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Grad School: What Happens at an I/O Psychology Master’s/Ph.D. Interview?

2011 September 1

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 continue talking about an important step in preparation to enter grad school: what to expect and do at your interview/visit. This is a continuation of my first discussion on preparing for the interview/visit.

With your fancy tie and background research, you are certainly prepared for your interview/visit experience.  But the actual experience itself will vary widely from school to school.

An old standard was the two-day visit – you’d arrive Thursday night, have two full days of interview events, and then go home early Sunday.  Due to budget cuts that predate the poor economy, many schools have shortened this to either a one-day visit or even a half-day.  But whatever the case, you should get a schedule from the person that sent you the acceptance letter/e-mail at least a few days before the visit.  It will likely have a variety of events on it, with some combination of the following typical interview/visit events:

  • Talk by the Department Chair or Graduate Programs Director (GPD).  This event is designed to give you specific technical information.  How many years do students spend in the program, is there likely to be funding, when will decisions be finalized, etc.  Any specific technical detail you want to know about the graduate school experience, you should ask at this meeting.  You will generally be in a room with all potential graduate schools, including from other programs (i.e. outside I/O).  So save your I/O-specific questions for later.
  • One-on-one meetings with faculty.  These events are intended for you and your potential mentor/adviser to get to know each other. When you get your schedule, you should take extra time to learn about these faculty members, as you will likely be alone in a room with them for at least half an hour.  Some faculty will ask you questions; others will expect you to ask your own.  Either way, be prepared.
  • Groups of applicants meeting with individual faculty or labs.  These events are intended for a faculty member to share their research area with a large group.  Sometimes this is because the faculty members doesn’t think you are a mentor-match with him/her and thus don’t need a one-on-one meeting, and sometimes it is just to save time.
  • Groups of applicants meeting with all I/O faculty. These events are intended for you to get information about the I/O program.  While you will get your general questions answered about funding, office space, etc. by the GPD at the first meeting, the I/O faculty will be able to answer specific questions about your curriculum, placement, and other I/O-related questions.
  • Groups of applicants meeting (often over lunch) with the current graduate students.  This is your opportunity to get the “truth” about the program.  Everyone has a different opinion, and you should try to get as many as possible.  If you hear about a difficult-to-work-with faculty member or anything that even vaguely sounds gossipy, ask follow-up questions, and then try to get corroboration from other students.
  • Social dinner/get-together.  These events are intended to either prove to you that you can have a social life as a graduate student, or to get you to loosen up and talk about yourself.  Or both.  It’s also a good opportunity to see how faculty and students socialize.  Do they chat together or do faculty stay off on their own?  This will give you a window into whether you’ll be treated as a colleague-in-training or a subordinate.

During these events, you should have a list of questions in mind that you want to get answered.  Don’t be scared of asking folks point-blank, but try to ask the right person.  For example, funding questions should be directed at the GPD, curriculum questions should be directed at the I/O faculty, and culture questions should be directed at everyone.  This is not an exhaustive list:

  • General
    • What are the school’s/program’s strengths and weakness?
    • Which faculty are best/worst to work with?
    • Do students work with one faculty or several?
    • How long do students typically stay in the program before graduating?
  • Classes/Training
    • What kind of statistics/methods training is available?  Are there elective courses? (you might ask about SEM, HLM, and social network analysis, specifically)
    • Are classes regularly available?  Do you ever need to wait for courses to become available?
    • Do students get to work in industry during school?  (is there a practicum?)
  • Research/Mentoring
    • Is the program more scientist-focused or practitioner-focused?
    • What role/duties do graduate students typically have on research projects?
    • How much latitude is there for independent projects?
    • Do students present at SIOP?  Do they have first-author presentations?
    • Do students publish?  Do they have first-author publications?
    • Do students publish their theses? (only if a Ph.D. program with a M.S/M.A. along the way)
    • Where have recent students gotten jobs after they graduated?
  • Funding/Expenses
    • Is funding available?  Guaranteed?  For how long?
    • Is summer funding available?
    • Are there teaching expectations?  If so, how much?
    • Are students supported by grants?
    • Where do students typically live?  What is it like to live there?  Is the funding available enough to cover living expenses in the area?
  • Culture
    • Do the faculty get along/is the department very political?
    • Do the students get along?  Do they socialize outside school?
    • Do the faculty and students socialize outside school?
    • Is this a drinking culture? (this is pretty common in I/O – probably comes from the business influence!)

Remember that the interview/visit is a two-way process.  You’re collecting information about the school and the school is collecting information about you.  Everyone you talk to (including the grad students) will likely have an impact on the admission decision.  For example, I always ask my graduate students if they think the interviewees would fit well in the graduate student culture in our program.

Finally, one general recommendation: get a nice folio (search for it on Amazon) so you can easily carry documents around with you. This will give you a place to put any papers you are given, and also a place to keep notes (for example, you could write the answers to each of the questions above as you got them!). If you are applying to a Ph.D. program, you might also consider carrying a copy of your admissions materials with you (especially your vita), just in case someone asks. This also gives a general impression of preparedness.

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