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Grad School: How Do I Get Recommendations for Master’s/Ph.D. Programs in I/O Psychology?

2011 July 27

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 | Pursuing a PhD Post-Master’s
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: getting recommendations.

Ph.D. programs generally require 3 or 4 recommendation letters, while Master’s programs require the same number of either recommendation letters or references.  That is because different programs want different information from recommendations.

A reference is simply someone that the selection committee (the group that will be deciding whether or not to accept you) can e-mail or call to ask questions about you.  This requires much less work on the part of the person providing the recommendation.  References are usually contacted by the selection committee a month or two after you turn in your application, if at all.

A recommendation letter is a letter in which someone with more experience than you explains why you would be a good graduate student, which becomes part of your graduate school application.  That means the most valuable letters contain several pieces of information about you:

  • Your overall “readiness” for graduate-level work
  • Your reliability in meeting your commitments
  • Your personality
  • Your intelligence/ability level
  • Your creativity/innovation
  • Any major accomplishments that are relevant to graduate work

That means for a letter writer to write a good recommendation letter, they need to 1) know you and/or your work pretty well and 2) have sufficient experience to know what’s important to be a successful graduate student.

Considering this, some letter writers are better than others.  Here is a rough list, from best to worst:

  1. A faculty member in whose lab you worked and whose class you took, with whom you worked closely
  2. A faculty member in whose lab you worked, with whom you worked closely
  3. A graduate student in a lab where you worked, with whom you worked closely
  4. A faculty member in whose lab you worked and whose class you took
  5. A faculty member in whose lab you worked
  6. A graduate student in whose lab you worked
  7. A faculty member whose class you took and did well

You probably noticed that everyone on this list is an academic.  Remember that references for graduate school are professional references, not personal ones.  Your boss at MegaMart doesn’t know what work as a graduate student looks like, so don’t ask her to be your reference.

Note that a faculty member whose class you took and did well in is at the bottom of the list.  That’s because this person is unlikely to have many specific comments about your capabilities in regards to graduate school.  Asking three faculty whose class you took is an extremely poor strategy for collecting recommendation letters.  One such person is fine as a last resort, but you should aim higher in the list, especially if you want a good shot at a Ph.D. program.

Just because some people are higher in the list doesn’t mean you should ask them at the exclusion of others.  For example, if you have worked in a research lab closely with three graduate students, you would not want to ask all of them.  In your final list of references, try to have balance: at least one faculty member, at least one person that has worked with you closely, and at least one person that has taught you.  Hopefully that means at least two faculty.  Many ambitious undergraduates work in two labs in order to have several folks to choose from (plus this looks impressive anyway!).

If you’re pursuing a Master’s degree, then this order is much less important.  Faculty with whom you’ve taken classes and made an impression are probably enough, but higher in the list is still certainly better.  If you are applying to a professional Master’s program, you should also add a professional reference if you have one – someone in the human resources/OB world who can comment on your potential as a practitioner.

You should start planning out who will be your letter writers at the beginning of your Junior year.  As soon as you’ve identified someone you definitely want to be a reference and they know you pretty well, ask them if they’re willing to write a letter for you, up to a year in advance.  This will call their attention to watching your performance, which will help them write a better letter.  If you only need references, you can contact these folks a month or two before you submit applications. You need to work in a lab and you need the faculty with whom you are working to know who you are.

You should give letter writers at least 30 days (a month) to write letters for you.  That means 30 days out, you need to know where you are applying and deliver a recommendation packet to each of your letter writers.

The recommendation packet (which might be paper or electronic) should contain:

  • A list of all schools you are applying to.  Include which program you are applying to, e.g. Master’s in I/O, Ph.D. in Human Resources.
  • Deadlines for each school.  To be safe, set deadlines for your letter writers a week before the “real” deadline.
  • Specific instructions for each school.   Some schools want letter writers to also fill out online forms, some want letters e-mailed, and others want letters snail mailed in an envelope signed across the back flap.  Do this grunt work for your writers – figure out what each school needs, and include this information in your packet.
  • Your unofficial transcript.  This will help your letter writer describe your academic qualifications outside of his or her classroom and lab.
  • Your resume/curriculum vita.  You need to prepare this for some of your applications.
  • The best on-topic paper you’ve ever written.  Find a paper you wrote for your lab, for your thesis, or for your I/O or HR class.
  • Any needed letter hardware.  If some of your applications require paper letters, include a pre-addressed stamped envelope.  Not only is it more polite to pay for your letter writer’s stamp, but it also ensures that your letter writer will send it to the right address.

The more organized you are, the less you are relying on your letter writers to remember things on your behalf, and the less likely something will go wrong.  Use spreadsheets.

Finally, don’t ask your letter writers for a copy of the letter they write.  Recommendation letters are generally considered confidential, between the letter writer and the search committee only.  Even if I like a student, I generally won’t write a letter if they want to see it first.

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Rachel permalink
    August 27, 2013

    Hi there,

    I have a quick question. I am applying to Ph.D. programs this fall, and I am trying to decide which letter writers to choose. I already have a Masters degree in a psychology-related field. I have 1 very strong letter (based on your criteria above), and 2 others that are a bit weaker (I either did research with them or took classes with them – I did not know them extremely well.). They actually sent me copies of the letters they wrote when I applied to jobs, so I know that the very strong one is extremely specific and the others are more general in most areas with some specificity around the experience I had with them in either a class or through research. They all speak very positively. I also have 3 years of work experience in a psychology-related field, and a specific person in mind that could write me a letter based on my leadership and organization skills, my ability to facilitate teams and work effectively in an organization, my attention to detail, etc. When I applied to my masters program (now 5 years ago), I also had a very strong letter from my undergraduate degree. As an undergraduate, I worked with this professor for 2 years. I took multiple classes from her, worked on several research projects in her lab, and had a good deal of responsibility for an undergraduate RA.

    Here is my question: From the perspective of someone reviewing applications, do you think it would be better to use only letters from my current work and Masters degree program, because those are my most recent experiences? Or do you think it would be appropriate for my 3rd letter to be from my undergraduate experiences? Unfortunately, none of these letters will directly relate to I/O psychology (they all involve clinical/school psychology), but I am hoping that in my personal statement, I can discuss how these experiences have led me to my current decision to pursue doctoral work in another field.

    Thank you so much for your input!

    • August 27, 2013

      I think it is a good call to use at least 2 letters from your current program. Given that, the decision is really between a person you worked with for two years as an undergraduate 5 years ago versus (I am assuming) a person you only took classes with in your Master’s program for your third letter. If that’s right, that is a tricky decision for precisely the reasons you are thinking. I would probably go with the person from your undergraduate degree since it sounds like that letter will be more specific. It would be substantially better, however, if you still had regular contact with this person and that this was emphasized in the letter. You might also see if you can submit 4 letters instead of 3 – many times, they specify “at least” 3.

  2. Ametepe Paul permalink
    December 26, 2014

    i really gained from your write ups.i will be contacting you in case i need your help. I did a Masters in Organizational behavior and will like to do a second masters in O/I psychology. i will really need your advice sir. Thank you

  3. Erick Roberts permalink
    April 23, 2015

    Hello Richard. Thanks for the wealth of information and guidance. I would appreciate your straight forward opinion and guidance. I have a B.S. in psychology that I earned in 2001. I have a work history of various case management positions, corrections officer, coal miner, and most recent experience as a floor hand on a drilling rig. I now find myself 37 yrs. old, a father with three children, and laid off due to low gas prices. I have always had a desire to pursue a career in I/O psych since my Intro to I/O course, however took jobs to support my family. I graduated with a 3.0 GPA and Deans list (nearly straight A’s) the final 2 yrs. I want to pursue a Masters in I/O Psych however considering HR management. I would have to work full time to support my family. My academic reference letters would be weak at best due to time since graduation. I am driven and failure would not be an option. My fear is to complete a program earn a degree and not be any better off than I am now. Guidance and suggestions?? Thank you.

    • April 25, 2015

      If you have money to spare, can get a grant, or are willing to get a loan, you’re probably better off financially getting an MBA in HR from a decent school. Your only path to an IO Master’s will be by re-entering the psych workforce, e.g., volunteering your time in research labs. Given your background, especially if you’re not tied to an IO Master’s specifically, I would recommend the more mainstream path. Having said that, if IO is something you are particularly passionate about, you should go for it – but recognize that it will be a more difficult road for you than for the hundreds of others coming straight out of college trying to do the same thing.

  4. Vivian permalink
    October 2, 2015


    I’m a transfer student from a community college and I just arrived at my larger 4-year research institution. I am already in one lab and am committing 12 hours per week, and am going to join another lab soon.

    I did two individual research projects at my community college ,with two professors who I worked with. This makes getting letters of recommendation quite complicated. I have two different professors from my community college in whose classes I did very well in (one for cultural anthropology and one for research methods) AND they were both mentors for two different individual research projects. I worked closely with both of them. Both research projects were under Psychology and were presented at an honors transfer council of california student research conference. Would it be okay for me to ask them to write my letters of rec for grad school? Or do grad schools expect to have letters from my 4 year institution?

    The difficult thing is that since my schooling has been split between 2 schools, whoever I ask to write my letter will only have a small amount of time with me. I’m trying to make up for this by having a lot of quality time in my labs. I’m considering taking a gap year between graduating undergrad and going to grad school so that my letters of rec from my 4 year institution can be stronger, since it will be about 2 years of experience instead of 1. What is your opinion on this?

    Also, in general, what is your opinion on taking a gap year? It’s hard for me to predict my GPA or GRE, but let’s say I have about a 3.5-4.0 after this year and do well on my GRE in Fall of 2016. I also plan to get into at least a total of 2-3 labs by the end of this semester, and will likely be working on either an honors thesis or my own project during my senior year. However, I wouldn’t be able to say much about senior year if I’m already applying to grad schools by then.

    I have no other reason to want to take a gap year other than just being worried about my letters of rec and not being at my 4-year for very long. I’ve known I wanted to get into I/O or OB for the last 4 years, have been reading an I/O textbook on my own, and have been keeping up with SIOP/current research in I/O. I know what I’m getting into, and still want to pursue I/O.

    Does being a transfer student affect how I go about applying to grad school or the timeline of when to do everything?

    Thank you so much for your help!!

    • October 2, 2015

      Anyone familiar with your abilities as a researcher is a potential letter writer. I wouldn’t recommend asking someone that was only familiar with you as a student in their classroom, regardless of the institution.

      The lack of time isn’t necessarily a problem. Most undergraduates that end up in grad school only realize that grad school is a goal as of very late sophomore or during their junior year. So you are actually a little ahead, by that model. As long as the people you are asking have known you for at least a year, I would not worry about it.

      You could certainly take a gap year, but I would instead recommend applying to schools now anyway, see what hits you get, and if nothing pans out, take a gap year then. You can apply two years in a row to the same schools; it won’t matter.

      Being a transfer student doesn’t really affect timeline. In fact, the timeline I give here is an “ideal” timeline. Most students end up on the I/O path relatively late in their college career. So for example, I didn’t work on any research at all until first semester of my junior year – but then I joined a lab with one professor and also worked on an independent project with a second professor, which we barely managed to submit for publication before applications were due. It sounds like you have plenty of time, if you stay as motivated as you are now.

  5. October 6, 2015

    Afternoon! First of all, thanks for this very helpful I-O grad school series – it’s been an invaluable resource.

    I’ve been out of undergrad for about 4 years, with the majority of that time spent in HR roles (an internship and a full-time position, which I’m currently in). I’m working on master’s applications for fall 2016, and I’ve got 2 professors from UG who can speak to my experience in school (including lab work, some published work, and all that jazz).

    I’d like to have a reference to account for some of my time spent working, but I’m not confident my HR manager will give me a strong recommendation… and I’m actually not sure that alerting her to my grad school goals is even a good idea. Chalk it up to poor manager/subordinate fit, I guess. Also, although I think the HR experience has given me an interesting perspective, I don’t think many of my daily HR job duties would necessarily prepare me for an I-O program. If my HR manager *did* recommend me, I imagine she’d focus on my daily HR duties in her letter. My idea is to have a coworker at my current job who is in a strategic planning role write my last required letter of rec. We worked together on a wage survey and analysis that I think would be I-O… adjacent, maybe?

    Would it look weird to have someone in a non-HR role write my third letter of rec? More broadly, am I off base in thinking it’d be good to have a reference from my time spent out of school working?

    Thank you for your help!

    • October 6, 2015

      It would not look weird; anyone that has direct experience seeing you work could potentially be suitable as a letter writer. Having said that, someone in a supervisory role, who can evaluate not only your work but your broader role in the organization, would probably be better for that reason. If you think she’d sabotage you though, I wouldn’t risk it; not worth it. Theoretic

      I don’t know that having a reference to account for time spent out of school is really necessary, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially if you don’t have anyone else who knows a lot about your school performance.

  6. Perry permalink
    April 21, 2017


    I got a BBA in Design and Management in 2010. I have worked for the past 7 years in the fashion industry, and I don’t have any contact with my professors from undergrad. I have decided I want to go back to school to get my Masters in IO. Will I have a hard time gaining admission if my references and recommendations are professional ones? Thank you

    • April 23, 2017

      For any of the better Master’s programs, yes, unless you have HR/research experience in the fashion industry and those references can speak to it. For example, if you’ve dealt with any human resources functions, e.g., hiring, training, or if you’ve done any fashion-related research (e.g., with statistics), then professional references along those lines would be fine. The key is that your references need to be able to speak to your potential as a researcher and/or HR consultant. If they’re just “people I worked with/for,” that is not very relevant to the selection committee.

  7. Emily permalink
    August 9, 2017

    Hello Dr. Landers,

    I am preparing to apply to PhD programs in the upcoming months. I understand that they are pretty competitive, as some of these programs ask for a B grade or higher in Statistics (I have a C in that class). However, I have gotten way better in statistics due to research experience. Otherwise, I believe I am a strong applicant: I have a good Psych GPA, research experience, and I am anticipating good scores for the GRE.

    Is it worth it to still apply to these programs?

    Thanks for your help!

    • August 9, 2017

      Super idiosyncratic, so that’s hard to say. Stats is fundamental to I-O, so that has the potential to hurt you everywhere. You would be in a much better position if you were to take a more advanced (preferably graduate-level) stats class in the fall semester and get an A in it.

  8. Madison permalink
    August 15, 2017

    Hi Dr. Landers,

    Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions!

    Now here’s my question: Does your overall GPA matter when applying to I/O PhD programs? I have an overall GPA of 3.2 but a 3.5 Psych GPA. I also have research experience (2 years), good GRE Scores and a publication in an I/O journal. I’ll be applying to these programs in the Fall.

    Do you think I have a chance of getting in? If not, how can I improve my Stats?

    • August 15, 2017

      Overall GPA will probably matter a bit more than Psych GPA. High GRE scores will counter that to a degree, but 3.2 is actually below the cutoff range at some programs; you might be eliminated from consideration before any faculty even see your application. You really want to get that above 3.25 at a minimum. 3.5 probably isn’t realistic at this point, but that would be best. It also depends a bit on where you went for undergrad; a 3.25 at MIT isn’t going to hurt you much, but a 3.25 at a big state school will.

      In terms of options beyond doing better in your classes, I think you already have the idea; be sure your other qualifications are as strong as they can be. If you’re applying in a few months, there’s not much other wiggle room. If your quant and verbal GRE scores are both over 80th percentile, that will also mitigate a low GPA a bit.

  9. Haley permalink
    October 2, 2017

    Hi Dr. Landers,

    I read your post on recommendation letters and found it very helpful. However, I now find myself wondering who I can ask for my recommendation letters.

    I graduated with my BA in Spring of 2015. Post graduation I did a year of volunteer/service work. Following that, I began working full time (in the psychology field but not I/O).

    During my time as an undergraduate student I was able to gain research experience in research labs but also through two I/O practicum courses with professors I had worked with previously. One was a year long course, while the other allowed us to do consulting with organizations in the area. I had planned on asking both professors with whom I worked with.

    The issue is the 3rd letter. I am unsure as to who I can ask. I am reluctant to ask the professors of the labs I worked with, as one was very brief and the other I do not believe would write a strong letter of recommendation for me. Nor do I believe they would remember me at all.

    I was hoping to ask one of my supervisors in one of the two counseling positions I have held, however I’m not sure if this would help or hurt my application for a Masters program for I/O.

    I have a strong GPA and I am in the process of studying to re-take the GRE to raise my quantitative score.

    Any advice you could offer would be appreciated!

    • October 3, 2017

      For a Master’s application, I think you’d be fine with the counseling supervisor considering the other two, although you’d want to coach the supervisor to write about things related to graduate study (i.e., research skills, studiousness, commitment and follow-through, etc).

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