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Grad School: What Will My First Year of an I/O Master’s/Ph.D. Program Be Like?

2011 September 14

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 grad school, but this time from the other side: what to expect during your first year of graduate school. Often students think of graduate school as simply being “the next step” of their education without ever pausing to think about what that 2-to-6-year experience will actually be like. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of what is for most folks their 20s, so the sacrifice of that experience should not be taken likely.  Just what will you actually be doing during that time?

The first year is probably the most intense for new graduate students, simply because it is such an incredible change from their college life.  But how you experience that change will depend on what kind of student you were.  In my experience, there are generally three kinds of students:

  • The Overachiever.  The overachiever is going to grad school because it is the next great challenge.  The overachiever doesn’t score highly on standardized tests as those in the other two categories do (although the overachiever still did quite well – s/he got into graduate school, after all).  Where the overachiever excelled was classwork – perfect GPA or near-perfect GPA.  The overachiever did this because s/he is incredibly organized and put in as much time as it took to get things perfect.  The overachiever got into grad school because of an incredibly powerful work ethic that drove this person to do as well as possible on every challenge s/he faced.
  • The Natural.  The natural is going to grad school because s/he has raw talent.  The natural did well in school – maybe not a perfect 4.0 but close – not because s/he identified study needs and did whatever it took to achieve them, but instead because s/he cruised by on raw talent.  If you barely ever studied for a class in college but still got over a 3.5, you’re a natural.  The sure sign of a natural is high standardized test scores but weaker GPAs.
  • The Ideal Graduate Student.  The ideal is going to grad school because s/he has both raw talent and a thirst for achievement.  The ideal could have cruised through college with a 3.5, but saw what it would take to push to a 4.0, and went for it.  You can spot an ideal because they clearly love learning.  The ideal enjoys reading research articles because they help the ideal understand the world just that much better.  If you’re the ideal, you’re probably reading this because you’re doing research on graduate school two years early.

If you aren’t the ideal, don’t worry – not many are, even among accepted graduate students.  And if you are the ideal, you already have this whole studying/life thing figured out, so you probably don’t even need this advice!

If you’re an overachiever, the challenge in your first year of graduate school will simply be the quantity of work you need to do.  You’ll see a clear path from start to finish, understanding what you need to do to achieve everything you need to achieve, but it will be difficult to see how you’ll have enough time in a week in order to get it all done.  This is a feeling you will need to learn to accept.  You’ll have 80 to 100 hour weeks, and you still won’t get everything done.  The biggest challenge for the overachiever is therefore to prioritize research and classes appropriately, being willing to sacrifice your work quality in some areas in order to meet your deadlines.  Otherwise, you’ll burn out very quickly.

If you’re a natural, the challenge in your first year of graduate school will be the workload.  You have probably become accustomed to putting in very little effort and getting high grades.   That is unfortunately about to end.  It may not happen on Day 1, but somewhere along the line, you will suddenly find yourself very confused about the material you are learning, and it will be very disorienting.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  It doesn’t mean you’ve suddenly become stupid.  Rather, you have been thrown in with a large group of very smart people.  Just being smart is not enough to stand out.  Now you need to work hard too.

If you are a natural or an overachiever, one of the biggest threats you’ll face is called imposter syndrome.  Imposter syndrome is a psychological condition where it is difficult to accept your own accomplishments.  In short, because you’re in grad school and struggling, because you never really had to struggle ever before, you start to feel like a fraud.  “I shouldn’t be here.”  “Why did they accept me when I clearly can’t cut it?”  This is normal.  I believe this is more common in women than in men, but it can affect anyone.  You were selected to be a graduate student for a reason.  We know you don’t know anything yet; that’s why you’re in graduate school.  You’re still learning, just much faster than you ever have before.  We know it, and you should remember it.

In terms of your day-to-day experience in your first year, this varies widely.  You will likely be balancing your days between research and classes, and sometimes working for the university.  Try to get a sense from your new adviser as to which of these is most important.  Some faculty would prefer you sacrifice classes to research, and others prefer you drop research to focus on your classes if you begin to struggle too much.  Just remember that you have input too; don’t be afraid to say, “I think I shouldn’t be doing as much research because I don’t have the time.”  Just be absolutely sure that’s true before you say it.

If you didn’t get a fellowship and aren’t taking out huge student loans, you are probably going to be working for the university as part of your compensation package.  To accomplish this, you will probably be doing one of five things, and this will likely change from year to year:

  1. Teaching Assistant (TA).  You’ll be assisting a course instructor who is teaching a class.  You might grade papers, hold office hours, or a variety of other tasks.  You might be asked to attend classes; don’t be afraid to ask the instructor if you can skip classes when your workload is too high.  This is the lowest-stress teaching position.
  2. Section Leader.  You’ll be running a section of a course.  For example, there might be a large statistics course where the instructor lectures, and you’ll lead a once-a-week lab section.  Your lecture/demonstration materials will generally be given to you, so your responsibilities will generally only be to facilitate the section based on what your instructor tells you to do, and grading.  This is the middle-stress option.
  3. Instructor.  You’ll be running an entire course!  This is everything; course design, writing a syllabus, grading, putting together teaching materials, and classroom management.  You generally won’t do this until you already have experience as a TA or section leader.  This is the highest-stress option, but the only teaching option that you can put on your vita.  If you want to be a professor some day, you’ll need experience teaching a course or two.
  4. Research Assistant (RA).  Lucky!  You’ll be paid to conduct research that you probably would have been doing anyway while also holding down a TA. This generally involves designing research studies, running research participants, analyzing results, and writing papers.
  5. A grant-funded position.  These vary greatly.  If your mentor has a federally funded project, you could be brought on to fill a variety of roles, e.g. project manager, analyst, or any type of RA role.

If you are concerned about what kind of position you’ll have during your first year and how much time it will take (and you should be concerned), this is something important to ask about during interviews.


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2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 1, 2016

    Hi Dr. Landers – Thank you for the great resource you’ve provided here!

    I’ve started my first year in an I/O MA program, and I’m really enjoying it so far. My current GA is in the program, and it has a practical focus that I think will be a good addition to my CV.

    However, I relocated to a new city for the program, and, while I realized the city was small prior to moving, I had no idea how small it would feel. Coupled with some discussions I’ve had with second year students in the program, who are currently searching for internship opportunities (some unsuccessfully), I’m feeling a little concerned about my internship and job prospects in the area. I think that the faculty tries to connect students to internship and job opportunities… but I just don’t think there are a ton of opportunities in the area. I have several years of experience working in HR, so I am hoping that my internship and job will be true I/O work (not the transactional HR jobs some people seem to get).

    Do you have any advice here? I’ve gotten involved with several local chapters (think ATD, SHRM, etc.) to assist with networking, but I’m worried it won’t be enough. Additionally, I’m currently looking for part-time work. Do you think finding related PT work might help?

    I realize the post is several possibly unrelated questions, but I’d like to do what I can now to set myself up for success two years down the road. Thank you!

    • October 3, 2016

      Let me first say that I didn’t get a Master’s degree myself, and ODU doesn’t have a Master’s program, so I will need to extrapolate a bit from PhD level issues.

      It’s hard to say without knowing what city you’re in, but cross-country (and even international) moves are pretty common for I/Os. There are really only a handful of major I/O hubs in the country – Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, DC, and possibly Atlanta and Boston – so if you don’t live in one of those, you’ll probably need to move eventually, especially if you want a competitive salary.

      Internships are tricky regardless, especially at the Master’s level. The HR-leaning jobs you’re describing are unfortunately pretty common, largely because as a post-1st-year-Master’s-student, you probably don’t know all that much about I/O just yet. That’s an issue we face with PhD intern placements as well – we generally try to avoid it by encouraging students to not even seek an internship until the summer following their third year, post-thesis but pre-candidacy. But that is not an option for you, obviously.

      So all I really have to suggest is that if your faculty can’t connect anything for you locally, that you apply broadly for a post-first-year summer internship without concern for location.

      Part-time work is fine if you can find I/O part-time work. However, most I/O firms that I’m connected to only allow part-time work after a full-time internship. So I’m not sure how much luck you’ll have there either. You probably don’t want part-time HR work. That doesn’t gain you the skills you need, and you’d better spend your time gaining I/O related skills that you can show off when applying for jobs later.

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