Success in applying to an industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology doctoral program requires careful preparation. This guide to I-O psychology PhD program application will discuss how to best position yourself to maximize chances of acceptance. Although this guide is focused on I-O, these strategies are useful for many other fields with research-focused PhD programs .
What Do I-O Programs Look for?
Admissions committees are looking for students who have demonstrated high potential for success in their programs and careers. They look at a variety of factors that enable them to evaluate each applicant.
- Grade Point Average is often the most important factor, especially for the junior/senior years as an undergraduate student. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so a student with a high GPA has demonstrated academic ability and motivation. A limitation is that students vary in the difficulty of classes they take, and schools differ in their ease in grading, so comparisons among students can be difficult. GPA in a master’s program is less important because there is less variance in grading at the graduate level.
- Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores are important for schools that require it. This is because GRE is the only standard measure that is the same for every applicant. It assesses intellectual ability and predicts student success. Quantitative and verbal scores are considered, although some programs also consider the analytical and/or psychology subject test as well. The Educational Testing Service website has detailed information about the GRE.
- Letters of recommendation are typically required (mainly from professors) but may hold less weight.
- Professional background, such as employment in an I-O related setting, can be helpful, but probably more so for programs that focus largely on practice.
- Research experience is important, especially for the top-rated programs. This means working on research projects with faculty or doctoral students. Ideally, you conducted an independent research project, such as an honor’s thesis or the equivalent. Presenting results of your work, even at a campus poster session, is a plus. It is not necessary to have research experience in an I-O topic.
- Personal statement is examined to see if the student’s goals and interests fit the program. This statement should provide an overview of relevant background experiences, research experience, and be clear about your goals for school and career.
Preparation For Graduate School
Preparation for graduate school application begins long before applications are submitted. I wrote this guide to I-O psychology PhD program application in response to questions I got from students about how to do just that. I recommend:
- Take an undergraduate I-O psychology course. Take a distance course at another university if your current one doesn’t offer the course. If you can’t take a course, read an I-O textbook, such as my Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Research and Practice. The textbook support section of my website has lots of videos about I-O psychology that explain the field and many of the concepts.
- Get to know three professors. You will need at least three letters of recommendation, preferably from faculty members. Family friends, former employers, and other nonprofessors are not usually given as much weight. An exception might be a practicing I-O psychologist with whom you have worked. The best way to get to know faculty is by volunteering to help with research. They don’t have to be I-O professors, or even psychology professors. The project you work on might be a graduate student’s thesis or dissertation.
- Get a good general psychology background. Courses most relevant are cognitive and social.
- Take all the research methods and statistics your psychology department offers. There might be good choices in other departments in your university, as well. Learn about psychological measurement (psychometrics) and research design in addition to statistics.
- Communication skills are important. This means both written and spoken in the language of your graduate program.
- Investigate graduate programs by the beginning of your senior year. The SIOP website is a great resource for information about these programs but note that some of the information about individual programs is out-of-date. Most North American programs are similar, but there are some that have a particular emphasis, often because of the interests of their faculty members. One way to see this is by the research topics of faculty. Some programs are well established with large, experienced faculties and large professional networks that 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 list. Also keep in mind that there are many things to consider in choosing a graduate program, including the match of your goals and interests to the program. Look at the number of faculty and students. Look for research activity among the faculty. Do they publish frequently in the major journals? Are they editors or board members of major journals? Also consider opportunities for practicum experiences and internships, which are an important aspect of practitioner training. You might also e-mail faculty and graduate students at programs you are considering for additional information.
Guide to I-O Psychology PhD Program Application
I-O graduate programs in North America typically accept students only for fall admission with deadlines between December 1 and January 15. They rarely accept late applications. It is your responsibility to be sure that additional materials, such as letters of recommendation, are sent. Give faculty a reasonable amount of time to write your letters—at least a month or two.
It can take a month or more after the deadline for faculties to review applications and make decisions. They will identify those students for immediate acceptance and alternates for the wait list of students who are back-ups as those invited decline. Do not feel bad about being wait-listed. There are many reasons other students have higher priority, and often it has to do with the match of interests between student and faculty. It can take up to April 15 for all offers to be made, as students do not always decline offers quickly. Likely those accepted and wait-listed will be notified first, with those rejected having to wait for as long as several months to hear, and it isn’t unusual to get no notice at all if your application is rejected.
The graduate school application process is stressful because there is so much uncertainty about what to expect and what will happen. Here’s a few tips about handling the process.
- Faculty know students apply to multiple places, so don’t feel you will insult anyone by talking about where else you applied or even where you have been accepted. Likely you will be asked about where you applied and who has accepted you.
- Make your decision as soon as you can, and do NOT hold up places once you’ve decided not to go there. April 15 is the deadline, but this doesn’t mean you should wait until that date to notify everyone who has accepted you. Keep in mind that somewhere there is a student waiting to see if a spot will open at their top choice, and you might be holding up that spot.
- It is fine to contact schools for an update where you are on a wait list for acceptance and/or support.
- It is good to visit the schools to help you decide, and likely if you are accepted, or even put on a wait list, you will be invited to campus. Many schools have an “open house” visitation day that is good to attend.
- For most schools, the most appropriate attire for a visit is business casual. No one expects you to come in a suit, but shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals are a bit overly casual if you are trying to make a good first impression.
- It is okay to ask questions. Don’t be shy to ask about support, the curriculum, the climate of the program, strengths and weaknesses, student life, or other things about which you are concerned. It is okay to ask different people the same question to get different perspectives.
- It is okay to contact current students—ask faculty to arrange this. Likely students will know about things that the faculty do not, such as the best housing in the area for you, and what it’s like to be a student in the program.
- Never feel bad about turning someone down. This is your career and having students decline is part of the recruitment process.
The application process is complicated with many moving parts. The earlier you begin your preparations, the more competitive you will be as an applicant, and the more prepared you will be to begin graduate training. Be strategic in planning your courses and how you invest your time in extra-curricular activities such as research. I have seen students begin their efforts as early as their freshman year by talking to faculty about their goals and getting involved in research. This guide to I-O psychology PhD program application is intended as a general overview to help students get started.
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