Grad School: Managing a Career Change to I/O Psychology
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
A career in I/O psychology requires a Master’s degree or Ph.D., and most of the resources I’ve presented in my graduate school series are intended for those on the “traditional path” to graduate school. Most PhD students these days, whether in I/O or otherwise, finish their bachelor’s degree and head straight to Master’s or Ph.D. training.
This is certainly the easiest way. As with any career, the earlier you know what you want to do with your life, the easier it is to set yourself down the path to get there. But that doesn’t mean a career change to I/O psychology is impossible. It just mean it will take a little more work.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, the first decision when considering a career in I/O is whether you will enter a Master’s or Ph.D. program. Normally, you would first consider the sort of job you might want: I/O’s with Master’s degrees tend to be the “technicians” of our field, applying I/O knowledge out in the world, whereas I/Os with Ph.D.’s tend to be the “researchers” of our field, conducting research studies within organizations to apply I/O knowledge out in the world but also to build that knowledge. Practically speaking, however, a career change into a Master’s program is substantially easier than a career change into a Ph.D. program.
The reason for this is the type of experience needed to apply for each degree. Research experience is useful for a Master’s application, but it is only necessary for a Ph.D. application. If you’re already out in industry and don’t see research experience as a realistic option for yourself, you might want to start by targeting a Master’s degree. In that path, experience as an HR professional, and preferably in strategic HR, will be most helpful to your application in lieu of research experience.
If you do want to strive for the Ph.D., you need research experience. The easiest way to get it will be to find a local college or university with psychology researchers that you can easily drive to. Use Google to search for specific people doing work you find vaguely interesting at that university, and then email and call those faculty members. Explain that you are interested in getting research experience and are willing to donate 10 to 20 hours per week of your time, preferably at home, but that you are willing to come in for meetings. This will give you the best chances of being taken on as a volunteer research assistant. Remember that you don’t need I/O experience specifically, although this is certainly better if you can get it. Any experience as a research assistant in psychology will help your application.
One of the biggest challenges you will face is taking the GRE. If you haven’t been in school for a while, studying for the GRE will probably bring back a lot of bad memories. But it’s worth it; I/O psychologists helped design and validate the GRE, so we take it seriously. You should too. If you haven’t studied in a while – potentially years – give yourself plenty of time to prep. I recommend starting at least a year in advance.
Finally, your personal statement is critical. This is where you explain why you want to change careers. Remember that taking you on as a graduate student is a risk for your new advisor too. That person is worried that 1) you don’t really know what kind of commitment you’re getting into and 2) you heard that I/O was a high paying, fast growing field, and that’s the only reason you applied. Remember that a Master’s program will be at least a 40 hour per week commitment, and a PhD program will be 60 to 80. You need to explain, convincingly, that you understand that and undertake the challenge knowingly and willingly. Remember that even online programs require this sort of time commitment.
Once you have all of your preparation and materials in order, the next big challenge in a career change is figuring out where to apply. My most important advice: don’t be lured into applying to a program because 1) the application requirements are easy, 2) the timeline matches yours, 3) they accept credits for “life experience,” 4) it’s cheap, or 5) it’s an online for-profit. All of these are signals that the program is not going to lead you to a new job. They are generally intended for people who already have a job lined up, but someone said, “for promotion, you need a higher degree.” If you don’t already have a job lined up, don’t go into those sorts of programs.
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