What You Should Get From Your Graduate Training In I/O Psychology

Paul E. Spector

University of South Florida

The primary objective of a graduate education is to turn you into an I/O psychologist. This means that you must acquire the KSAOs (knowledge, skill, ability, and other characteristics) that distinguish a professional in the field. An undergraduate education is designed to provide certain basic KSAOs, e.g., basic math, verbal, and analytical skills, as well as a basic level of knowledge in the major. The Ph.D. goes far beyond this in giving you specialized expert abilities. You must become knowledgeable about the field, you must acquire certain analytical/cognitive skills, and you must be socialized into the field so you understand how I/O psychologists approach problems.

Because of differences in hiring criteria, there are differences in the preparation for an academic or applied career. The major issue is that to get an academic job, you must have publications, whereas an applied career demands applied experience. Our program is structured so that every student will be able to pursue the applied career as everyone must take an internship at a minimum. However, not all students get involved in publishing, and some do not graduate fully qualified for an academic career.

For the most part the KSAOs for both careers are the same. It is often said that a professor's job is to create (research) and disseminate (publication and teaching) knowledge. However, an applied job typically involves these two areas as well. Much of what practitioners do is either creating knowledge (e.g., conducting a job analysis) and disseminating it (e.g., writing a technical report or presenting results to management). Ours is an information and knowledge field that requires skills in doing this activity. This includes skills at information gathering (research methodology) and in dissemination with spoken and written forms. Furthermore, there is a variety of skills required. For example, solving theoretical research problems takes a very high level of cognitive ability, whereas in a business setting often it is necessary to apply interpersonal skills in selling ideas. The major difference between academic and practice jobs is the purpose and scope of what is done. Academic research is concerned with finding general principles that go beyond the immediate situation (organization) that might generalize to a variety of settings. Practice is concerned with principles that apply to the immediate situation or address an immediate problem. Furthermore, academic dissemination involves the onerous peer review publication process, whereas in practice settings the psychologist writes reports or makes presentations without the benefit (and costs) of having peers give input and often correcting mistakes.

Another distinguishing characteristic of these two jobs is time frame. Academic research is leisurely. Although there can be extreme pressure to publish, especially prior to earning tenure, there are rarely assigned time limits to research projects. Often we take months and years to ponder issues and develop our ideas. Practice is typically driven by immediate organizational needs, and solutions are demanded quickly. Often we are concerned with effective rather than best solutions. Thus practice is typically more empirical and pragmatic, with less emphasis on theory development, and more emphasis on finding results.

Finally, most practitioner jobs are more specialized than academic jobs. For example, a psychologist working for a big consulting firm might spend years doing only individual assessments or designing assessment centers. Professors must teach a variety of areas, and most conduct research on many topics. This often gives the impression that a practitioner doesn't need to know much, but this impression is false. If we look across applied jobs, we will see that there is far more variability than across academic jobs. There is a tremendous range of activities done by I/O psychologists, so preparation for a career must make it possible for an individual to do many things. This is why Ph.D. training is broad and general and does not spend much time on very specific applied skills (e.g., how to write an inbasket exercise). If you understand the principles of assessment centers, writing exercises is a skill that can be acquired on the job very rapidly. However, knowing how to write an exercise won't help you understand the underlying principles, and it sure won't help if an employer or client wants things done a different way than you were taught.

Skills For All I/O Psychologists

The purpose of your training is to turn you into an I/O psychologist. The program has a list of requirements and offers courses to help you do this. However, a graduate degree is not just a list of met requirements. Taking courses and doing the other few required activities is only the beginning. You must immerse yourself completely in the field. This means becoming involved in the program and perhaps in the broader I/O community. This takes a minimum of four years, and likely will take a year or two longer. We encourage students to make consistent and rapid progress, but don't substitute speed for a quality education. However, it should not take too long either. It is fine to take a year's out of town, full-time internship that inevitably slows down progress. Such an experience can be extremely valuable and we encourage it, even knowing it will likely cause a delay in completing the program. However, we do not encourage doing this for more than a year, as the delay becomes far too long. Finish your degree and you have the rest of your career to work full-time. Likewise, it can be a reasonable strategy to work on publications (for an academic career), even though doing so will slow your progress as it is time taken away from requirements, such as thesis and dissertation. However, you must have publications to get an academic job, so it is fruitless to finish quickly and be unemployable.

All I/O psychologists need basic I/O knowledge and skills. You should be knowledgeable about all areas at what you might call a textbook author's level. You should also have some areas of specialization where your knowledge is much deeper, e.g., your dissertation topic. The general knowledge is necessary because you need to understand the big picture. Organizations are complex systems, and you must have an appreciation for all aspects. You also need to develop the analytical skills to be able to take a problem or issue and understand it at a very deep level. You also need to know how knowledge is acquired. You might never do any work in the area of your dissertation, but the analytical skills gained by the exercise will be invaluable when later you must attack a totally different problem.

All I/O psychologists must have the tools to conduct research. Although they might not publish it, practitioners do research. It might be very applied and atheoretical at times, but it still uses the same process. What makes our approach the I/O approach is that we take an analytical, empirical approach (we collect data) to problems. There are other legitimate approaches as well, but they are not I/O approaches; they are something else. If you choose to become an I/O psychologist, research methodology is what you must learn, and you must learn it well. Again, you might not use everything you learn, but if you master the most complex methods (e.g., LISREL) that you don't use, you will have learned even better the simpler methods that you do use. Learning something is not a waste of time, even if you never use it.

All I/O psychologists must develop communication skills. We spend a great deal of our time communicating our results, not to mention that communication is important in doing our research. We must be able to write clearly. This is equally important for academic and applied people. You get quite a bit of writing in the program, but extra writing beyond requirements can be valuable. Writing papers for meetings and publication really helps develop this skill, even for future practitioners who don't choose to do this in their careers. (Keep in mind that many do, however.) Oral presentation skills are also important, and you get these through class presentations, seminar discussions, and teaching. Again, seek out extra opportunities. Students should, but most don't, take every opportunity to discuss research and theory with one another. Having to argue your position on some arcane theory might seem a silly academic exercise for an aspiring practitioner, but someday you may find yourself trying to explain something complex to a VP for HR, and that skill will become very relevant. Particularly challenging is that typically in practice we must translate complex research findings into terms managers and lay persons can understand.

All I/O psychologists must have the same solid foundation, regardless of what career they pursue, and regardless of what they wind up doing. Ph.D. training must prepare students for the variety of careers that exist and will exist in the future. A solid foundation will enable you to try a variety of things in your career, and will help you retain a set of marketable skills as organizational demands change. Specialized training can quickly become obsolete, so it is essential that training be generalizable.

Preparation Strategies For Academic Versus Applied Jobs

Although skills are primarily the same for academic and applied jobs, there is a difference in career strategy that begins in graduate school. The main issue is that academic records are based on publication, while applied records are based on professional experiences, e.g., job responsibilities and organizational affiliations. A few years at a major international I/O consulting firm and heading the assessment unit for a major multinational corporation really round out a résumé, for example.

Academic Preparation. Publication is the ticket to a job, so you must have refereed journal articles (conference papers aren't enough). Don't graduate without publication if you want to be a professor, even if it means taking an extra year or even two. Also keep in mind that publication is a slow process. If you are serious about this career, start during year two or even earlier, although it's unlikely you will have time during your first year. It is hard to say how many publications you need, but the more the better. Two in reasonable but not top journals should get a good job, but a Journal of Applied Psychology (or other top outlet) always looks impressive, especially if you are first author. Four or more will likely make you the hot prospect on the market, as this is quite unusual for a new Ph.D. Also keep in mind that once you graduate, people divide your number of publications by number of years since Ph.D. An impressive record for an ABD is mediocre for someone out two years.

The hardest part of publication is getting started. If you are serious, get involved with the faculty. Start with your major professor and express interest in doing research. Volunteer to help on projects. Ask other faculty if your major professor doesn't have anything for you. Discuss some of your own interests, and ask for help in developing them. That's what the faculty are here for! Keep in mind that a publication for you when you collaborate with a professor is a publication for him or her, so don't think faculty aren't interested.

Another thing you need is teaching experience. Apply to teach as either a teaching assistant or instructor. If this isn't possible, seek out other possibilities, e.g., volunteer to lecture on specific topics. Many faculty will allow you to do this in their classes. What you need are experiences both to put on the vita and that a professor might mention in a letter of recommendation. Furthermore, it is a good idea to develop a teaching portfolio that you can provide with your application for an academic job.

There is an additional reason to get involved in these activities. They provide a realistic job preview. If you aren't sufficiently disciplined to complete papers, or if you can't take the severe criticism of the review process, perhaps you should consider a different career. However, if you like to write, have a thick skin, and enjoy teaching, an academic job has much to offer.

Applied Career. Specific preparation for an applied career is perhaps a little easier because you don't have to fight the onerous, time consuming review process. However, this doesn't mean there aren't things that should be done. Seek out applied experiences beyond the required internship. If you are mobile, consider taking a full-time internship, which is typically outside the area. IBM for example, is an excellent experience, as are many other companies and consulting firms. Look for some part-time internship type jobs in the local area beginning in year 2 or 3, and try to work on applied projects. It helps if you have a few organization names on your résumé.

At the same time, don't overlook the more "academic" pursuits. It is a good experience to teach a class, and don't think future applied employers find this irrelevant. Get involved in research to hone your skills. Present a paper at SIOP or some other meeting, and try to publish in a journal. These activities are not necessary for getting a job, but they are excellent training and sometimes they help get a foot in the door as many applied psychologists in consulting firms respect research. That person who hears your SIOP presentation or sees your article might be interviewing you for an applied job someday. Many I/O practitioners attend SIOP and value the "academic side". They look quite favorably on publication.

Concluding Advice

A Ph.D. represents the highest level of formal education you can achieve, so it is a very serious undertaking. A Ph.D. isn't (or shouldn't be) a person who took certain courses and met a few other requirements. Rather it represents the attainment of a high level of knowledge and skill. You will do best if your attitude is that you are here to learn everything you can rather than jumping over all the hurdles. Requirements exist to provide a basic framework, but you must fill in the rest. To make the best of your graduate education, become as involved as you can by participating fully in the program, by being creative in finding ways to go beyond courses, by contributing to the literature, and by talking to people in the field. Be an active participant as you slowly transform yourself into a highly skilled I/O psychologist.


Copyright Paul E. Spector, All rights reversed, Last modified July 2, 1999.