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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
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 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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  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!

  5. Vivian permalink
    August 2, 2014

    I’m very sorry that I’m posting so much on the blog, but I am trying to do as much information gathering as I can over the summer before fall starts for me. I really appreciate all of your help and advice!

    My first question is about etiquette for volunteer lab positions.. I got a reply back from a professor I contacted through e-mail, and she seemed very excited to hear from me. I followed your advice and researched heavily about what she has done, current research projects in her lab, and read all of the information available on the school website. However, she told me that for me to volunteer in the lab, she wants me to go to an open house in mid-september. The time is tentative, but currently, it is at a time that I have class and will not be able to go. I asked if I could meet with her another time, to which she said yes, but also told me that the time the open house is at will likely be the time that her lab runs. She said that it might change depending on the schedule of those in the lab, but she will not know any information until much later. I genuinely was very interested in their work and am honestly disappointed that I might not be able to participate. However, I can’t afford to just sit around and hope that the time will change. In the meantime, should I just look for another lab?

    Also, this professor told me that the lab is open for about 1.5hrs, which means that to do a 5 hour total I would have to go there at least 3 times a week. The drive is about 30 minutes with no traffic, but can be up to 1+hr if there is traffic. Is this normal, or are lab hours very unique?

    Lastly, this is more related to grad school admissions but I figured it will be easier to ask everything in one place. I’ve heard that some schools have grade inflation, and that grad admissions people are aware of this. For example, the person said that a 3.5 at Berkeley is the same as a 4.0 at Stanford because of the inflation. Or that a 3.5 at Berkeley is the same or better than a 4.0 at Davis. Is this true? On a related note, does prestige of your school/people who write your letter of recommendation hold that much weight in grad admissions?

    Thank you so much!

    • August 2, 2014

      No worries on posting a lot!

      An open house is an unusual thing for a lab to do, unless that lab is exceptionally popular. But if the professor seemed excited about your interest, it is probably in your best interest to skip class and go to the open house. At least, that is what I would do (and did) in such a situation. I would also recommend explaining this to the person whose class you’d miss well in advance of missing it. If you tell them you need to miss class in order to apply to a research lab, most professors would consider that a worthwhile reason and help you to catch up. And even if they won’t help you catch up, I’d probably still recommend you go, if that’s your only/best option.

      The hours, as I mentioned before, vary by institution. Did the professor say you were expected to be present 5 hours per week, and only during those 1.5 hours each day? You may be able to work partly from home, or from Skype, or any variety of other options. These would be things to explore during the “open house” if you haven’t already asked by email.

      You’re only partly talking about grade inflation. All schools have grade inflation. Decades ago, average performance was intended to be a mid-C – 75 – which means about three-quarters of the class should get Cs, about 27% Bs and Ds, and about 2.5% As and Fs. No one grades like that anymore, and schools vary in the effect of inflation (most schools grade B-heavy, some A-heavy). But you’re mostly talking about different grading standards between institutions – high grades in one school being “harder” to get than another – and that is well known in admissions. That is why standardized test scores tend to be so much more important in admissions decisions – it is the only way you can realistically compare one student to another.

      Prestige of your school matters in sort of odd ways in I/O. In psychology departments in the Ivies, where pretentiousness is a way of life, you want to have letters from other Ivies. But I/O doesn’t really deal with that. Our best schools are all public universities in the Midwest. So prestige of the school is not really related to education quality coming in. Where prestige matters is prestige within the I/O community – high program rankings, or highly published individual faculty, for example. If you have a letter from someone in a great I/O program whose name people recognize that says you’re awesome, that’s going to have a much greater impact than a letter from a random professor somewhere. But those kinds of letters are pretty rare, in general.

  6. Vivian L. permalink
    August 2, 2014

    Thank you for the reply! I think that her lab is very popular, but I’m not sure if the open house is for the grad school. I really wouldn’t mind skipping class just once, however, my school has very strict attendance policies. I will speak to my professor once school is closer to beginning. My only concern is that she did tell me that the open house time is the same time that the lab will be open. So it is likely that if I’m not able to attend the open house then I willot beble to attend the lab meetings. However, I will wait until I found out the certain times for then lab before I shoot it down because I’d really love to be involved in what they do. In the meantime, should I look for another lab?

    Also, how can I find out how good the program is? Or how well known the professors are? Ive looked at SIOP rankings for grad schools, but didn’t see any of the California programs on it at all. Do you happen to know of Claremont has a good program? Donaldson specifically seems to be very well published. I’m considering Claremont Graduate University as one of the grad schools I’d like to apply to, but was wondering if Positive Organizational Behavior is a good PhD to receive. It’s very interesting but I already know I want to work in industry after getting my PhD so I want to make sure it’s a worthwhile degree. They also have a regular OB program as well. I’d prefer to stay in California for grad school but I know that will be difficult for I/O given that I/O originated in the Midwest. I looked at the SIOP list of grad schools, and noticed that Cornell and harvared both have programs. But none of them even placed on SIOP rankings. The SIOP ranking of grad schools is a bit old though. Is there another way to find out how good a program is? I’d really love to seriously narrow down what grad schools I’d like to apply to, and right now I know I want to specialize in OB/leadership. Specializing in Positive OB would also be really interesting.

    Now, about the grades… Is there a way I can find out how grades from each school varies? I’d still do my absolute best no matter where I go but it would be quite soothing to know this information. Also, do you think my odds are better at trying every professor at a university about 30mins-1hr away from actually offers I/O related fields or it’s better to email professors no matter how far away they are to volunteer online? This will open my opportunities a lot more if this is an option, given that I am in California. Thank you for your help!!

    • August 3, 2014

      Ahh, it’s a general open house for visitors. I would still make every effort to go, if I were you. In fact, sacrificing your class performance and grades for research is something you’ll experience a lot in grad school. :) But sure, keep looking. As long as they haven’t committed to you, you haven’t committed to them.

      Rankings are a tricky business. Just like college rankings, they are only meaningful if you value the dimensions that are being ranked. But for grad school, your personal relationships with faculty are much more important (and can make or break a career), which aren’t captured by rankings. You will need to decide what’s important to you (e.g., reputation among psychology departments like captured by US News and World Report, quality of student experience as captured by one survey, research productivity as captured by another) and then seek out schools with those characteristics. I will give you a few tips though.

      “Positive psych” in general is still considered a bit faddish. There’s no telling if it will stick around or not, and there’s a fairly large contingent in academia (maybe less so in industry) that doesn’t take it seriously. That may interest or it may worry you – that is up to you to decide, and by necessity a managed career risk.

      “How well known the professors are” is not as straightforward as you might think. One of the reasons I recommend in so many comments in the PhD vs Master’s article that you talk to current grads is that reputation is not usually national. It is usually local. So when you’re looking for a job, the reputation of your advisor and your school with a particular community is what gets you a job. For example, if you attended George Mason, that school is highly connected in the Washington DC area (because that is where it’s located). But if you tried to get a job in Missouri, they might have never even heard of Mason, and that reputation does nothing for you.

      You should be applying to at least a dozen schools, across the country, targeting those that have mean GRE scores around yours and have faculty with interests that match yours. If you want a strong IO degree, staying in California is going to be difficult. There just aren’t many schools there unless you go into a business school, which brings many disadvantages and a few advantages. OB (and HR) and IO are not the same, although there are some commonalities, so I’d be careful on that front. Unlike psych programs, business schools are almost universally in the trade of training future business school faculty. They don’t generally train people to be practitioners.

      I’m not sure what you mean by grades. Once you are in a PhD program, no one will look at your transcript ever again. Grades only matter insofar as you are gaining skills that will help you in your career and grades, to some degree, symbolize that you’ve learned something (hopefully). Only your college grades will factor into admissions decisions (but usually not that strongly, as long as you are over 3.5ish). GRE scores are going to be much more critical with research experience right behind that. After you’re in grad school, no one will ever again look at (or care about) your undergrad transcript again, and only rarely (if ever) your graduate transcript.

      Online research experience is very uncommon these days. I would try to stay local.

  7. Vivian L. permalink
    August 3, 2014

    I will listen to your advice and go to the open house :) Do labs accept volunteers year round or do they usually pick up people at the beginning or end of a semester?

    I know that the rankings aren’t everything, but I don’t have many people who know a lot about I/O other than a subreddit devoted to I/O on reddit.com and you! And of course, SIOP. I think once I narrow my list down more of schools that interest me, I will ask for opinions on the school.

    The bit about reputation being relative to the location of the school makes a lot of sense. This was one of my large concerns because my long term goal is to live in San Francisco. I’m afraid that if I go to the school in the midwest, but try to come back to California, it will be much more difficult. Do you think this will happen? I noticed that the BLS stat of where I/O psychologists work had a decent number in CA (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193032.htm) so I wanted to go to a school that will eventually get me there. However, I am very willing to move around for grad school, and for a few years during my early employment.

    I will avoid the business schools then, because I really want to go the applied route. For the grades part, I was referring to how schools have different grading standards between institutions. However, this seems to not matter now since I know that I really need to focus on performing well on the GRE.

    I am honestly very happy to hear that prestige of my school isn’t everything in I/O.

    • August 4, 2014

      That varies by lab too. We usually bring people on when we start new projects that require them or at the beginning of semesters, but some do so more regularly.

      Once you are out for a few years, you have experience and potentially a portfolio. At that point, as long as you’re doing a good job, you can move pretty much anywhere that takes I/Os. Grad school connections matter most for your first job.

      I don’t know that there are many IO jobs in San Francisco though, in general. IO is not very common on the west coast, in general. The page you listed doesn’t show SF as an IO area, and I haven’t personally heard of many jobs out there. Google has IOs, but it’s a pretty small team. Maybe 5-10 people? If location of employment is your first concern, I don’t know that I’d recommend IO. We’re tied pretty strongly to a handful of metro areas.

  8. Vivian L. permalink
    August 5, 2014

    I guess I can’t be picky about the location of my first one or two jobs then. I’ve been looking at some of the companies that are pretty much I/O exclusive and a lot of them have locations in D.C. or NYC, which I definitely wouldn’t mind living in. I also noticed a lot of them in Chicago and Pittsburgh which wouldn’t be too bad. Do you think that over the next few years there will be more companies who expand into the west? There were not that many I/O specific firms who had offices in California, although there were some.

    Location isn’t my first concern, although it’s definitely a factor to consider. All of my family is in California and I don’t want to be far away in the long run. Although, I don’t mind being away while I’m in grad school or even during my first job. I will just have to do a very good job at my first place of employment so I can have a profile good enough to land me a rare spot in California..

    • August 5, 2014

      I doubt it, at least for the immediate future. It was something I noticed when I was trying to identify grad schools a decade ago, and nothing has really changed. You can always start your own private consulting firm, though!

  9. Vivian L. permalink
    August 16, 2014

    Hello Richard,

    I feel so bad that the entire comments page is filled with my plethora of questions, and I really appreciate you answering everything! I know that you’ve said that whether or not you have I/O experience is not a big deal because I/O folks will understand that it is hard to find an I/O lab. I honestly can’t afford to go to any of the private schools, or go to a public university outside of California, which are usually the ones that offer good I/O programs. I know that UC Irvine has an Organizational Leadership program, and UC Berkeley is listed under the SIOP list of schools that offer IO but it’s just for Psychology. Should I go to these schools as opposed to UC Los Angeles or UC Davis, which isn’t listed at all in the SIOP page?

    Also, I know that it is difficult to predict what all grad schools will do in this situation, but what if I apply to a PhD program with no I/O experience? Will that be a huge disadvantage compared to those who do have I/O experience? I will likely also have an honors thesis, poster presentation/my own research, and at least 2 years of research experience in a few labs. I would consider myself fairly personable, very responsible, and always eager to help, so hopefully I will get good letters of rec also. I can’t predict my GRE score or GPA but I know I plan to do as much as I can to get both as close to perfect as I can.

    Lastly.. I noticed that your timeline prepares students to get into their program right out of undergrad. This is honestly perfect for me, and it is my goal. However, how difficult is it to get into a good PhD program right out of undergrad?

    Again, I can not thank you enough for answering all of my questions and being extremely helpful! Have a great day!

    • August 16, 2014

      I’m not sure what you mean by “afford” if you want to attend a PhD program. PhD programs are generally free to the student. Arrangements usually involve working as a teaching assistant in exchange for free tuition plus a salary (right now, generally in the neighborhood of $12K – $20K per year – which isn’t a lot, but certainly enough to live on if you don’t need to pay tuition). If a PhD program does not fund its students, I would recommend you avoid it.

      A lack of IO experience will be a disadvantage but not a critical one as long as you have high GREs and lab experience somewhere with strong letters of recommendation. That is unfortunately as prescriptive as I can get. It all comes down to a case-by-case basis – and as I’ve mentioned before, sometimes you are qualified for a graduate program and can’t get a spot due to reasons outside of your control. Luck (and timing) end up being a substantial component, which is why you need to apply broadly. A great applicant will probably end up with about a 50% hit rate for the graduate schools they apply to. A not-great applicant will often only have 1, maybe 2 choices if they are lucky, when applying to a dozen or more.

      It is more difficult to wait to go into a PhD program. I would recommend going straight from undergrad unless you have a very good reason (e.g., if you aren’t sure you want a PhD). If you know you want a PhD, you shouldn’t wait to apply.

  10. Vivian L. permalink
    August 16, 2014

    Hi Richard,

    Thank you for the quick reply! For not being able to afford a private school or public non CA school, I was referring to my undergrad. I don’t qualify for financial aid and will need to pay for undergrad on my own, so I’m really trying to be frugal. This is why I decided to go to a community college for 2 years, and then transfer. I was beginning to consider just taking out loans and such to fund going to a school where getting into an I/O lab is an option, but it seems that I/O people are reasonable about not having I/O experience so long as I can prove myself in other ways. I really want to do as much as I can to get into a good program, but if it isn’t critical to get I/O experience then I will avoid getting myself into massive debt unnecessarily.

    I will definitely be avoiding anywhere that does not fund its students. Thank goodness I have researched about I/O on your site and other places so I will make sure I find a school that will fund me!

    Spectacular! It’s very good to hear that it is better to go straight from undergrad. I was nervous because I’ve seen the stats of people who took a break while working in a lab or something else, and wasn’t sure how common that was. Anyways, I will still try my best because the competition is still very stiff.

  11. Sean VanGenderen permalink
    August 19, 2014

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for putting this information together. It’s been extremely helpful! I wanted to know what you thought about my situation. At my college in our senior year, we have to create our own research proposal, and follow through with our own research, conduct a study within availability and a small budget (usually recruiting college students for our studies) Finish the technical paper, and do a poster presentation on our study and findings. While the research isn’t lead by a professor (as in we are not research assistants), we are advised throughout the research process and have to have approval of each step by a professor. Do you think that most graduate schools would see this as valid research experience? Thanks for your help.
    -Sean

    • August 19, 2014

      That would definitely be seen as research experience, but it is somewhat less impressive than the type of research I describe here. If that’s the only research experience you have, you’ll be at a disadvantage to other students with more traditional experience – plus you won’t have the type of rec letters that are most impressive.

  12. Sean VanGenderen permalink
    October 6, 2014

    Thanks again for your help Richard! One more question. At my school, I have to either do a senior Thesis, or take part in an internship (I would find an IO psychology based internship). Which one would be more helpful with getting into grad school. Or is that important? thanks
    -Sean

    • October 6, 2014

      If you want to attend a high-ranking graduate school, a publishing-quality empirical thesis would be best. If the choice was between a lit review thesis and an internship, I’d probably recommend the internship.

  13. Payal Patel permalink
    November 8, 2014

    Thank you for this fantastic resource into I/O education. I graduated with a B.A. in Psychology in 2007 from San Francisco State University and have been working in retail management for the last 7 years. I have decided to go back to school to get a master’s in I/O but don’t have a clue on where to start. I did not gain any research lab experience while in undergrad. I worked in human resources, learning and development and training while working in management. What do you recommend I do? I am not sure where to get letters of recommendation when I have not spoken to professors in 7 years. I am willing to do what I need to do but I just need some guidance.

    • November 9, 2014

      That’s a difficult path. It depends if you want to get into a decent program or if your goal is just to get a degree (e.g., if you need one to be promoted). If you want to get into a decent program, you’re going to need either direct I/O experience or research experience. For direct I/O experience, which is probably the easier path given where you are now, you would want to do “I/O type” activities within HR. L&D is good, as long as you’ve been engaged in higher level L&D – training design, for example. Just being a corporate trainer giving lectures or guided group discussions is not as relevant. On the more general HR side, you would want to have engaged in team or leadership development, selection system design, legal evaluation, etc. Front-line HR is not as relevant. If you’ve done any of those things, you can ask your supervisors and peers in those positions (assistant director or director of HR, for example) to be your letter writers. That’s fine. But it needs to be someone who can comment on your potential for I/O-type work. If you haven’t done any I/O-type work yet, you might want to make yourself more available to HR to try to get more such experience.

      The research option is to volunteer 10-20 hours per week in a local IO psych research lab. You probably don’t want to do that given other options.

  14. Vivian L. permalink
    November 19, 2014

    Hi Richard,

    I have explored the SIOP website thoroughly and am considering being a student member. Do you think that it is worth it for me as a sophomore to be a student member? I looked at the benefits of membership and it seems good!

    Also, I am currently trying to submit to a conference in my area. I can submit it as Anthropology or Psychology (not sure if I can do both yet). My professor told me that Anthropology usually is less popular and I might have a better chance of getting into the conference in general if I apply under Anthropology. If I do this, will this make my research less credible in terms of grad school? Does it matter what field or research experience in, or is any research experience good enough?

    Thank you!

    • November 19, 2014

      The primary benefits to membership at the student level are access to the I/O journals and a discount on the SIOP conference. If the SIOP conference is something feasible for you to attend, I’d recommend attending to get a sense of what I/O is like, and to do that, you do get a significant discount as a member. So I’d definitely do that. The IOP:Perspectives journal should be available to you via your current university, so that’s not particularly compelling by itself, although you would get the newsletter. I don’t know that $50 per year would be worth a newsletter, but that’s up to you!

      The closer you are to I/O Psychology, the better. The further away you are, the less convincing the evidence that you really know what working in an I/O lab would be like. Psychology labs outside of I/O are generally “close enough”. Anthropology is still a social science, so that’s sort of similar, but it is far enough away that some folks making admissions decisions would question if you really knew what you were getting into.

      To be honest, the perspectives of these two fields are quite different when talking about “current research” – the types of questions, research methods, etc. likely to get into an anthropological conference and a psychological conference are quite different. So unless you included measures/methods/etc appropriate to both fields, your paper is probably more likely to get into one versus the other if only due to the decisions you made in putting together your study.

  15. Noelia J. permalink
    February 13, 2015

    Hi Richard,

    Thank you for all of the great info on your page. My current situation is as follows: I am a recent grad, and just now decided that I wanted to pursue I/O psych. I don’t think I would qualify for doing undergrad research at my old institution, what do you recommend for me to do?

    Thanks!

    • February 13, 2015

      You need research experience, one way or another. If your undergrad was in psych, I would still recommend reaching out to your psych faculty and asking if you can volunteer as a recent grad. I’ve had several students stay on as volunteers for a year or two after graduation at ODU for that very reason. If you didn’t get a psych degree, things are much more complicated.

  16. Vivian L permalink
    April 4, 2015

    Hi Richard,

    I’m currently a college sophomore, and will be transferring from my JC to a UC this fall. I am curious what your opinion is on summer assistantships. I plan to be heavily involved in research labs, as well as my own research during the school year. I recently just got rejected to a summer program ( I only applied to one because I already got a job lined up as backup).

    Do you think it’s necessary for me to really push to get into research programs next year? Or is it not necessary ? I’ve talked to a few of my professors that people get into PhD programs just fine without participation in summer research programs.

    I’m only busy for about 2 months out of the 5 months I have off before I start school in the fall. I got a GRE prep book and plan to study a lot during this time. Should I try to find an internship? Or just try to become a volunteer at a local school?

    Also, I’ve seen that some people are able to help with research remotely. How do I sign up for this? Do I just e-mail the people in charge of the lab and explain that I want to help them from home?

    Thank you!! :)

    • April 5, 2015

      You don’t necessarily need a summer internship, but you do need experience – and more experience is better than less. So if you get that experience through a focused summer internship or through regular semester experience doesn’t particularly matter – you just need it from somewhere. Because summer programs are competitive, and because the faculty that run them are usually invested in undergraduate research education, the experience you get through that sort of experience is typically much more intense, and more educational, than what you get by volunteering in a lab. You often end up working much more closely with faculty. So it is often better. But it isn’t critical.

      For working on research at a distance, it depends upon the faculty member. But yes, you would just contact them and ask. In my experience, such arrangements are very uncommon; most of the things that undergrad research assistantships are needed to help wtih are in-person problems, like running participants through an experimental protocol. But there are some tasks that can be done at a distance, so this will vary greatly by lab/faculty.

  17. May 10, 2015

    Hi Dr. Landers,

    For applications to I/O grad programs, are there any consequences for taking more than 4 years to complete undergrad?

    I’m considering postponing graduation by one year to gain more research experience and to build stronger relationships with my professors. I don’t have much research experience, and I’m heading into my senior year this fall so I don’t have much time to build up a solid profile before applications are due.

    Would spending an additional year volunteering in labs, completing an honours thesis, and improving my GPA be the best way to improve my candidacy? This seems like a great idea to me, but I’m not sure if grad programs have a different view on this kind of thing.

    Would I be better served by working full-time in HR while continuing to volunteer in labs on the side? Or would you suggest something else entirely? Any insight you can offer is really appreciated.

    Thanks!

  18. Trisha permalink
    May 29, 2015

    This is all great information! Because I seem to be in a state that has remotely no IO based programs for further degrees in this field, I am at loss of what to do. I live in Arizona and currently will be graduating next year with my BS in psychology. I am up for a RA Position to get some experience in research for grad school. I am really confused on what schools I should attend because I can’t find any here locally. Is online even accredited? Also, is there anyway I can go straight for applying for a PHD program instead of my MA? Thank you!

    • May 30, 2015

      1) Most people can’t stay local in order to attend a good school. I moved from Tennessee to Minnesota myself. Online is generally risky – see my linked online vs. traditional article for more on that.
      2) If you know you want to pursue a PhD, you should not go into a Master’s program first – you should apply straight to PhD programs. Getting a Master’s first generally makes it harder to get into a decent PhD program.

  19. Trisha permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Thank you for responding! So you think I should go for the PHD first? I have one more year at ASU and have about a 3.8 GPA. If I do get this RA position, will this be efficient enough to apply for a PHD program? Should I be applying now with only a year left and the fact that I probably wouldn’t have my overall GPA or letters of recommendation yet? Do you have any suggestions of schools near AZ? It almost seems impossible due to financial reasons for me to move states. Thank you!

    • May 30, 2015

      If you want a PhD, you should go straight to PhD. If you want a Master’s, you should get a Master’s. So it depends on your goals.

      A single RA is certainly a step in the right direction, but most of the top PhD candidates have been in several labs. So it is better than nothing, but I would try to get some summer volunteer research experience, if I were you.

      There are no major I/O schools in Arizona that I’m aware of. There are a couple of I/O schools in California, but they are not generally ranked well. Moving across the country is pretty typical for PhD students. However, the fact that tuition is free and you complete a paid assistantship in most programs helps offset the cost of moving and living someplace new. Most PhD students finish with little or no debt, unless they want the higher standard of living that student loan debt allows.

  20. Noelia permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Hi,

    I’ve written here before but I now have a different set of concerns due to changed circumstances. I am now doing research at the New York State Psychiatric Institute/Columbia but it’s a study that is in no way related to I/O. Is this pretty much just like having no research experience? I have a very low GPA (3.2) and have yet to take my GRE. I plan to do this research for at least a year and although the it’s not related to I/O it is very hands on and I am getting a great idea into the various components that go into research on a larger scale. Will this along with (hopefully) very strong GRE’s make me a somewhat strong candidate for a PhD program? If not, are there any suggestions for what I can do to make myself more appealing? Thank you so much!

    • May 30, 2015

      Any research experience is certainly better than none. Remember that the goal of undergrad research experience is to demonstrate that you understand what the grunt work of being a grad student is like. So the closer your psychiatric research experience is to I/O, the better. Most students don’t have access to local I/O groups, so general research experience is generally fine, although I/O-specific experience would certainly give you a slight leg up. I don’t know what your RAship is like, but I/O psych RAs do things like research literature reviews, participate in study design/planning, proctor research sessions, conduct data entry and coding, conduct statistical analyses, and write up papers. So any of that sort of experience you get, you can talk about in your personal statement, and that is what faculty will be looking for.

      Your GPA is going to be a major problem. A 3.2 would probably drop you off of our list here (at ODU) so most faculty would not even see your complete application unless the reason you have that 3.2 is that you’ve been taking exceptionally difficult classes (e.g., graduate level stats courses). In that sort of situation, the most simple (but least effective) thing to do is to calculate your “last 2 years GPA” and report that alongside your overall GPA on your vita to show that you got your act together before finishing (works best when your last-2-years GPA is 4.0). That sort-of helps but still puts you low on any lists that are created automatically. So for example, at ODU, you would have absolutely zero shot at any of our fellowships (i.e., graduate research assistantships that pay well instead of the graduate teaching assistantships that pay okay) since that is determined entirely based upon raw application numbers (no subjective judgment involved). The more complicated but much better approach is to investigate if you can go back and re-take courses to replace your lowest grades with higher ones (this is often called “grade forgiveness”). Since you’ve already graduated though, I don’t know if that would be possible for you.

      If you can’t get that GPA up, that really puts you on a different path. What folks usually do in this situation is apply to I/O Master’s programs and then push hard to maintain a 4.0 in that program while publishing as much as possible. Then use that experience to apply into a PhD program. That is a more difficult path than just having a high GPA the first time around, but the reason it can work is because you are demonstrating that you are capable of excelling in graduate-level work. The major downside is that many programs won’t accept prior Master’s experience as equivalent to their Master’s, so you might end up completing two Master’s degrees on the road to PhD down that path. Some programs also just won’t consider you because you already have a graduate degree. But it is better than nothing.

      There are also a few programs that bring in Master’s students but then allow those students to apply to their own PhD program later, if they are high-achievers. I think George Mason has this sort of program. But those Master’s programs are generally highly competitive themselves. Might still be worth looking into.

  21. Trisha permalink
    May 30, 2015

    What if I am not accepted into a doctoral program? Should I go for a masters so I am not falling behind? I have been thinking of switching to social psychology because it is more attainable where I live currently and it is closely related to IO in some ways. I don’t have anyone out here to really help guide me in these areas and the only RA position I could get is more in legal/social psychology since there isn’t much else. I am very stuck at what I should do and feel like I am running out of time!

    • May 30, 2015

      You can certainly switch if you want. However, a PhD in social is training you to be an academic. There is not really any other career path. And there are a LOT of socials trying to get academic jobs – it is an oversaturated market. Most end up being adjunct faculty, which I wouldn’t recommend.

      An RA in social psych is certainly good prep for an I/O grad school app. I would just recommend doing more than that if you can. Emailing (and if you don’t hear anything, calling) faculty at local universities and asking if you can volunteer in their labs over the summer is a good approach.

      You should certainly have an application strategy, much like with college. A few stretch schools, a lot right around where you think you have a realistic shot, plus a few backups. Your backups can be either PhD or Master’s, depending on how qualified you are. You also have a gap between PhD and Master’s such that you should know if you got into a PhD program or not by the time most Master’s apps are due. It does not all happen at once.

  22. Trisha permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Thanks for all of that! I won’t be able to do any summer labs because of my strict schedule with taking a course over the summer and working full time. I’m afraid I won’t get accepted into any PhD programs with just a good GPA and one year of being an RA. Thanks for bringing up the social psych issue..I won’t waste anymore time on that and didn’t want that path anyways. Another choice I have if I could stay in AZ would be applying at ASUs business school for organizational behavior. I know this isn’t truly psychology but I was recommended to look into it because it’s at least some type of backup if I just can’t get accepted into any IO programs. Do you think this is a good path to consider? Management/HR actually sounds pleasing to me but I am not sure if it’s a waste because I might have to enter in a masters program first. If I were to get accepted into a PhD Program, how many years is the standard?

    • May 30, 2015

      Well, being a grad student is an 80-hour-a-week sort of commitment, so I’d recommend getting accustomed to it now. 😉

      A PhD in org behavior is also an degree intended to train you to be an academic. If your goal is to go into practice, I would not go for that.

      PhD program length is usually more dependent on the student than the program. Coursework is usually 3 to 4 years, including Master’s-level coursework. The dissertation takes anywhere from 1 year to a lot of years. Longest I ever heard was around 13.

  23. Trisha permalink
    May 30, 2015

    I am aware of the dedication of my time that a program requires :) I am just one of those people who are so dedicated to their current job, it’s hard to make room for anything else it seems like! May be one of my flaws ha!

    If I were to pursue just a masters in organizational behavior at a business school, that wouldn’t necessarily be academic would it? I am just trying to broaden my goals knowing now how small of a chance I have at getting accepted into a PhD program. Sorry for the continued responses and questions, I don’t have anyone out here in AZ familiar with any of these questions so I really appreciate you responding!

    • June 1, 2015

      That is traditionally a problem for people. But it is useful to think of it in terms of cost-benefit – everything you do now to increase your chances of starting the career path you want means earning money on that career path earlier, doing work you love earlier, etc. So just be sure your current job is aligned with your long term goals.

      A masters in OB is also not really a practical degree. It is mostly intended for people who need to go back to school for career advancement in a particular job and mostly want to talk theory. The practical degree equivalent would be an MBA with an OB (or HR) specialization.

      Also, if your GREs are strong enough, one year of RAing with some strong letters is plenty. Everything balances against everything else in an app, so if you know one area will be weaker, you should work to strengthen others. Even if a person has worked in 3 or 4 labs, if their GREs are 50th percentile, they’ll have a hard time getting into most schools. A person with 90th percentile scores but zero lab experience will have the same problem.

  24. Trisha permalink
    June 1, 2015

    Okay, so let’s break down my timeline here and say I will only be going for a masters because the PhD isn’t working out due to some timeline reasonings and not wanting to go academic. If I were to go out of state for a masters in IO, I would have to assume I would live off loans, is that correct? I have also heard that financial aid doesn’t cover individuals seeking extended education in grad school, is that also correct? If I am graduating in the spring of 2016, when should I take the GRE exam? Start applying to schools? Thank you SO much for all the information you have been giving me! I have thought very hard about this and I think a masters in IO is more appealing to me even though I know a PhD is better.

    • June 1, 2015

      Yes, that’s right. Only PhD programs generally provide stipends/assistantships. There are some exceptions, but they are very uncommon. You can certainly get student loans for your time in grad school, as long as you otherwise qualify. You’ll want to take the GRE at least 3 months before your first application is due so that you have time to re-take if needed. But I would do 6 months if possible, if it were me.

  25. Trisha permalink
    June 2, 2015

    Thank you for that! My only option with anything to do with IO here in AZ is attending Phoenix university but I don’t here too many great things about them. And then there is a masters in psychology with an emphaisis on IO through GCU. If I go that route, what type of careers am I looking at? Thanks!

    • June 2, 2015

      I generally don’t recommend online programs unless you already have a job lined up that is asking you to go get a degree to be hired or for a promotion. You just don’t get the same networking opportunities. You can certainly get a job in business somewhere, but it typically won’t be anywhere near the salary you’d get with a Master’s from a traditional program, and you won’t be doing the core tasks I think of as “IO”.

  26. Trisha permalink
    June 2, 2015

    I value your input, thank you! I was pretty sure that was going to be an answer…I would rather not do anything online anyways. It looks like I’m pretty stuck here and it’s crushing to think I might have to change my goals due to financial reasons. Are there any other psychology master programs you recommend that might be even slightly related to the IO field?

    • June 2, 2015

      IO is IO. I wouldn’t go anywhere else. :)

      I would just urge you to remember that you are investing in a career with grad school, to a greater extent than undergrad. Living on a $15K/year stipend in a strange new city for 4 years in order for your earning power to start at $70K-$100K and only go up from there is a worthwhile investment. Even if you take out an extra $10K in loans every year for 5 years, paid off over 10, that’s only about 5% of your yearly salary once you get out.

  27. Angie permalink
    June 8, 2015

    Dear Dr. Landers,
    I know this is not the right topic to consult you this, but it seems popular enough for me to get your attention.
    I admire your work and your advice. I was wondering if you could let me know how to overcome my overwhelming anxiety.
    I finished college 5 years ago and was working full time in applied sector when I spontaneously decided I should go back to school to pursue a PhD degree in I/O Psychology. This was already my dream when I was working towards by BS degree, so I had a solid GPA (3,77 / 4,00). I strengthened my credentials with good recommendation letters and an acceptable GRE score (80th percentile in verbal & analytical writing, 65th in quant). My alma mater is a non-US school, but is widely recognized and ranked among top 150 schools in THE ranking.
    To make the story shorter for you, I got accepted to every master program I had submitted, 3 of which with full funding, although no PhD program responded positive. I never thought I was a good candidate, but faculty members who interviewed me were all impressed with my accomplishments and gave me courage throughout the application and admittance process. After careful consideration (and wavering between competing offers) I accepted a reputable program in Midwest with full tuition waiver & graduate RA position.
    My concern however is my lack of experience…I do not have any research experience except for a senior group thesis, which happened to be published. I never worked at a lab before I was always an average student in statictics and maths classes, though a brilliant one with social sciences. They will expect me to carry out graduate level research, while in truth I worry day and night that I will screw up and end up losing my tuition waiver. I cannot help but to feel I’m “faking” my capacity while I did not lie on my resume. I did everything what I claim I did on my personal statement, yet this anxiety does not go away.
    Do you have any piece of advice for me to start taking it easy?

    • June 8, 2015

      You can also reach me via email and Twitter. :)

      I’m guessing your lack of research experience is probably what kept you out of PhD programs – you sound like a pretty strong candidate otherwise.

      So, some good news and some bad news.

      The good news is that the feeling you have is common among graduate students at all levels. At some point in pretty much every graduate student’s career – including before it even starts – that student will question if they really belong/will be successful/should just give up. I recall several conversations with another student in my cohort about how he was thinking about dropping out and opening a bakery. This feeling is called imposter syndrome. I’ve written a little about it here which you might find useful.

      The bad news is that it doesn’t ever really go away. Even after you graduate, you’ll have moments where you think to yourself, “I don’t really know what I’m doing” and question if you really belong on the path you’re on. I had several such moments even through my first few years as faculty. It is a combination of high expectations and stakes – you feel like so many people have invested in you, or that you have invested in yourself to a high degree, and the chance of failing at that is much more real than it ever has been before.

      As for how to deal with it, you should just remember that you were selected for a reason. The faculty sorted through potentially hundreds of applications and identified, from all of them, you. So they saw something in you. You just have to see it in yourself.

  28. Angie permalink
    June 9, 2015

    Dear Dr. Landers,

    Thank you for your comment…and for assuring me that I’m not a weirdo 
    I’ll do my best to keep your advice in mind.

    Best,

    Angie

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