PURSUING AN I/O PSYCHOLOGY CAREER
(To find out what I/O Psychologists do, see What Is An I/O Job Like?
It requires a graduate (masters or Ph.D.) degree to be considered an industrial/organizational psychologist. In the U.S. these two degrees can be found among practitioners (those who do applied work as consultants or employees of organizations). However, salaries and opportunities are generally higher for Ph.D. level psychologists. Professors almost always have the Ph.D. In other countries (e.g., some in western Europe) the situation is different, with the master's degree being the degree of pratitioners and the Ph.D. begin the degree of professors and researchers.
In the U.S. there are approximately 100 graduate programs, some that offer only the master's degree and some that offer the Ph.D. Many fine graduate programs can be found throughout the rest of the world. In the U.S., admission is very competitive to most programs. It is based mainly on grade point average (usually only junior and senior years) and graduate record exam (GRE) quantitative plus verbal scores at most schools. (The ETS website has GRE information.) Letters of recommendation are typically required, but hold less weight. Relevant background, such as employment in an I/O related setting or research experience is also considered. Admission requirements are not necessarily the same in other countries, where educational systems might be different from the U.S.
U.S. graduate programs vary in competitiveness of admission. In general master's programs are easier to get into than Ph.D. Those Ph.D. programs considered the most prestigious are among the most difficult to get into of graduate programs in any field. Solid A averages approaching 4.0 and GRE scores of 1100-1200 and higher are required by the most competitive. Most of these programs accept a small number of students each year, and they might have over 100 applicants, so they can be very selective. Those programs that are not considered the top programs will often have lower standards. Over the past 10 years as the popularity of I/O has increased, entry requirements have increased, as well.
Information about I/O graduate programs in Canada and the U.S. can be found on the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, SIOP website. Details about most programs, including entrance requirements are here. More details can be gotten from the universities themselves, and most now have websites. SIOP has links to them as well. I have a link to information about the USF program on my main page. Another useful guide to I/O studies is Psychology Degree Resource Guide.
Preparation for an I/O Career
Most I/O graduate students were undergraduate psychology majors, but many major in other fields. The undergraduate psychology major is helpful, in that basic psychology principles and terminology will be familiar. This makes the first year of graduate school easier, but people with other backgrounds can do well with extra effort. Because I/O is a technical field, it is helpful to have undergraduate coursework in research methodology and statistics (required of most psychology majors). It is also helpful to have familiarity with computers, and to have good writing ability. Some background in business administration might be helpful for those who become pratitioners, although business concepts are very quickly acquired on the job.
Graduate school is far more difficult than undergraduate. The workload is far heavier, and students are expected to work more independently. A master's degree takes about 2 years to complete. A Ph.D. takes at least 4 (from the BA) but the average is around 6. About 50% of individuals who begin a Ph.D. program never finish. Determination and self-discipline are required, over and above intellectual ability. This should be carefully considered by anyone contemplating an I/O career. Do you really want to spend the next few years in an extremely intense academic study of this field? If the answer is no, there are easier ways to a rewarding career that would better suit you. If the answer is yes, then I/O might be the career for you.
I recommend to an undergraduate student contemplating an I/O career to do the following:
1. Take an undergraduate I/O psychology course. If your university doesn't offer one, read an I/O textbook. This website has my lecture notes that accompany my textbook. You can also take a correspondence course. The Florida State University System (SUS) offers such a course from it's correspondence division at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It parallels our own course at USF.
2. Get to know three professors. You will need letters of recommendation. The best way to do this is by volunteering to help with research. They don't have to be I/O professors, or even psychology professors. At USF many of our students help grad students collect dissertation or thesis data.
3. Get a good psychology background. Courses most relevant are social and cognitive.
4. Take all the research methods and statistics your psychology department offers.
5. Be sure you have a solid background in basic mathematics (i.e., college algebra). Be familiar with computers, as you will have to learn how to use statistical software. Be familiar with word processing and e-mail. Know how to navigate the internet. Be sure you can communicate well in both spoken and written English. These skills will be needed in graduate school, and later in your career.
6. Be sure to get good grades. A solid A average will be needed for most programs.
7. Investigate graduate programs by the beginning of your senior year. Consider their emphasis and quality, as well as entry requirements. Most American programs are pretty similar, but there are some that have particular emphasis, often because of the interests of their particular faculty members. (One way to see this is by the research topics of faculty.) Programs also vary in quality. Some are well established with large experienced faculties and large professional networks which help in getting internships and jobs after graduation. Potential employers are likely to know the program, and a degree from there might carry more weight. Others might be new and not yet established or have very small faculties (which limits the range of faculty interests). My advice is to go to the best program that will accept you, but don't feel that your career is over before it's begun because you didn't get into one of the "top" programs. There are many great programs from which to choose, even among those that aren't on anyone's top 10 list.
Determining program quality is not always easy. A good way is to ask your professors who are familiar with the I/O field. Look also at the number of faculty and students. Look for research activity among the faculty. Do they publish frequently in the major journals? Also consider opportunities for practicum experiences and internships, which are an important aspect of practitioner training. You might also talk to faculty and graduate students at programs you are considering, either by phone or in person if possible.
8. Early in your senior year, take stock. Compute your GPA (junior and senior years only) and project what it will likely be when your application is considered. Most programs make their decisions around March for the following fall semester. Take the GRE early enough so that you can retake it and get the scores in before the deadline. This usually means around September or October of your senior year. Once you know your GPA and GRE, you can figure out where it makes sense to apply. A 3.95 and 1400 (quantitative plus verbal) and any program is a possibility. A 3.2 and 1020 means your possibilities are more limited, but don't give up your career goals yet! Perhaps you can retake some classes or take a GRE prep course. Try a program with lower entry requirements. However, if your less than spectacular grades reflect a lack of motivation for school, do you really want to spend the next 4 to 6 years (or more) in graduate school?
Copyright Paul E. Spector, All rights reserved. Last modified April 10, 2000.