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The I-Opener: What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Kyle E. Morgan, Aon, and Steven R. Toaddy, Louisiana Tech University

Let’s do an exercise: think back to your graduate school days and to those who graduated with you; or, if you’re still enjoying the graduate life, think about the alumni that you have met from your program.  Now, did all of these individuals go into practice?  Did they all go into academia?  For most PhD programs, we would guess that the answer to both of these questions is “no”; rather, graduates likely pursued a mixture of both of these career paths.  Now think about the program itself. Was it focused more on the practical aspects of I-O consulting—on planning and executing projects, on interacting with various stakeholders, and so on?  Or was it more research focused, concentrating on I-O theory and a variety of advanced statistical technques?  Or was it a fairly even offering of the two, equipping students with either (or both!) skillsets?  Now here’s the kicker: Did you know, going in, what this focus was?  If so, to what extent did that influence your decision to attend that program?  If not, would you have changed your decision having had this information?

We (the authors) have had exposure to a number of graduates from different programs at the PhD and master’s level as a result of, variously, our own training, our work in academia, and our work in industry.1 In speaking with many of these individuals, we think that we’ve noticed a trend: Answers to the above questions vary across people, and many seem to be confused about the focus of their program.

Although in theory all of the graduate programs are reading from the same playbook, we don’t think it contentious to state that different graduate programs equip students differently for given career paths (see http://0-www-siop-org.library.alliant.edu/CareerPaths/ for more information about those paths).  Some programs focus more on practitioner-oriented activities, such as running consulting firms within the program or partnering with local industries to establish internship opportunities. Others are more research-focused, having very active research laboratories (and for the lucky few, grants to pay for research assistantships).  Is that to say that programs can’t do both?  No, of course not.  But certain resources being in finite supply (time, if nothing else, of faculty and students), ultimately graduate programs have to make decisions about where to allocate these resources.  In our view, this is okay as long as the programs are honest with themselves and their students about what their focus is.

To that end, we sought some perspectives from thinkers across various areas of the I-O world to help us expand and refine these thoughts, and we have wrapped all of our conversations and musings into this package,2 in which we aim to provide some recommendations for action to those who steer graduate programs and those who aim to participate in them.3

Some Foundational Assumptions/Observations

Take a look again at those career paths linked above. Focus especially on the top competencies and experiences associated with each of the four categories (academia, consulting, government, and industry). There are some commonalities (especially in terms of competencies), and perhaps we’re accentuating the differences, but goodness—­did your graduate program prepare you for entry into each of those four contexts? Did it prepare you for any of them?  The assumption/observation here is that, despite there being only one O*NET entry for industrial-organizational psychologists, different I-O folks have starkly different jobs with starkly different requirements.4

Admittedly experience is something accumulated over time and may be acquired after achieving an entry-level position, but read over those pages. When you emerged from your graduate program, were you even in the ballpark of all four of those domains? Did you kill it on one of them and could kind of pass muster on others?  For a variety of reasons, programs cover all of these bases to a greater or lesser extent. Some may try to fully cover all, though the extent to which they are able to do so is unclear; the recent Rankings project, however, can be used to examine just how some programs are succeeding in some areas and not in others.  Should graduate programs try to be masters of all domains? Is that possible?5 There may be tradeoffs inherent in trying to realize full-spectrum career preparation for students—in time, difficulty, probability of success, and then of course just the point that perhaps students don’t need to be prepared for all four of these domains.

Students Need to Be Critical Consumers pf Graduate Programs

As one of our interviewees noted, applicants who are deciding to pursue a graduate education in I-O psychology first need to critically examine why it is they want to be an I-O psychologist.  This self-reflection should preempt any decision of whether one wants to pursue a career in practice versus research, as ultimately it will be the driver behind that decision.  With this information in one’s pocket, an applicant can then begin to explore the learning opportunities that are out there and how these can fit in with his/her overall objectives, and then finally how these opportunities may shape career trajectories.  This is not to say that students in a consulting-oriented program cannot become academics nor that those in research-intensive programs cannot work in government, it just means they will need to work harder to achieve these ends. Having frank conversations about this upon entry as well as throughout the student’s time in the program, including periodic reviews of whether a student’s developing career objectives will be best served by their present or by another graduate program, should be the default in the student experience.

Many of the individuals from whom we solicited opinions agreed that it is the responsibility of graduate applicants to do their due diligence in selecting the program that best fits their educational goals. Many students, however, start graduate school without a clear idea of where they want to arrive in terms of careers, which throws a wrench in the above to some extent. But students should have an awareness that the focus of their program will have consequences for their career path. 

So how do we accomplish this? How can we make sure that applicants are aware of the impact their choice of program has on their future ambitions?  Given the noted unpreparedness of many undergraduates to make such decisions, and also that the readership of this article most likely tilts more heavily toward those already in the field, we focus our recommendations on steps that graduate programs can take rather than placing the burden solely on the applicants.

Suggestion 1: Programs Must Identify What Their Focus Is—and Double Down

Graduate programs are guided in large part by their faculty, and their faculty may not be interested in or capable of providing the experiences necessary to prepare their students for all four the career domains discussed above.  Faculty have preferences for the work upon which they focus, and tenured faculty have the luxury of, at their discretion, single-mindedly pursuing that focus. Whether it is research or practice or teaching or advocacy or administration, many faculty give themselves over wholly to their passions.  Although this is admirable, we recommend that they be cognizant of what this focus is and ask themselves how they can best leverage these pursuits to aid in the development of their students. Some of these foci may be much harder to reconcile with training graduate students; although we recognize that serving graduate students is not the sole purpose of faculty, those who can do so should ask themselves how they can best do so, and those who cannot might want to consider whether they should (and could) pass these responsibilities onto others.

If such a process is followed, a program may find (or may have already found) that it has substantial deficiencies in, for example, preparing students for government jobs (due, perhaps, to a complete lack of contacts in government, general research focus rather than practice focus, or the like) but great strengths in preparing academics who can crank out research articles and grant proposals. Great! Focus identified. Now stop giving them halfhearted developmental opportunities for an applied career. Make them academics. Oh, make them conversant in practice, sure, but don’t pretend that this individual will be equipped for a practitioner role after graduation.

If, instead of the academic focus, you find that consulting and industry are your strong suit, great! Same idea. Teach your folks how to use research and how to collaborate with researchers, then get to what you do best: getting them practical skills and industry experience through internships, collaborations with business departments, whatever!

This may mean some important restructuring of personnel within programs, and we recognize that that’s a more difficult task than we may be intimating. Perhaps programs have two foci and can get away with that given their current loadout of faculty and resources, but we would guess that most programs don’t have the resources to provide their students with two completely separate educational experiences.  This bifurcation of “practitioner” versus “academic” focus comes largely from the fact that the amount of information available in the field has far surpassed the level of knowledge that any one individual can be reasonably expected to bring to bear.  As one of our contributors suggested, we should ask whether the scientist–practitioner model in which one is expected to be deeply knowledgeable about both research and practice is serving us as well today as it once did.  We’re not arguing6 that there isn’t some central core of I-O training that should be common to all of us,7 just that the have-cake-and-eat-it approach that some programs use isn’t serving anyone well—not the faculty, not the reputation of the program, and not the students enrolled in it. Relatedly:

Suggestion 2: Programs Should Convey What Their Focus Is

Once a program has identified and retooled itself in light of its focus/niche, it needs to have the courage to own that publicly. It should make explicit to all applicants what the focus of the program and its curriculum is, and what implications this has for a student’s career prospects.  The program may need to fight at the departmental/college/university level to be permitted to call a spade a spade as it may affect the program’s applicant pool/acceptance rates adversely to cut out entire segments of students (those interested in career paths that are not addressed by the program); however, it also has the possibility of improving one of the primary metrics by which graduate departments measure themselves: graduation rates.

Establishing a common language by which to convey a program’s focus will not be a small matter, not because such a language isn’t already readily available (see the career paths, for instance) but because programs may be resistant to publish the message “hey, you’re not going to get applied experience here; if you want to be a consultant, look elsewhere.”  But it is essential that such a common language be chosen and deployed, because it serves no one to have students enroll in a program only to find that they can’t (or will have an uphill struggle to) get to their target career via the program in which they are involved.

Ok, you might say, “I’m a faculty member, and I agree with what you say (let’s pretend), but I can’t actually make these kinds of programmatic changes; what can I do?”  Presumably you have contact with your students prior to their acceptance—either through emails, interviews, or a visit day—yes?  Take these opportunities to discuss with the applicants, first, how important it is that they choose a program that aligns with their career aspirations, and second, how your program will prepare them to meet these objectives.  Hopefully these discussions will reinforce the applicants’ decisions to attend your program; if not, then count yourself lucky that you didn’t dedicate a good portion of your life to training a researcher who ends up getting an applied job and not finishing their dissertation.

In Closing

Though it’s easy to say that students need to own their graduate school/career trajectory, we ought to reflect on how we as a field can help them to do so.  Many of us (the second author included) didn’t have, at the point at which we’re applying to a graduate program, the knowledge required to formulate, let alone answer, the question of what careers (a) exist in our field in general and (b) are likely to be open to us following the completion of a specific graduate program. Undergraduate students are not, in general, sufficiently conversant in the diversity of our field to apprehend the potential impact of their choice of a specific graduate program on the rest of their work life. So what is to be done? Do we train potential applicants to understand this impact? Do we push toward an aggressive policy of communicating, in a common and broadly respectful language, exactly what a particular graduate program can and can’t do for a student? Yes to both, we say.


1 We do not mean to imply an incredibly large network of such individuals. Just the normal amount.

2 With apologies to our contributors, Ernest Paskey, Rosemary Hays-Thomas, Joel Lefkowitz, and Neil Morelli, for any instance in which we twisted their words to our purposes.

3 If you know someone who aims to participate in an I-O graduate program, please direct them to this article; they likely won’t see it otherwise—at least not until it is too late to matter.  Thanks!

4 Which is not to say that there aren’t greater differences between I-Os and, say, baristas than there are between any two I-Os, but the differences are there nonetheless.

5 Our intention is not to debate this point in this article.  If you’d like to have such a debate, please feel free to corner us at the next SIOP conference.

6 Though others have: the discussion at “The Great I-O Psychology Practice Debates: Addressing Critical Professional Issues” at Annual 2018 was pretty interesting in this regard.

7 See, for example, the training guidelines: http://0-www-siop-org.library.alliant.edu/ETguidelines.aspx

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