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Grad School: Where Should I Apply for a Master’s/Ph.D. in I/O Psychology?

2011 August 3

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
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: choosing where to apply.

The variety of schools makes choosing where precisely to apply a daunting (and often expensive) task.  You want to balance several factors:

  1. Don’t overload your letter writers with too many letters.
  2. Apply only to programs you would actually attend if accepted.
  3. Apply only to programs for which you are qualified.

In practice, this means you should apply to no more than a dozen schools, typically a balance of 6 to 10 primary targets and 2 to 4 backups.

You should start the selection process by getting a list of graduate schools with either Master’s or Ph.D. programs (depending on which degree you are going for) and then try to narrow it down based on any other major limitations.  You can find an excellent search tool to do this on the SIOP website.  If you are absolutely tied to a particular region of the country, you can limit your search to one region, but this is a little risky, because program quality is not even across the country.

Create a spreadsheet (use, if you don’t already have another spreadsheet program).  Put the name of each school in the first column, its location in the second, and program type in the third.

Program NameLocationType
Old Dominion UniversityNorfolk, VirginiaPh.D.
Radford UniversityRadford, VirginiaM.A./M.S.

When deciding where to apply, you should start by considering the quality of school that you can get into.  If you have exceptionally high GRE scores, that means you can get into a highly selective program.  If your GRE scores aren’t so strong, then you should not even apply to those schools.  Many graduate programs post the average GRE scores of applicants to their programs, so this is something you can find on their websites or using the search tool linked above. Add these values to your chart.

Program NameLocationTypeGRE Avg
Old Dominion UniversityNorfolk, VirginiaPh.D.585/715
Radford UniversityRadford, VirginiaM.A./M.S.458/562

You should also not aim too low; if your GRE scores are 700/700, you should probably not be considering programs with averages at 400/400. As you eliminate programs, remove them from your chart.

As you go through the SIOP listings, add other columns that would influence your decision: region of the country, program size, number of faculty, etc. If these things are important to you, they should be in your chart.

Once you are down to a list of 30 or so programs that you are qualified for, open their websites and check out the faculty. Who has interests most similar to yours? As an undergraduate, you may or may not have specific research interests, but even if you don’t, some topics will sound more interesting than others. Job satisfaction, organizational justice, online social media? Again, add this information to your chart.

Program NameLocationTypeGRE AvgFaculty Studying Social Media?
Old Dominion UniversityNorfolk, VirginiaPh.D.585/715YES
Radford UniversityRadford, VirginiaM.A./M.S.458/562No

With your completed chart, consider your list of programs and trim them down to your final list. Really think about which features are most important to you, and which programs you are most qualified for.

One of the most surprising and scary aspects of applying to graduate school for most undergraduates is that just because you meet the minimum qualifications does not mean you will be accepted. This is true for undergraduate applications as well, but it is even worse for graduate school because competition is much fiercer. Many competitive programs have between 40 and 300 applicants and 5 or fewer spots to fill. This means that faculty sometimes make decisions based upon criteria that you can’t predict – perhaps Candidate Q had a cover letter that really resonated with one of the faculty and Candidate P’s undergraduate adviser is a close personal friend of another faculty member. Now your chances have gone from 5/300 to 3/300. This is why you should apply broadly.

Remember that earlier I mentioned having “backup” schools – these are schools where your GRE scores are right around (or slightly higher than) their current average. This is to increase your chances that even if you are quite unlucky, you’ll still be able to go somewhere. Don’t choose just one backup school – the same strange selectivity can occur at those locations as well. When I applied to graduate school nearly a decade ago, I got into 80% of my primary choices and none of my backups. It happens.

Finally, if you are at a school with I/O faculty, don’t underestimate the value of simply scheduling a meeting and chatting with them about where they think you should apply. When a student comes to me individually, I can consider a lot more about their particular situation and give them more targeted advice.

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43 Responses leave one →
  1. Spencer permalink
    August 29, 2011


    As a student currently in the process of applying to graduate schools for I-O, I would like to express my appreciation for you efforts on this site. Having done as much online research on the process of applying that I have, I can say that your insights and suggestions have been some of the best I have found. Specifically, your site has helped me more than others because it is specifically aimed at prospective I-O students.

    I have one thing to ask, if you don’t mind… I have been active as an URA for nearly two years now (I-O focused research). I proctor sessions, recruit participants, and enter data on a consistent basis. However, I have not officially conducted any research of my own. Do you think that selection committees, Ph.D. programs in particular, tend to distinguish between the two? Would this be something of a blemish on my application?

    Thanks again for all of your help!


  2. August 29, 2011

    I’m glad it’s helping! I’ve still got a few more features to go, but we’re definitely getting toward the end.

    As for your question, I definitely wouldn’t say that’s a “blemish,” but your application would certainly be that much stronger if you did have that experience.

    The issue is that working as a URA and doing an independent research project demonstrate different competencies and are differentially difficult.

    By being an URA, you’ve demonstrated initiative (by seeking out such opportunities) and if your letters are strong, work ethic (by being on time, meeting your responsibilities, etc.).

    By doing your own research project, you demonstrate independent thought and just that much more initiative. Faculty know that an undergraduate running his own research project is uncommon because it is very difficult. Publishing something as an undergraduate is even more so. It is a real sign of commitment and long-term planning. So that makes those actions all the more impressive.

    Having said that, I’d say that the top quarter to third of undergraduates applying to I/O have some URA experience (fewer have glowing letters of recommendation about their performance during such experiences), while the top 5ish% have independent research experience. Only a handful will have published anything. So you are already toward the top.

  3. March 31, 2012


    Your website has been a great help in parsing out the many details and considerations involved in applying to graduate school.

    One item you may have already addressed, but which I cannot find is: the difference between a MA and a MS in IO Psych?

    I would imagine that the MS programs are more quantitative oriented than the MA programs. But how do the different degrees effect career paths? Which is more likely to end up in consulting position? Which programs are more respected in the practitioner world?



  4. April 1, 2012

    @Dan – It doesn’t matter much. What determines if a program is an MS or MA is usually what college they are located in within their university – Sciences (for MS), Arts & Letters (for MA), or Liberal Arts (could be either). The specific requirements differ by program such that you could get more quant training in an MA program than in an MS program; there’s no way to know from the degree initials alone. So that by itself will not affect your career path; the reputation of the program itself is far more important. As for which programs are more respected in the practitioner world, it is the same list as for the academic world. Program rigor is program rigor. There are certainly established relationships between particular programs and particular large consulting firms, but this varies by program.

  5. Rachel permalink
    September 27, 2012

    Would you say that a PhD in Organizational Studies is similar to a Phd in I/O? I would like to get into management consulting but want to make sure they could both lead me down the same path. Thanks a lot

    • September 27, 2012

      If it doesn’t say “I/O”, it’s not I/O. A PhD in Organizational Studies could mean virtually anything. If it’s in a business school, it’s probably closer to a degree in human resources and/or organizational behavior. If it’s not, it is probably some sort of interdisciplinary program (perhaps combining elements of psychology, but perhaps not). The only way to really know is to look at the curriculum and see what kinds of classes you would be taking (and also to check the credentials of the faculty – if you don’t see at least two or three folks that calls themselves I/O, it’s definitely not an I/O program).

  6. Trisha permalink
    September 28, 2012

    I am in my first semester of senior year and application deadlines are due this semester. Can I put on my applications that I will be research assisting in the next semester? It sounds silly but I have to turn them in and I would like them to know that I have obtained a position as a research assistant as it is my only research experience.

    • September 28, 2012

      You can and should; however, it will only help a little bit. I’d recommend approaching the faculty member you’ll be working with and asking if you can start early. Any experience before applications are due (and any experience that the faculty member can reference in her/his recommendation letter) will make your application much stronger.

  7. Rachel permalink
    December 31, 2012

    Is the school you attend as important as people tend to think? I am just wondering if the debt in the end will be worth it for a school like NYU versus a smaller school that costs multiple times less.

    • January 2, 2013

      Yes, program quality is important in I/O. It varies dramatically when considering the full range of programs available; but even more importantly, better programs will tend to have more or longer-term relationships with places for you to get jobs after school. Online programs generally have few or zero such connections, which is why I don’t recommend them. Rankings sort-of-kind-of reflect this quality, but not perfectly.

      Rankings don’t really matter at all between the relatively similar programs – for example, any school in the top 30 or so give you basically the same opportunities. The #1 and #2 school, or the #10 and #11 schools – basically the same, as far as your education is concerned. In fact, I’d say there are relatively few differences between the #4 and #20. Such schools will certainly have minor, noticeable differences (for example, one may emphasize statistical training more strongly), but these vary by program and don’t match up with rankings (and thus require more in-depth research).

      I’ll also mention that all decent PhD programs will provide assistantships and tuition waivers, so the cost of PhD programs are all essentially the same, i.e. zero (aside from slightly varying salaries for the assistantships). Cost should only be a factor when comparing Master’s programs.

  8. Rachel permalink
    August 13, 2013

    I am supposed to be starting NYU’S I/O psych masters program in September and have already moved there but I have heard negative things about the school– mainly it is for those that are well off and couldn’t get into ivy leagues. I don’t come from money and didn’t apply to any Ivy Leagues…I was ecstatic to get into NYU but now, 2 weeks before the semester starts, I am having doubts–is getting my masters at NYU worth the debt? I would love to actually hear from someone in the field–please!!!!

    • August 15, 2013

      The Ivies are not very good for applied psychology – their reputations are not very good for preparing those wanting to go into practice, and I would not recommend them. I think what you are hearing is the (pretty common) elitism about ivy undergrad programs versus non-ivy undergrad programs. It is also probably a side effect of being in New York, where people generally care a lot more about that kind of thing. Let me assure you that graduate school is an altogether different thing from undergrad – that sort of posturing isn’t really relevant to your education. If you look at the US News and World Report rankings for I/O Psychology, you’ll see what I mean – no Ivy even in the top 10. I am not familiar with NYU’s program specifically, but it is probably fine – if you’ve talked to current students and they seem to be getting the sorts of job that you eventually want, that’s all you really need to worry about.

  9. Betty permalink
    December 18, 2013

    Hi Richard.

    First off, thank you for posting all this information, it’s been very useful so far.
    I’m concerned because I’m a senior and I’ve recently applied to 3 I/O psychology graduate programs (2 Phd, one MS) and I’m wondering about my chances and whether it’d be better to take an extra year and try to raise my GPA and GRE scores.

    My undergraduate GPA is not strong, 3.3, and my GRE scores are 151 Q, 159 V, and 4.5 writing. My psych GPA is a little better at 3.65. On the plus side, I do have 2 years of research experience in an I/O lab and I’ve been working on my own independent research project under an I/O faculty member for about a year, I’m nearly done and am in the final stages of writing up the report and looking for places to submit it to that accept undergraduate research early next year. I was also tickled to receive a research grant last year for said project. I have a bit of conference experience (3, two local, one national). Finally, I have a little bit of consulting experience through a program in my university that does employee assessments of organizations, but I only joined a few months ago.

    Does my research experience make up for my lackluster GPA and GRE scores or should I try for an extra year to raise them? I don’t have good excuses for the numbers except that I was working full-time throughout my undergrad career and it kind of sounds like a lame excuse to me. The fact of the matter is that I should have tried harder in some of the classes I disliked, and I’m paying for it now.

    Any advice you can provide would be appreciated. Thank You!

    • December 18, 2013

      A GPA below 3.5 does mean you may be automatically ignored in some selection processes, and your GREs are mixed (45th percentile for quant will be a problem for some programs). But it sounds like you’ve done the right sort of work to try to make up for those weaknesses. If you can publish your project, that will make your application pretty strong. Some universities have policies that allow you to drop low grades (sometimes these are called “grade forgiveness”) which you might consider looking into before your transcripts are sent out.

      I don’t think you need to make an explicit decision to “take an extra year.” This is more of a practical question; if you don’t get into a grad school this time, you’ll take an extra year. If you do get in, you won’t. :)

      Regardless, you need to expand your application spread dramatically. In the current graduate market, it doesn’t make any sense to only apply to 3 programs. You should be applying to at least 10, up to 20, and nationwide. When I applied to grad school many years ago, there were several programs where the faculty members I had been targeting decided at the last minute – after applications were in – not to take any students. Thus it was impossible for me to get into those programs due to no fault of my own. You have no way to predict what individual programs will do, so only applying to 3 is very risky.

      I don’t know your career plans, but given your GPA and GRE scores, I would also consider expanding your search to include competitive Master’s programs (e.g. Minnesota State Mankato, Tulsa, George Mason). It’s better to apply broadly now, see where you get in (and don’t), and then make a decision on where to go after you have that information.

  10. Betty permalink
    December 18, 2013

    Thank you for the advice. I took a look at Minnesota State and George Mason’s websites. The deadlines to apply for the master’s programs aren’t until February, so I think I will start prepping to apply for those schools as well. My school does not have grade forgiveness unfortunately.

    My quantitative score needs a lot of work. Unfortunately, math has always been a bit of a weak spot for me (I barely passed college algebra, and swore it would be the last math class I ever took), but I was able to get an A in my undergrad statistics class and an A+ in my undergrad methods class. I’ve also learned a lot about statistics from the project I’ve done, especially regression and a little factor analysis, and I’m really familiar now with SPSS. If I focused on the stats I’ve learned in my personal statement, do you think it would help alleviate fears that I am incapable of keeping up in graduate level math? I guess there is the possibility that I am, but I honestly feel like the stats experiences I’ve had so far have been really positive and the stats part of my project was the part I enjoyed the most, hands down. I would have tried for a minor in stats if my university offered it.

    One other thing, I promise this is the last question! I have two minors (philosophy and speech communication) that I got early in my undergrad career before I knew that there were branches of psych other than clinical. Does this strengthen my applications at all?

    • December 18, 2013

      You should definitely address the relatively low GPA in your statement head-on, and I would definitely emphasize the specific skills you’ve gained relevant to conducting research. Discussing specific statistical competencies you’ve developed is a great idea. There is a general belief that “undergrad stats” is different than “graduate stats” – which is certainly true, as undergrad stats doesn’t usually get too deeply into things like assumption checking, theoretical derivations, etc – so if your understanding is more advanced than typical of an undergrad, that is definitely something important to talk about.

      Neither of those minors will probably do anything for you, I’m afraid. Maybe if you can weave them into the narrative of how you got to psychology (e.g. if philosophy got you interested in philosophy of science?) in your personal statement. But that’s a stretch and probably better to use that space to talk about your research experience.

  11. Juan permalink
    February 4, 2014

    Dr. Landers

    I would like to know what your opinion is regarding the notion that the GRE is a weak indicator on graduate school success. Specifically in IO Psych, have you noticed an indicator in which the GRE is a poor indicator? I found the following article interesting.

    Sternberg, R. J.; Williams, W. M. (1997). “Does the Graduate Record Examinations predict meaningful success in the graduate training of psychology? A case study”. American Psychologist 52: 630–641.

    I am noticing a trend now where graduate schools are waiving the GRE requirements , including top ivy league schools.

    Do you think that grade inflation exists in graduate schools? and how much does grade inflation impact GRE score requirements in terms of selection?

    Thanks for your time?

    • February 4, 2014

      Hi Juan – the GRE predicts graduate performance just fine. Instead of a case study in American Psychologist, I’d recommend this meta-analysis of research published in Science:

      Kuncel, NR. & Hezlett, S. (2007). Standardized tests predict graduate student success. Science.

      Some schools are dropping the requirement. There are a lot of reasons for that – part of it, especially at the Ivy League level, is that the applicants they get are already exceptionally highly qualified, so the GRE doesn’t tell you as much – this is something called range restriction. There is also the matter of racial differences in GRE scores, so dropping the GRE gets rid of those differences (although it does not solve the underlying problem).

      Grade inflation has existed in graduate school for a very long time, because a C is considered a failing grade. So everyone gets an A or B, for the most part. But grades also don’t really matter in graduate school – after you have a PhD, virtually no one is going to look at your transcript again.

  12. Cory permalink
    March 2, 2014

    Mr. Richard,

    I am currently a junior at a very small liberal arts college in the middle of no where. I have a decent gpa of 3.55 and plan on taking the gre during the summer. I’m also a student athlete (captain of football team) and I have also presented on such topics dealing with gender limitations and mental health at a conference held yearly at our school. The only problem I’m having is obtaining research experience. Being at a very small institution, research is very limited. Other than the work I have presented at the conferences, I have no research experience. Also, none of our faculty have a degree in IO Psychology so I have little guidance. My question to you is will coming from a situation like this one hinder my chances at getting into an IO Psych grad program? What do I need to do in order to increase my chances? I honestly would have attended a different undergraduate program if I would have known that I wanted to go into the IO field and if I wouldn’t of received the athletic and academic scholarship.

    • March 2, 2014

      Coming from a SLAC alone won’t hurt you – in fact, it usually helps, since SLACs tend to be (but are not always) more academically rigorous than big state schools – but the lack of research experience will be a problem. Any psych research experience is what you need (not necessarily I/O). So I would identify any faculty that you could potentially work on research projects with, and ask to work with them.

      Having said all that, if the presentation(s) at your local conference are based on empirical research, you can talk about that experience in your letters, and you worked with faculty (even if not in a formal lab setting) who can write you letters based upon your performance on those projects, this problem is mitigated somewhat. So if that’s what you did, the key to a successful application would be to emphasize that experience.

  13. Kahla permalink
    March 27, 2014

    Afternoon, Dr. Landers –

    First, thanks for creating such a well-organized guide to pursuing I/O psych! I am someone who likes to do a bit of research before making big life decisions (weird, right?), but I had been having some difficulty finding much information from people with experience in I/O before stumbling upon your blog.

    Understandably, your guide is geared towards undergrads. Certainly, a lot of this information still applies to people who have already graduated! It is my guess, though, that suggestions for some things that you’ve covered, such as gathering letters of recommendation, may shift a bit for recent grads. My question for you is: What advice would you give to someone who’s already graduated about pursuing graduate school in I/O psych?

    Here’s some background info: I graduated with my bachelor’s in psychology, and have experience in a research lab (no published research, just a published book review), a solid GPA, and loosely related internship experience (including a current HR internship). Family health issues made continuing directly into grad school not ideal. Some post-grad experience in the mental health field made me reevaluate my grad school interests, and now I am primarily interested in I/O master’s programs. I am unsure of how to present this during the application process. Thoughts?

    Thank you!!

    • March 27, 2014

      My advice does not actually shift much. You still need recommendation letters from faculty that you’ve worked with on research, if possible. If you are applying to a Master’s program, you can also get away with replacing one of these with a current supervisor or mentor, but I would suggest doing that only if that person is in HR or I/O, and preferably I/O – and I would not replace more than one.

      Applying after being in industry is actually a lot easier if you’ve been out for a longer while (e.g. 10 years of HR experience). Just a little experience can make you appear indecisive (e.g. how does the selection committee know you won’t just change your mind again in a year?). The challenge will be, in your personal statement, explaining why this is the career for you and how you know that definitively now. If your mental health experience helped you make that decision, you should talk about it (but briefly). My post on writing personal statements will go a long way there. I would not mention the “family health issues.”

  14. Engel permalink
    April 2, 2014

    Hello Richard,

    Great website and fantastic commentary.

    I was wondering if you could give me some general advice?

    About me:
    BA (Economics) – Traditional brick and mortar public university, GPA 2.7
    MSc (Information Systems) – Online, University of Phoenix, GPA 3.7 (I did this 10 years later)
    MA (I/O Psych) – Online, The Chicago School of Prof. Psychology, GPA 4.0 (I did this 5 years after the last degree)

    I’m a little old now perhaps (45), but I’ve always had this dream that psychology was for me. It’s just taken me a long time to figure that out plus I place a great deal of value on financial security so I never really wanted to leave any full time job to study full time (hence the online degrees).

    I’m interested in going after my PhD but I am worried about my lack of relationships with any former professor so I would not be able to produce any valuable letter of reference. I really didn’t get to know them that well (though I easily could have). I was just focused on the topics and the learning at hand – not in my relationships with the professors. In hindsight, this was probably a mistake.

    So, without those letters, I would probably have to aim for a professional school and probably online again but they are more expensive. I would not have the luxury of leaving work in any event as I am the sole breadwinner for my family. In a few years I may have saved enough money to change that but the clock is ticking for me.

    Also, my undergrad GPA was horrible and I do have every excuse in the book (Father died, I had to run the family business, got sued (twice), army obligations, etc…). Later on, when I was older I did much better but I am worried that it may not be taken that favorably since the education was online.

    I have this dream that I would make a pretty good coach and/or consultant in the areas of organizational restructuring or leadership. My thesis for my MA was on Outsourcing in Information Technology. I may even make a good professor.

    So, with that background, for me to go after my dream (PhD or PsyD), should I even bother with any “traditional” school or just accept reality and go for another online school? Personally, I really believe that all the schooling is the same and you get what you put into it but I do not believe the world sees it that way.

    Will my age, educational background, GPA, lack of reference letters, etc… be too much for any school to accept other than for profit professional schools?

    • April 2, 2014

      Age won’t be a problem; many people “discover” I/O after a substantial career in HR. So that doesn’t really matter.

      Your GPA could be a problem, but your relatively late-to-I/O career path means that GPA is a long time ago. That will matter more to some programs than to others, but it should not preclude traditional non-profit educational institutions. You are right that a brick-and-mortar Master’s would be much more convincing that you were really capable of doctorate-level work, but I don’t think it’s catastrophic.

      The reference letters are more of a problem, unless your GRE scores are quite high. You did not mention if you managed to publish your Master’s thesis, but that would be the most important thing to try if you are aiming at a PhD program. For PsyD, that is less critical.

      You mentioned being a coach and doing consulting… that does not sound like a PhD to me. In fact, you should have been trained, at least in part, to do both of those things with a Master’s degree. So I am not sure what your specific motivation is to seek a more advanced degree.

      If you do pursue a PhD or PsyD, I’d recommend a brick-and-mortar professional school. You can usually do nights and weekends for such programs. The differences between in-person and online are myriad, and I’ve written about them elsewhere. But the basic idea is that although online programs can be as high quality as (or higher than) brick-and-mortar programs, they usually aren’t. If you want more detail on why, I’ll direct you to those two articles I just linked.

      As a result of that, your job opportunities are generally going to be much more limited with an online program unless you have a specific job already lined up for yourself that will require this PhD or PsyD. That is why figuring out your career goals first is so important; that will direct further decisions. If all you want to do is go into consulting, you can do that with your Master’s – I’d recommend reaching out to your professors and alumni network (you hopefully are already connected to these) and see what opportunities are already available with your Master’s.

  15. Matt permalink
    May 25, 2014

    Dr. Landers,

    I am so glad I discovered this website and all the wonderful information provided. Thank you so much.

    I will begin my senior year this fall and will be applying to M.A/M.S programs with no intention of pursuing a Phd (of course things may change). I’m a business administration major with a concentration in HR with no time to add psychology as a minor. However, I took a general psychology course some time ago at another institution and I completed a social psychology course this past semester. In addition, I completed a statistics course this past year along with selection and compensation, organizational behavior, and HR management. This coming semester I will take I/O psychology, training and development, and a senior honors research project/thesis, which will be I/O or HR related.

    I have noticed that research methods is a common required/recommended course for most masters programs. I will not be able to take research methods since the lecture conflicts with the I/O course (both only offered in the fall). Will this hurt my chances of getting into a strong program, especially being a business major? I have a 4.0 GPA in the Honors College and I am fortunate enough to have a well respected I/O Psychologist as my senior honors project/thesis advisor who will hopefully write me letters of recommendations.

    Also, it seems a bit more difficult to distinguish the strong masters programs from the weaker ones compared to Phd programs. I have learned that faculty research is of a greater importance in deciding on Phd programs and not so much in deciding on masters programs. What should I look for?

    Thank you!

    • May 27, 2014

      I/O psychology, whether at the Master’s or PhD level, involves a lot of statistics, and better programs (i.e., the ones that will get you a job) tend to emphasize stats more than weaker programs. Having some background in stats and research methods is the best way to get into one of those better programs.

      For Master’s programs, your priorities are really GREs and GPA – if you have a 4.0 and are in the top 10% GRE scores, you can probably go just about wherever you want.

      The best indicator of the strength of a Master’s program is going to be the satisfaction and employability of its graduates. You’ll want to contact some current grad students and ask for a brief rundown of how much they like the program and how they see their job prospects – that will give you the best information. If the program doesn’t list their Master’s students on their website, I would take that as a bad sign.

  16. Chitta Benz permalink
    June 9, 2014

    Well I am in my first class in the Philosophy in Leadership & Development in Social Media & Technology at University of the Rockies. I avoid all of the GRE bs and interviews. I wanted to get started and not waste money on testing. I hope to complete my program in 2018. In the meantime, I am seeking a teaching position part-time that will pay the bills. Let’s be honest. While I love going to school, I want to teach as an adjunct professor in organizational management. Someone told me the difference between a Masters Degree vs Phd is you no longer need to knock on doors to a job. They should be knocking on your doors!!

  17. Vivian L. permalink
    August 5, 2014


    Thank you so much for all of the information and lengthy replies! I’ve read through the replies that you gave other people who had questions and learned a lot.

    However, I noticed for those who did not have stellar GPA’s or GRE scores, you recommended applying to some masters programs. My end goal is to have a PhD, and I’ve heard that getting a masters at a different school, then getting your PhD will extend the time that you are in school. I haven’t taken the GRE yet (I am an incoming Sophomore) and can’t predict my GPA (although I know I will be working very hard to make sure that both are as good as they can be). Is it useless for me to look up Grad Schools right now? I have an idea of what I want to specialize in, but it might change. Currently I am building a chart of schools I’m interested in, that considers geographic location, offering of a PhD program, and whether or not they placed on SIOP’s grad school ranking list, and in which section. Should I just stick to your timeline and wait until senior year to do this?

    Thank you for your help!

    • August 5, 2014

      Getting a Master’s at a different school from your PhD is a more difficult path to PhD. However, post-college, in case you don’t get into any PhD programs, it’s better to have the option between “Master’s or nothing” than to have only “nothing.”

      Incoming sophomore is a bit early, for a lot of reasons. Besides your interests likely changing at least a little, programs change too – for example, faculty may get different jobs and move away from the schools you’re looking at, new centers may be created that change the focus of a program, programs can lose funding and stop taking new students, the faculty you want to work with may end up being on sabbatical and not take students the year you’re out, etc. I would not start worrying about specific targets until the summer before senior year and spend your time broadly preparing instead (research experience, GRE practice, etc.).

  18. August 23, 2014

    Hello Dr.Landers

    May I ask you what is the key learnimg difference component between IO psyc and Organizational psychology program at the ph.d level?
    I have read over relevant answers to this question, and my understanding is they are similar but OBHR will prepare students for only academic positions in terms of career whereas IO psyc will open doors for both industry and academia due to the science-practioner model.

    Specifically, I want to ask you what this science-practioner model is and how this component is not present in OBHR programs.

    I have looked up some solid IO programs and I dont see any practicum courses offered in the department. Instead, students seem to only take courses in various IO field and statistics in addition to participating or conducting research.

    In this sense, how is such program differ from OBHR? They both make students to take similar courses and conduct research.

    Yet I contacted some of the current students at some IO programs, and they informed me that half of their graduates go to industry right after graduation although there are no practicums offered during the program.
    This somewhat confuses me. If this is the case, how come career in industries are not easily available to graduates of OBHR program?

    What is the exact science-practioner model that every solid IO psyc program endorse, which differentiates the program from OBHR and prepares students for jobs in industry?

    • August 23, 2014

      It a bit of an oversimplification to say “prepare students for only academic positions”. Instead, I would say that OBHR programs are intended to prepare you for an academic position. In terms of career preparation, that has a number of subtle effects. For example, it’s common for I/O grad programs to encourage students to take summer internships. That’s usually discouraged in OBHR program because that is time spent away from research. As another example, most I/Os more or less accept that a mix of their students will go into practice vs. academia. But if you were to admit to an OBHR advisor that you wanted to go into industry, 1) you’d be unlikely to be admitted as a grad student there and 2) if you were already enrolled, you’d probably be more or less ignored until (if) you graduated – or sometimes, asked to leave the program early. You also need to remember that knowledge at this level is quite deep. Although courses may have the same label, their content can vary dramatically. For example, in my “I/O Research Methods” course, part of the course focuses on how to investigate test bias, which is both a research topic and an on-the-job skill for I/O. Business methods courses are unlikely to have that sort of content.

      To understand these differences, you also need to think about why graduate programs take students when students get full tuition waivers and are paid. PhD programs get no money from taking grad students. At all. It is a cost to universities to have a graduate program. The reason most OBHR faculty take students is essentially to train an “apprentice” – someone to conduct the research they’re interested in at another university. Once you admit you’re not going to do that, they have little interest to care about you. In an I/O program, some faculty still have this viewpoint, but it is less common. The scientist-practitioner model values the scholar “in the field” – the idea is that you’ll continue to conduct publishable research once you have a job, to “give back” to the community that developed you. So training academics or practitioners is equally good. (But do remember that this viewpoint varies by program.)

      You must remember that inter-program variation is very important here. I’m speaking generally to mean differences, which means, in general this will be true. But for any comparison of two particular programs, this may not be true – you might have an IO program that is very academic-focused or an OBHR program that is practitioner-focused – both are simply very uncommon.

      You can also get whatever job you can convince someone to give you, with either degree. There are people running their own consultancies with I/O Master’s degrees and MBAs, and people working for minimum wage with both OBHR and IO PhDs. There is no single path to career success. You just want to give yourself the best odds, and mismatching your career goals with your program choice harms those odds.

  19. Ryan S. permalink
    August 29, 2014

    Dr. Landers,

    I’m applying to masters programs in IO for next fall. I graduated from a good state school with a 3.53, but struggled early on in my college career before I transferred. At community college, before attending the state school, I got a C in my only statistics class. Despite good grades in relevant coursework (labor and employment relations major) later on, I feel like the C grade might really hurt me. Do you think its worth it to retake a statistics class this fall, in order to show I understand the material? How important are specific undergrad grades, compared to the overall GPA?

    • August 31, 2014

      That’s going to vary a lot program-to-program. My suspicion is that Master’s programs are in general going to care less about individual grades than PhD programs, but I don’t know for sure. 3.5 is a middling GPA for Master’s applications these days, so that in addition to a C is not going to position you terribly favorably unless you have a high GRE.

  20. September 23, 2014

    Hey Richard! Sorry if this info is already posted somewhere. I am new to the site and on my phone, so I can’t navigate very well. I am interested in both MA and PhD programs. From my research it seems like most programs are geared toward preparing students for a career in academia, but I am thinking that I would prefer to go into industry after grad school. Can you give me an idea of the programs that are more suited for industry bound students? Or do you know of any resources that might hint at such information?

    • September 23, 2014

      I wouldn’t say that. The highest ranked programs, which tend to produce the most academicians, also place their students in the most lucrative industry jobs. So I would say that programs are either suited for academia and industry (more difficult but better preparation) or industry only (easier but weaker preparation). No Master’s programs prepare you for academia – PhD only, if that’s what you want.

  21. September 23, 2014

    Ok, that makes sense. Do you know of any phd programs that are known for focusing heavily on very applied research that would be a good fit for industry bound grads? If you would prefer not to list specific schools, do you think the best approach to find out such information on my own would be searching through program websites and reaching out to current grad students of labs I am interested in joining, or do you have any other suggestions? Much appreciated.

    • September 23, 2014

      Pretty much any ranked PhD program is going to be reasonable preparation for industry. But higher ranked programs are going to still prep you better and likely to get you better-paying jobs. You might consider this list:

  22. Erik permalink
    September 30, 2014

    Dr. Landers,

    Thank you for creating this valuable blog for those considering I/O Psych study…I’ve learned a lot reading your articles/responses to questions and I appreciate your insights. I’m exploring graduate study after 12 years of work experience, mostly in nonprofit management (development). My interest in I/O Psych has been piqued by a recent organizational “transformation”/restructuring and my involvement with that as a change agent, as well as my broader interested in organizational behavior, leadership, and change. I did not major in psychology in undergrad – I double majored in Mass Comm-PR and Organizational Comm. As part of this training I took a few psych courses including I/O psych, a stats course, and org. behavior and HR management courses.

    I’m interested in either master’s or PhD I/O Psych programs and since I live in Boston you would think there would be several I/O programs of both varieties to choose from, but the options are limited. In fact, I don’t think there’s a PhD program available in my area – the only thing that comes close is a PsyD program in Leadership Psychology from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. This program requires that you’ve earned a master’s for admission to the PsyD program and it’s not actually I/O focused. I don’t think an online program is for me, so I am looking at the only bricks and mortar program near me, which is an MS in I/O Psych at Salem State University. I don’t seem Salem State’s program ranked anywhere…it’s a relatively new program, but the curriculum is Scientist/Practitioner based and the curriculum looks fairly strong. The other master’s option is at MSPP – an MA in Org Psych.

    I’m not able to relocate for a program, so I’ve been weighing whether I should even pursue the I/O Psych route with such limited options, especially considering that much of the research I’ve done shows that even in I/O consulting, a PhD is required for longer term advancement. I’m weighing whether a Master’s will really equip me with the credentials needed to land a job in I/O Psych, especially in this land of higher ed where PhDs abound. I am going to take your advice and reach out to some former Salem State I/O Psych grads and see what kinds of career opportunities they’ve had. Any thoughts on this MS program from a school without a PhD program? Thank you for your help!


    • September 30, 2014

      I/O is so small a field that it is extremely difficult to stay within a particular geographic area. Myself, I went to college in Tennessee, ended up in Minnesota, and got a job in Virginia. The closest place I could have attended graduate school, if that had been a goal for me, was Illinois. So as you are trying to stay in Boston, your chances of being accepted somewhere in Boston are not great. Easier for Master’s than PhD. Difficult but possible.

      If Salem is a new program, that implies they are unlikely to have many connections to the local job market – yet. Programs most often rely on their alumni network to get the word out, and if there aren’t any alumni, there is no network. However, they may have established the program with specific links in place to avoid that problem. That is a great question for the grads when you contact them.

      I would not recommend a PsyD if you want a career in a traditional I/O path. That is a very unusual degree.

      A PhD is not necessarily required for advancement – there are a number of (highly entrepreneurial) I/O Master’s who have started their own consultancies and been extraordinarily successful without the doctorate. So a Master’s is still potentially a reasonable terminal degree. It just depends on what you want to do with it.

    • Rachael permalink
      October 15, 2014

      Hi Erik,

      I was just reading your comment and was wondering if you had gotten in contact with any graduates of Salem State? I am interested in Salem’s program but it is relatively new so I am hesitant to go there.



  23. Erik permalink
    October 16, 2014

    Hi Rachael, I haven’t yet – I plan on reaching out to some grads via LinkedIn to get their thoughts. Let me know if you have any insights on the Salem State program – thanks!


  24. Cory permalink
    October 22, 2014

    Thank you for this site!

    I am a junior at Cal State Northridge and am preparing to decide which masters programs to apply to. How important do you think college prestige is in the IO community? I could easily go to Cal State Long Beach and probably pay nothing with Cal Grants, but USC has an applied psychology degree with a focus on IO to the tune of $54,000. is the debt worth it? Also, is this degree from USC the same thing as a masters in IO like I would receive from Long Beach?

    • October 22, 2014

      There is currently no ranking system for Master’s institutions in I/O, so prestige is a very fuzzy thing. It is more about the particular organizations that your school is connected to (i.e., where they typically place graduates).

      As for those particular schools, how should I know? :) You should talk to some current USC and Long Beach students and see how comfortable they are with their job prospects and earning potential.

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