My job has a lot of different names – human factors engineer, usability specialist, information architect, user experience architect, engineering psychologist. The name that seems to be the best match right now is “interaction designer.”

I got a masters degree in engineering psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology. My first job was for a government contractor outside of Washington, DC. I designed a software and hardware user interface to help government analysts translate intercepted foreign language audio messages into English text. I talked to a user representative and wrote detailed specifications that described how I wanted the user interface to work.

My next job was with IBM. I helped design the user interface for the next generation of US air traffic controllers. I observed and talked to air traffic controllers around the country. One lesson I learned is that you can’t count on users to tell you what to design. The final project cost $3.5 billion so air traffic controllers could have had almost any user interface they wanted. The few users with opinions only asked for the new system to work faster than their current system. After the user analysis phase, I performed tradeoff studies and designed a customized keyboard, selected a new trackball, designed the audio alerts, worked on the design of new digital flight strips, helped with the ergonomics of the workstation, and designed an efficient layout of workstations in the en-route centers.

After that project, I moved to the commercial side of IBM in Atlanta and mostly did usability tests of software products. The software was designed by programmers rather than people like me who focused on the needs of the prospective users. It showed. I asked representative users to perform typical tasks using early versions of software. I listed the many problems the users had, rated the usability severity, and suggested design solutions. The problem was, we were evaluating software that was about to be released and it was too late to make the major changes the users needed. So, my recommendations were mostly ignored. Very frustrating.

I took a buy-out package from IBM and went back to Georgia Tech to get my Ph.D. It was supposed to take two years, but it took five-and-a-half. I worked part-time on-campus at the Georgia Tech Research Institute writing design requirements for highway traffic management center operators, performing an accessibility evaluation on an advanced photocopier, and designing and evaluating a wearable computer user interface for poultry plant quality inspectors. For the wearable computer, we used a head-mounted display, simple voice recognition, ear-protecting headphones with speakers for audio feedback, and a very simple application that I designed. Our prototype worked perfectly in a test-run in an actual plant.
Then the World Wide Web happened and I wanted to be part of that user interface revolution. I got into a couple of Web design firms and worked on AOL’s online annual report, Home Depot’s first e-commerce store, the redesign of NASCAR.com, and a wide variety of other projects. The dot-com boom went bust, my company died, and I was laid off. I could not get a permanent, full-time job for 18 months.

The job I finally did get was in another city. I moved to Austin to work at BMC Software, a company that made company-wide, system management products for mainframe computers. I designed graphical user interfaces for a couple of mainframe products and wrote accessibility user interface design guidelines for our desktop-based Java application developers. But it was clear the company did not value ease of use and they laid me off along with half the usability staff.

My current job is with a 40-person design consulting firm called TandemSeven. The world has gone Web. So I mostly design portals for company intranets and complex, browser-based applications. My clients include Abbott Laboratories, Campbell Soup Company, Girl Scouts of America, and Orbitz Worldwide. I get to use my years of experience to work smart and fast. I do a wide variety of work – writing proposals, presenting proposals to prospective clients, learning a new domain, interviewing users to identify their needs, creating personas that describe users with representative needs, writing prioritized design requirements, working with clients, performing iterative user interface design, conducting quick usability evaluations, and writing detailed design specifications. The projects last several months and each one is different. I feel like I’m using a lot of my brain.

If you’re interested in this career field, here is my advice:
• Love the field. You should enjoy making the complex simple and being both creative and organized.
• Get a masters degree in psychology. The technology keeps changing but the people stay the same. If you understand how people sense, perceive, and think you can make technology easier to use.
• Get some experience. Make it obvious you can do the work. Design a Web site for the department, a class project, a charity, or yourself. Get part-time work or a summer internship at the kind of place you want to work at later.
• Work where you’re valued. Work someplace where ease of use is essential for the organization to make money, save money, or save lives, and everyone knows it.
• Do work that is innovative, tightly tied to users, hard to replace, and is so valued that customers actually pay more for the product that you help produce.

A career in interaction design may be right for you if the more you learn about it, the more you think “Wow. That is so cool.”

Other online resources:
A general site about this subarea of psychology
Human Factors in Aviation

Special thanks to Lawrence Najjar for contributing this to "Insider's Guide to the Psychology Major", Wegenek and Buskist, APA Publishing (2010)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What are the job prospects for people with Masters Degrees in Psychology?

Students often ask me: "What's the job market like for people with master's degrees in psychology?"

This question is a very broad question and the answer is accordingly broad because there are so many paths that an undergraduate psychology major can take when choosing to pursue a master’s degree. There are different types of masters degrees that one can earn in psychology and each of these degree paths can lead to a career in a multitude of settings.

For example, one may work as a research assistant, a psychiatric aide at a mental health facility, a personnel manager, a supervisor in a mental health facility for developmentally disabled individuals, a statistical consultant for a corporation or organization, a behavioral intervention therapist with children, and more with a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) in general psychology. It all depends upon your area of specialization and how you choose to apply or generalize the skills you attained in your masters level training.

However, if one is interested in seeing clients for mental health problems but does not want to earn a doctorate (PhD or PsyD) in clinical psychology, pursuing a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) may be ideal. Marriage and Family Therapists are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples, and family systems and often work in the same settings as licensed clinical psychologists.

Alternatively, a person who wishes to work in a similar setting to a licensed clinical psychologist without earning a PhD may choose to earn a Masters in Social Work (MSW) and specialize in the clinical track. Although many in the general public think of social workers as working primarily in agencies such as child protective services, etc., social work is quite a broad field. Clinical social workers may be involved in psychotherapy, individual or group counseling, crisis intervention, case management, child welfare, medical settings, employee assistance programs, substance abuse, aging/gerontology, hospice, and more.

The other specialty track for MSW is called community practice and focuses on community organizing. MSWs specializing in community practice may work in community organizing type and work in organizations such as government agencies, non-profit organizations, political agencies, or in similar settings may wish to earn an MSW and specialize in community practice, a specialty that is growing in popularity.

The good news is that the general career outlook for Counselors with a MFT, MSW, or other related Master’s degree on a whole is considered to be good, according to the 2010-2011 Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which is published by the United States Department of Labor, Department of Labor Statistics and includes projections based on nationwide statistical trends.

If students visit this resource, they will find that the job outlook for those working in mental health with masters degrees during the 2008-1018 decade is quite good, with a projected 24% growth rate rate (a rate much faster than the average for all occupations) for mental health counselors, 14% growth rate (a rate faster than the average for all occupations) for MFTs, 16% for social workers in general, and 20% for clinical social workers. This is expected due to the aging of the baby boomer population*, an increase in the demand for substance abuse treatment due to the increased tendency of courts to sentence people to substance abuse rehabilitation rather than prison, and an increased demand for less costly quality mental health care as legislation is expected to require health insurance companies to cover mental health care. This last factor contributes to the overall positive outlook for all workers considered mental health counselors. *In addition, the demand for those specializing in aging should significantly increase. I have not even included information about increased demands for educational/school counselors, occupational therapists, or more in this brief summary. Students interested in those careers should definitely check them out since they are also expected to grow!

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook Online http://www.bls.gov/OCO/

More blogs to come about how to apply the skills that you learn as a psychology major or masters student out in the work force

Monday, February 8, 2010

How to Prepare for the GRE

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that is required by almost all graduate programs to be considered for admission. This computerized test focuses on measuring abstract thinking skills in the areas of math, vocabulary, and analytical writing. Some graduate programs will also require you to take a specific Subject Area Test in psychology as well. There is no need to get overly nervous about these tests (as many students do) because there are many ways to prepare for them. On each subsection of the exam, there are a finite number of types of questions that you can practice answering. Once you learn strategies for approaching each type of question, you will be ready to handle all of the questions that could possibly be asked on the exam. Free practice GRE exams and access to practice question banks are available at the GRE Web site (www.ets.org). There are also GRE preparation books and software programs that you can purchase.

Read more about how one student prepared for the GRE below...

“How I Prepared for the GRE”
Submitted by Kimberly Mounsey for Insider's Guide to the Psychology Major
Pepperdine University, MA General Psychology, MA Clinical Psychology

I began preparing for the GRE as soon as I made my decision to apply to graduate school. Knowing that GRE scores are weighed very seriously by graduate application committees, I wanted to be as well prepared as I could be for this very important test. I first went online to search for testing materials that I could use to become familiar with the format of the exam and the types of questions to expect. There are many books available to choose from, both on the internet and in bookstores. I suggest finding one that includes a CD-ROM that you can use on your computer to take practice tests. The GRE is given on a computer so taking the practice tests in this format will help prepare you in the way that is most consistent with the actual testing process. Once you have selected your study materials you may begin studying for the test. Beginning to study several months before your scheduled test date can be very advantageous. It will allow you to study in a steady, methodical way rather than cramming in the last few weeks, which is not an effective way to retain information.

I began with short practice tests to get acclimated to the types of questions on the test. I read each chapter to study the material I was going to be tested on and would then follow up with a practice test. I took the tests in increasingly longer increments. This way I could work up to having to sit for 2 hours and take the full GRE. When preparing to take a full length practice GRE, I tried to set up my environment to be as similar to the GRE testing environment as possible. I chose a time when I knew I would not be interrupted, I chose a quiet environment where I could be alone, I took my computer to a desk, sat in a desk chair, and turned off all interruptions (cell phone, television, radio). By the time the test came around, I had taken several full length practice GRE’s in this way and I was well prepared to sit for the full length GRE.

Finally, when studying for the Psychology Subject Exam, I studied for this exam in much of a similar way that I studied for the general GRE. I began studying several months before my scheduled exam date, I obtained books and CD-ROMs to help practice the material and take practice exams. The one thing I did differently was I acquired an Introduction to Psychology textbook from my Introductory Psychology class and used this to study as well. I knew that many of the Psychology GRE test questions pulled from what I had learned in my Introduction to Psychology class and I used this text to review what I had learned in that class. By my exam days I felt well prepared and ready to take on the exam!


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