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Grad School: How Do I “Get Research Experience” for an I/O Psychology Master’s/Ph.D.?

2011 July 7

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
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year

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 an important step in preparation to enter grad school: How do I get “research experience”?

The amount of research experience you need really depends on your answer to the first big question.  If you’re planning to go into a Master’s program, research experience is nice but not required.  If you’re planning to go into a Ph.D. program, it’s a must if you want to get into even a slightly competitive program.  Remember, almost everyone that wants a Ph.D. is smart; you need to distinguish yourself from other applicants in other ways, and lab experience is an important way to do that.

If you are at a school with a sizable research-oriented psychology program (typically large public universities), then you’ve got it easy; there are probably lots of faculty actively looking for undergraduate research assistants (URAs or sometimes just RAs).  The easiest way to become an RA at such a school is to ask one of the faculty that can vouch for you.  For example, if you were vocal in your Personality Psych class and you have a good relationship with that instructor, ask that person to help you find a URA position.  Even if s/he doesn’t have a lab or isn’t looking, you’ll still get pointed in the right direction.  And believe me, as faculty, a good word about your trustworthiness from a colleague will go a long way. Even if I’m not actively looking for URAs, if another faculty member tells me, “I had a GREAT student and she wants to be an RA,” I’ll often bring that student on board anyway.

You might wonder why trustworthiness is an important quality in a URA – it is in fact the most important quality.  This is because the primary role of an URA is simply to show up where you need to show up, on time and without incident.  We don’t expect URAs to advance the cause of science – we know you’ll be trained later as a graduate student to do that.  Instead, we expect you to fill the vital roles of data coder, session proctor, and recruiter.  These roles are the front lines of research.  You cannot yet imagine how frustrating it is to develop the perfect research study, schedule a URA to run the session, and then to get a series of panicked e-mails from undergraduate research participants at the door of your research lab with no one to meet them.  Avoid that, prove that you are reliable, and that’s also something we can comment on in our recommendation letters – something other faculty are looking for.

So what if you’re motivated to pursue an I/O degree but there aren’t any I/O research labs to join?  Not a problem.  You see, research faculty in I/O know that we are a somewhat rare commodity, and most of us understand that working in an I/O lab is unattainable for many qualified applicants.  So experience is an I/O lab is not critical; you just need experience in any psychology lab.  This shows us that you know what you’re getting into and understand what research really involves.  I/O experience is certainly better – but if you simply don’t have access to it, we understand.

Now we get to the difficult cases: what if you’re at a college without any psychology researchers?  I’ve heard a number of approaches to this problem, including working by remote at other universities (some faculty will take virtual URAs), summer research assistantships (these are often called REU programs), and simply traveling to the big university a few towns over a few times per week.  If you want to go to graduate school, especially if you want a Ph.D., you need research experience and a close working relationship with faculty if you want good chances at getting in.  Do whatever it takes.  And fortunately, if you end up having to go to all this extra effort, you have an added advantage: it’ll be clear that you’re a serious applicant worth consideration.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Vivian L. permalink
    June 7, 2014

    Hi,

    I am currently an incoming Sophomore at a junior college. I know it isn’t impossible to get research experience in my situation, but I’m not quite sure to go about it. I’m currently compiling a list of professors at local schools that I plan to e-mail to ask about opportunities. Other than a resume and maybe a letter from my current boss( I work as support staff for an educational support program), do you think that it would be beneficial for me to include a rec letter from my psychology professor as well? Or any other materials, or things I just specifically say in my letter? My chances way prove to be fairly small since I am not at their school, but I figured that simply asking will not hurt.

    • June 7, 2014

      The best way to do this would actually be to go through your current professors entirely – ask if any of them know any of the psych professors you are targeting that would be willing to ask on your behalf. If you don’t know your current profs well enough to ask that, then I would probably instead just send an email and attach an unofficial transcript to those profs you want to work with. In that email, I would describe why you think their research lab is doing interesting work, indicating that you’d love to be involved with it and that you are happy to spend x number of hours per week working on it even though it’s at a different school. If you don’t get replies, I would then call their offices during office hours. Key to all of this is that you do your research – get familiar with what their lab does, what’s interesting about it, how many people are in their lab, etc. Your knowledge and enthusiasm to go above and beyond is what will be impressive.

    • Vivian L. permalink
      June 13, 2014

      Thank you so much for your help and advice ! I will definitely do that.

  2. Vivian permalink
    July 25, 2014

    Hi Richard,

    I messaged you awhile back about trying to get research experience while I am still at the community college. I spoke to one of my psychology professors who I know very well, who informed me that she does not know many people in the I/O field, but would be pleased to help me any way that she can. I am an incoming sophomore in the upcoming fall, and was wondering if it would be acceptable for me to just try to get into ANY psychology lab, or even human resources management or organizational behavior. I currently have a 4.0 and can get a letter of recommendation from my boss ( I work at the Upward Bound office at my school which is a program that helps low-income/first-generation students get into college), either counselor ( I have two counselors, both from outreach programs), or my psychology professor. I also have a letter of recommendation from a Pantry Manager from a food pantry that I volunteered at in the fall of my freshman year. Should I attach a letter of recommendation from one of my professors to boost my chances?

    Also, if I am planning to reach out to several professors at a few campuses, would you recommend that I e-mail as many as I can and deal with who replies or should I really focus on trying to get into labs that are as close to being I/O psych related as possible?

    Thank you so much for your help! Your blog has given me a wealth of extremely useful information and I can’t even explain how grateful I am for this blog!

    • July 25, 2014

      I/O is better, but any psych research experience is good. OBHR folks don’t usually have big labs (not many grad or undergrad RAs in most), so that will be more difficult to find, but it is basically the same thing as IO experience if you can land one. The key here is that lab experience gives you two things: 1) experience being a researcher and 2) work experience within I/O. #1 is more important than #2, especially so if you have a clear motivation (which you can explain in your personal statement) for wishing to pursue a career in IO. If you have experience in a non-IO lab and you don’t have a good reason for wanting to spend the rest of your life practicing IO, that will be a bit weird in an application packet.

      I would try emailing them in groups of 2 or 3, and waiting a few days between batches. If they don’t respond in 2-3 days, you have a good reason for having contacted someone else. Attaching a letter won’t help as much as attaching an unofficial transcript with a lot of As on it.

  3. Vivian permalink
    July 26, 2014

    Thank you for you reply! I will definitely e-mail them in batches, and call during office hours for those I am very interested in. This may be a silly question, but I want to make sure that I am doing this correctly…. In order to research professors and what their labs are doing, is there any other way to find out other than going through the school website, looking through faculty, and simply clicking on whoever has a website? I noticed that some professors do not have any links to information about what their lab is doing so I’m not sure if I am looking in the right place.

    Also, in another post you mentioned that one of your students in your lab is conducting their own research, while volunteering in 3 other labs total. How can I go about conducting my own research and publishing it?

    Lastly, from what I’ve read, it seems that GPA, GRE scores, research experience, and letters of recommendation are the most important when trying to get into a PhD program. Is there anything else that I can do to boost my chances, or should I really focus on getting those couple of things as close to perfect as possible? Do you think that being on the executive board of a club at my school will be useful? Or being an intern at a consulting place? Thank you so much for the help!

    • July 26, 2014

      Website, recent publications (e.g., by searching for their name in PsycINFO), and talking to them or people in their labs are really your only options. Not everyone has a website, but their publications should be in PsycINFO. If you can’t find a website or publications, they probably aren’t actively conducting research (and won’t have a lab).

      Conducting your own research is a very difficult goal, but possible if you have a highly supportive lab advisor. I’d suggest mentioning this as a long-term goal when on the phone or meeting with potential research advisors.

      What you’ve listed are most important for PhD programs. An internship will help for Master’s programs. Leadership and club membership won’t matter to most programs unless they are I/O focused clubs and something you can talk about that way in your personal statement. As a rule, extracurriculars generally don’t count for grad school. :)

  4. Vivian permalink
    July 27, 2014

    I will definitely use PsycINFO and just try to google professors. Also, are labs generally open from 9-5 or what are their hours like? My school schedule is roughly 9-5 Mondays- Thursdays this semester. I will likely be working on Friday and Saturday.

    Also, how difficult do you think it will be for me to get into a lab? I have a 4.0 right now. I want to take the officer position if it is unlikely for me to get into the lab as a sophomore that is also out of their school. I still want to try, but wanted to know my approximate odds before I accept the position. Thank you so much again. It feels redundant but I really want to express my gratitude for your awesome blog and quick replies!

    • July 27, 2014

      That varies a great deal by lab and by responsibilities. If the labs actively run participants in-person (opposed to online), it can be anywhere 8am-10pm, 7 days a week. If they mostly run online or archival research studies, you’ll work mostly from home. If there are regular lab meetings, they are usually in the middle of the day somewhere, between one and four times per month. But everywhere is different. URA scheduling is typically pretty flexible, but it depends. The only consistent bit is that they will want you to devote a bare minimum amount of your time regularly, at least 5 hours per week, sometimes 10 or 20.

      I don’t have any way to predict your odds. When students at my university ask me, I bring in most of them, at least as long as a project is open and needing assistance. But there also aren’t that many asking (maybe 5 per year). So it entirely depends on who you have access to, what their mentoring expectations are, how many students the already have, if they have work available, etc. No way to know until you try!

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