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TIP-Topics for Students: Preparing to Launch: Advice for Finding and Maximizing Applied Experience in Graduate School

Alison Carr and Jared Ferrell
The University of Akron

As graduate students, we spend countless hours inundated in the minutiae of our science. We read textbooks, pore over scholarly articles, immerse ourselves in research, and engage our fellow students in debate over scientific theories and principles. But this intense academic focus is not enough. Ours is an applied science, and our successes as I-O psychologists are contingent upon our ability to apply what is learned in graduate school to real-life settings. Applied experiences in graduate school offer opportunities to put classroom learning to use and to gain insight into how organizations function in practice. Graduate school is an optimal time for students to gain a diverse array of applied experiences and to begin networking with people who may be integral to their future careers.

Applied experiences most often come in the form of internships, freelance consulting work, or volunteer opportunities. As a potential bonus, some of these experiences even offer compensation. In this edition of TIP-Topics, we discuss these three common types of applied experiences, offer suggestions for finding them, and review other important considerations for preparing to launch your career. Even if you are certain of the type of I-O career you wish to pursue, giving other areas a try will broaden both your perspective and your CV!

Types of Experiences

Internships

Formally structured internships are one of the most common types of applied experiences available to graduate students. Internships may be short- or long-term and can vary widely in terms of formatting, projects, and supervision.

For example, it may be helpful to distinguish between internships that involve internal work (i.e., providing services within the boundaries of one organization), versus those that involve external work (i.e., working for a consulting company that has multiple organizational clients). If you take an internal internship, it can be helpful to speak with others who have completed internships in the past with the same company to get a sense of what your experience is likely to entail. One question that you might ask is about the level of support for I-O in that particular workplace. Environments that are high in support for I-O and those that are low in support for I-O both may help you develop your applied skills. Workplaces low in support for I-O might require you to work harder at “selling” your ideas and professional capabilities, and there may be more competition with other departments for limited funding. In contrast, workplaces high in support for I-O permit the leveraging of I-O skills in an environment that is initially more understanding of the potential benefits. These can be very valuable skills to learn as a graduate student. Relatedly, you may learn something about your own work preferences, finding that you work best on a large I-O team, or that you prefer working as the sole expert in I-O. Now is a great time to “get a feel” for your preferred work context without getting stuck long term in a job that you hate!

By virtue of the fact that external consulting firms typically specialize in I-O and are hired by (typically non-I-O) companies to perform I-O tasks, they tend to offer higher levels of support for your I-O expertise. However, experiences in different consulting firms may still vary considerably. Depending on the consulting firm, you may find yourself performing a wide array of tasks or working on a few processes specific to the firm. The latter is particularly likely if you are working at a firm that specializes in a single aspect of I-O such as selection, 360 degree feedback, training and development, and so on.

Beyond differences in the organizational contexts for internships, additional details of the internship arrangement can vary widely. For example, some are relatively short term, lasting for a few months or a semester. Other internships are longer term or open ended, and may even have the potential to transform into full-time jobs once your thesis/dissertation work is completed! If the details of your internship to be are negotiated, it can be useful to consult with your academic advisor, your new supervisor, and others who have served as interns for the company in order to outline both short-term and long-term internship objectives. When planning, be sure to factor in work you will have for your classes, as well as for your thesis/dissertation. Be honest with the company about your availability, and remember that it is easier to request more hours of work at a later point than to have to cut back on hours to which you have already committed.

Graduate students at the University of Akron who have internships generally fall into three categories. First, our terminal master’s students must complete at least 60 supervised hours of a practicum experience to meet degree requirements. These students often have one or several large-scale learning objectives or projects over the course of their internship and work as much as is required to complete the learning objective(s)/project(s). For example, one Akron student is currently designing and setting up an annual 360° feedback system for a local company with several hundred employees.

The second type of internship is typically held by ABD (all but dissertation) doctoral students; it involves I-O-related employment at companies located in the Akron/Cleveland area. These internships are arranged through the I-O department and fund the student’s stipend. The geographical requirement, combined with a work week limited to 20 hours, ensures a schedule conducive to making adequate dissertation progress. These internships generally require a 1- or 2-year commitment, allowing students the opportunity to develop and follow projects over a longer term.

The third group of students includes those who pursue summer or semester internships that are advertised more broadly and may be more competitive. These internships may be secured with the help of faculty members but are not typically arranged through the department. If you are looking for this sort of internship, be sure you begin your search early (late fall semester/early spring semester for summer positions) and utilize numerous different resources. The Internet can be a valuable tool; many Akron students have found internships and jobs with the help of a Facebook page that lists I-O positions, coordinated by one of our faculty members. Characteristically, these positions are paid, may involve 40+ hour work weeks, and may be located in geographically diverse locations.

Common Internship Projects

Just as there is no standard format for internships, there are also no standard internship projects. In a 2004 survey of companies offering I-O internships, Munson and colleagues found differences in the tasks typically performed by students in internal and external internships. Internal internships were most likely to involve conducting job analyses (23%), managing projects (17%), writing reports (16%), and collecting data (17%), whereas external internships were more likely to involve analyzing data (20%), having direct client contact (e.g., facilitating SME or focus groups; 15%), conducting validation studies (16%), writing reports (16%), and developing training courses/selection assessments (15%).

Supervision

Feedback is critical early in the skill acquisition process, particularly if the task being learned is complex (e.g., Locke & Latham, 2002). The tasks you work on during an internship are no exception. When making internship arrangements, inquire as to what the nature and amount of your supervision will be. If you are working with other I-O psychologists, it can be helpful to identify who your supervisor will be and to schedule regular meetings to discuss your work performance. If this is not possible, and much of your work will be autonomous (or if you have a non-I-O supervisor), consider asking a faculty member in your department to serve as your mentor throughout the internship process. It can be invaluable for your development to meet regularly with a mentor to discuss your approach to various projects and accomplishing goals. It can also be beneficial to speak with your supervisor about how you can frame specific projects on your CV or how you might discuss them in job interviews. If there is flexibility regarding projects you work on, you might consider speaking with your supervisor about taking on more projects areas you find particularly interesting. Also remember that internships often offer the potential for access to data appropriate for theses or dissertations, so it is wise to keep an eye out for potential collaborative research studies within the organization!

Freelance Work

In addition to formal internships, there are other ways to gain applied experience. For example, freelance consulting experiences are available to students in many graduate departments. Many times, these projects can be obtained by asking your advisor or other faculty members about potential opportunities, as faculty often have extensive contacts within the I-O community and may even be involved in projects themselves. These types of projects can include test or assessment center proctoring, legal research, and work on miscellaneous consulting projects in a variety of focal areas (e.g., selection, training).

At the University of Akron, we are lucky enough to have an intradepartmental consulting firm called the Center for Organizational Research (COR). COR offers graduate students opportunities to work on a range of applied projects with various organizations. In addition to being great hands-on experiences, this can be a way to supplement stipends. Another benefit of COR is that it attempts to match specific projects with students who have expressed interest in areas relevant to those projects.

The benefits of gaining experience through a student-directed consulting group are numerous. COR opportunities are diverse in range, from small projects that let students get their feet wet to large-scale projects requiring levels of commitment similar to what one might expect in a formal internship. Another key benefit is that projects completed for COR are first checked by senior graduate students and supervising faculty before submission to the contracting organization. This arrangement makes these projects a good chance to learn and obtain developmental feedback. Over the last year, COR has engaged in a wide array of projects, including development of selection batteries (e.g., physical ability, biodata, situational judgment tests), quantitative and qualitative analyses of organizational survey results, and projects involving the benchmarking of best practices in different areas of organizational effectiveness. Graduate students generally report that COR experience has served as valuable opportunity to apply knowledge and skills to solving “real-world” problems.

Volunteer Work

In the quest for applied experience, be sure not to overlook I-O-related volunteer opportunities! Volunteering I-O services in your community can be valuable for your professional development and offer an interesting way to explore applied interests. Students may pursue these opportunities independently or form groups to work collaboratively on large-scale projects. Sometimes nonprofit organizations reach out to I-O departments for help. Alternately, interested students can reach out to nonprofits in the community. Students at the University of Akron have worked with local nonprofits to improve data organization techniques (to allow for better quality data and increased abilities to apply for grants and funding), coordinate grant writing, and develop staff training programs and selection batteries.

Other Considerations

Learning From Others

Do not overlook the fact that the experiences of your classmates can be valuable resources. We have a biweekly internship discussion group for students at the University of Akron. These group meetings offer a safe forum to discuss projects, dilemmas, and experiences. This allows students to gain insight into areas that fall outside of their own internships (e.g., hearing firsthand about working on different types of projects, in different work contexts, with different stakeholders) and to develop general practitioner skills at an accelerated rate.

Know Your Legal Issues!

It is vital that you know your legal issues when venturing into the applied realm. Companies will often rely on your expertise and trust you to make decisions that require careful adherence to legal guidelines (e.g., development and validation of selection batteries). This is perhaps the point where your knowledge of class material will be the most vital to your success, as legal issues dictate the manner in which many practices are conducted. When working in any applied setting, make sure you have brushed up on the Uniform Guidelines (EEOC, 1978), Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1991, and other acts including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (1990) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) (1967).

Building a Social Media Presence

In this age of technology, creating and leveraging a social media presence can be valuable for networking and building a positive professional reputation. For example, websites such as LinkedIn can help you obtain your desired experiences by virtue of offering an easy way to make your current professional profile readily available to potential employers. Furthermore, having a blog or Twitter account that regularly discusses I-O topics can also help raise your professional profile, as it publicly demonstrates your understanding of key issues and may help clarify your main areas of interest.

Although social networking sites can be extremely helpful in obtaining applied experiences, if you are not careful they can also be detrimental. Although cybervetting is a contentious topic among I-O psychologists (both its legality and advisability), it remains a popular practice by companies investigating potential interns and employees. It is wise to manage your image by keeping your public postings professional in nature. A good rule of thumb is, if you would be upset that any particular post of yours was featured on the nightly news (with your name attached), it is probably best not to post it.

Self-Presentation

Your graduate classes have equipped you with an impressive understanding of psychological theories and principles, but in order to exert influence in a business setting it is critical that you learn to present yourself and your ideas well. Carry yourself with confidence; practice good posture, maintain consistent eye contact, and shake hands firmly. When possible, speak in a language business people understand (money!). When you network, be sure to have professional-looking business cards on hand, and follow-up with those you meet. You can make yourself memorable by doing something as simple as following up on a meeting with a brief e-mail expressing that it was nice to meet the person and that you look forward to collaborating with them on a particular project.

Conclusion

Your graduate coursework will serve as a solid foundation for a successful career in I-O psychology. Alone, however, it is insufficient to prepare you for practice or to make you stand out from your peers in the job application process. Make efforts to seek out all the experiences you can while you are still in graduate school. This is your chance to test the waters of internal and external consulting life, to try on the hats worn by selection experts, trainers, research scientists, philanthropists, project managers, and anyone else whose work you find interesting. Now is the time to step out of your comfort zone and to learn a bit more about who you are and what sort of I-O practitioner you would like to become. So what are you waiting for?

Questions? Comments? Please feel free to contact our TIP-TOPics team at akrontiptopics@gmail.com. Also, look out for our next column on unique collaborations between I-O psychology and other academic fields!

References

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as Amended, § 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq (2008). Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/ada.cfm.
Civil Rights Act of 1964 § 7, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et sq (1964). Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm
Civil Rights Act of 1991§ 109, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq (1991). Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/cra-1991.cfm
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Civil Service Commission, Department of Labor, Department of Justice. (1978). Uniform guidelines on employee selection procedures. Federal Register, 43(38), 290–315.
Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation: A 35-year odyssey. American Psychologist, 57, 705–717.
Munson, L .J., Phillips, G., Clark, C. C., Mueller-Hanson, R. (2004). Everything you need to know about I-O internships: Results from the 2003 SIOP internship survey. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 42(1), 117–126.