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Grad School: Should I Get a Traditional or Online I/O Master’s/Ph.D.?

2012 May 9

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

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?


I’ve decided to return to this series because a few questions have come up from students that I realized I didn’t cover here.  This week, I’d like to cover another important decision: should I go to graduate school at an online institution or a more traditional on-campus program?

This is actually part of one of the continuing “big arguments” in the field of education, so there aren’t many clear answers just yet.  There is some evidence from the Department of Education that web-based courses are no less effective than in-person courses.  That is, there’s reason to believe that two courses, similarly designed, one online and one in-person, will be essentially the same in their ability to teach you content.  But the studies that the DOE summarizes are generally all undergraduate or laboratory studies, offering little insight into a) graduate courses or b) complete programs (not individual courses).

The experience of graduate school is certainly going to be different at these two categories of institution.  One of the major benefits from brick-and-mortar graduate school is literally immersing yourself in the academic environment: being a part of a cohort of graduate students with similar experiences that you socialize with, interacting intensively face-to-face with professors about your academic achievement and career goals, gaining networking contacts that you will call on for the rest of your career, and generally learning about the culture of the profession.

Most of that is lost in an online environment.  You’re not going to go out for drinks after a difficult exam with your classmates.  As you likely already learned as an undergraduate in psychology, frequency of interaction and shared traumatic experiences are some of the best ways to ensure relationships form between people.  This simply doesn’t really exist in an online program.  While you might get to know people on discussion boards, it’s not quite the same.  Think of it like the difference between your in-person friends and your “Facebook friends.”

The casual interaction with others in an academic environment also is beneficial developmentally.  Completing a graduate program at home, you almost always have time to sit and think about your answers, to carefully consider your responses, and to put a lot of time and effort into producing the best answer possible.  And this is certainly a valuable skill in an I/O career – but it’s not everything.  If you ever plan to use your I/O degree in the “real world,” you’ll need experience coming up with answers on the fly and responding to/interacting with other experts.  Many graduate students find that their first academic conference presentation, where they must respond to random questions from interested parties about their research results, is eye-opening in terms of the sudden pressure to think on their feet.  Most students have already practiced this skill in their courses, and still find it challenging.  For example, in my first-year Master’s-level Personnel Psychology course, I have students lead discussion for over an hour on a set of several journal articles.  Without that kind of practice, I’d be a bit worried – and this directly translates into the kind of work you’d need to do .

I often find that students are considering an online program because they want to balance graduate school against a job.  Let me be absolutely clear: this is a terrible idea.  I fully expect my graduate students to be studying and working on research 40-60 hours per week on top of any teaching responsibilities.  Teaching, at its most intense, should be a commitment of 10 hours per week.  That is the maximally permissible distraction.  If you plan to hold an outside job to support yourself during graduate school instead of teaching, you should be working less than 10 hours per week.  Most part-time jobs don’t permit this and “strongly encourage” employees to increase their hours, so it’s generally not a good idea to have such a job while in graduate school.  Remember, you’re in graduate school to prepare for your career.  Every class you take, every bit of research you conduct, is now precisely targeted at giving you better opportunities later.  Distracting yourself from that goal in any way will only hurt you in the long run.

More practically, there is some question as to the quality of online programs.  One 2010 report by SIOP found several disturbing features of online I/O programs.  For example, most online I/O programs don’t report who their faculty are.  Of the PhD programs identified offering online I/O graduate degrees, only one program (Walden University) did report this, and of the 22 faculty, only two (2!) held I/O PhDs.  That opens many questions about the expertise in I/O of those offering these degrees.  Master’s programs had, on average, 1.5 I/O faculty.  Only one online I/O Master’s program required a written thesis, which is necessary for anyone hoping to progress into a PhD program.

In the annual SIOP Survey reported here, most employers additionally had negative or neutral opinions about students coming from online programs.  For example, respondents tended to respond positive to, “I tend to negatively evaluate a résumé if I notice that the applicant earned his or her graduate degree online.” and “I feel that there IS a meaningful difference in the quality of training that one receives in an online graduate degree program in I-O Psychology versus a traditional, in-person program in I-O Psychology.”

A more recent 2012 report by Rechlin and Kraiger found in an experimental study of I/O consulting firms that applicants from online programs tend to be evaluated more negatively than those coming from brick-and-mortar institutions by those making hiring decisions of I/Os.  They discovered this by presenting resumes of effectively identical candidates (but with different names, distracting information, etc) crossing several degree characteristics.  They found that those with online degrees were less likely to be asked for an interview, less liked to be hired, and likely to get a lower starting salary offer.

So what this really comes down to is priorities.  Are you just trying to get the degree/credentials as a stepping stone for some other career goal, or are you trying to gain experiences that will help you create an I/O career?  If you just want the degree, either type of program is probably fine.  But if you’re trying to build a career within I/O psychology, at least for now, a brick-and-mortar institution is likely to put you on a superior trajectory, with better training, better opportunities, and better earning potential.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jesse permalink
    June 17, 2012

    Hi Richard,

    I am a sophomore psychology major at Cornell University who is seriously considering going on to a PhD in I/O. I stumbled on your blog yesterday and have already spent hours digging through everything. It has been a wonderful resource for a student at a school which, however great, lacks any I/O or applied psychology courses/faculty in its undergrad program. Thank you so much, and please keep it coming!

    In addition to praising you, however, I also wanted to ask a question/request a future addition to this blog series: what do you recommend undergrads interested in I/O do with their summers? Research? HR internships? Are there any specific opportunities you would recommend? Once again, thank you

  2. June 19, 2012

    @Jesse – I’m glad you’ve found this useful. For summers, it depends. For those pursuing a Master’s, internships are best. For you, since you intend on going for a Ph.D., anything that gets you research experience is best (an internship wouldn’t hurt, especially if you can’t find research opportunities, but research experience will help more).

    The closer to I/O you can get, the better, but it’s not really necessary to be I/O specifically. Cornell does have an Organizational Behavior program (http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/academics/ob.html), which is closely related to I/O, so I’d recommend contacting some folks over there and say you want to get some research experience with the intent of pursuing a Ph.D. One of them might have openings for research assistants, although most will expect you continue in the academic year (which is good). If none of them do, then any research experience in the psychology department is still a good idea.

  3. Chelsey permalink
    June 17, 2014

    Hi Richard,

    Thank you for all the great information you have it is really helpful. I understand how online programs can be viewed inferior to brick and mortar degrees. Realistically though not everyone has the opportunity to go to a physical college with financial and family obligations. Online education is available for this reason and it shouldn’t be a deterrent from pursuing an education. In my circumstances there are only two I/O brick and mortar programs in Washington state, and I have two young kids at home. My question is if I cannot get accepted to either program is there an online program that is recognized in the industry. The schools I have researched so far are Colorado State university and Kansas State university. Both schools professors are the same for online and on campus. Kansas state has a two 2 week summer class of 6 credits each in the program that you attend on campus. The other school is the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, which I haven’t been able to research extensively yet.
    Originally I wanted to go to the University of Washington for a masters in social work, but after taking a class in I/O psychology I am more passionate about this field. The more important aspect is to get a valuable education for the money. I would hate to do an online program and then find it difficult to get a job based on my degree. Where going to the UW and working in Seattle a degree from there is highly marketable.

    • June 17, 2014

      Whether or not it is realistic or fair is unfortunately irrelevant – it is current reality. This may change in the coming years, but right now it is something you must face.

      There are no online programs generally accepted across the I/O community. As a result, I would recommend only online programs that are attached to existing brick-and-mortar programs. Colorado State, Kansas State, and University of Georgia are the only ones I’m familiar with, but the list is growing. I’ve heard mixed reviews of the Chicago School; I’d recommend contacting some current students and asking about their experiences.

  4. Chelsey permalink
    June 17, 2014

    Thanks Richard,

    I wasn’t arguing for fairness, just looking for the best case advice for the situation. Thank you for your frankness, as other guidance has been so vague it’s misleading.

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