Guide to an I-O Psychology Career

Contemplative young woman sitting in class with head in hand looking to the left.

Recently I received an e-mail from a high school junior interested in an I-O career. No one at her school could answer some basic questions, so she reached out to me. As I was explaining how she could become an I-O psychologist, it occurred to me that most of our efforts to inform students about the field focused on college undergraduates. What is needed is a guide to an I-O psychology career for high school as well as college students.

What Is I-O Psychology?

Psychology is a scientific field focused on understanding people’s behavior, feelings, motives, and thoughts. Industrial-organizational or I-O psychology is the sub-field that studies people in work settings. I-O psychology is both a science (the study of employees) and a practice in which we work with organizations to make them better places to work for employees. We help people thrive so they can be productive at work while maintaining good health and well-being. I-O psychologists work on many different aspects of work. Many help organizations do a better job of hiring people who are a good fit to the job. Much of my work focuses on how organizations can reduce employee stress.

What It Takes to Be an I-O Psychologist

Most I-O psychologists have a master’s or PhD degree in the field. There are many graduate programs at universities in North America and throughout the world. These programs will provide a broad background in I-O, and many provide work experiences through internships (mine was an entire year) that can help launch a career. It is possible to enter the field with a degree in another field through individual study and gaining the right experiences, but if you are a student and want to pursue this career, it is best to get an I-O degree.

High School Student Guide to an I-O Psychology Career

There are limited resources available for high school students, but there are still some things that can help set the stage.

  • Take a Psychology Class. The class probably won’t cover much about I-O psychology, but it will provide a broad background in psychology itself. This will help you decide if psychology might be the field for you. Can you see yourself majoring in psychology in college where you will take a dozen or more psychology classes? It also gives you a head start if you major in psychology because you already will be familiar with basic concepts.
  • Learn a Little about I-O. It isn’t important at this early stage that you become an I-O expert—you have plenty of time for that after high school. But learning a little bit about the field can help you decide if it really might be the one for you. I have links to I-O psychologists talking about their careers here. A good source of information is the Society for I-O Psychology, SIOP website where there is information about the field. You can also read an IO Psychology textbook.
  • Take Math and Science. I-O is a scientific field that relies on the analysis of data. A background in science helps you understand how it works, and being comfortable with math will make it easier to master courses in statistical analysis in college and graduate school.

College Student Guide to an I-O Psychology Career

Most IO graduate students major in psychology in college, but some pursued other majors. Some of my former PhD students majored in biology, botany, business, engineering, English, and statistics. If you know in want to go to I-O graduate school early in your undergraduate career, a psychology major would probably make the most sense, but it is not necessary. What is more important than majoring in psychology is to have a basic psychology background.

Admission into graduate programs, especially PhD programs, can be quite competitive, at least in North America. To increase your chances of acceptance at the programs you prefer requires a strong record that includes the following. (Note: This is from a North American perspective).

  • Good Grades. The first thing programs look at is GPA, especially during junior/senior years. For most PhD programs, a GPA of 3.5 and higher is essential. For North American programs, the SIOP website lists information about GPAs and GRE scores from individual programs here.  
  • Solid GRE Score. Most PhD programs and many MA programs require the Graduate Record Exam or GRE, which is similar to the SAT that high school students take. Some eliminated the requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many have resumed. Schools vary in what they look for, but a good target is 50th percentile on the quantitative and verbal components. The SIOP website has information about individual school requirements.
  • Basic Psychology Background. Be sure to take an introductory psychology course, a few advanced courses in topics like cognitive psychology and social psychology, and courses in research methods and statistics. Psychology majors will get all this as part of major requirements.
  • I-O Course or Equivalent. Programs want to be sure that you know what I-O is, so they look for coursework. Many universities do not offer an I-O psychology class, but they offer related course in the business school. Look for classes in human resource management and organizational behavior that roughly correspond to the I and O sides of the field, respectively.
  • Research Experience. It is essential that you gain some experience as a research assistant by helping a faculty member or graduate student conduct research. In most cases this is a volunteer position, but many universities allow you to do this for course credit. It is not important that the research be on an I-O topic. What is important is that you have been introduced to the research process and have gained some research skills.
  • Independent Research. Having research experience is essential, but to really stand out you should complete an undergraduate honors thesis or the equivalent that involves completing your own research project supervised by a faculty member. This shows that you are capable of conducting research and that you have picked up basic research skills.
  • Join SIOP. This is not vital for your application, but you can learn a lot about the field through student membership.
  • Present at a Conference. Often volunteer research assistants are given co-authorship for conference presentations by faculty, but even better is to do a poster or presentation yourself. This can be at a national conference like SIOP or a campus poster event. Although less common, sometimes students will be offered co-authorship on a journal article. This is most likely when the student get fully involved in the project, contributing ideas and helping with several aspects of the project.

Assuming you have solid grades and GRE scores, what makes you stand out are your research experiences and skills. You will need letters of recommendation from faculty to document that. The best letters I have written have been for students who worked with me on research and whose honor’s thesis I supervised. I am able to write about how they demonstrated commitment to learn, have good research talent, and mastered important research skills. I can point to how they completed their honor’s thesis, and how they were able to carry out every step from initial study design through final write-up. Even better I can talk about how they submitted results to a conference.

I-O can be a great career because it allows flexibility in the nature of jobs and settings where they are done. The main job for a high school student is to decide if the field is something to pursue in college. For a college student the focus should be on accruing a competitive record that demonstrates foundational knowledge and research skill. The graduate degree will be the launching pad for the successful and fulfilling I-O career. This guide to an I-O psychology career explains what you can do to prepare yourself to become an I-O psychologist beginning as early as high school.

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