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Experience Based Training for I-O Graduate Students

Luke Simmering*, Cole Napper, and Tilman Sheets
Louisiana Tech University
Industrial-organizational psychology graduate programs across the country work to develop high-performing I-O academics and practitioners using a number of training strategies. One of the more powerful training methods involves having students participate in real-world situations. Although this strategy is used by many training programs, the design of the training varies greatly from program to program. Many programs rely on outside agencies to provide this type of experience, but others allow students to participate in the independent consulting projects of faculty. However, some programs have established in-house consulting groups where students take on major roles in the “business” of consulting. In these programs, student-based consulting provides real-world experience for graduate students and linkage between the academic and applied world. In line with the principles outlined by SIOP (1999), student-based consulting groups provide integration between science and practice while providing experiences that cannot be mimicked in a classroom setting. In order to explore student based consulting groups, an online survey was administered to 40 I-O and I-O-related graduate program directors to gain insight and explore student based consulting group prevalence and best practices.
The Scientist–Practitioner Model
I-O psychology is a scientist–practitioner discipline. The mission of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) is to “enhance human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice, and teaching of I-O psychology” (SIOP, n.d.). According to this definition, the goal of graduate training is to promote the education of current and future I-O psychologists. The scientist–practitioner model has been posited as a reciprocal relationship wherein practitioners should look to the scientific literature for guidance on implementing effective workplace systems and, likewise, scientists should respond to cues from practitioners in identifying issues relevant to employee well-being and organizational effectiveness (Rupp & Beal, 2007). Further, Rupp and Beal convey the importance of using the scientific method for researching applied problems. McIntyre (1990) states the main difference between scientists and practitioners exists because of the “frivolous and esoteric” nature of researchers’ strict focus the scientific method, which is seen as “irrelevant” in the workplace. Consequently, many believe that the scientist–practitioner model, conveying the necessity to simultaneously conduct research and practice, is unrealistic (Brooks, Grauer, Thornbury, & Highhouse, 2003). However, Fink et al., (2009) argue that it is not necessarily the ability to simultaneously conduct research and practice but the ability to work effectively in both the science and practice domains that is necessary for the scientist–practitioner model to be effective.
SIOP (1999) advocates training students within the framework of the scientist–practitioner model, as indicated by the SIOP guidelines for education and training at the doctoral level. One of the competencies added to the guidelines in 1999 was “Consulting and Business Skills,” which encompasses the categories of communication, business development, and project management. The question presented by many I-O psychology program directors and faculty is how to effectively train students in these areas. Further, how do we facilitate the scientist–practitioner model while engaged in developing students’ consulting and business skills? One way some I-O graduate programs have integrated real-world practical experience into education is by providing consulting experience. This usually takes the form of a student managed in-house consulting group or faculty members utilizing students as associate consultants within their own private consulting. These methods of providing real-world consulting experience give a competitive advantage to graduates, as well as an educational foundation that integrates science into practice. Fink et al. (2009) stated their concern about the lack of focus on consulting and business skills currently provided by I-O programs. Student involvement in consulting directly addresses this concern, as it connects classroom learning into an authentic experience.
Experiential Learning
As the philosopher Aristotle said, “The things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them.” In many ways, student-based consulting groups provide experience based training and development. John Dewey (1916), a pioneer of experiential learning theory, conveys that “learning takes place when a person involved in an activity looks back and evaluates it, determines what was useful or important to remember, and uses this information to perform another activity.” Further, Dewey outlines three guidelines for learning: learning occurs through problem solving in an authentic environment, education is the changing of behavior through experience, and learning requires reflection guided by educators. Based on this model, student-based consulting groups provide authentic experiences that mimic real world situations encountered by practicing I-O psychologists. The behavior of students is altered through the experience, and professors can aid in facilitating learning through reflection from the experience. Dewey’s pattern of inquiry illustrates a cyclical four prong approach to learning (Schon, 1992). This entails identifying the problem, planning ways to alleviate the problem, testing the strategies, and reviewing the effect of the strategy on the initial problem. For instance, in an organizational setting, a company may be experiencing turnover for one sector of its employees (problem). The next stage would be to develop a plan to alleviate the turnover, identify a way to test the plan, review the results, and then cycle back to address how the intervention altered the initial dilemma.
Dewey (1916) suggests that learning through an experience requires the ability to involve oneself in the activity or experience, the ability to reflect on the experience, the ability to integrate ideas from the observation, and then make decisions based on these new ideas. That is, for the experience to be worthwhile, the individual needs to have the wherewithal to engage in the experience, reflect on what happened, and take time to introspect on ideas that could possibly alter future behavior. Beard (2002) points out that experience does not always result in learning. That is, one must engage in the experience by reflecting on what happened, how it happened, and why. From this, one may conclude that student-based consulting groups that do not allow time devoted to reflection on an experience will not gain as much from experiential learning. Overall, experiential learning theory emphasizes how experience aids in learning, compared to cognitive or behavioral theories that discount the valuable insight that experience provides (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2000). Student-based consulting groups jibe with this notion of learning and provide experiences that can dramatically alter a student’s understanding of organization dynamics and I-O psychology principles.
Current Study
Respondent Background
  • 40 I-O-related program directors completed the survey (20% response rate)
  • 60% of the responses were from I-O psychology PhD programs
  • 50% of the programs indicated having an equally balanced science– practitioner model
  • Almost 50% of programs have more than 20 students
  • Most (95%) programs have 5 core faculty or fewer
  • 43% of programs indicated having a student consulting group
  • 30% of student consulting groups have been around for more than 15 years
  • 50% of the programs with consulting groups have all of their students involved in consulting work
In order to obtain additional information regarding experience-based training within I-O graduate training programs, a link to an online survey was e-mailed to roughly 198 I-O and I-O-related graduate program directors; 40 of which completed the survey (20% response rate). The survey aimed at exploring consulting experiences within the graduate program environment, basic program demographics, as well as best practices as a student-based consulting group. Forty-three percent of the respondents indicated that their graduate program has a student-based consulting group, 23% indicated having student’s work with faculty members’ independent consulting practices, and 35% of the respondents reported that their program has no student-involved consulting within their department. Most of the programs that indicated having an internal student-based consulting group or consulting experiences through a faculty member’s independent consulting group were I-O PhD programs (60%), followed by master’s of science or arts in I-O psychology (38%). Further, 83% of the total respondents reported that their program was housed within the college of arts and humanities (50%) or business (33%) at their respective university. Fifty percent of the respondents indicated that their graduate program used an equally distributed science-practitioner model, and 35% indicated a more practitioner than science/academic discipline. In addition, 35% of the respondents who indicated having an internal student-based consulting group denoted their program as more practitioner based than scientific. Other background information of the graduate programs was obtained, including the most common fields in which their graduates work (33% indicated external consulting), number of students in their program (43% indicated more than 20 students), and their affiliation with their respective university (55% of respondents indicated their consulting group being recognized by their university).
Student-Based Consulting Group Metrics
  • More than 75% of projects are obtained via faculty contacts, networking, or program alumni
  • Only 15% of the programs have performed subcontract work for consulting firms
  • Employee opinion metrics, training/evaluation, and job analysis were rated as the most common types of projects
  • Most programs follow up with clients for feedback after a project’s completion (50% of the time through a phone call)
  • 75% of programs charge for services (most of the money earned is used to attend conferences)
  • Year in the program and performance in class are the top reasons why students are chosen to participate in consulting projects
The respondents who indicated having a consulting group were piped to additional questions to gain specific information about their consulting groups’ practices. Of interest was the relative experience of the sample, with 52% of the programs having a consulting group for over 10 years. The survey also asked respondents to indicate the number of students involved in the student-based consulting group (35% indicated nearly all students), how the students are selected to work on projects (36% indicated by student tenure in the program), how contact is typically made with new clients (50% through faculty contacts), and the typical type of client (general business was selected as the most common). Further, it seems that student-based consulting groups do not rely on subcontract work from larger consulting organizations, with 50% indicating less than 10% of projects being subcontractor work. Employee opinion surveys, training/evaluation projects, and job analysis were the three most common types of projects performed by student-based consulting groups in this sample. Other insight from the survey revealed that follow-up activities (62% indicating phone calls) are typically performed after project completion. The majority of respondents (76%) indicated charging for services performed by the student-based consulting group, with 25% indicating income of over $35,000 in the past year. The survey revealed that money generated is typically used for conference expenditures (50%). The list below indicates general best practices of student based consulting groups.
Best Practices
  • Subcontracting work from professional consulting organizations
  • Using project management software/archiving software
  • Charging reasonable fees for consulting projects to provide research and conference opportunities
  • Collaborating research with consulting projects
  • Offering basic I-O psychology services, such as job analysis, employee opinion metrics, and training/evaluation
  • Following up with clients upon project completion for feedback
  • Using nondisclosure agreements when dealing with proprietary content
  • Creating different job titles within the student-based consulting group (e.g. project managers, project associates) for students to gain different experiences as they progress through their degree
Respondents indicated that only 15% of student based consulting groups perform subcontracting work for professional consulting organizations. From a practitioners’ perspective, this may be a missed opportunity for both student-based consulting groups and professional consulting organizations. Both organizations stand to benefit greatly from a potentially symbiotic relationship. Practitioners not only get the intrinsic benefit of knowing they are providing growth opportunities for graduate students, they can outsource time-consuming portions of their consulting projects, groom potential interns, and get professional-level output completed at a much lower cost. The relationship could also provide opportunities for collaborating on research opportunities in the vein of the scientist–practitioner model. It is our belief that sub-contracting work from professional consulting organizations to student based consulting groups can further intertwine the fabric of learning from consulting organizations to future graduates, strengthening the field as a whole.
Based on the review of principles set forth by SIOP (1999) and experiential learning theory (Dewey, 1938), student-based consulting groups provide an educational experience that bridges the gap between science and practice. What kind of knowledge and training do student-based consulting groups provide that benefit a student’s entry into the consulting world? Based on the results of our survey, student-based consulting groups provide experience working with project management software, performing subcontract work with reputable I-O based consulting firms, developing and monitoring consulting contracts with clients, and even performing postproject follow-up activities to monitor the impact of the project. Specifically, the results indicate that students are gaining the opportunity to perform job analyses, implement and analyze employee opinion metrics, and even employ needs assessments and training evaluation services for organizations. These practices provide students with valuable training that only hands-on experience can provide.
Results of the Student Based Consulting Best Practices Survey provide a foundation to explore the background of student-based consulting groups, the type of projects on which they work, and specific best practices utilized. Future research is needed to track alumni of these programs to gain an understanding into how student-based consulting aided their transition into the workforce versus those without graduate consulting experience. I-O psychology is an applied field of psychology; therefore, experience-based training for graduate students should be a priority for programs across the country. This research should focus on the transfer of training for students within graduate-school-based consulting groups. This would gauge the extent to which the consulting experiences gained as a student aided in transitioning into the workforce. That is, research is needed to explore how consulting experiences as a student increase the employability (ability to reference applied experiences), the ease of transition into the workforce, as well as general performance indicators on the job. Experiential learning theory (Beard & Wilson, 2002; Dewey, 1938; Kolb et al. 2000) suggests that recent graduates who gain tangible hands-on experiences through a student-based consulting group may gain an advantage in these areas; however, additional research is needed to examine this relationship.
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