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Consulting and Business Skills in Industrial-Organizational Psychology Graduate Education

Alexis A. Fink
Microsoft Corporation

Richard A. Guzzo

Seymour Adler
Aon Consulting

Jennifer Z. Gillespie
Bowling Green State University

Lee J. Konczak
Olin Business School
Washington University

Tatana Olson
United States Navy

Margaret E. Beier
Rice University

Marcus W. Dickson
Wayne State University

Abstract: In 1999, SIOP updated its graduate training guidelines to reflect the importance of consulting and business skills to practitioners in I-O psychology. A study was conducted in 2009 (Fink et al., 2010) to gather data on current practices and expectations for developing consulting and business skills in graduate I-O programs from four key stakeholder groups: current faculty, current students, recent graduates, and the practitioners who hire them. Survey results revealed several areas of misalignment. For example, graduate students desire, and recent graduates believe they should have, business development skills. However, the employers who responded to this survey did not have particularly high expectations for new graduates’ competence in this area. This report reviews the findings of the study and outlines a set of recommendations for students and new graduates, faculty and program directors, and SIOP as a professional society.


Proportionately, SIOP is reasonably balanced between those who identify themselves as “academic” and “applied” (SIOP, 2006a).  More than half of SIOP members in 2006 indicated their employment setting as applied (51%), with about 41% reporting an academic work setting (SIOP, 2006b).

The emphasis on science and practice in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology serves several functions for our profession, operating as a model, value system, mindset, and career metaphor for the field as a whole (SIOP, n.d). Although I-O psychologists generally agree that the scientific method should inform inquiry in research and practice, there is disagreement about how this should be implemented. Many think that expecting every individual I-O psychologist to conduct both research and practice in organizations is unrealistic (Rupp & Beal, 2007, citing Brooks, Grauer, Thornbury, & Highhouse, 2003; Hays-Thomas, 2002; Kanfer, 2001; Murphy & Saal, 1990). We argue that it is not necessarily the ability to simultaneously conduct research and practice in I-O psychology that is important; rather, it is the ability to work effectively in both the science and practice spheres when necessary. Those who bring business and consulting skills along with their scientific knowledge and acumen will have a clear advantage in the workplace. Furthermore, these individuals are better able to represent the science of I-O psychology because they are able to communicate effectively its relevance.

SIOP has recognized the need to train students to work effectively within the scientist–practitioner model—SIOP’s (1999) guidelines for education and training at the doctoral level were revised (from 1985) in part to make the model more explicit. According to the more recent guidelines, a “dual emphasis on theory and practice is needed regardless of a student’s intended career path.” One of the new competencies added in 1999 was “consulting and business skills,” which includes the broad categories of communication, business development, and project management. These competencies require practice; that is, I-O graduates should not only know what these competencies are, but they should be able to execute them effectively. Questions remain, however, about how to train these skills. For example, should I-O programs directly train these competencies? Are I-O faculty best qualified to train these competencies, or should the competencies be trained through internship experiences? From an employer perspective, how important are these competencies? What level of proficiency is expected of new graduates?

In 2007, the Education and Training Committee charged a subcommittee with the task of surveying a variety of stakeholders (employers, universities, and recent graduates) regarding the general competency of “consulting and business skills.” This subcommittee sought to answer the following questions: (a) What skills do recent graduates have? (b) What are some areas in need of improvement? and (c) Where can training programs make adjustments to improve student capabilities in consulting and business skills?


Survey Design and Administration

A core set of survey items were developed to examine business and consulting skills identified by SIOP as being relevant to the practice of I-O psychology. These items focused on three primary areas: (a) communication (business writing, business presentation, influence and persuasion skills, and the individual in the team), (b) business development (the ability to package ideas and practical problem solving), and (c) project management (organizing work and integration and utilization of information). To obtain perspectives from both academic and practitioner domains, two versions of the survey were created.

The academic survey examined graduate students’ opportunities to develop business and consulting skills as well as the manner in which these opportunities are provided. Respondents were also asked to indicate the extent to which graduate training programs in I-O psychology should provide opportunities to develop business and consulting skills. The industry survey examined business and consulting skills expected of new graduates in I-O as well as the extent to which these skills were actually possessed by typical new graduates. Response scales were five-point Likert scales ranging from 1 =  small/no extent to 5 = great extent. For both versions, participants were also given the opportunity to respond to a series of open-ended questions. Questar, SIOP’s survey partner, provided survey design, administrative support, and data analysis for this project.

The survey population consisted of 2,631 SIOP members that met predetermined criteria, including employers of new I-O graduates in their first 4 years of employment, recent I-O graduates in their first 4 years of employment, faculty at PhD and master’s I-O programs, and students past their second year of graduate school. An e-mail was sent to all identified members on April 21, 2009 asking them to log onto the Questar Web site to complete the survey. The survey remained open until May 8, 2009, with a reminder e-mail sent to participants on May 4.

Survey Participants
A total of 419 survey recipients responded to the survey, resulting in an overall response rate of 16% (see Table 1).

Of the 202 employers and recent graduates who responded, 43% indicated that they worked in consulting, whereas 21% and 18% indicated that they worked in academia and industry, respectively. Of the 212 faculty and student respondents, 58% were affiliated with PhD programs and 38% were affiliated with terminal master’s programs. Only two individuals indicated that they were affiliated with PsyD programs. The highest degree attained for the majority of employer, recent graduate, and faculty respondents was a PhD (85%). 


Faculty and Students
To examine the extent to which the development of business and consulting skills is integrated into graduate I-O psychology programs, respondents were asked, “To what extent does your graduate training program in I-O psychology provide opportunities to graduate students to develop these skills?”

Overall, both faculty and students agreed that opportunities to develop business and consulting skills were available in their graduate training programs, typically in the form of “working on project teams,” “organizing work,” and “integrating and utilizing information.” However, results suggest that faculty members indicated greater availability of opportunities than students perceived.

To examine potential differences between the extent to which opportunities to learn business and consulting skills are provided and respondents’ beliefs about the extent to which they should be provided, respondents were also asked, “To what extent should a graduate training program in I-O psychology provide opportunities to graduate students to develop these skills?”

Overall, both faculty and students felt strongly that I-O graduate training programs should provide opportunities to develop business and consulting skills, especially with regards to “general communication skills” and “integrating and utilizing information.” Students felt more strongly than faculty about the extent to which graduate training programs should provide these opportunities. For five of the eight skills, students indicated that I-O graduate training programs should provide opportunities to develop these skills to a significantly greater extent than did faculty members. These results suggest a possible disconnect between the opportunities that faculty believe they are providing for students and the opportunities that students perceive as available to them. Furthermore, paired t-tests revealed significant within-group discrepancies between what is actually provided and what should be provided. These discrepancies are especially pronounced among students. Thus, it appears that both faculty and students agree that opportunities to develop business and consulting skills as part of I-O graduate training may not be as readily available as they should be. A summary of the above results can be found in Table 2. 

There was also considerable disagreement between faculty and students regarding the manner in which opportunities for developing business and consulting skills are provided in their graduate training programs. For example, faculty members indicated that supervised experience provided the primary opportunity to learn communication skills, business development skills, and project management skills, whereas students indicated that formal course work provided the primary opportunity to learn these skills.

Employers and Graduates
To obtain a practitioner perspective on the importance of business and consulting skills to I-O graduate training, respondents were asked, “To what extent do you expect new graduates trained in I-O psychology to possess this skill?”

Interestingly, results indicated that graduates felt that they were expected to possess business and consulting skills upon completion of their graduate training programs to a significantly greater extent than employers. These differences in expectations were especially pronounced for business presentation skills and business development skills. These findings were further supported by written comments, which suggest that employers expect new graduates to come into the organization with strong basic technical skills (e.g., knowledge of the field, data analysis, problem-solving) but believe that practical business and consulting skills will develop over time through experience and on-the-job training. Thus, it appears that recent I-O graduates may have misperceptions about what is expected of them as new hires in the workforce. Parallels may be drawn between these findings and those of the faculty and student survey. Perhaps students felt that opportunities to develop business and consulting skills should be available to a greater extent than faculty members because they have inaccurate perceptions of what skills are expected of them as new hires.

To examine potential differences between business and consulting skills expected of I-O graduates and those skills that are actually possessed by typical I-O graduates, respondents were also asked, “To what extent do you believe this skill is actually possessed by typical new graduates trained in I-O psychology?”

Results indicated that overall, employers and graduates agreed that business and consulting skills were not possessed to a great extent by typical new graduates in I-O psychology (see Table 3).

Similar to the findings from the faculty and student survey, there appears to be a gap between what skills graduates are expected to possess and what skills they actually possess across both employers and graduates. For both employers and graduates, there were significant differences between skills expected and skills possessed across all of the business and consulting skills. These differences were greater for graduates than employers, perhaps due to graduates’ perceptions that opportunities to develop these skills in graduate school are very limited. Employer and new graduate findings are summarized in Table 4.


Our study yielded a set of implications for all of the key stakeholders: students and new graduates, employers, faculty and program directors, and SIOP as a profession.

Graduate students want it all; three-quarters or more of graduate student respondents say that their graduate training program should, to a great extent, provide opportunities for the development of each and every skill inquired about in this survey. However, employers don’t expect it all. Most employers have clear priorities among the skills it expects new I-O graduates to express: Technical skills are paramount; communication skills are essential; business skills are nice but not necessary. The priority order of these sets of skills was also reflected in the open-ended survey responses from employers.

This study does have one glaring limitation: We did not include the perspectives of non-I-O employers. Employers accustomed to MBAs may be delighted with I-O graduates’ expertise and methodological rigor but disappointed in their facility with the very skills this project addresses. This, in turn, may limit I-O graduates’ ability to be influential within these organizations and ultimately may limit the ability of I-O psychology as a profession to expand our influence beyond the niche specialties in which we frequently operate.

Although few would dispute the idea that more rather than less general “business savvy” is good for I-O graduates, for the profession of I-O psychology the critical issue remains one of proportion. Overemphasizing generic business education could diminish the core of professionalism in the training of I-O psychologists. On the other hand, deepening the knowledge of general business issues may accelerate the new graduate’s success at getting science into practice.

There are some notable gaps between skill levels desired and possessed. For all skills assessed in this survey, employers’ expectations exceed the levels they report seeing in new I-O graduates. There are, however, certain gaps that are especially pronounced. We define these as skills that a majority of employers expect to see to a great extent and for which there is a greater than  40 percentage point difference between those expectations and reported levels of skills possessed.

  • Communication: 70% of employers expect moderate or greater communication skill levels, but only 14% believe new graduates have skills at that level
  • The individual in the team: 77% of employers expect to see this skill to a great extent in new graduates but only 24% believe new graduates have this skill at that level
  • Practical problem solving: 56% of employers expect to see this skill to a great extent in new graduates but only 12% report seeing it at that level of development
  • Integrating and utilizing information: 76% of employers expect this skill to a great extent but only 33% report that new graduates possess the skill to that extent

Implications for Faculty/Program Directors

Graduate training programs in I-O psychology should emphasize the technical core of the profession: research methods, measurement, psychological theory, and critical thinking. The results of this survey indicate a wide range of views regarding the degree to which programs see the training of future practitioners as part of their mission. This suggests that I-O programs strive to make their stance on this issue clear in both formal and informal communications to prospective and incumbent students. Student responses on the survey express a level of frustration that their programs are not meeting their expectations with regard to the level of focus and encouragement in support of developing strong practitioner skills. Programs need to communicate honestly and clearly so that incoming students arrive with accurate expectations.

In addition, graduate programs would benefit from clarifying for current students the intended linkages between method of training (e.g., supervised experience, independent projects, and on-the-job training) and the skills enhanced by each method. Independently, students can pursue extracurricular activities that hone needed skills.

Graduate programs may be able to foster more well-rounded professionals by expanding evaluation criteria for prospective students and leveraging the experiences of recent graduates. In selecting new students, they may want to consider giving additional weight to communication skills and the ability to work in teams to complement academic credentials and other qualifying accomplishments. They may endeavor to keep recent graduates active in their programs to calibrate current students’ expectations to those of employers and/or to coach and mentor more junior students in the business skills they are less likely to learn in the classroom.

Finally, graduate programs can diagnose the strengths and weakness of their current methods for developing those skills for which notable gaps are reported—communication, working in teams, practical problem solving, and integrating complex information—and redesign their training programs to provide more of the best opportunities for students to develop these skills.

There are skills common to excellence as academics and practitioners that need to be more thoughtfully nurtured in graduate education. No matter what their focus, all graduates need strong skills in written and oral communications, teaming, and project management. Faculty respondents to the survey recognized a significant gap between the level of skill development they would ideally be providing and the level they currently provide. Academic journal editors, as well as prospective corporate employers, are frustrated by manuscripts that are poorly written. Graduate programs across the spectrum have opportunities to provide more opportunities for students to practice preparing for and delivering formal oral presentations, and provide students with structured, detailed, actionable feedback on those presentations. Similarly, project management skills are as essential to successful academic projects as they are for practitioner work.

We also note that many programs do not assess core written and oral communications skills in selecting students into their programs. Programs that assess and select students in part for effective communications skills, as suggested above, would better serve all of their markets—academic and practitioner alike—as well as our collective interest in widely communicating findings that can benefit society at large. In doing so, we should practice what we preach, using methods with proven validity to measure target skills and getting input from the target market (organizations—academic and/or nonacademic) to establish appropriate selection standards.

Those programs that aim to train graduate students to be practitioners should adopt systematic processes to achieve these goals. Faculty often think that by simply modeling key practitioner skills, students will learn through observation. Students do not agree. Faculty with consulting practices often think that giving students “real-world” data to analyze and interpret creates a meaningful opportunity to develop practitioner skills. Students do not agree. They are looking for involvement in the diagnostic and implementation sides of their professors’ consulting projects, including exposure (even if only as an observer) to the client. Students can best develop practitioner skills through multiple, intentionally structured learning experiences.

Like all good training, these experiences—internships, practicum courses, team projects, participation in MBA business games, and work on faculty consulting projects—have the greatest impact when they are deliberately structured with well-defined learning objectives, frequent measurement of those objectives, specific feedback on progress measured against those objectives, and time for reflection and integration.

Taken together, these results and recommendations identify opportunities for growth as a community of I-O psychologists and offer practical solutions designed to enhance the effectiveness and impact of our profession in both the academic and practitioner spheres.


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