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Meredith Turner
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TIP-Topics for Students: Transitioning Into an I-O PhD With a Master’s Degree

Deciding to go to graduate school in I-O is a major life decision for students, and immediately after making this decision, they are faced with another: Should they pursue a master’s or PhD in I-O? For some students this decision is easy. They might not be interested in research or do not want to invest the time it takes to complete a PhD. Others might have a concrete career in mind that necessitates a PhD (e.g. a career in academia). But for many students, the decision between a master’s or PhD might not be as clear cut. They might decide to start off in a master’s program to find out if they want to continue to a PhD, or they might decide to return to school for their PhD after starting their career in I-O.

In this column, we will offer advice on what factors students should consider when deciding which path to take, what they should look for in master’s programs, what types of experiences they should seek during their master’s, and what can ease their transition into a PhD. This column also features four individuals who completed their master’s before pursuing a PhD in order to illustrate the different paths that can lead to a PhD. We spoke with Dr. Charles Scherbaum (Professor, Baruch College), Dr. Louis Buffardi (Emeritus Faculty, George Mason University), and Dr. Nikki Blacksmith (Research Fellow, U.S. Army Research Institute; Adjunct Instructor, American University). In addition, three of us (i.e. Jenna, Brad, and Stefanie) completed a master’s before starting a PhD, which allows us to offer some insight and share our experiences.

Different Paths to a PhD

There are many reasons why students may pursue a master’s before a PhD. For example, many undergraduate institutions do not offer any coursework in I-O, which can make students hesitant to commit to a PhD in I-O. Pursuing a master’s first can provide them with insight into the field without the five or more year commitment of a PhD. Some students’ academic background might also not be competitive enough to qualify them for a PhD after earning their Bachelor’s. Enrolling in a master’s program gives them a few extra years to bolster their PhD application. In this section, we will feature the stories of four individuals who earned a master’s before pursuing a PhD in I-O. We hope that these stories might resonate with some students who are unsure what path they should take or whether they should return to school for their PhD.

Jenna knew since she was an undergraduate student in psychology that she wanted to eventually earn a PhD, but her life circumstances prevented her from pursuing one right away. When she decided to apply to graduate programs, her husband was a member of the Air Force, and had just taken a 2-year term position in New York for his first post-active duty job. She was unsure if they would be living or working in the area for the 5 years it would take to complete a PhD, which is why she decided to enroll in a master’s program. Jenna also desired the job opportunities that would be open to her as a result of having a master’s degree in I-O versus the job options available to students who hold only a bachelor’s in psychology.  She is now in her first year of her PhD in I-O after successfully completing her master’s this past spring.

Brad earned a master’s in clinical psychology before joining a PhD program in I-O. He started with a master’s because he was not completely sold on clinical psychology, and he did not want to make a five-year commitment to a PhD to only then find out that he did not like the field. After a couple months into his master’s, he quite liked what he was doing, and then wanted to make himself the best possible candidate for a PhD. However, after doing research and applied work in clinical psychology, he ultimately decided that the field was not a good fit. However, from working with his therapy clients he became interested in just how many mental health issues seemed to stem from the workplace. He remembers thinking: “Man, someone should really do research on the relationship between work and stress!” He started to look into it and found an entire field of Psychology that examines this. He bought an intro to I-O textbook, read it cover to cover, and applied to PhD programs in I-O the following fall. He has been happy with his decision ever since.

Dr. Blacksmith had a successful applied career after earning her master’s in I-O, but she eventually decided to pursue a PhD. She initially went for a master’s because she knew little about I-O and thought that she wanted to go applied. She was hesitant to commit to a PhD without having taken a course in I-O before. The only reason she knew about the field was a talk to psychology majors about I-O during her undergraduate studies. She decided right after the talk that she wanted to go to graduate school for I-O, but she was slightly nervous about making a 5-year commitment to something she knew little about. A master’s also aligned better with her career goals at the time. She was told that MAs go applied and PhDs go into academia, but she believes that this is no longer true because now organizations seek out individuals with doctoral-level training. A few years into her applied career, she decided to go back to school for her PhD: “A little bit of introspection taught me that doing research made me happiest in my career,” she states. “I realized that I was more excited to get a paper accepted at a conference than I was about getting a big promotion.” Dr. Blacksmith successfully completed her PhD and now works as a research fellow and adjunct instructor.

Similar to Dr. Blacksmith, Stefanie found out about I-O by chance, but she was also unsure if she was competitive enough for a PhD. She learned about I-O in one of her undergraduate psychology classes and went to SIOP’s website to read more about it. She liked the field right away but was hesitant to commit to a PhD without having taken any classes in I-O. In addition, Stefanie transferred to her undergraduate institution in her junior year. She did not get involved in any research until her senior year and thought her research background was not strong enough for PhD programs. She decided to apply to master’s programs in order to learn more about the field and to strengthen her application for PhD programs. After starting her master’s in I-O, she quickly realized that she liked the field and wanted to continue doing research. She completed her master’s and is now in her third year of her PhD in I-O.

Master’s Versus PhD in I-O

The four stories might resonate with students who are unsure about whether they should pursue a master’s or PhD in I-O. Dr. Buffardi recommends that undecided students should engage in serious reflection on what their goals are. Although the PhD naturally opens a few more opportunities, including academic jobs, good jobs do exist for master’s-level I-O practitioners in most metropolitan areas. He also recommends that students should talk extensively with their advisors as well as more advanced graduate students and I-O alumni in order to get a good sense of the choices available to the them. Dr. Scherbaum states that a master’s is a good option for students who are really uncertain about which path they should take. Working in a research lab might be another experience that can be helpful in deciding whether a master’s or a PhD makes more sense. However, pursuing a master’s degree to simply learn more about I-O is expensive. Dr. Scherbaum recommends that students should visit SIOP’s website and read I-O books in order to learn more about the field.

According to Dr. Scherbaum, getting a master’s before pursuing a PhD has some advantages. Students with a master’s in I-O have a bit of a head start. They should have more knowledge about I-O, and they should be accustomed to graduate-level work. Further, students with a weaker undergraduate record can use their time during their master’s to strengthen their application for PhD programs. However, one of the main drawbacks of getting a master’s first is that students will spend more time completing their graduate education. The classes they took in their master’s program and their theses might not transfer. Depending on the PhD program, some students might have to start completely over.

Choosing the Right Master’s Program

For students who consider eventually pursuing a PhD in I-O, picking the right master’s programs can make a big difference. There are far more master’s than PhD programs, and according to Dr. Scherbaum, there is greater variation in offerings and structure among master’s programs as well. He recommends that students examine the faculty in master’s programs before applying. Different programs have different staffing mixes between full-time and part-time faculty. This mix of faculty could impact the types of courses that are offered and the availability of research opportunities. Programs that also offer a PhD in I-O tend to have more full-time faculty and greater research opportunities.

George Mason’s I-O program is one of the programs that offer both a master’s and PhD in I-O, and both programs fully overlap. “Although the admissions are run separately, all incoming MAs will be in the same classes sitting next to the new PhD students throughout their 2 years in the program,” Dr. Buffardi states. “Students get exposed to topnotch tenure line faculty and have a good sense of the level and expectations of such classes.” The program also encourages master’s students who are thinking about applying to PhD programs to get involved in faculty research teams in order to demonstrate their ability to thrive in a research environment. According to Dr. Buffardi, about one-third of their incoming master’s students are vaguely considering going on for a PhD. Many of them quickly realize that there are many good job opportunities in the area that they would qualify for with a master’s degree. Approximately 15% of their master’s students transition to a PhD program. The majority of them stay at George Mason after submitting an application and being admitted.

How Master’s Students Can Prepare for a PhD

One of the main benefits of enrolling in a master’s before a PhD is that students have 2 additional years to strengthen their applications for PhD programs. All of the contributors to this column stressed the importance of students getting involved in research while completing their master’s. Dr. Buffardi recommends for students who are interested in a PhD to focus on getting coauthorship on conference and journal submissions. Dr. Scherbaum adds that students should get involved in independent research, such as completing a master’s thesis.

Both Dr. Scherbaum and Dr. Buffardi also recommend that students should hone their quantitative and data analysis skills during their master’s program. George Mason’s program requires its students to take three quantitative courses, but Dr. Buffardi recommends that students should take as many advanced quantitative courses as possible. He adds that such credentials are useful not only for consideration by PhD admissions committees, but they are also important in landing the better master’s-level jobs in organizations that value strong research skills.

Taking many quantitative courses can also help in offsetting a lower quantitative score on the GRE according to Dr. Scherbaum. On the other hand, students with lower scores on the verbal portion should do a lot of writing. Doing a thesis can be a way to produce a deliverable that can show students’ writing skills. Dr. Scherbaum suggests that deliverables in master’s classes can be work samples. He also recommends that students start transitioning into the role of a doctoral student while in their master’s program. For example, participating in class is an important skill of being a doctoral student. master’s students should also be able to explain I-O concepts to non-I-O people. This skill is particularly important when interviewing for PhD programs. Dr. Scherbaum said that many faculty evaluate master’s students the same way as students with only an undergraduate degree, except during the interview. Faculty expect master’s students to be more knowledgeable about I-O and conducting research.

Self-initiative is crucial when preparing for a PhD. Many of the experiences master’s students can seek are not a mandatory component of their program. Brad was one of only two students who completed an optional thesis. Stefanie chose to enroll in doctoral-level classes while completing her master’s in order to show that she can handle more challenging classes. Jenna recommends that students should aggressively seek out opportunities that will improve their application for a PhD program. Although she already had an internship and was in the middle of PhD applications, when she saw an announcement for a teaching assistant position, she immediately applied and had the job a few days later.

Transitioning Into a PhD Program

Having a master’s can ease the transition into a PhD program. Dr. Blacksmith recounts: “The transition was a lot easier than my first time in graduate school! I was able to jump right in and start working on projects. My classmates probably thought that I was a bit crazy because I was having SO much fun!” Brad’s transition into an I-O PhD with a master’s in clinical psychology was smooth as well. He thinks that he had all the necessary skills in terms of conducting research, handling statistical analyses, and general work habits necessary to succeed in graduate school. However, he did feel a sense of impostor syndrome when he first took classes with more advanced I-O students, but the feeling soon dissipated.

 

The program culture can also make a big difference for how students experience their transition. A welcoming program culture is key, according to Dr. Buffardi. Many programs offer socialization opportunities outside of classwork. These can include welcome potlucks at the beginning of the semester or the assignment of a student mentor. Opportunities such as these can help ease the transition. Nevertheless, incoming students should proactively seek out advice and counsel from their fellow graduate students, advisors, and other program faculty. “Ideally the incoming student has gotten a sense of the program culture beforehand through campus visits and meetings with current students prior to making their decision on which PhD program to attend,” Dr. Buffardi recommends.

Conclusion

Deciding whether to do a master’s or PhD in I-O can be difficult. For students who are unsure which path to take, doing a master’s first can give them insight into I-O and what graduate school is like. Students can still pursue a PhD later on, but the type of master’s program they attend and the experiences they seek during it can make a big difference in preparing them for a PhD. A master’s program provides students with at least 2 additional years of making their application more competitive, but self-initiative is key in order to make the most of this extra time. Getting involved with research and taking advanced quantitative courses during their master’s are two examples of how students can make themselves more competitive for PhD applications. Even if students initially do not plan to go on to a PhD, it might still be worthwhile to engage in the types of activities that are relevant for a PhD. As Dr. Blacksmith’s example illustrates, you might eventually want to pursue a PhD down the road. Further, these types of activities can also make you a stronger candidate for master’s-level jobs. Thus, we believe that the advice that has been given in this column can be helpful for any student pursuing a graduate education in I-O, regardless of whether they intend to pursue a PhD or not.

We would like to thank our contributors for their willingness to participate and the advice they shared with our readers.

Stefanie Gisler is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her BA from Bucknell University and an MS in I-O Psychology from the University of Central Florida (UCF). She is interested in employee health and occupational health psychology in general, and has conducted research on recovery from work, job control, illegitimate tasks, and work–life conflict.

Bradley Gray is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. He obtained a BA in Psychology from Wake Forest University in 2010 and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Towson University in 2012. He researches occupational health psychology, with an interest in the relationship between supervisors and their employees and is also interested in culture change and executive development.

Jenna-Lyn Roman completed her MS degree at Baruch College, CUNY in May 2018 and began her PhD studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology this fall. She is interested in work–family research with an emphasis on nontraditional workers and understudied populations (e.g., military families), as well as occupational health psychology and gender parity topics. Jenna would like to be a university professor specializing in work–family topics.

Ethan Rothstein is a PhD student at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. Ethan obtained his BA in Clinical Psychology from Tufts University in 2013. His primary area of research has been the interface between work and family, but he has also conducted research on motivation, leadership, team processes, and occupational health psychology. After he graduates, Ethan would like to pursue an applied career in both consulting and industry.

The TIP-Topics team can be reached by email at sgisler@gradcenter.cuny.edu.

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