Today more than ever, employee engagement and a safe and productive work environment are critical for success. An advanced degree can help you build the skills you need to promote the right workplace policies. The question is, which degree—MBA vs. IO Psychology—will give you the specific skill set you’re looking for.

Ever since Harvard University established it in 1908, the master’s of business administration (MBA) has been the most well-known and popular degree for a career in business. 

In recent years, however, the variety of business-related degrees has greatly expanded from the traditional MBA, offering business-minded professionals many choices. 

A master’s in industrial-organizational (IO) psychology is one such specialized business degree that has gained significantly in popularity over the past decade. 

There are similarities between these two graduate degrees and both offer significant advantages for career growth. But there are important distinctions as well in what you learn and in your career path.

MBA vs. IO Psychology: What Are Some Possible Career Pathways?

Both an MBA and a master’s in industrial-organizational psychology will prepare you to further your career in business. And both degrees offer a variety of flexibility and opportunities.

However, these two related degrees, MBA vs. IO psychology, offer different career paths.

What is an MBA?

An MBA is designed to prepare you for a management or leadership role in the corporate world.

According to, the MBA is a general business degree that offers broad knowledge of finance, accounting, management, and strategy. You’ll also learn critical soft skills that you’ll need as a manager and leader. Other business-focused master’s programs, like a master’s in management, also cover such topics. (See Master’s Degree in Management vs an MBA).

An MBA doesn’t guarantee that you will move into an executive role, nor is an MBA required for executive leadership. However, having an MBA on your resume can significantly accelerate your career path into senior leadership. 

Potential titles for professionals with an MBA include:

  • CEO
  • C-Suite and executive positions such as Chief Finance Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, and Vice President
  • Marketing Manager
  • Finance Manager
  • HR Manager
  • Management Analyst or Consultant
  • Operations Manager

In addition, many MBA programs today also have a focus on entrepreneurship. If starting your own business or running a start-up appeals to you, an MBA is likely a smart choice.

What is a Master’s in IO Psychology?

A master’s in industrial-organizational psychology is a specialized business degree focused on human behavior in the workplace. 

Many companies employ IO psychologists to ensure that their organizations are safe, healthy, and productive places to work. 

A graduate degree in industrial-organizational psychology can prepare you for a variety of different career paths in nearly any industry you can name. Some of the most common paths include:

  • Human resources: create improved hiring practices; develop criteria to evaluate employee performance; engage in conflict resolution; and design policies to improve productivity, safety, and conflict resolution.
  • Learning and development: develop, evaluate, and facilitate employee training programs. 
  • Leadership development and career coach: help employees maximize their potential by facilitating positive transition and change.
  • Behavioral analysis: research behavioral patterns in the workplace to improve safety procedures, increase productivity, examine environmental and biological influences on group and individual actions, and analyze trends in customer behavior.

Industrial-organizational psychology offers career flexibility as well, from research to management. At the senior level, many specialists in this field develop successful careers as independent consultants. 

MBA vs. IO Psychology: What Will You Study?

Both graduate degree programs offer courses designed to give broad knowledge of the business world.

In both programs, MBA vs. IO psychology, you’ll master skills such as leadership, strategy, critical thinking, and problem solving that you’ll need for a successful business career.

Despite some overlap, however, the majority of your classes will be unique to the specific degree program you’re in. The biggest differences in coursework will develop as you choose specializations based on your interests and career path.

MBA Coursework

In an MBA program, you’ll take courses that provide a broad overview of key business areas, including:

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Economics
  • Marketing
  • Human resources
  • Operations
  • Business analytics

You’ll also build skills in leadership and management, decision making, ethics, negotiation, strategy, and entrepreneurship. 

In addition to required classes, you’ll have the opportunity to build greater knowledge in areas of interest to you. In your elective classes, you may want to focus on international business or business law, for example. You may choose to take a deeper dive into economics, labor relations, quantitative analysis, or even technology. 

Industrial-Organizational Psychology Coursework

Coursework in an IO psychology graduate program typically focuses on applying the science of human behavior to the business world.

Required IO psychology classes will look at the psychology of human behavior in specific business-related situations, such as:

  • Organizational psychology
  • Engineering psychology
  • Small group theory
  • Personnel psychology
  • Psychometrics
  • Work motivation and attitudes

Other required classes will focus on human resources, such as:

  • Employee selection and hiring practices
  • Performance evaluations
  • Labor relations
  • Conflict management and alternative dispute resolution
  • Compensation and benefits

You’ll also be required to study research methodologies, data collection and analysis, statistics, and other quantitative skills. If you’re interested in a career in research, you’ll need to have especially strong mathematical and statistical skills.

As in an MBA program, elective courses allow you to build greater knowledge in key areas of interest to you. In an IO psychology program, your choice of electives could provide greater knowledge of the business world, for example, or enable you to specialize in a specific area. 

In Harvard Extension School’s IO psychology program, for example, potential electives might include:

  • Behavioral Economics and Decision Making
  • Business Rhetoric
  • Future of Work
  • Optimizing Leadership
  • Diversity and Inclusion Management
  • Power and Privilege in Systems

While by no means comprehensive, this short list of examples demonstrates the variety of course options available to you as you pursue your graduate degree in IO psychology. 

For more information on the specific skills that you’ll need to pursue a successful career in industrial-organizational psychology, read our blog post 10 Skills You Need to Become an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

How To Get Started on Your Graduate Degree

The good news is that you can start either of these degrees at any point in your professional career, whether you are fresh out of college or seeking a career change. 

At a minimum, you’ll need to have an undergraduate degree before you can begin a graduate degree program (unless you are enrolled in a dual degree program). 

Your undergraduate degree doesn’t need to match your current degree goals. You don’t need a BS in business to pursue an MBA. You don’t need a BS in psychology to pursue a master’s in I/O psychology. However, you may find that you need to take some prerequisite classes to build skills and qualify for graduate-level courses.

The first step in getting started is choosing the type of graduate degree you want. Next, you’ll have to decide how you want to pursue that degree. Finally, you’ll need to research graduate programs that will enable you to achieve your goal. 

Researching the many high-quality programs available today in either field will help you understand the requirements, time commitments, cost factors, and other important information you need to get started.

Earning your MBA or your master’s in industrial-organizational psychology will be challenging. But regardless of the degree you choose, it’s a great way to keep your career moving forward in the right direction.