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PTCMW’s Graduate Student Consulting Challenge:

Developing the Next Generation of I-O Psychologists


Nikki Blacksmith
The George Washington University

 Matthew S. Fleisher
FTI Consulting

Gonzalo Ferro
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists should embody the scientist–practitioner model. Too often, however, we see that new graduates lack critical practitioner skills (Steiner & Yancey, 2013). Courses on consulting and business skills are, on average, only offered once every five years in I-O programs (Tett, Brown, Walser, Tonidandel, & Simonet, 2013). Furthermore, SIOP’s Guidelines for Education and Training do not adequately address these key areas; no competency area addresses the importance of developing new client solutions (Byrne et al., 2014). Employers of I-O psychologists, however, want new hires to be skilled in making presentations, project management, report writing, and business development (Steiner & Yancey, 2013). Many argue that these are critical I-O skills and suggest that I-O students seek out ways to learn these skills while in school (Byrne et al., 2014; Steiner & Yancey, 2013).

A key mission of the Personnel Testing Council of Metropolitan Washington (PTCMW) is to advance the science and practice of I-O psychology through high-value professional growth and networking opportunities. Thus, we feel personally responsible for addressing the educational challenges in the I-O field by investing in and professionally developing the future generation of I-O psychologists. One of our solutions was to create an opportunity for I-O graduate students to develop consulting skills through a simulation exercise, which we named the Consulting Challenge.

In the summer of 2014, we designed our first graduate consulting challenge with three goals in mind:

  1. Contribute to the development of applied skills of I-O graduate students
  2. Enhance the value and reputation of PTCMW and thereby increase membership
  3. Provide local organizations the opportunity to recruit the best of the next generation of I-Os

The Consulting Challenge was designed based on a similar event hosted by Minnesota State University, Mankato’s program, which was developed by Daniel Sachau and has been ongoing for over 15 years (see Sachau & Naas, 2010). Mankato’s Consulting Challenge happens over the course of 3 days; students meet with a host organization, analyze data, prepare a proposal, and present findings and recommendations to a panel of judges.

Thank you Dr. Sachau and Dr. Lassiter for providing us with knowledge, advice, and the tools necessary to make our program a success!

Over the past 2 years, we have found the Consulting Challenge has helped PTCMW achieve the goals we outlined. We strongly encourage other local I-O organizations and universities to develop similar programs. Below is an explanation of how we develop and implement the event each year, the value of the event, and ways we are continuously trying to improve the Consulting Challenge. We present this information in hopes that it will help others implement similar programs and contribute to the development of future I-O psychologists.

Developing the Consulting Challenge

The Consulting Challenge is a team effort and takes approximately 5–6 months to organize. Below we describe the main steps.

Step 1: Recruit host organization

The Consulting Challenge would not be a success without the sponsorship of a local organization (Thank you, PDRI a CEB Company for sponsoring our 2015 challenge!). The host organization is responsible for helping develop the challenge (choosing the topic at a minimum), physically hosting the event, and providing at least one judge. We found it extremely helpful to have at least one person serve as the point of contact (POC) at the host organization. The POC coordinates with PTCMW’s Consulting Challenge committee and has authority to make decisions on behalf of the host organization. This is critical to ensuring goals are accomplished within the established timeline and that the host organization will be comfortable with the decisions that are made.

Step 2: Set dates early

We have found it extremely important to set the dates early for various reasons. First, the earlier we set dates, the earlier we can begin recruiting and planning. Second, it helps to be able to communicate the date of the event to the local I-O schools to avoid scheduling conflicts, which increases the ability of students to participate in the fall event. 

Step 3: Reserve space and order food

In DC, space goes fast! Determining the location and reserving space is important to do as early as possible. This also helps determine the budget and shared costs with the host organization. We have held the event at various locations including GMU, GWU, and at the host organization.

Step 4: Develop recruitment materials

First, we design a recruitment brochure that describes the event in detail and explains why students should participate (check out our 2015 brochure). Other materials include a registration portal on the PTCMW website, emails, or documents used to recruit judges, itineraries, and documents that provide information about parking and directions.

Step 5: Recruit participants and judges

It is important to recruit students as early as possible so they can reserve the dates and plan their work around the event. The event is usually held in September or October; therefore, we usually begin recruiting in early to midsummer. Recruiting is done through emails, posts on the PTCMW website, word of mouth, and through social media. We also try to recruit judges in the same time frame. The judges are usually senior-level I-O practitioners and are extremely busy; therefore, the earlier we contact them the more likely they are to agree to serve as a judge.

Step 6: Develop the challenge

The host organization and PTCMW work collaboratively to develop the challenge in the format of a request for proposal (RFP) for consulting services. PTCMW provides examples of challenges and always offers to write up the challenge after the topic is identified. However, most host organizations prefer to write the challenge themselves. This is because we have designed the program such that the host organization can develop a challenge that is of significance to them. For example, if their organization (or one of their clients) is currently facing a problem, they may use that as the framework and get valuable input from students.

Step 7: Assign teams

Once registration is closed (usually 1–2 weeks before the event), teams are composed. The 25–30 registered students are placed on teams of five to six. Teams are strategically designed such that students work with students from other universities and various backgrounds. Heterogeneous teams are developed in this manner in order to facilitate networking and to ensure that no team has an unfair advantage.

Step 8: Plan final details

The last step regards communication with all participants (students and judges) about the coming event. We send emails providing reminders and itineraries about the event and work with the location and host organization on catering and other event planning details.

How It Works

With planning out of the way, the much anticipated event takes place! Below is an example of what happens during the event.

Day 1 (in-person attendance required)

When: Thursday, 4:00–9:00pm

Where: University

Who: Students, PTCMW leaders, and sponsor organization POC


  • Students network with each other for the first 30 minutes
  • PTCMW leaders explain the event in detail and field questions
  • Students meet their team members
  • The sponsor organization POC introduces the consulting challenge (in RFP form)
  • Dinner is provided
  • Students begin working with their team


Days 2–4 (student teams work independently)

When: Friday–Sunday

Where: Students designate meeting locations

Who: Students


  • Teams work independently to develop a five-page proposal and a 30-minute presentation
  • One PTCMW contact regularly checks email to answer questions


Day 5 (in-person attendance required)

When: Monday, 7:30am–1:00pm

Where: Sponsor Organization

Who: Students, PTCMW leadership, sponsor representatives, and expert I-O judges


  • Students deliver a 30-minute presentation to the panel of I-O judges
  • Judges ask questions and provide feedback
  • Eat breakfast and network with other students


PTCMW’s Fall Event

When: 2–3 months after the consulting challenge

Where: University

Who: PTCMW members


  • 1st and 2nd place teams are awarded with admission to PTCMW’s fall event and a year of PTCMW membership
  • 1st and 2nd place teams are publicly recognized. Awards include a printed certificates and 1st place team wins a cash prize ($1,500)
  • Students network with PTCMW members


Value of the Consulting Challenge

Students experience a realistic job preview

Students get a realistic preview of what it would be like to be an external consultant. First, they are presented with a real organizational challenge. Second, they have the opportunity to see what an RFP looks like (from our experience, many have not seen an RFP before). Third, students present as if they were consultants bidding on a project (similar to how a consultant would present to a client organization). Last, expert practitioners then judge the solutions in a manner similar to how leaders from a client organization determine which consulting firm they will hire. Based on comments from previous participants, students feel as if this is one of the most valuable aspects of the challenge because many do not have these applied developmental experiences in their respective graduate programs.

It’s worth noting that the challenge also provides students with a practical experience to put on their resumes and discuss in a job interview.

Students develop teamwork and consulting skills

Students are responsible for operating effectively as a team, developing proposals, and presenting their proposed solutions. Not only do students develop skills, but they also become more aware of the KSAOs they need to succeed in the business world (Sachau & Naas, 2010). Furthermore, students can direct their attention to their strengths and opportunity areas after receiving feedback (Sachau & Naas, 2010).

Students build communication skills

Each team presents to a panel of expert I-O judges and receives feedback on written and oral components, including explanations of expectations of consultants in an applied setting.

Organizations have the opportunity to recruit

Judges are able to assess the consulting skills of students in a realistic setting. As such, the host organization and judges (which come from different organizations) are able to scout and identify high-potential recruits. In the most recent consulting challenge, a hiring manager from the host organization sat in on a job candidate’s team presentation. The student was offered (and accepted) a full-time position. Former judges have stated that the event is a great opportunity for them to identify and recruit high-potential applicants.  

All parties expand professional network

Students currently enrolled in local I-O and related programs are assigned to a group made up of students with varying levels of experience and knowledge, and from different programs. This paves the way for them to build relationships outside of their program. Students have told us that they made valuable connections by participating in the challenge! They also become excited to see the students they met during the challenge at SIOP which makes them feel less intimidated by the very large crowds at the conference. Building a professional network is important to students and is related to important outcomes (Shivy, Worthington, Wallis, & Hogan, 2003). In a survey of 189 I-O doctoral students, Mello and Fleisher (2011) found that conducting research with other students was one of the strongest correlates of research productivity and perceptions of preparedness for post-graduation work. Similarly, Love, Bahner, Jones, and Nilsson (2007) found that team-based research contributed to research self-efficacy.

Student Testimonials

Hear about the value of the program from some of the student participants themselves by reading their testimonials!

I gained invaluable practical experience that will undoubtedly enhance my career prospects. In addition to working on a diverse project team comprised of I-O graduate students from prestigious universities across the east coast, we were provided developmental feedback from esteemed I-O psychologists from the most-renowned consulting companies. This experience generated a level of self-confidence in my professional skills and ability to become an elite researcher and practitioner. Perhaps most importantly, the Graduate Student Consulting Challenge allowed me to become visible to the large network of respected I-O psychologists in and around Washington, D.C. I am very much looking forward to participating in PTCMW’s 2015 Graduate Student Consulting Challenge and further develop my professional skillset.”

“I've competed in the Consulting Challenge two years in a row. It is a wonderful opportunity, not just for networking, but to gauge my growth as a student and I-O psychologist!”

“The Consulting Challenge is one of the easiest ways to gain applied experience in I-O psychology. The challenges are realistic and provide a firsthand look at what it's like to be a consultant in the field. Meeting and working with I-O students from other programs is a fantastic networking opportunity, allowing you to create partnerships that will shape the future of the field. Every student of I-O psychology should experience something like this at least once.”

“The PTCMW Consulting Challenge was my first taste of applied I-O practice. I learned valuable lessons about the industry that will prove vital in future organizational consulting. Through the Challenge, I established professional connections with both graduate students and I-O professionals that still maintain today. It really was a cool experience. It’s a great entry-level opportunity for I-Os to get some early experience under their belt.”

“This was one of the best experiences of my graduate education. If students are planning to go into consulting, they should absolutely participate in this event! It is a great way to test what you have learned in school and expand your knowledge while meeting peers and industry experts.”


Though we believe the consulting challenge has been an invaluable experience for all involved, we are still learning how to continuously improve the event. Some of the challenges we have faced are described below:

Developing Teams

One of our biggest challenges is in the development of cohesive and productive teams. As with all team assignments, there is usually someone on the team who does not contribute equally. This project occurs in a short time frame, therefore, a single noncontributing member can drastically affect the team’s performance and emotional/mental stress during the event. One way we have dealt with this is by requiring students to pay a small amount ($15) in order to ensure those who do sign up are committed. The year we did not require payment, several students signed up but did not show up for several parts of the event. Because we included the small registration fee (which is used for food costs), we have found that students who sign up are more likely to stay engaged throughout the competition.

Providing Enough Time for Work and Networking

Every year, the students tell us that they wish they had more time to spend on the project. However, extending the time of the event provides logistical challenges: Students have classes they must attend, and the longer the event, the more the costs incurred from lodging increases (we have had a large contingent of students drive from schools four hours away). This last year we made the structure of the project such that it was smaller in scope and this improved the perceptions of adequate time given.

We consistently hear from students that the opportunity to meet others in the professional network is an important component of the challenge. We have increased the amount of time in the beginning of the event for students to meet each other. Next year, we hope to carve out additional designated times for networking. Specifically, students have requested that they get more time to network with judges outside the formal presentation.

Recruiting a Diverse Group of Students

We encourage students from outside of the greater Washington, DC Metro to participate. However, for those not close to the city, it can be expensive to participate. We do not have enough funding to provide lodging and travel costs for students. In the past, we have asked local students to volunteer to host students coming from other locations, but we often have many more students requesting lodging than students willing to host a stranger for the weekend. We hope that in the future, we can grow the program such that we can house all participating students in a hotel that will not only help recruit students from all over the east coast but will also put students in a single location that would likely facilitate increased networking.


In conclusion, the primary goal of PTCMW’s graduate student consulting challenge is to advance the professional growth and development of I-O students. This not only benefits the students involved but also the local I-O community and the field as a whole. Through team collaboration, application of learning to real organizational problems, and receiving feedback from and networking with experienced practitioners, the next generation of I-O psychologists will be better equipped to represent the I-O community in serving clients and customers inside and outside our field.

Have questions or comments?

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us! You can find contact information for all PTCMW leaders here: http://ptcmw.org/contact


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Love, K. M., Bahner, A. D., Jones, L. N., & Nilsson, J. E. (2007). An investigation of early research experience and research self-efficacy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38, 314–320. doi: 10.1037/0735-7028.38.3.314

Mello, A. L., & Fleisher, M. S. (2011). An exploratory study of I-O doctoral students’ graduate school research experiences. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 48, 47–58.

Sachau, D. A., & Naas, P. A. (2010). The consulting challenge: A case competition. Journal of Management Education, 34, 605–631. doi:10.1177/1052562909358556

Shivy, V. A., Worthington, E. L., Wallis, A. B., & Hogan, C. (2003). Doctoral research training environments (RTEs): Implications for the teaching of psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 30(4), 297–302. doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP3004_03

Steiner, A., & Yancey, G. B. (July, 2013). The knowledge and skills employers desire when hiring an I-O psychologist. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 51, 53–60.

Tett, R. P., Brown, C., Walser, B., Tonidandel, S., & Simonet, D.V. (April, 2013). The 2011 SIOP graduate program benchmarking survey part 3: Curriculum and competencies. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 50, 13–24.