Human Factors students: What should we be doing?

Article, Katelyn Procci 1 Comment

Katelyn Procci | October 31, 2012

I spent the last week in Boston attending the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s 56th Annual Meeting. Compared to last year, there were far more talks focused on serious games and game design issues, which is really great to see (more on that later). One of the most interesting sessions, though, was on the current state of Human Factors and Ergonomics graduate programs.

The session Expectations for Future HF/E Programs was held by the Education technical group and chaired by Jamie Gorman (Texas Tech) and John Ruffner (Serco, Inc.). The two opening talks were based on the same line of survey-based research from Drs. William F. Moroney (University of Dayton) and Esa M. Rantanen (RIT) on student and employer expectations for HF/E graduates. The first talk focused on student perceptions of their education and how that aligned with the skills they needed in the workplace during their first few years after graduation [1], which was complimented by the second talk on employer expectations for those same students [2].

What students expect to do and what employers expect of new HF/E professionals overlaps [1,2]:

  • Have well-developed writing skills
  • Be able to apply domain knowledge
  • Exhibit strong presentation skills
  • Possess literature research skills

The researchers also found that we are opting to use peer-reviewed journal articles and nonprofessional web resources (I am pretty sure the RETRO blog counts as this!) as our top sources of information. Yup, we are becoming an internet-loving, content-consuming culture. The researchers stress that HF/E programs should start cultivating our critical thinking and source evaluation skills as using these nonprofessional web resources becomes more common.

Still, those hiring new HF/E professionals feel that graduate school has only adequately prepared us for our future jobs [2]. Beyond what was listed above, the results of the surveys suggested that students should focus on improving the following areas:

Apply domain knowledge to design and be creative about it. Our design skills are really lacking. Not only do we need the knowledge, we need to know what to do with it. Furthermore, new HF/E professionals need to go beyond the textbook and actually be creative with the application of design principles [2].

Work as translators in a multi-disciplinary team setting. Stressed multiple times was the importance of communication skills, the ability to work with engineers, and being able to translate and articulate HF principles in ways that can be easily understood and applied by those who we are working with. RETRO is a multi-disciplinary lab — we have students representing all three of our Psychology department’s programs (I/O, Clinical, and Human Factors), as well as from the Modeling and Simulation Program. We also work with programmers with backgrounds in engineering and computer science. Sometimes there is friction between our two groups when we work together on projects, which is why being able to explain the importance of incorporating HF principles at every stage of design is crucial [2].

Improve general skills. While these are not HF/E specific, skills such as reasoning, using basic math to gut-check SPSS output, and project management skills are important [2]. We need a good, critical head on our shoulders, and Rantanen and Moroney found that HF/E professionals are expected to be independent, take initiative, be able to prioritize, and be able to lead.

So as students, what should we be doing?

Practice designing. Design products, design apps, take every opportunity that comes your way. You can practice this as a part of class projects or in your lab. We’re lucky here to have a dev team, so we are able to design interfaces and experiences.

Lead a project. If you are completely lacking in management experience, your lab is a great place to start. Leading your own project will allow you to gain management experience and help you become independent while still being able to collaborate.

Get a supervised internship. It is important to step outside of the comfort of the graduate school setting and into the real-world to gain valuable experience [1]. Not only will this give us a more realistic idea of what to expect in the workplace as an HF/E professional, the supervised nature will ensure we actually get to do worthwhile activities and develop our skills while giving using a chance to practice with interdisciplinary team communication skills. HFES has a great page on Internships and information on how to find Internships through the HFES Career Center.

Writing, presenting, designing, learning how to communicate and collaborate with others from a non-HF/E background, being mindful of the skills employers expect, and actively seeking out research and internship opportunities will hopefully result in well-qualified, capable, and effective new HF/E professionals.


1. Moroney, W F., & Rantanen, E. M. (2012). Student perceptions of their educational and skill needs in the workplace. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 56th Annual Meeting (pp. 576-580). Santa Monica, CA: HFES.

2. Rantanen, E. M., & Moroney, W. F. (2012). Employers’ expectations for education and skills of new human factors/ergonomics professionals. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 56th Annual Meeting (pp. 581-585). Santa Monica, CA: HFES.

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