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TIP-Topics for Students Planning Your Career While in Graduate School: Tips from Professionals in the Field

Stefanie Gisler (1), Bradley Gray (1), Jenna-Lyn Roman (2), & Ethan Rothstein (1)

 Baruch College and The Graduate Center, CUNY1, Georgia Institute of Technology2

  Imagine that you are interviewing for a spot in an I-O graduate program. You have just finished answering questions about your academic background, your research interests, and the faculty members with whom you are interested in working. Now the interviewers ask you to fast forward and let them know what you plan to be doing with your degree, 10 years down the line. How do you even begin to answer that question?

The career question is often one of the most challenging questions that comes up during a graduate school interview in I-O psychology. After all, very few applicants have had significant exposure to the field, given that so few universities offer undergraduate courses in I-O (let alone full majors or concentrations). Even students who do have undergraduate backgrounds in I-O psychology are most likely still learning about the various types of academic and applied career paths. Without having seen what is out there, it can be difficult, frightening even, to think about planning one’s career. Importantly, this challenge is not unique to prospective students. Career planning can be difficult regardless of how far along one is in graduate school, particularly if it has not been a consistent focus. Given how important career planning is, we thought it would be an ideal focus for this TIP-Topics column.

The purpose of this column is to provide I-O students with important information about careers in the field, so that they can feel well-equipped and empowered to plan their own. Because the four of us are certainly not experts on career planning, we reached out to eight I-O professionals and sent them a series of questions about the subject. To ensure that we obtained a diverse range of perspectives, we contacted people from a variety of professional backgrounds. We spoke with Dr. Kristen Shockley (assistant professor, University of Georgia), Dr. Alicia Grandey (professor, Penn State University), Dr. Peter Rutigliano (principal, Mercer|Sirota), Dr. Sy Islam (principal consultant, Talent Metrics; and assistant professor, Farmingdale State College), Dr. Brian Ruggeberg (partner, Aon), Ms. Melissa Champine, (partner and head of Operations, Aon), Dr. Harold Goldstein (professor, Baruch College), and Dr. Ourania Vasilatos (management analyst, New York State Unified Court System; president of the Metropolitan New York Association for Applied Psychology, 2017-2018). Each of the following sections contains some of the key insights and common themes that came out in their responses. Our hope is that graduate students can use this information to make informed decisions about their careers.

When Students Should Start to Think About Their Careers

There are countless aspects of graduate school life that students need to adjust to when they start their programs. For example, they often need to become more adept at conducting independent research, decide which advisors they want to work with, prepare to teach undergraduate courses, and adjust to living in a new area, all at the same time. With each of these things hanging over their heads, career plans may be one of the last things on their minds. Most of the professionals that we spoke to mentioned that students should not feel pressured to make decisions early on but that it can be beneficial to start thinking about which aspects of the field they find most interesting. For example, Dr. Islam suggested that unlike in college, it may not be prudent for graduate students to “figure it out as they go.” Rather, students should start thinking about where the degree might take them, either before they apply or toward the very beginning of their programs. He noted that this can be a fairly simple process. For example, students can ask professors and older students questions about what different careers are like. Students can also let them know the skills that they are hoping to develop and ask whether they know of relevant projects that are available. This can get the ball rolling and help students decide what careers might be of interest to them. Similarly, Dr. Vasilatos suggested that graduate students start to think about potential career paths as early as possible, so they can have enough time to explore their options before they graduate. In addition, Dr. Grandey noted that students should keep an open mind from the very beginning when pursuing a career in academia or practice. This would allow students to pursue more varied experiences that can prepare them for either career path. Dr. Goldstein recommended that students start to think about their careers from the very beginning but that it really should be an ongoing process throughout graduate school. He noted that many professional development experiences (e.g., publishing, teaching, internships) can prepare students for both academic and applied careers, so it can be useful to consider some of these experiences early on.

That said, Dr. Rutigliano also wanted to assure students that although it can be useful to start career planning early, it is also never too late to switch tracks. He started his career as a researcher, then transitioned to practice, and then became a professor before deciding that he wanted to move back into practice. Although he acknowledged that these types of career shifts can be challenging, he stressed that they are absolutely doable if one remains committed to the transition.     

The consensus here was that graduate students should start learning about different types of career paths early on in graduate school. Starting early can help students become more attuned to their interests so that they can make more informed decisions down the line, whether they choose one avenue for their whole career or explore multiple options with the vast field of I-O psychology.

How to Determine Whether to Go Academic or Applied

Perhaps the biggest question that students need to answer at some point during graduate school is whether they want to pursue a career in academia, practice, or some combination. Many of the professionals we spoke to recommended that students conduct some form of a self-assessment to determine which path might be a better fit. Dr. Grandey recommended that students take an actual self-assessment online in order to determine how their interests align with different career paths. Furthermore, Dr. Ruggeberg suggested that it can be helpful for students to consider which parts of the field they find particularly exciting (e.g., teaching, project work, client-facing opportunities), what occupational factors they value most (e.g., pay, autonomy, time off), and what their core strengths are (e.g., analyzing data, theorizing, building relationships, managing projects). Dr. Islam echoed some of the same sentiments. He recommended that students think back on their prior coursework, research, and applied experiences to determine which areas of the field they are most passionate about and then use those insights to continue to learn more about those areas. Furthermore, Ms. Champine recommended that it is never too early for students to ask themselves some simple questions about the type of work that they find most engaging, because there is considerable variation between academia and practice. For example, graduate students can reflect upon whether they would prefer to work with clients or students and whether they would prefer to lead organizational initiatives or academic research projects.

The consensus here was that if students can find alignment among their interests, values, and strengths, then they can make more informed and confident career decisions. Further, self-assessments can be a useful tool for finding this alignment.

Another common suggestion was that graduate students should continuously pursue opportunities to learn more about these two sides of the field. Dr. Shockley recommended that students pursue experiences relevant to both academia and practice to get a feel for what these two paths entail. In terms of academia, she recommended that students get heavily involved in research projects, publications, and teaching experiences. She also recommended that students pursue summer internships to gather a better sense of what the applied world is like. Dr. Islam implored students to do their due diligence before making decisions about the types of jobs they want to pursue (a job analysis, of sorts!). Both Dr. Grandey and Dr. Goldstein suggested that students can do this type of due diligence by talking with people from different professional backgrounds and get a sense as to how they spend their time, what they like about their jobs, what they dislike, and what they find most challenging. Dr. Vasilatos also recommended that graduate students attend career days and seek out career coaches in order to learn more about these two paths.

Finally, it is important to note that students do not necessarily have to make a decision to pursue only one of these paths. Many professionals find ways to work in both academia and practice. For example, there are many tenured faculty members who also work in consulting or even own their own practices. There are also people who primarily work in practice but also serve as adjunct faculty members so that they can continue to teach and do research. Dr. Grandey went as far as to say that the “academic–consulting dichotomy is false,” and that it is not “all or none”. Hopefully this is comforting to students who have interest in working in both realms once they graduate.

Important Tips for Preparing for a Career in Academia

We also asked the group of professionals about the types of professional development opportunities that can best prepare students for academic and applied careers. Nearly every person we spoke to suggested that teaching, research, and publishing are immensely beneficial for either career path. Not only do these experiences help students build their CVs, but they also help them develop transferable skills such as communication, presentation, writing, and data analysis.

These experiences are particularly crucial when it comes to academic careers. Drs. Vasilatos, Goldstein, Islam, and Rutigliano all recommended that students interested in academia seek out teaching or teaching assistant opportunities whenever they are available. These types of early-career experiences can help students determine whether teaching is something that they enjoy and want to be doing on a long-term basis. Furthermore, many of the people that we spoke to recommended that students work on research projects with multiple faculty members so that they can gain exposure to a variety of areas within I-O psychology. Such broadened exposure should help students become more well-rounded researchers and identify which topics are most aligned with their interests. Dr. Rutigliano also suggested that students should reach out to researchers at other institutions so that they can expand their networks and engage in highly collaborative projects. In terms of publishing, the consensus was that students should have at least 2–3 publications by their 5th year of a doctoral program and perhaps a few additional articles in progress or under review. Dr. Shockley recommended that students should immerse themselves in a variety of research projects early on and see them through to publication. This way, they can become well-versed in all aspects of the research project and start to learn more about what aspects of the process they find most engaging. Dr. Grandey emphasized the importance of publishing one’s thesis or first-year research project. She noted that this can be a great way for students to ease themselves into the publication process and that the paper does not necessarily have to go to a top-tier journal as long as the student is the first author.

After teaching, research, and publishing, the three most frequently raised suggestions were for students to present their research at academic conferences such as those held by SIOP and the Academy of Management, to develop their skills in advanced statistical analysis, and to gain experience working on research and travel grants. Each of these experiences should make students more competitive candidates on the academic job market.

Important Tips for Preparing for a Career in Practice

One of the biggest questions that students often have in graduate school is how they can gain exposure to the applied side of the field. Although some graduate programs have built-in practicums and required internships, this is certainly not the norm. Without the institution’s direct help, it may be difficult for students to find appropriate applied experiences that will not interfere with their coursework. This is why we made sure to ask the professionals about how to identify the right opportunities.

Several of the professionals suggested that students start by speaking to professors about their applied interests. Many professors have extensive experience in the field of I-O psychology and may be able to offer connections. Both Dr. Ruggeberg and Dr. Islam noted that these types of connections can be a great way to get involved in short-term consulting opportunities. Dr. Goldstein suggested that another easy way to learn about the applied world is to read business publications (e.g., Forbes, Fortune, Harvard Business Review). These journals can help students pick up business acumen and learn about key business trends, both of which are useful for when students go on the job market. Dr. Vasilatos and Dr. Islam also recommended that students get involved in local professional organizations, such as the Metropolitan New York Association for Applied Psychology (METRO) and the Society for Human Resource Management. Through these organizations, students can network with practitioners, learn more about the work they are involved in, and perhaps get opportunities to work with them on small projects.

Furthermore, each of the professionals stressed the importance of pursuing internships so that students can get hands-on experience with applied work. Ms. Champine was passionate about how valuable these experiences can be. She also recommended that students get involved in a variety of different projects during their internships so that they can determine which parts of the field are most aligned with their interests. Dr. Rutigliano echoed the same sentiment by saying that it is “far more important to get any experience than necessarily the ‘right’ experience.” Students should be open to a wide variety of opportunities, as they will never know what they enjoy until they have tried it.

The professionals also provided some recommendations about when students should start to pursue internships. Some recommended that students start this search early so that by the time they are ready to hit the job market they have clearer interests and more refined skill sets. Others recommended that students hold off until they have more coursework under their belts, because students may need this knowledge to excel in their internships. However, the most consistent piece of advice was that students should not pursue internships if they believe that it will interfere with their academic progress (e.g., finishing coursework, taking comprehensive exams, defending independent research projects). 

Conclusion

Planning one’s career during graduate school is no easy task. With coursework, research, and teaching requirements already on their plates, it may be difficult for I-O graduate students to find the time and energy to think ahead toward their careers. Our goal with this column was to make the career planning process seem a bit easier and less nerve wracking by providing a variety of recommendations from experts in the field. In particular, the professionals recommended that students start to think about their careers early on in graduate school, keep an open mind about both academic and applied career paths, do their due diligence about what certain jobs actually look like in the real world, and pursue a variety of developmental experiences that will prepare them for multiple career paths. They also suggested that students interested in academia should focus heavily on research, publishing, presenting, and teaching, whereas students interested in practice should pursue the same experiences, as well as applied projects and internships. Overall, we hope that this information will help I-O graduate students feel confident in their abilities to plan their careers and make informed career decisions down the line.

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). Her research interests include occupational health psychology, diversity, and selection. After earning her PhD, Stefanie would like to pursue a career in academia.

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 erothstein@gradcenter.cuny.edu

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