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Grad School: Pursuing an I/O PhD with an Existing Master’s

2015 August 26

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

Those on an alternative path to an I/O degree, and for those who didn’t quite qualify for a Ph.D. program during their first round of applications might find themselves considering pursuing a Ph.D. in I/O Psychology with a Master’s degree already in hand.  If you’re thinking about this, here are several important things to consider:

  1. It is universally preferable to go straight into a Ph.D. program post-Bachelor’s if possible.  The Ph.D. application process is really designed with recent college graduates in mind. You need strong reference letters from professors familiar with your work, which are much easier to get if you are still in college with those professors.  You need to complete the GRE, which is much easier if you’ve been regularly taking tests for the last few years. You also need research experience, which is much easier to do while you’re still taking classes than as a past-time lab volunteer with a full-time job. Finally, don’t underestimate the pull of your own life priorities. The further you get from college, the more you’ll want to spend more time with your family, and taking time away from them will be less and less attractive.  So just to be clear, if you’re in college now and know you want a Ph.D., just do it. Don’t wait, because it only gets harder. This page is for people who don’t have that choice anymore.
  2. If you already have a Master’s degree in something other than I/O Psychology, you will need to complete a new I/O Psychology Master’s degree in the course of a Ph.D. program. The Master’s coursework in a Ph.D. program is considered the foundational knowledge of a Ph.D. student. As a result of this, Master’s-level courses are usually (but not always) primarily delivered via lecture.  Once you’re past your Master’s coursework, the format generally shifts to that of seminars, where you sit around a table with faculty and other Ph.D. students discussing academic journal articles. If you don’t have the Master’s-level coursework in I/O, you will be 100% lost in seminar. There’s no way around it.
  3. If you already have a Master’s in I/O Psychology, you may need to complete a second I/O Master’s degree. Not all Master’s degrees are made equal. The only way an I/O Master’s degree could qualify you to skip the Ph.D. coursework in a Ph.D. program is if 1) the coursework was equally rigorous as the institution you are applying to and 2) if you proposed and defended an empirical thesis. For #1, this is a judgment call.  You may need to hunt down the syllabi for all of the courses you completed in your first Master’s and make an argument to the faculty at your new institution that the content is generally the same. They may disagree. For #2, this is drawn in contrast to a capstone project or paper. To be clear, if you did not propose and defend what the field of I/O psychology could (theoretically) consider a publishable piece of empirical work, your Master’s degree likely will not “count” as Master’s-equivalent in the way you need. The reason for this is that the I/O Master’s is in many ways a baby dissertation – your advisor holds your hand along the way, tells you when you’re going down the wrong path, and rewrites major chunks of your horrible, horrible writing. Through this experience, you are reforged and made ready to tackle the dissertation after a few more years of coursework. If you have a non-empirical thesis, you simply won’t be ready for the experience of writing a dissertation on your own. At all. You will become a 10-year Ph.D. student, and that isn’t something anyone wants.
  4. Even if you don’t need to complete a second Master’s degree, you may wish you did. To a degree, Ph.D. programs are designed to break you of your preconceived notions of how research, science, and I/O psychology work, and then rebuild you in the image and mindset of that program. Even if you aren’t technically required to complete a second Master’s degree, you may want to do so anyway because of the coursework and mindset-building that you will miss. For example, Master’s students at ODU complete three very difficult statistics and research methods courses in the course of their Master’s coursework (i.e., the first two years of our five-year program).  Students that have come in post-Master’s have not always had the same statistical and methods training that they would have received if they had been Master’s students at ODU, which makes the next several years much more difficult. Remember to consider what you might not experience as a result of skipping two years of a program. What you gain in “program years” you may lose in “knowledge years.”

If you do already have a Master’s degree, one additional thing to consider when you apply is what effect that degree will have on how your application is interpreted.  If you have a Master’s in another field, the first thing faculty will ask is, “How do I know this person won’t jump ship on I/O too?” If you have a Master’s in I/O from another institution that has an I/O Ph.D., the first thing faculty will ask is, “Why didn’t their own institution want them to continue to the Ph.D.?” If you have a Master’s in I/O from another institution that doesn’t have an I/O Ph.D., the first thing faculty will ask is, “Why didn’t they pursue the Ph.D. in the first place?” In all three cases, your personal statement should be very clear in answering these questions.

It is also recommended, more strongly than for undergraduate applicants, that you reach out directly to faculty in the programs to which you want to apply. Explain your situation and ask them bluntly if they accept/welcome students with existing Master’s degrees. Their response will tell you more than this website ever can.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. August 26, 2015

    3. “…your advisor holds your hand along the way, tells you when you’re going down the wrong path, and REWRITE MAJOR CHUNKS OF YOUR HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE WRITING.”

    Ouch, Richard. Ouch.

    • August 26, 2015

      Dang it. Had a typo. Point proven. You win.

    • August 26, 2015

      #1, I always win.
      #2, the issue is really that undergraduate psychology education just does not teach scientific writing very well, and this is by design. First, the numbers are lopsided. There’s no way you can give deep, developmental writing feedback to more than a handful of students, and when methods classes have 20+, you’re far past the limit to how many papers a person can realistically read and provide really useful feedback on. In grad school, those ratios typically drop to less than 5:1. Second, undergrad methods instructors by definition are not content experts in every possible research topic an undergrad might write about, so they aren’t really able to provide feedback on the sort of deep theoretical reasoning necessary at the doctoral level. So learning about how to write effective is a major objective of graduate training, although programs vary in how directly this is taught. In most cases, it’s indirect, through the paper and thesis revision process.

      But this really does affect everybody. I look back at my own writing from early grad school now and try to remember if I hired a trained monkey to write my papers for me.

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