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Educational Resources

Careers in Human Factors/Ergonomics

The HFES Education and Training Committee developed specific selection criteria when deciding what career information should appear in the Educational Resource Project. See the educational resources review criteria page.

See the HFES Career Center for job and internship postings. (Only HFES members may search postings in the Career Center.)

If you have any suggestions for content or information to add to this page, please contact HFES.

Job Type


Job Characteristics
  • Activities
  • Advantages/Disadvantages
  • Example Institutions
  • Future Trends
  • Personal Profile
  • What it Takes

Preparing for a Career in Human Factors/Ergonomics

This section is intended to serve as a resource for introducing undergraduates, new graduate students, and others new to the human factors/ergonomics (HF/E) field about the various types of careers that are available. The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) Web site has a section for students that contains more than a dozen documents on careers, with answers to frequently asked questions and opinions from experienced professionals. Many of the materials found within these pages are taken from those documents, assembled, and reorganized; however, for more in-depth information, the reader is referred to the student section of the HFES Web site.

The Careers section is broken down into compiled sections by Job Type and then by Job Characteristics so visitors can read about a particular career or compare across career types.

Academia

Overview - Academics are most often professors in a psychology, engineering, or related department at a college or university. Additionally, they are usually involved with or head of a research laboratory in that department. Most academic positions, such as assistant professor, require a Ph.D. Academics, more so than other professionals, often have opportunities to develop their own programs of research and investigate issues that are of interest to them. Consequently, deadlines are seldom enforced and extensions are more prevalent if they will lead to better quality work.

Activities - Activities include teaching graduate and/or undergraduate students, writing research proposals, acquiring research funding, conducting research, presenting research and publishing results, advising students, supervising research and teaching assistants, and serving on committees. Job activities tend to shift as one gets promoted to higher levels. This may include serving on more committees and teaching fewer classes. Often, academics do consulting work on the side as well. Academics at research-oriented universities will usually spend more time obtaining grant funding, and academics at four-year colleges will spend more time in collaboration with students and teaching.

Advantages/Disadvantages

Compensation - Academics often get paid a salary for only 9 months of the year and can make extra money via consulting on side projects.

Marketing demand - In recent years, the number of students going directly into academia is waning. There has been a recent push to get students interested in furthering the field and teaching the younger generations. Thus, academics are in high demand.

Global mobility - Academics often have international impact, as they associate with other experts in academia across the globe. For example, HF/E researchers in the United States often attend and publish with organizations based in Europe. Although individual institutions across the world differ, an academic desiring to move will find opportunities for similar employment in different countries.

Impact - Academics are encouraged to publish and therefore have more time to devote to getting their ideas out to the world. They also directly influence students they advise and teach. Thus, in academia, the biggest impact is on shaping the future of human factors/ergonomics, getting students involved and interested in research topics, and teaching them about the recent advancements in the field, in addition to the basic curriculum.

Pace - Research projects usually last one to three years, often with the possibility of continuation funding. Academic jobs are typically slower paced than industry jobs. Academic institutions vary in their emphasis on quantity versus quality of output. Some institutions may expect more projects and more publications, whereas others will be satisfied with one big project and its subsequent publications. More than likely, those who take on many larger projects will be the most highly rewarded.

Long-term security - Most professors work toward full tenureship. The requirements for tenure vary from school to school but usually require teaching a certain number of classes, bringing in a certain level of research funding, having a certain number of publications, performing community service activities, and demonstrating levels of participation in any number of other important endeavors. Once a professor has been given tenure, the job is secure for as long as that academic wants it.

Example institutions - Any of the academic institutions noted on the HFES list of graduate or undergraduate programs would be an example of a typical institution where an academic in the HF/E field might work. However, smaller schools without human factors/ergonomics programs also employ specialized researchers even if the school itself does not have that specialty.

Future trends - Academic institutions change slowly, and the nature of being a professor or other type of academic is much the same today as it was 20 years ago. However, there have been some recent changes that are likely to continue in the near future, such as increasing requirements for attaining tenure. Typically these have included increased focus on the quantity and quality of research, as well as the number of associated successfully peer-reviewed publications.

Additionally, the future of human factors/ergonomics will be in interdisciplinary programs. Although the basic programs that have long-established histories and reputations will continue, new areas of human factors are becoming more prevalent. Specifically, universities are starting to offer human-computer interaction degrees, usability engineering degrees, and modeling and simulation degrees, to name a few, and these are often multidepartment endeavors. Thus, the academic opportunities for HF/E professionals are broadening.

Future trends - Academic settings that focus on teaching rather than research require professionals who enjoy personal interactions with students and a have strong desire to pass on the knowledge they have acquired. On the other hand, although research institutions desire those same qualities in their faculty, they also require "out of the box" thinking, with a focus on self-directed and motivated research endeavors, and a passion for their field of interest.

What it takes - The two main skills necessary for success in academia are focus and creativity. Academics must be able to take the lead on research projects and be self-motivated to stay on track and complete those projects. Additionally, they must be able to come up with new ideas for research and innovative ways of tackling old problems. Obtaining funding can be a difficult process, and creative academics can leverage their unique ideas so they stand out in a crowd of faceless proposals.

Interpersonal communication skills are also essential, as academics must communicate with a variety of people, including students, colleagues, research sponsors, and government personnel. Interpersonal communication includes writing and speaking. Academics will need to teach classes to undergraduate and graduate students and be able to shift their presentation styles easily to match their audiences. Furthermore, they must be able to present their research at professional conferences and regular meetings with their sponsors.

Analytical problem-solving skills are the most important ones that transfer from graduate school to an academic position. These skills go hand in hand with creativity: being able to look at problems from various angles and create innovative solutions are key to the academic environment. These skills will enable you to handle university and sponsor politics, student issues, research problems, and other challenges. Graduate school teaches you how to think for yourself, and you must be able to both use that skill and pass it on to future generations.

Prior to beginning an academic job, there may be no official requirement for experience. Professors can be hired directly out of graduate school. However, experience in teaching and working in a research laboratory are valuable for an academic position. Experience presenting research at conferences and in publishing papers is also a significant advantage when applying for an academic position.

To obtain a job in academia, it is best to have a broad knowledge base in addition to knowledge in a specialty area. A broader knowledge base could lead to more opportunities in terms of funding related to topics outside your specialty area. Moreover, taking a variety of classes and teaching a variety of classes is essential, as you may be required to teach classes outside your area of expertise.

Industry

Overview - Practitioners most often possess a graduate degree (M.S. or Ph.D.) in psychology (e.g., cognitive, experimental, human factors), engineering (industrial, biomechanical, or interdisciplinary), computer science (HCI), or a related field. The specific type of work the individual focuses on is often dictated by his or her employer and particular industry, and the amount of influence the HF/E practitioner has on product design varies widely according to the company's implementation of the HF/E team. Some companies that have an HF/E team place a major emphasis on meeting user needs by applying sound HF/E practices and resources throughout the product development cycle. Others relegate human factors/ergonomics to more of a consulting role with less influence on the final product. Moreover, costs and timelines are important factors that affect the final design and on occasion can limit the ability of the practitioner to have an influence. Again, this varies widely by company.

Activities - The basic activities of most human factors/ergonomics practitioners working in industry fall into three categories: research, design, and design validation. At times, this basic process has been described as user-centered design.

Research: This is the basic analysis of the user's environment, wants, needs, and tasks. The designer(s) must understand (a) what the users want to accomplish in a particular environment, (b) how they want to accomplish it, and (c) the users' perceptions about the task at hand (i.e., subjective measures such as preferences and satisfaction). Practitioners often participate in these research exercises with other members of the development teams (marketing and engineering).

Design: This involves the design of the product, and often the engineering team "owns" the product design. HF/E practititioners may assist in the design by owning particular aspects of the it (buttons layout, user interface flow) or may create prototypes to simulate a design that meets the needs discovered in the research phase. It is in the design stage that one sees the most variation from company to company. For some, the HF/E practitioner may create user interfaces (functional or flow charts) and/or hardware prototypes using models. Note that there appears to be an emerging trend for industrial designers and HF/E practitioners to collaborate closely on hardware design. In some companies, the design staff creates the design with less influence from the human factors/ergonomics team.

Design validation: In many cases, this is conducted through user testing (usability testing). Ideally, design validation is conducted as part of an iteration of the design cycle that affords the design team the time to make changes, but it can also occur late in the development cycle, when there is limited opportunity to make adjustments based on user feedback. Design validation done late can lead to conflict among the development teams and may position the HF/E practitioner as a "rubber stamp."

Advantages/Disadvantages

Compensation - Because of market demand (see below), the pool of skilled and experienced HF/E practitioners is in short supply. Compensation tends to be very good, even for those who are new to the field. Experienced professionals with proven track records can command substantial salaries. In addition, compensation is often based more on skills and performance (merit) than on length of employment.

Market demand - The technology boom has created a large demand for skilled HF/E practitioners. With technology creeping into many products, "ease of use" has become increasingly important. Few people want to purchase an item that isn't easy to use, and a number of businesses understand that ease of use can be a competitive advantage. Therefore, many businesses employ HF/E professionals, and recent trends suggest an even greater focus on these sorts of activities, especially as product design becomes more important to the general population.

Global mobility - In general, the human factors/ergonomics discipline is not the same around the world. Although many major technology companies are located across a variety of global regions, it is not true that HF/E or related academic programs can be found throughout those regions. This has created a vacuum, and HF/E practitioners should expect to consider opportunities not only throughout the United States but also in tech-heavy regions of Europe and Asia. Academic institutions in other regions are beginning to respond to this need.

Impact - Impact depends largely on the individual and the organization in which he or she works. HF/E professionals may find that they own a substantial part of the product's design, or they may be relegated to more of a consulting role in which they offer only suggestions. This varies by corporate culture, but HF/E practitioners can improve their potential to influence products by having a good understanding of their peers' functions. In other words, if you understand marketing and engineering and are able to speak the language of those disciplines, you stand a greater chance of having a higher impact. Among some companies this is referred to as understanding the internal customer.

Pace - Pace is often a variable that is set by the corporate culture. Some individuals may own dozens of programs of various scope and length throughout the year, while others may own only one or two that last a year or more.

Long-term security - Unlike academia, there is no tenure within industry. Security is a matter of the value an individual brings to the company; the value management places on that skill, and, of course, a matter of economic function.

Example institutions - Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Oracle, Nokia, Yahoo!

Future trends - Human factors/ergonomics is evolving into a global discipline. It appears to be of increasing importance to consumers and companies, and global demand for this discipline appears to be on the rise.

Personal profile - Corporate groups benefit from diversity and often desire members with multidisciplinary backgrounds. For example, persons with combinations of psychology and engineering or business are particularly desirable to many companies.

What it takes -

Government/Military/Aerospace

Overview - Positions in the government, military, and/or aerospace are part of either government institutions or companies that are contracted to do research for the government. These positions are usually part of a multidisciplinary team and share common characteristics with both academia and industry jobs.

Activities - Responsibilities vary depending on the whether you work directly for the government or for the company contracted by the government, the type of project, and the phase of the project. General activities may include analysis, design, testing and evaluation, and/or monitoring of contracts done by private companies. More specifically, these activities involve conducting task analyses, developing design requirements, creating prototypes, running simulations, and carrying out empirical research. These are essentially desk jobs and can be extremely bureaucratic, with mandatory work hours, meetings, paperwork, and rules. Thus, government jobs are often characterized by less autonomy compared with industry or academia. In addition, these jobs often involve designing products that deal with life-and-death scenarios. Therefore, the research is often applied with substantial rigor.

Advantages/Disadvantages

Compensation - In government agencies, education and amount of time at the agency determine your compensation and position. Salaries are often lower for government employees than for private-sector employees; however, job security and benefits are comparable with or better than those of government employees.

Marketing demand - Job demand has always been present in this sector, and professionals seeking employment can usually find options. However, these positions - at least those open to professionals just entering the agency - are often limited at first. But once in an organization and having opportunities for acquiring a security clearance, employment opportunities are available that exclude those on the outside who do not have clearance.

Global mobility - Government employees and government contractors operate around the world. However, much of the research and development is done in the United States, so much of the HF/E work for those projects is done in the States as well. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for global relocation as a contractor on military installations using new products, or in aerospace collaboration with foreign countries.

Impact - Because work in this sector is often part of an engineering or evaluation contract, the deliverables expected of professionals are frequently defined. Having said that, the impact of the government-sponsored research that is performed can be dramatic. Indeed, HF/E research and evaluation has driven many of the user interface improvements in several environments, some of which eventually diffuses into the consumer market. As already mentioned, many projects involve situations in which safety is of prime concern. Thus, the goals of government research are often to reduce accidents that lead to injury or loss of life. Although the implementation of design principles and research findings is often a slow process, the eventual impact of your research can have profound effects on human safety.

Pace - Much of the work involved here is in the application of basic human factors/ergonomics principles to new and emerging domains and technologies. The work is generally unstructured, and professionals are able to set their own pace. More than likely, you will be working on numerous projects simultaneously. The pace is typically slower than in industry, with projects often lasting for many years.

Long-term security - Government jobs probably offer the best job security there is.

Example institutions - U.S. Army Research Lab, NASA, FAA, NAVAIR, Boeing, Lockheed Martin

Future trends - As technology improves and the types of human-machine interfaces continue to increase, human factors/ergonomics will continue to be a major part of the design process in these institutions. NASA and military contractors both appear to be continuing to utilize HF/E personnel in many of their projects.

Personal profile - As with academia, these organizations require intelligent and self directed workers with diverse capabilities. Similar to corporate groups, they also benefit from diversity and desire members with multidisciplinary backgrounds. Being able to function and communicate with designers and engineers is critical in this arena.

What it takes - Initially, a government job usually requires U.S citizenship and, in many cases, security clearance. Although there are many opportunities for those with a master's degree, certain jobs are open only to professionals with a Ph.D.

Government jobs are based in research. Whether you are on the government side overseeing the research or on the private-sector side doing the research, you need to understand what is happening and why. Therefore, a job in government requires a solid understanding of human factors/ergonomics principles and research methods. Lacking these skills will result in poorly designed studies and/or poor decisions about which groups to fund.

The characteristics that will help a professional excel in this arena include good writing skills; you will often need to explain key concepts to those with no background in human factors/ergonomics. You will often be working as part of a multidisciplinary team, which means that not only will you need to communicate with others who may have little HF/E knowledge, you will also have to "sell" what you do. It is important for others to understand the benefits of incorporating HF/E principles into research and design. If you cannot make others in your team believe that you have valuable expertise to bring to the project, you may have difficulty in completing your tasks.

In addition to communicating within your multidisciplinary team, you must also have excellent writing and presentation skills. This includes being able to clearly document all steps in a procedure or phase of the project. If you are involved in putting out calls for proposals, you must be able to articulate exactly what you are looking for. If you are presenting research results to your superiors or to other government organizations, you must be able to speak to your target audience. If you are providing feedback to your contracted parties, you must be able to explain to them in simple terms what you are looking for and how you view the work already done. Communication skills are a necessity.

Flexibility is also a key skill to have when working for or with the government. As the research trends shift and money comes and goes, you must be able to move from one research topic to the next seamlessly. Additionally, much of the work is unstructured, so you must be able to structure your time to get the work done.

You must also be proactive if you want to get all you can out of a government job. There are plenty of opportunities available for those who seek them out. They will not, however, fall into your lap with no effort. There are opportunities for "in-house" funding for small-scale projects, for advancement, and for travel and other perks. As long as you actively look for opportunities, you will easily find them.

Consulting

Activities - Consultants are self-directed, self-marketed, and often highly paid. They have little to no job security but incredible flexibility and opportunities to work in several different markets. They can consult with technology companies, software developers, large corporations of any type, government contractors, academic institutions, and many more. The keyword is flexibility.

Activities - Responsibilities vary based on the client and the type of project. Consultants may be asked to simply collect raw data and turn it over to the customer, or they may be asked for top-to-bottom solutions, including design; evaluation; testing; data collection and analysis; expert witness testimony; and/or expert advice.

Advantages/Disadvantages

Compensation - Consultants have an opportunity to make more money than do HF/E professionals in any other sector, but there is less job security and potentially unsteady income, and consultants will not receive typical benefits afforded full-time employee (e.g., health care, paid vacations, pension plans).

Marketing demand - Demand may wax and wane with the popularity of HF/E, but opportunities will always exist. Current demand is very high and will likely continue that way into the foreseeable future.

Global mobility - Consultants can choose to work in any market they wish, though language may be a barrier in some areas. As global markets continue to grow, so will global opportunities.

Impact - As the contract nature of consulting work varies, so does the impact a consultant might have. On simple data collection contracts, little opportunity may exist for driving the process beyond the data collection. In many cases, consultants provide recommendations, which are dealt with internally. This may diminish the sense of accomplishment (since you may not get to see the final outcome and the effect you had on the product). However, on top-to-bottom solutions, contractors may frequently have as much impact as full-time employees within corporate organizations and, on occasion, may be given more weight, since they are outside the normal process.

Pace - The pace is set by the number of contracts and their time requirements. It could be said that the consultant is therefore self-paced. Projects average two to three months in duration, but longer time frames are possible as well. However, in reality, the consultant may take on as many jobs as possible to increase profitability, and job pace under those conditions can be exceptionally demanding.

Long-term security - Generally, consulting has the lowest security because contractors can typically be hired and fired more easily than a full-time employee. Nevertheless, some consultants have developed good long-term client relationships and are almost as embedded and secure in an organization as are its full-time employees.

Example institutions - Consultants are usually self-employed, though some consulting firms exist that maintain a "stable" of contractors. Some large corporations also manage contractors whom they subcontract to other large corporations (e.g., Seimens, IBM).

Future trends - The demand for HF/E consultants is very high, and this trend will likely continue in the near future. In addition, it appears that there are collaborations between industrial design houses and HF/E consultants or firms.

Personal profile -

What it takes - Perhaps the greatest asset a consultant can have is the ability to listen to clients. Obviously, a solid understanding of human factors/ergonomics principles and experience in multiple fields of HF/E practice are important. Experience and a portfolio of past work are also critical in the successful acquisition of contracts. But the consultant who really listens to his or her clients and actively tries to understand what the problem is and what the client wants will be the most successful.

The ability to easily learn about new areas of human factors/ergonomics or business will be a great benefit to a consultant. Because they are often either temporary employees or hired only for specific projects, consultants will find it necessary to do quite a bit of focus shifting from client to client and/or project to project.

Similar to academics, consultants must be extremely creative. Creativity enhances the consultant's ability to obtain projects. Clients are always interested in innovative ways to solve problems. A proposal with a new twist on methodology will be remembered and may stand out from the crowd.

Public relations are a big part of consulting. Networking and the ability to sell yourself are also critical. You must actively pursue new clients, keep in constant contact with current clients, and make yourself and your clients look good, all while maintaining your own integrity. Persistence will also get you far in the world of consulting, but having a reputation for honesty and integrity will be the key to success.

Consultants must function well both individually and in multidisciplinary teams.