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TIP-TOPics for Students 

Dawn Riddle and Lori Foster
University of South Florida 

We’re back, and as promised we’re reporting to you on information we’ve gathered from…you. We received lots of great information from the survey printed in the July, 1997 issue, and we collected some additional in-depth information on a handful of questions from I/O program student representatives.1 We hope that many of you will continue to take advantage of the interactive nature of this column; this way, we can continue to address the TIP TOPics that are most important to you.

1 The information upon which this column is based was assembled from input by student representatives of various I/O programs around the globe.  If you would like to be a student representative for your program, GREAT!  Get in touch with us by any of the options provided at the end of the column!

Our In the Spotlight segment presents an I/O tool commonly employed by practitioners that is being put to good use by some academicians in order to fulfill a variety of educational objectives. What might this tool be? We know you’re on the edge of your seat, but you have to keep reading to find out what we’re talking about! The You Know, I’ve Been Wondering… segment of this column answers questions that students often struggle with regarding dissertation research. The questions we posed were to faculty members from a variety of I/O programs; therefore, this section offers sometimes conflicting perspectives regarding factors important in dissertation research. In response to this, we have tried to provide a framework within which to consider these different points of view. Finally, we offer TIPs for Balancing Life and Graduate School. This issue’s "TIP" emphasizes not "going it alone." We take a look at a variety of formal and informal resources students tap to obtain social, professional, and academic support.

Before we go any further, we want to thank the students who have contributed their time and energy to provide us with a wealth of information to share. OK, off we go! 

In the Spotlight… Practicing What we Preach

Our spotlight for this edition focuses on something you may have read about, studied, or even encountered at the office—role plays. Sure, we know about the use of role plays in assessment centers, selection systems, and training programs, but have you ever engaged in a role play exercise in your classroom? OK… but have you used it on a regular basis as a learning tool, or to practice specific skills, or to take an exam? Well, we know some of you have, because you told us! We decided to shine the spotlight on the use of role plays in I/O training for two reasons: (a) because a lot of people didn’t tell us about it, and (b) we thought it was a great idea to illustrate I/O psychologists practicing what we preach!

We’ve heard from students representing institutions where role plays have been implemented in a variety of situations. They provided some examples to share with you:

Learning.  Role plays can be useful in the classroom to provide a concrete example of a concept or simply to illustrate a point. For instance, some students wonder why a course in ethics is offered, and even required, in various I/O programs. In order to illustrate the viewpoint that ethics is a necessary part of I/O training, an instructor can present students with ethical dilemmas in the context of a role play. Students respond to the dilemmas, and the instructor plays, in essence, the devil’s advocate (a manager/mentor), elucidating realistic social, organizational, and political pressures and consequences for the student to consider. The instructor can also point out courses of action that may lead to violations of the Ethics Code. After the exercise, students often comprehend the complexity of adhering to the code when faced with the real world, and they recognize the benefit of the course. 

Practice. One student reported the use of a series of role plays to gain practice implementing an intervention with a human resources executive. Other suggestions where role-play exercises might readily be applied to practice specific skills include: conflict resolution, interviewing SMEs to gather critical incidents for a job analysis or scale development, negotiating, or interviewing a job applicant. Speaking of interviewing, role plays are also being used outside of the classroom to prepare students to enter the job market. A student plays the role of the job candidate (obviously), and a professor or classmate conducts a simulated job interview.

Assessment. Another student wrote to us about the use of a role play simulation for assessment purposes—yes, an exam for a personnel class. In this particular exercise, the student to be evaluated played the role of an in-house I/O psychologist at a large manufacturing company. The professor played the role of a manager within the company, and posed a series of problems/issues to be addressed by the psychologist. Student grades were based on appearance and presentation (i.e., appropriate attire, speech that was clear and jargon-free, interpersonal skills), as well as content (i.e., how students responded to the challenges presented by the manager).

In sum, it appears that several I/O graduate programs are cleverly implementing role plays as learning, practice, and/or assessment tools during graduate training. You may not be surprised to learn that many of the students who described these graduate training techniques found them to be particularly effective and engaging. But what else would you expect from a practice that I/O psychologists preach? 

You Know, I’ve Been Wondering… 

You may recall that this segment of the TIP-TOPics column, subtitled Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Graduate School But Were Afraid to Ask, is dedicated to questions that I/O graduate students tend to ponder. In this regard, we were recently approached by a frustrated graduate student who, upon asking a professor "What’s the difference between a thesis and a dissertation?" was simply told "A dissertation is longer!" Unfortunately, this graduate student, unable to glean any practical advice from such a response; turned to TIP-TOPics for assistance.

In an attempt to help this disconcerted student, we posed his question, along with a few other dissertation-related questions, to various I/O academicians. With the help of graduate students from around the globe, we received some very interesting responses. Here’s what the experts said:2

2 The answers reported in this segment are not meant to be exact quotes from faculty, rather they reflect the aggregation of content from a number of respondents.

Q: What’s the difference between a thesis and a dissertation? 

We found three key factors distinguishing a dissertation from a thesis. Faculty members reported that originality (i.e., the degree to which the project makes a unique contribution to the literature); independence in terms of supervision (for both forming the research idea and data collection and analysis), and scope (i.e., depth and breadth of literature reviewed) were all important factors differentiating theses and dissertations. The table below provides answers to our question clustered according to these three factors.

                                  Thesis                                                 Dissertation


  • The thesis does not have to make a unique and independent contribution to the literature; it can be a straight replication of previous findings.
  • The thesis allows the student to develop and demonstrate critical research skills (e.g., ability to find, review, and integrate previous literature; ability to collect, analyze, and interpret data; recognize limitations and shortcomings of own research, write in APA style, etc.). The beginning of a student’s career is spent learning the language of I/O psychology (i.e., learning the basics of statistics, the methodology, and some of the fundamental research). Therefore, it’s unreasonable to expect that a master’s thesis will significantly contribute to the research literature. The main goal of the thesis should be to introduce the student to the research process. A renowned I/O psychologist once said, "Nobody gets famous from their master’s thesis."  
  • The dissertation is much more independent work. It should make a unique contribution to the field. A dissertation is something that is conceived of completely by the student. 
  • The dissertation should attempt to answer an important research question and contribute to the I/O research literature. At the time the student proposes the project, the committee should feel that there is at least a 70% chance that the project should get published if everything turns out. If the likelihood is lower than that, the student should seriously consider another topic.  
  •  A dissertation represents an original piece of work.  

                    Thesis                                                 Dissertation

  •  The advisor plays a much greater supervisory role in the thesis project.
  • The student shoulders the major responsibilities for the project, applying all the skills learned, with the advisor actually serving an advisory role.  
  • The dissertation is conducted in a relatively independent fashion by the student.  
  • Both theses and dissertations provide evidence of research skills, with much more independence required on the dissertation than the thesis.

Thesis                                                 Dissertation

  • Most theses are an extension of a faculty member’s research and are limited in scope. 
  • Typically, a dissertation is larger in scope than the thesis and, as such, represents a comprehensive review of all the relevant literature related to the topic of interest. 
  • A dissertation is longer in length than a thesis.

Well, there you have it, faculty members seem to be in agreement regarding the main characteristics that differentiate theses and dissertations. But don’t get too comfy, this is where the agreement ends! The remainder of the questions we posed reveal conflicting perspectives regarding the impact of dissertation complexity on post-Ph.D. marketability and the implication, if any, of choice of dissertation topic. 

Q: How important is the complexity of a dissertation, in terms of design and analysis, when looking for a job after earning the Ph.D.? In other words, does the utilization of advanced designs/statistics in a dissertation make a graduate more "marketable" when looking for a job?

Complexity is Irrelevant

  • Complexity of design and statistics is completely irrelevant, except where it contributes to the innovativeness of the project. The biggest selling point of the dissertation is that it is exciting and important— which is probably not correlated with complexity. 
  • No! The most significant consideration is whether the student can communicate the importance of the project’s findings to the rest of psychology and to I/O psychologists. Too many students think that the importance of their research is obvious to the rest of the field. 
  • There has been a history of fascination with advanced statistics in I/O psychology, but there seems to be a growing awareness in the field that "trickier and complex" is not always better. This awareness is a result of the failure of many of these complex methodologies to provide better results than simpler methods. Statistical pyrotechnics are only necessary to the extent that these methods help provide information unavailable with less sexy methods.

Complexity is Moderately Important

  • Complexity is moderately important to getting a job. Also important is the creativity of the study—such as whether the student found a meaningful way to integrate multiple areas of I/O. 
  • Complexity per se is not as important as "sophistication." The part of the job talk or interview where the candidate discusses his or her dissertation should make clear the candidate’s strengths as a researcher. A project that is seen by the audience or interviewer as trivial/simplistic/reductive will reflect poorly on the candidate’s ability to explore a meaningful research problem. 

It Depends  

  • It depends on the type of job. With regard to industry, complexity is not as important as the paper being relevant, practical, and intuitively interesting and understandable. For academic jobs, it is more important that the dissertation is publishable. It may be the case that more complex designs are more publishable than others.
  • Complexity is not the key issue. Rather, the problem should be the driving force. The goal should be to clear up a significant hole in the literature. A researcher doesn’t necessarily need a complicated design to do that. In fact, the simpler the better. Utilization of advanced statistics/designs in a dissertation is a concrete demonstration (to potential employers) that a candidate can handle those advanced techniques. It might be important for some jobs, but not others. Also, if the candidate has used advanced techniques in consulting or other projects, then he or she has demonstrated the same thing.

Complexity Increases Marketability

  • The complexity of the dissertation does make one more marketable, but only because doing a more complex/comprehensive project forces the student to acquire more knowledge. That is, the student won’t have a better chance of getting a job just because his or her vita lists a complex-sounding dissertation. However, if this person has done a comprehensive piece of research, he or she will be better prepared for the job market. 

As you can see, responses to this question varied quite a bit. I guess you could say that there really is no simple answer to this "complex" question. 

Q: How important is the dissertation TOPIC during the post-Ph.D. job search? Does the choice of a particular topic cause a graduate to be labeled as a certain type of I/O psychologist?

Not that Big a Deal

  • The topic is not that big a deal, especially if the student has done other work on the "I" side, if it is an "O" side dissertation, or vice versa. Many people have made a name for themselves in, for example, selection, after doing a dissertation on leadership. The importance of the topic differs from department to department however. 
  • The topic is not very important when looking for job. As for being labeled, it is possible, but a student can make it more or less so depending on the rest of the application materials (e.g., by stating future research interests that are different, or by stating "this is first in series of studies on this topic," etc.). 
  • Labeling is only a concern if the graduate education was unidimensional. As long as a student has done research in a number of areas, then a dissertation topic will not pigeon-hole him or her. 
  • The answer to this question differs, depending upon whether one is discussing an academic position or an applied position. There are instances where newly minted I/O Ph.D.s get few or no questions about their dissertations during interviews with corporations.

Definitely Important

  • The dissertation topic is definitely of high importance, especially for academic jobs. The student should have dedicated at least a year researching the topic of his or her dissertation and should be brimming with additional research questions that usually present themselves when one studies any topic in depth. In their first few years in their new position, it is unlikely that new faculty will have as much time to pursue an additional line of research with as much thoroughness. Also, programs often are looking for a new faculty member to fill a research void that is not being covered by the other faculty. Last year, one university was interested in hiring someone with experience in job analysis, and a couple of other schools were looking for someone with a background in selection. Because the dissertation should be the student’s best research to date, it seems reasonable to use that as an indicator of the quality and direction of their future research. 
  • Labeling could be a problem, especially for students doing work that borders on other areas (e.g., cognitive or social psychology). 
  • A topic that is clearly "I" might hurt a candidate pursuing a position where the ideal candidate is seen as an "O" person. 

The above responses indicate that there was not a lot of consensus regarding this issue. Some faculty believed that the relationship between a dissertation topic and a future job is minimal, while others indicated that the choice of a particular dissertation topic heavily influences a student’s future. In addition, some respondents suggested that students can minimize the extent to which dissertation topics pigeon-hole them by seeking graduate experiences that cover a range of topics and by emphasizing interests outside of the dissertation topic area during the job search. Furthermore, a number of respondents pointed out that in answering the questions above it is important to consider the type of job being sought—academic or applied.

In summary, the answers to certain thesis and dissertation-related questions may depend on who you ask. Though lacking in terms of irrefutable advice, this segment should provide some useful information to help students make more informed decisions about their thesis and dissertation research. 

TIPs for Balancing Life and Graduate School 

Today’s TIP: consider forming or joining an informal "support group" that meets regularly. Who can better relate to the trials and tribulations that characterize graduate school than fellow I/O graduate students? Your peers can be a tremendous resource—socially, academically, and professionally.

For example, one I/O graduate informed us that she never would have finished her dissertation had it not been for her dissertation support group—aan informal group of students that met (at a member’s house) one night per week to discuss dissertation-related frustrations, progress, and successes. Another individual described a graduate student instructor support network that meets regularly to discuss issues encountered when teaching undergraduate students. This network involves not only social sharing, but also informally coaching peers on teaching methods and approaches that have proven successful. Finally, we have recently discovered a comps network on the Internet. This listserv, called IoComps Net, is a great resource for I/O graduate students who desire comps-related support. Subscribers to this network are encouraged to post questions, answers, comments, citations, essays, and outlines relevant to the preparation for comps. For information on how to subscribe, visit the IoComps Net website at http://cmit.unomaha.edu/TIP/compsmaillist.html.

The point is, whether you’re of the "strength in numbers," "misery loves company," or "two heads are better than one" persuasion, you may find that a support group can be a helpful tool for maintaining sanity during graduate school.

If you have any questions regarding this issue, or questions for TIP-TOPics to investigate, or would like to contribute information to our next edition, contact the editors via the options presented below.

To contact the editors of TIP-TOPics:

E-mail: Dawn Riddle (riddle@luna.cas.usf.edu)
Lori Foster (foster@luna.cas.usf.edu)

Fax: 813-974-4617
Attn: Lori Foster or Dawn Riddle
Department of Psychology
University of South Florida 

Mail: Department of Psychology, BEH 339
University of South Florida 
Tampa, Florida  33620-8200
Attn: Lori Foster or Dawn Riddle