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Applying to a Graduate Program

If you are considering pursuing a career in industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology, you should begin thinking about graduate study as early as possible in your undergraduate career. Graduate programs offer a variety of advanced degrees in I-O including Master of Arts (M.A.), Master of Science (M.S.), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Academic requirements vary across the different degree programs, the time taken to complete programs differs, and each prepares you for a potentially different type of career in the field. Although you should consult the requirements and unique features of each program in which you are interested, there are some general characteristics that differentiate the degrees. The Ph.D. degree requires the completion of a dissertation and many programs that offer doctoral education also require that students complete a Masters Thesis prior to pursuing the dissertation. As a result, students completing Ph.D. programs often earn either the M.A. or M.S. as part of the requirements for completing the Ph.D. Doctoral programs are often distinguished by the requirement that students are actively involved in research projects throughout their tenure in the program. In contrast, some programs offer only an M.A. or M.S. Programs of this type may or may not require students to complete a thesis or research in addition to coursework. Programs that offer the Psy.D. generally have a much more applied focus and less emphasis is placed on active student involvement in research. Additionally, some graduate programs require the completion of an applied internship. You should always directly consult a program to learn about specific degree requirements and time to complete the program. For specific information about any I-O graduate program, you should consult the Graduate Training page on the SIOP Web site.

You should start planning your application to graduate school well in advance of the beginning of your senior year. Some of the common elements of an application package are GRE scores, college transcripts, letters of reference, and a personal statement. Application deadlines for programs often occur in December, January, and February. If you are not organized, you may miss critical deadlines. In particular, you should give careful consideration to those individuals whom you ask to supply letters of reference. If you delay in making this decision, you may have difficulty in finding individuals who will be able to provide the reference.

Another reason why early planning can be helpful is related to your coursework and research experiences. Ideally, you should have completed courses related to your area(s) of interest prior to applying so that this information is included on your transcript. In particular, grades in statistics and lab courses are often crucial for admission to graduate programs. Do not be overly concerned about a lack of courses in I-O. Many undergraduate institutions do not offer I-O courses. You cannot take what is not offered. Many graduate programs will not place too much weight on this. Instead, they are generally more interested in why you are interested in pursuing an advanced degree in the field. This can be addressed in your personal statement. Certainly, a high overall grade point average (GPA) is desirable, as well as a high GPA in your Psychology courses. In addition, induction and participation in honorary societies such as Psi Chi and Phi Beta Kappa reflect strong academic credentials.

For Ph.D. programs, scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) are a particularly important element of your application. A cursory review of GRE scores of admitted students in I-O graduate programs suggests that verbal scores of 153 or greater and quantitative scores of 148 or better are common. As with any test of this type, preparation plays an important role. You should prepare for the test by taking practice exams and getting familiar with the exam content, item type, and the instruction sets. A number of companies offer such coaching and test preparation. These services however, often can be quite expensive and may not be necessary for everyone. Importantly, GRE scores are a notable part of your application, but they are not the only criterion that programs use to make admission decisions.

Letters of recommendation are a critical component of your application and you should choose your letter writers carefully. Most programs require that you solicit letters from 3 or 4 individuals who are familiar with your recent academic performance and future academic potential. Ideally, your letter writers should be faculty members who have interacted with you on a consistent, personal basis. You want your letter writers to be able to comment on specific skills and abilities you possess. Often these are characteristics such as: oral and written communication skills, quantitative ability, maturity, creativity, ability to work well with others, motivation for graduate study, and other research skills. In addition, letter writers are often asked to rank the applicant relative to other students they have observed and about the applicant's ability to succeed in graduate programs. Obviously, the better your letter writer knows you, the more specific and explicit his or her letter can be. If your letter writer is someone with whom you took a large course and only knows how you performed in the course, the letter written on your behalf will not be able to provide detailed information about your abilities.

A great way of building relationships with prospective letter writers is through work on independent research projects or honors theses. If your school offers options for taking independent study credits with faculty members who are conducting research, you should be certain to take advantage of these opportunities. The sooner in your undergraduate career you can take part in these opportunities, the more information your letter writer will have when you submit your application. In addition to providing opportunities for faculty members to get to know you, these experiences are also beneficial because you may interact with current graduate students and, thus, collect some valuable first-hand graduate information.

When you begin assembling your application materials, think about what you look like on paper. You will have a better idea of the programs for which you have the best fit if you make an unbiased, dispassionate self-appraisal. Remember, what you submit with your application is all that the program faculty will have about you. If there are particular elements of your application that are below a programs stated criteria (e.g., low GPA, low GRE scores), you should be certain to indicate why these data do not accurately reflect your skills, abilities, or motivation. Your letter writers may also comment on information they feel is not consistent with your academic achievement or potential.

Your personal statement should also indicate why you are interested in pursuing a particular degree and, even more importantly, why you think the program to which you are applying will provide a good fit for your abilities and interests. By tailoring your letter to a particular school, you convey that you have taken the time to consider where you fit best. Particularly in Ph.D. programs, faculty members are interested in students who are complementary interests as well as overall academic potential.

Some other general advice:

Talk with faculty members at your undergraduate institution about your career interests. Not only can these individuals offer direct guidance related to your career plans, but also they can provide frank feedback about your probable chance of admission at various programs and assist you in targeting programs that provide you with the best opportunities.

Take time drafting your personal statement. This is really your only opportunity to provide the programs to which you are applying direct information about yourself. You should be certain to convey your interests in the field and how they developed. Most individuals applying graduate school do not have specific, concrete career objectives (e.g., an academic v. applied career) or well-defined research interests. On the other hand, you want to avoid statements that would indicate absolutely no direction or interests. Instead, your statement may indicate general areas of interest (e.g., selection, training, motivation, or leadership) and an idea about which of the programs faculty members research is of most interest to you. Above all, make sure that you solicit feedback about your personal statement from several individuals so that is clear, logical, and free of typographical or grammatical errors.

There are several sources to consult if you are interested in learning more about the various sub disciplines of I-O psychology. First, you may wish to consult one of the many available introductory I-O texts. If your university book store does not carry these titles, you should consult your library. You can also find texts online at a number of different large, bookstore Web sites by searching for the title industrial psychology. Another excellent source of information about the topics commonly studied by I-O psychologists is academic journals. In particular, the Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology are outlets that publish I-O research.

For doctoral programs, direct research experience with a faculty member is a valuable commodity. The actual content and substantive area of the research is of less concern.

Contact current students in the programs to which you plan to apply. Students can provide detailed information about graduate programs that does not necessarily appear on paper.

Applying to graduate programs can be somewhat costly. Most programs have admission fees and if you apply to several programs, those fees can quickly accrue. Some programs offer to waive the fee for some individuals with economic hardships. If this applies to you, be certain to check with each program about how to request this accommodation.

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