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

2015 August 26
by Richard N. Landers

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.

Torture, the APA, and I/O Psychology

2015 August 12
by Richard N. Landers

If you haven’t heard by now, based upon several independent investigations and public accusations of wrongdoing, the American Psychological Association commissioned a law firm to create what is referred to in the media as the Hoffman report, an independent investigation of the degree to which the APA was involved in the support of the CIA’s torture program in the wake of 9/11. Within this report, it was found that numerous APA officials, including the ethics director, colluded with the CIA to ensure that the stance of the APA, as conveyed in public policy statements, provided broad support to their policies of torture.  In reaction to this, the APA has apologizedsome psychologists resigned from the APA, and a federal investigation is looming. In general, this seems to be a failure of individuals within the APA, and not of the organization’s ethics code – instead, that code was interpreted as “loosely” as possible to create these statements.  Regardless, without a doubt, public trust in the APA – and psychologists in general – has been diminished.

SIOP has also responded, and the gist is: “torture is bad, and we are all harmed by this.” I was personally not surprised by the lack of a more specific response. The relationship between the military and psychology is a complicated one, and there is a long history of collaboration with I/O psychologists specifically. We even credit the development of assessment center methodology to the selection of spies in World War II, and the classic Army Alpha and Army Beta tests, created to better place soldiers in World War I, were a major force driving early selection research. We’ve done a lot of good via military research, and a lot of that good has then been applied to other, much smaller organizations. Our most major and longest-lasting framework for defining job performance across all jobs comes from a massive military project called Project A.

So where should the line be drawn? This is a question I’ve been personally struggling with, as I ponder pursuing military funding for some of my own projects. I don’t think the military is inherently bad – if it could be considered evil, it is a necessary one, to some degree – but in the back of my mind, I must now consider if the outcomes of my research could ever be used to help kill people. As of five years ago, that’s not a question I ever thought I’d ask myself.

On one hand, the military is an organization much like any other, albeit huge. It is a highly complex network of hierarchical command relationships, cultures and subcultures, many of which are dysfunctional or at least non-optimized. By bringing psychological research to the military, as I/Os have for over a century, those relationships can be improved. Soldiers can live better lives. People can be placed into positions where they can display their talents. Training and development can waste less time. Skills needed for civilian careers can be developed through military service. And given the scope of the military, even small gains can have significant organization-wide and even nationwide benefits.

On the other hand, a much more straightforward problem: the military quite literally kills people to fulfill its core organizational mission. In many cases, this is done without their target even being provided an opportunity to fight back, many of them likely to be innocent civilians. To an extent, taking money from the military or conducting research with the military implicitly approves of its tactics.

There is also the practical side. Although this is a nuanced issue in reality, a researcher that has taken military funding at any point, for any reason, instantly becomes branded as biased, lacking credibility, and bought-and-purchased among a fair portion of the public. The public, in general, does not care for nuance. To what extent any particular I/O psychologist cares about that is a matter of individual differences.

What the Hoffman report should highlight for us is that the questions struggled with by the APA leadership – whether to bend our morality for the sake of the our organization’s growth, prosperity, and influence – is something I/O’s have dealt with regarding the military since I/O has existed. I imagine our per-member connections to the military are much higher in SIOP than in the APA, broadly. So I’d like to think we’re pretty good at managing it, but do we really know?

Have any I/O’s ever sacrificed their ethics to get access to data, to increase their influence, to make their careers? Do we only not know the names of these people because I/O has, to this point, been pretty small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things? As we continue to grow, perhaps time will tell.

Did Home-Owning Millennials All Get Help from Their Parents?

2015 July 16
by Richard N. Landers

Occasionally, I see an article in the press that is just so ridiculously misleading in how it treats statistics that I think: “Wow, what a teachable moment.” This is one such moment.

The Atlantic recently ran an article entitled, “Millennials Who Are Thriving Financially Have One Thing in Common…Rich Parents.” What a showstopper, huh? If you’re a Millennial, as I am by most definitions, the phrasing alone just drives you to click and comment, right? If you have a home, you want to say, “But I did this without any rich parents!” If you don’t have a home, you want to say, “This is my parents’ fault!” And if you’re not a Millennial, you want to say, “Stop blaming your parents and get off my lawn!” No one wins, except perhaps the Atlantic, since they get all sorts of ad revenue off of our outrage and perhaps a few extra readers due to social shares caused by that outrage.

All of this would be acceptable, if a bit annoying, if the Atlantic were presenting its statistics in a clear, forthright manner – that is, if the thing that financially thriving Millennials had in common was, indeed, rich parents. Unfortunately, like most news outlets these days, there’s a lot of cherry-picking going on in this article to present a particular point of view. For your convenience, I’ve extracted the three key statistics reported in that article that inform this view and pasted them here, so that you don’t need to wade through all the filler to find them yourself. Importantly, these were themselves borrowed from a analysis of Federal data.

  1. “of the 46 percent of Millennials who pursued post-secondary education (that’s everything from associates degrees to doctorates), about 61 percent received some financial help with their educational expenses from their parents.”
  2. “43 percent of Millennials who got help from their parents in paying for school were also able to become homeowners”
  3. “These are the select few whose families had enough money to not only help them with college, but to then also assist them with a down payment on a home. This group accounts for more than half of the Millennial homeowners in the Zillow’s data, though they account for only 3 percent of the total Millennial population.”

So, let’s treat this like a word problem. What percentage of Millennials are we talking about here?

First, notice that we’re talking only about “Millennials who pursued post-secondary education.” 61% of 46% – which is 28% – of all Millennials received some financial help from their parents to afford such an education. That also means 100% – 61% = 39% of those purusing post-secondary education received no support. And let’s also remember that “some help with educational expenses” could mean “my parents paid for my books one semester.”

Second, notice that 43% of those people became homeowners. Not 43% received help from their parents – 43% became homeowners.  That means 43% of 28%: so 12% of all Millennials are homeowners who received support from their parents for education.  But that includes neither homeowners who didn’t pursue post-secondary education nor those who did but didn’t get any help. The number of homeowning Millennials in general is closer to 36%, meaning 36% – 12% = 24% of Millennials are homeowners without educational help (by definition, the non-rich-parent group) plus those who didn’t pursue post-secondary education.

Third, finally turning to our “thriving” group, “more than half” (such precision!) of Millennial homeowners had parents that helped them with both college and a down payment, which accounts for 3% of all Millennials.  Those are some interesting numbers to choose, since none of them speak to the thesis of this piece – that “thriving” Millennials, in general, all have rich parents in common. In the narrative of the article, “rich parents” is essentially synonymous with “gave money for both college and a house,” whereas “thriving” is essentially synonymous with “homeowner.” If you’ve been following along, you’ll notice we actually have the numbers to solve our word problem.  If 36% of all Millennials are homeowners and 3% of all Millennials we consider homeowners with rich parents, what percentage of homeowning Millennials have rich parents?  3% / 36% = 8%.

I’d say it’s pretty hard for members of a group to all have something “in common” when only 8% of them share it. This article, like so many before it, throws out a deluge of percentages with the hope that you won’t take a moment to think: does this actually make any sense or is someone trying to give a statistical impression rather than statistical truth?

So what’s the real conclusion here? People with parents willing to fund higher education and home payments are more likely to get higher education and buy a home, but plenty of people without rich parents still manage to do the same thing. It is just a bit harder. SURPRISE.

Unfortunately, this article is also just the most recent example in what I’m beginning to think of as a vast media victimization of Millennials – we poor, poor souls, lost in a deluge of horrible economic conditions from which we cannot escape. I can’t even decide if this is the better or worse than the “Millennials are the root of all evil in the world” articles. Economic suckitude certainly has done its damage – but it has done that damage to everyone. Why pretend otherwise?

To their credit, focused upon the 3%, and never made any claims about “one thing in common.” The most likely reason: unlike the Atlantic‘s report,’s report was written by an economist.  It also contains this telling footnote: “The sample size associated with these five conditions – age, education, financing of education, current housing tenure and source of funding for a down payment – is small and should be interpreted with caution.”  Indeed it should!