Many students wrestle with questions about grad school. Although this is no substitute for individualized advice, here is some basic information that might be helpful to you.

Q: How to I prepare for admission to grad school in I-O psychology?

I talk about this in terms of three major areas: GPA, GRE, and research experience. You want to do what you can to make sure your GPA is as competitive as possible (more info on that below). You want to start studying for the GRE now (download vocabulary apps, get books, maybe even take a prep course) and take that exhausting exam early enough that you have time to take it again if you are not crazy about your score. And you want to get some research experience under your belt (more on that below too).

Q: What if my GPA isn’t that great? What is the minimum GPA required to go to grad school in I-O?

Different programs in I-O psychology have different guidelines for minimum GPA for admission. A good rule of thumb is that a GPA of at least 3.0 is best. If you got off to a rough start in college, though, you can certainly indicate in your personal statement that your overall GPA isn’t that sparkling, but that your more recent grades (e.g., last 60 units) are more representative of your academic potential. Don’t offer too much detail on your rough start (e.g., we do not want to hear about your drinking and partying) unless it is clearly evident (e.g., you started out as a physics major and didn’t like it as much as you thought you would).

In addition to GPA, in our admissions process, we also take a closer look at grades in statistics, research methods, and (of course) I-O classes. Whenever those look good for you, highlight them.

Q: Do you have advice for the GRE?

My general advice for the GRE is to start studying early and often. Also, the exam itself is a marathon. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re going to do great by doing practice exams in 20-minute chunks over several days. Lock yourself in your room for 3.5 hours to get a more realistic estimate of your score (and your stamina). Think positive, get good rest and food before the exam, and bring Advil.

Q: How do you get research experience?

Although it’s obviously best if you can get research experience in an I-O psychology lab, it’s not a requirement. If you are able to target I-O labs, then great. If not, social psych labs often need undergrad research assistants (RAs), and the issues they study are probably most relevant to I-O psychology research, although their research methods can be very different. If you’re at SDSU and want to get in my lab, e-mail me and ask for a link to my RA application. Please keep in mind, though, that the number of qualified and delightful applicants that I get far exceeds my capacity, so it’s important to have a backup plan for research experience!

General advice for getting into a lab:

  • E-mail professors INDIVIDUALLY. A group e-mail to a lot of professors, although convenient for you, sets up the perfect situation for social loafing and does not generate interest in the faculty.
  • Always mention that you’re interested in going to graduate school. That automatically sets you apart from those who are just looking for a few extra units.
  • Indicate when you are going to graduate and how many semesters you might be able to commit.
  • Share information that is flattering to you: maybe your GPA, your grades in relevant classes, even your GRE score if you have it.
  • Contact professors in mid-January, mid-May, and mid-August (for semester-system schools), when they’re possibly thinking about bringing on new RAs.
  • Be resilient. A non-response doesn’t mean you should never e-mail that professor again. Gentle, polite persistence can be a plus.

Finally, don’t forget to be creative if getting a research assistant position is difficult in your psych department. Especially if you have a research methods class under your belt, you might be marketable to your school’s public health, education, nursing, or business/management faculty.

Q: Should I be looking at a master’s program or a doctoral program?

This is a very personal question, and there’s no easy answer. On the plus side, it’s not like getting a master’s degree means you’re not as employable. Both degree pathways have great merit. In my experience, though, students often think, “I’m not sure about going to grad school at all, so I’ll just start with a master’s program. Then, if I like it, I can switch to a doctoral program or go back for my PhD after working for a while.” I have to push back against that kind of thinking for at least a couple of reasons.

First, it does not get easier to go to grad school as you get older. So this notion of going back for one’s PhD is often something that never happens. Second, some students think that their work toward their master’s will just transfer directly to a PhD program, so they’d only have 2-3 more years to go after a master’s degree to get a PhD. Sorry to say this, but it doesn’t work that way.

So my advice is this: seriously consider why you shouldn’t go for a doctoral program. It may be for very practical reasons, like that you don’t have the GPA, GRE, or research experience to be competitive for a PhD program. If so, the plan to start with a master’s is your best bet to get in (should you decide to go that route). But if it is for reasons like, “I can’t move away from San Diego,” or “I’m just not sure I’ll like it,” then I think you owe it to yourself to explore the idea a little deeper. Yes, a doctoral program is a long commitment, and you have to be geographically flexible. Still, you don’t want to look back on this decision 20 years from now and think you just chickened out.

Q: How do you choose which graduate programs to apply to?

Again, this is a very personal decision. In general, I recommend that students who wish to get a master’s degree consider location as a potentially important variable: programs’ networks are strongest in the cities they’re in. So if you’ve always wanted to live in the Bay Area, SFSU should get a good, hard look. For a doctoral program, I think what you need to consider instead of location is cultural and research fit. Are you going to feel comfortable, challenged, engaged?

Additional questions to ask as you’re looking at graduate programs programs:

About the faculty:

  • Do the faculty members have PhD’s in I-O psychology, organizational behavior, management, or similar?
  • Are the faculty members employed by the university full-time or part-time?
  • Are the faculty members publishing original research in peer-reviewed journals?
  • Are faculty doing research in areas you’re interested in?
  • Are any faculty retiring or going on sabbatical in the near future?

About funding:

  • Does the program offer assistantships (a special type of work-study financial aid) to their grad students?
  • (if applying to an out-of-state program) Can you get reclassified as an in-state student to lower your tuition costs?
  • Or, more generally: how much will the program cost you?

About the program culture:

  • Is the atmosphere of the program competitive or collaborative?
  • In what ways do students interact with faculty? How often?
  • In what ways do students interact with each other?
  • How are students matched with faculty mentors (if there is a thesis requirement)?
  • What are the classes like (lecture or discussion; how many students)?
  • What is the average GRE and GPA for your students?
  • Are there opportunities to engage in consulting projects with actual companies while in a school (either as a school project or otherwise)?

About student success:

  • What percentage of students finish the program?
  • How long does it take students to finish, on average?
  • What types of initial jobs do your students get upon finishing?
  • What percentage of students stay in the field of I-O psychology?

Most SDSU students I speak with are interested in applying to state schools in California. The CSU programs I hear about most, in order of how often I hear about them, are:

  • San Francisco State University
  • San Jose State University
  • Cal State Long Beach
  • Cal State San Bernadino
  • Sacramento State (last I heard, they admit students every other year)
  • Cal State Fullerton (I haven’t had as many applying here recently)
  • Cal State San Marcos (their program is new)

Note this isn’t an endorsement, but merely a list I’ve accumulated through years of writing letters of recommendation.

Q: Do you have tips for writing my personal statement?

Yes! First, do a job analysis on what it takes to be an exceptional graduate student. Identify the KSAOs required. In your statement, you need to point the reader to evidence that you have these KSAOs (not statements like, “I’m for sure a hard worker,” but evidence like, “Despite having a 20-hour/week job, I was able to maintain a 3.8 GPA and fulfill my commitments to my research lab.”).

Do not detail a research idea of yours. If you have a strong interest in I-O you want to pursue, that’s fine… just note the area of interest. But readers of personal statements have years of experience in poking holes in research ideas, and you don’t want to set yourself up for that kind of scrutiny.

Do connect your interests to those of the faculty at the university where you are applying. Especially if there’s a required thesis/dissertation, you want to connect to what faculty at the university are studying, so that you may receive the benefit of their collected wisdom/experience.

Do not use the personal statement as an opportunity to showcase all your newly learned GRE words. It makes you sound pompous.

Do show some personality (not too much, but some!). It’s hard to get excited about an applicant who comes across like an android in the personal statement. Related to this point, make sure you indicate why you’re interested in I-O psych.

Have someone who is excellent at grammar check your statement. Read it out loud to yourself. Try to catch every little thing.

Be concise. We’re reading tons of these – so get to your point, provide your evidence (or tell your story), and move on.

For additional (and really useful) information, please see the “Kisses of Death” article below (and special thank you to my student Kristy Kay for bringing this article to my attention).

Q: What advice do you have with regards to the letters of recommendation?

  • Be strategic. You want your letter writers to be able to attest to the KSAOs (see question/answer above about personal statements) that are required for excellent performance as a grad student. So it’s great when one can say you’re a great writer (in APA style) and another say you are great with statistical analyses.
  • Ask your letter writers well in advance if they would be willing to write you a letter… minimum 2 weeks. Preferably 1 month.
  • Don’t be afraid to help them see where they fit into your application portfolio strategy (e.g., “I’d especially appreciate it if you could mention my experience in writing APA style papers.”).
  • But also – help them help you! Be super organized and give them:
    • A list of what schools you’re applying to, when the letters are due, and how to submit them (online or paper).
    • All necessary forms (filled out as much as you can).
    • Pre-addressed and stamped envelopes to mail off the paper submissions.
    • A copy of your resume or CV.
    • A copy of your personal statement, even if it is in draft form.
    • A copy of your transcript (unofficial is fine).
    • A list of the things you’ve done in their research labs.
    • A reminder of which class(es) you took from them, what grade(s) you got, and what semester/year you took those classes.
  • With regards to asking a non-academic to write a letter – here are the concerns we have about those letters:
    • Does the letter writer know what it takes to be successful in graduate school?
    • Does the letter writer work with a lot of students?
    • What is the actual relationship between the letter writer and the applicant? (minor concern, but still – the letter writer could be the applicant’s mom’s best friend or other biased source)
    • Make sure that non-academic letter writers can point to behavioral examples of the KSAOs you are trying to highlight

Q: Should I email or meet with faculty with whom I’d like to work before I apply?

Professors are notoriously busy, so in general, don’t ask for their time unless you really need it. There are some things you should definitely NOT do when contacting a professor about your interest in their graduate program:

  • Ask a question that is easily answered by careful reading of the program website
  • Assume that your sparkling charm will win him/her over and increase your chances of admission
  • Offer a research idea or ask for input on a research idea – just trust me, this will not end well

There are a few legitimate reasons for emailing faculty regarding your interest:

  • Asking whether they will be accepting students in the next admissions cycle
  • Seeing if your unusual background (and I’ve seen it all: biology/pre-med majors, English majors, active military, etc.) is problematic in terms of admission
  • Requesting to communicate with a current graduate student to find out about the culture of the program

Bottom line: an email exchange, phone call, or face-to-face meeting is NOT going to affect your admission much at all – unless it’s in the negative direction (I have had unpleasant interactions that have made me less inclined to admit a student). Focus on GPA, GRE, research experience, personal statement, and letters of recommendation instead. But, by all means, if you have a tricky situation, and you need information that is not readily available from other sources, ask away! I personally benefited from such a conversation, and I always try to pay it forward when I can.

Advice on networking/emailing:

Additional advice can be found at this excellent website by another I-O psychology professor:

Advice/perspective on how to choose your future career:

Not sure exactly what I-O psychologists do? Check out these resources:

And check out more information on my Resources page!