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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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