Grad School: Should I Get a Ph.D. or Master’s in I/O Psychology?
Grad School Series: Applying to Graduate School in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Starting Sophomore Year: Should I get a Ph.D. or Master’s? | How to Get Research Experience
Starting Junior Year: Preparing for the GRE | Getting Recommendations
Starting Senior Year: Where to Apply | Traditional vs. Online Degrees | Personal Statements
Alternative Path: Managing a Career Change to I/O
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year
Rankings/Listings: PhD Program Rankings | Online Programs Listing
So you want to go to graduate school in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology? Lots of decisions, not much direction. I bet I can help!
While my undergraduate students are lucky to be at a school with I/O psychologists, many students interested in I/O psychology aren’t at schools with people they can talk to. I/O psychology is still fairly uncommon in the grand scheme of psychologists; there are around 7,000 members of SIOP, the dominant professional organization of I/O, compared to the 150,000 in the American Psychological Association. As a result, many schools simply don’t have faculty with expertise in this area, leading many promising graduate students to apply elsewhere. That’s great from the perspective of I/O psychologists – lots of jobs – but not so great for grad-students-to-be or the field as a whole.
As a faculty member at ODU with a small army of undergraduate research assistants, I often find myself answering the same questions over and over again about graduate school. So why not share this advice with everyone?
This week, I’d like to talk about a Big Decision: Should I get a Master’s or Ph.D. in I/O Psychology?
This falls under two categories in my grad school timeline above: Information Gathering and Career. This is a decision you should try to make during your sophomore year of college, and the decision should be driven by what kind of career you ultimately want.
Careers in I/O psychology are a little different than in most fields. Because we are so small (in the grand scheme of things), there is less public advertisement of positions than typical in most fields. You probably won’t find a position for an “I/O psychologist” on Monster.com, for example. Many positions that I/O psychologists end up in are also not called “I/O psychologist.” As the “science behind human resources,” I/O psychologists end up in a wide variety of career paths. This is because the skill set developed as a I/O psychologist in training prepares you for virtually any job involving “people at work,” including consultants, professors, assessors, directors, and CEOs. For a few examples, see these resources from SIOP.
So when you think about the difference between Master’s and Ph.D.-level training, you’re not comparing specific careers – rather, you are considering different approaches to training. In a Master’s program, you are training to become an I/O professional. An I/O professional will consider how to apply the principles of I/O psychology to solve specific organizational problems. In a Ph.D. program, you are training to become an I/O scholar. An I/O scholar will do the same tasks as the I/O professional, but will also use those experiences to advance our general understanding of I/O through research.
Thus, I/O professionals (Master’s) are trained to help organizations. I/O scholars (Ph.D.’s) are trained to advance organizational science, helping organizations along the way. Master’s students are trained to practice I/O psychology. Ph.D. students are trained to conduct research in I/O psychology.
In practice, this means that an I/O psychology Ph.D. will generally have more responsibility than an I/O with a Master’s. If you are in an organization with lots of I/O psychologists, the Ph.D.’s will generally be making “the big decisions,” while the I/Os with Master’s will aid with implementation or conduct background research. Since many modern organizational problems are at the frontiers of our current understanding of organizations, a person with Master’s level training will generally not be prepared to conduct research within the organization to help answer these questions. Of course, there are many I/O’s with Master’s that start their own consulting agencies or work as the only I/O psychologist in an organization – but this is a matter of experience and personal drive.
And of course, if you want to be a professor, the only suitable degree is a Ph.D.
All I/O training, regardless of level, centers around (or rather, should center around) the scientist-practitioner model. This is one of the key differences between an MBA in Human Resources and a degree in I/O Psychology. While the MBA will make an informed decision, usually based on reasoning from case studies and their own experience as managers (often anecdotal evidence or recommendations from more experienced businesspeople), an I/O will reference the current scholarly research literature to make this same judgment from scientific evidence. While an MBA simply wants to solve a problem, an I/O wants to understand that problem based on our scientific understanding of human behavior and then solve it.
If you are having a hard time making a decision, assume you’ll go for a Ph.D. The preparation you’ll do over the next three years for a Ph.D. will be sufficient for a Master’s too, but the preparation needed for a Master’s won’t be enough for a Ph.D. Better safe than sorry!
Please also note that the guidelines given here are based on “typical” programs – there are certainly scholarship-focused Master’s programs and practitioner-focused Ph.D. programs, but the majority of them follow the model here.
Once you have a degree in mind, you should tailor your efforts to prepare to apply to programs accordingly. Check out the links at the top of this post for more resources to help you make more decisions along this path. And if you’re considering a Ph.D. program, please think about applying with my own employer, Old Dominion University I/O Program.
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