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Grad School: How Do I Prepare for Inteviews at I/O Psychology Master’s/Ph.D. Programs?

2011 August 10

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: how to prepare for interviews and visits.

A graduate school will offer you an interview or a visit after they make initial admission decisions, usually several months after applications are due.

If you get a visit, that means you have been accepted outright – it is up to you as to whether or not you wish to accept that offer and attend graduate school there.  If you get an interview, that means the place you are applying wants to meet you first – the school has not yet made you an offer and will not necessarily accept you.

Typically, only the best of the best schools offer visits.  This is because these schools are competing to attract the very best of the best graduate students and realize that if you are given both a visit and an interview, you are likely to have a much more favorable view of the school offering you a visit.  But here’s the dirty secret – the education you get at the school offering you a visit will not necessarily be any better for you.  It just means they have a bigger budget for admissions.  Schools offering visits will often pay your travel and provide lodging (usually with current graduate students in the program), while this will vary widely for schools offering interviews.

Either way, you are on the short list for the school.  For many, that means the school has narrowed their applicant pool down from 100 applicants or more down to less than 10.  So even if you get an interview, you’ve already passed some major hurdles.  If you get a visit, you’ve passed even more.  Either way, you want to make a good impression.

If you are interviewing, you want to make a good impression because that impression will help the faculty decide whether or not you should attend.  If you are visiting, you want to make a good impression because that will change how the faculty interact with you once you get there.  Graduate school is very unlike undergraduate in that you are now receiving focused career training rather than general studies.  In addition to the next two to six years, you will likely know and interact with the faculty at your graduate school for the rest of your life.  These people can make or break your career.  You want them to like you.

You should first make a good impression by dressing the part.  Just like with job interviews, how you appear during graduate school interviews will be interpreted as the best you will ever be dressed as a graduate student.  If you can’t pull it together enough to look good for an interview, you won’t look good for class or clients.  Suits are only the top end though – as long as you look professional, you’re fine.  If you’re not comfortable in suit and tie, just go for nice khakis and a button up.  Definitely don’t show up in ratty jeans or shorts.  If you’re interviewing at a business school I/O program, play it safe and put on the suit.

You should second make a good impression by being informed.  This includes:

  • Learn about the program.  What classes look interesting?
  • Learn about the faculty.  Who do most you want to learn from?
  • Learn about the faculty’s research.  Which projects do you want to be a part of?
  • Figure out what you want out of the program.  What do you want to learn?
  • Have answers ready to standard graduate school interview questions:
    • Why do you want to go to graduate school?
    • What do you want out of graduate school?
    • What attracted you to I/O psychology?
    • What did you do in college to prepare for graduate school?
    • Why did you apply here?
    • Why should we accept you?
    • What are your research interests?
    • What did you mean by [___] in your application essay?
    • I noticed you worked on [___] project (or with [__] person).  How did that go?
    • What was your role on [___] project?
    • What would you do if you weren’t accepted to graduate school?
    • Do you want to be an academic or practitioner after graduate school?
    • Any standard job interview questions (just replace “job” with “school” or “program”)

You should third make a good impression by following this simple rule: don’t be a jackass.  If you’ve reached the interview stage, the faculty has already decided that your qualifications are sufficient to go to graduate school.  The remaining question becomes, “Should you come to this graduate school?”  In I/O terms, one of the major goals of the faculty at this point is to assess your fit – how well would you match both the program itself and the other graduate students already in the program.  Being arrogant/a know-it-all, bored/uninterested, unprofessional/overly familiar, condescending, dishonest – these are all signs that you will be a poor colleague to your fellow students and a pain to have in the program.

Of course, if you really are these things – do us all a favor and don’t apply in the first place.

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. January 24, 2016

    Hello Dr. Landers,

    I was just informed that I am a finalist for admission to a I/O PhD program and that I am invited to a visitation day (not an interview). However, I was told that admission decisions won’t be made until after the visitation day. Is this unusual? What should I expect since this is technically a “visit” but I have not yet been accepted outright?


    • January 24, 2016

      That sounds like either 1) a camouflaged interview day or 2) the university doesn’t allocate funding for graduate students until pretty late in the semester and they want to get you in the door early before the university officially allows them to give you an offer. No way to know which, I’m afraid. I would treat it as an interview, from a preparation standpoint.

  2. Kahla permalink
    March 1, 2016

    Good afternoon! I can’t say how many times I’ve referred to your site since starting the application process, so thank you again for having such a useful resource!

    Is it common to phone interview at the master’s level *after* receiving an offer? The faculty member who contacted me to schedule a phone call suggested that this would impact funding decisions, but my understanding is that funding isn’t common for IO master’s programs. I was planning on prepping for this just like I would an interview. Do you think that’s a good call? Do you have any other tips or insight?

    Thank you!

    • March 1, 2016

      Although funding isn’t common, some programs have enough money or assistantship positions in reserve to offer a few people (usually no more than 1 or 2). Usually that sort of money is used to recruit the best and brightest in the pool pre-offer. However, if the best and brightest don’t accept, then the funding can trickle down to people that have already been accepted. So that would suggest you’re probably within the top 5 of their applicant pool, although it depends on the school.

      You are right to treat it seriously. If you want to be funded, you should figure out what type of funding it is early in the conversation (research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or fellowship) and then provide evidence/support that 1) you want to do that thing and 2) you are sufficiently competent that you could do so simultaneously with your coursework. The big concerns are that a) you’d end up being a bad employee and/or b) that you’d end up being overwhelmed by having to do both a paid assistantship and your coursework simultaneously, and that you’d drop out as a result.

      If it’s a research assistantship, there’s also a possibility that it is either corporate- or grant-funded. In either case, they might be trying to assess your interest in whatever it is that they need people to work on. So just be open to whatever projects might be available.

  3. Nicole permalink
    February 18, 2017

    First let me say that your sight is very informative and calms me down about the entire process of applying to grad school. I was curious about a certain situation that you may have additional insight on.

    I have applied to many schools in hopes of earning my PhD. An associate professor emailed me this evening at approximately midnight his time (seems weird to me), asking for a phone interview this coming Monday. My reservation is that this is a top 10 school. I fully believe that my research experience and applied experiences are competitive enough to be in the running for a position in their program. However; my gpa and GRE scores are “low” for a top 10 school – they’re still good, but the other top 10’s I applied to didn’t even consider me. I know that the main fundraiser for the school sent an email on my behalf. My question is, are they actually considering me, or is this a phone interview out of courtesy? I can’t imagine they would waste their time just to be nice, but I do not want to get my hopes up. This is a very competitive field and I’m trying to be as realistic as possible.

    • February 18, 2017

      Well, first of all, professors in all fields do work whenever they have time for work. I have certainly been up until 1 or 2AM sending emails or writing papers (sometimes much later during grad school), so I would not read anything into that.

      Second, no one does “courtesy” interviews, ever.

      So what’s going on? Since this is a top 10 school, and its mid-February, I would probably assume two things: 1) they’ve already had a welcome weekend to recruit their top choices and 2) everyone said no, – or at least everyone that this faculty member was interested in said no. Given that, I’d guess that you were most likely in the first waitlist group, so now you’re being interviewed (vs invited).

      I would not get your hopes up precisely but I wouldn’t crush them either. 🙂 You most likely have a legitimate chance to impress this person, which could lead to a full offer if it goes well. Since you’re being interviewed by one person only, that implies a mentorship model in that program, plus that this person likely thinks you seem like a good fit for her/him specifically as an advisee. So I’d recommend you brush up on this person’s research and think about how you might fit into it. Good luck!

  4. Jenny permalink
    March 9, 2017


    I have currently been accepted after an interview to a Master’s Program in I/O Psychology that requires a thesis and internship. Tomorrow, I am interviewing at a program that only requires a thesis. Does this make this program less competitive and less desirable? Also, any additional tips you can offer in the interview process?

    • March 9, 2017

      I’m not sure what you mean by competitive, but the primary value of an internship is to get your foot in the door of a particular organization. Master’s institutions that have internship requirements usually have relationships with local businesses to which they send their students. The program that doesn’t have an internship requirement may still send (most) everyone on internship – just because it’s not a requirement doesn’t mean it isn’t common. You should ask current students if they tend to go on internships. If they don’t, then yes, that’s a problem.

      All of my interview tips are here!

  5. Teimuraz permalink
    March 17, 2017


    Thank you for all the useful information on this website, you are doing a wonderful thing, making all this information available for students for free.

    My situation is this. I am applying for the master program for Work Organizational and Personnel Psychology. I am applying for the programme it contains 4 universities and a full scholarship. and I have been accepted for an interview which will take place in a week on skype. so do you have any extra tips what I can do to broaden my chances of acceptance? I am from Republic of Georgia, our country is quite poor so this scholarship is a lifetime opportunity for me. Would appreciate any help! Thanks in advance

    • March 17, 2017

      That does sound like an amazing opportunity! I don’t have much advice other than what the committee is probably most worried about is that you would not waste the opportunity. So coming in with a specific plan for how you’ll approach the program and how you’ll take advantage of it to create a meaningful career for yourself will probably go a long way.

  6. Mike permalink
    February 9, 2018

    I previously interviewed with a PhD program which then invited me for a visit but also informed me that I was on the admissions wait list. Any idea what this may mean?

    • February 10, 2018

      Were you told that you were on the waitlist before or after the interview? If after, then your interview was not so great. If before, then they likely extended offers to their “first string” applicants and will need to see how many accepted before dipping into the waitlist. That also usually means that the interview is done to order the waitlist applicants, to determine who will get the next offer upon the first decline among those accepted.

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