How... to select a graduate program

Graduate school is a big commitment – not only when pursuing a career in I/O psychology but in general. As such, it is critical that one does their due diligence on different graduate programs before taking the leap into 5-6 years of PhD training. There are a few factors to consider when deciding whether a program is suitable for you. I will only focus on aspects that are important for those who desire to go obtain a tenure-track job at a research school.


Rankings?

  • “USA News Rankings” appear to play a big part in which schools students apply to. The idea is that better ranked schools are better. While this is the most common way for potential students to decide on which schools to apply, it is not necessarily the most informative. USA news rankings are based on peer-assessments and this is limited for several reasons:

    • First, there are reputation lags. Faculty move around and perceived reputation of programs may not match the current actual situation.

    • Second, faculty appraisals of schools weigh factors that may be non-essential to the extent one will succeed as a graduate student there. For example, a school may be perceived as a good program because of an eminent scholar, or a founding scholar in the field, which may or may not benefit new graduate students; other activities may take priority over mentoring graduate students (e.g., preparing for retirement, traveling).

  • This is not to suggest that all types of rankings are of no value.

    • Peer-assessments such as USA news rankings can provide useful information about the perceived state of the program in terms of potential resources such as intellectual capital, funding, and size of the program. Further, they may also point to the strength of the alumni.

    • When using rankings it is important to think about whether the type of ranking one uses would directly affect graduate school success. For example, productivity rankings may be closer to success factors for graduate students. Productivity of a program reflects whether the faculty are publishing papers, which will inevitably spillover to graduate students as it increases their chances of getting more publications.


Faculty?

  • It cannot be overemphasized that one of the most important factors in graduate school success is the faculty advisor. I consider this even more important than rankings. A practical example is that when faculty move, say, to a better program, they may bring their students along. There are several factors to consider when deciding who to work with. I list them below (as an I/O psychologist, I also include some practical ways to evaluate student-advisor fit and “performance indicators” of faculty that would help you make reasonable evaluations).

  • You should be interested in what the professor is working on. Check out their statement of interest or research area. Go to PsychINFO to download and read their research. You may not understand all the methodology and statistics at this point, but that should not hinder you. Focus on reading the abstract and introduction. Is the topic or research idea interesting to you? You can also get a sense of the breadth of interest the professor has and what are the recent ideas the professor is working on.

  • The professor should be research productive, especially if you are planning to go into academia. Some questions to consider: How many publications did s/he have over the last 3 years? Were they with graduate students? Look at “Google Scholar” or “Web of Science” for a list of recent publications or their CV if it is online. Note: Types of publications that are generally most helpful post-PhD (when looking for a tenure-track job) are peer-reviewed publications (vs. book chapters, technical reports, conference papers etc.). Therefore, it is a good sign if professors have good peer-reviewed publications with graduate students recently.

    • Some have asked: “What types of peer reviewed journals?” Some examples (not exhaustive) of well-recognized peer-reviewed journals in I/O include:

      • Journal of Applied Psychology (SSCI2013 = 4.758)

      • Personnel Psychology (SSCI2013 = 3.702)

      • Journal of Management (SSCI2013 = 6.704)

      • Academy of Management Journal (SSCI2013 = 5.906)

      • Academy of Management Review (SSCI2013 = 7.895)

      • Organizational Research Methods (SSCI2013 = 3.926)

    • Some examples (not exhaustive) of well-recognized psychology peer-reviewed journals in I/O include:

      • Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (SSCI2013 = 4.877)

      • Psychological Science (SSCI2013 = 4.543)

      • Perspectives on Psychological Science (SSCI2013 = 6.594)

      • Current Directions in Psychological Science (SSCI2013 = 4.222)

      • Psychological Bulletin (SSCI2013 = 15.575)

      • Psychological Review (SSCI2013 = 11.342)

    • Some examples (not exhaustive) of top science journals include:

      • Science (SSCI2013 = 31.027)

      • Proceedings of National Academy of Science (SSCI2013 = 9.737)

    • In general, good journals have high impact factors. As seen above, the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) is usually >3-4 … higher numbers indicate higher impact.

    • *Note: Competitive I/O job candidates for tenure-track positions coming straight out of a PhD program generally have at least one first-authored ‘top’ publication. Very competitive individuals have multiple ‘top’ publications (3-4). They also have a number of other peer-reviewed publications. Very little weight is given to technical reports and conference papers. This is one of the reasons why working with a productive faculty member who publishes in such journals with students is important. Of course, there are other factors that matter as well – like whether the theme of research is important and promising; solely counting ‘top’ publications may reveal superficial productivity but is not too discerning.

  • If the professor has been in the field for some time, they should have some students in academia. What has the placement rate of the professor been for their graduate students? Are their graduate students now in good research schools? You can sometimes find this information on the professor’s website or CV. If not, you can examine good I/O programs to see where recently hired faculty graduated from and who their advisors were.

  • Unless you are very independent, it is critical that you have face time with your professor. How much time does the faculty have for graduate students? Check with current graduate students on the frequency of meetings, length of meetings, and perceived availability of the professor. Consider how large a lab the professor has. The larger the lab, the less one-on-one time there is for you. Note: with a large lab, it may still be possible to learn from more senior graduate students or post-docs. As such, it is important to evaluate whether current lab members are willing and available to help you along when the professor is busy.

  • Pro-social motivation of the professor. Does the professor have the best interest of students at heart? Are they thinking only about themselves or their students and their students’ careers? This is one of the more difficult things to evaluate because it requires time. As such, one may not be able to obtain such information prior to graduate school application but one can get a sense of it during graduate student visitation. When one talks with current graduate students in a program, note that no one will want to “bad-mouth” a faculty member. Unless a professor is really bad (graduate students warn you to “stay away”), you are looking for what current graduate students are not saying.

  • It is a bonus if the professor has funding for you. Does the professor have funding – or is actively seeking funding – for graduate students? A professor who is able to fund graduate students can help their academic productivity.


Environment?

  • What type of graduate school model does the program have?

    • Some programs employ a “best-athlete” model where they admit a batch of students and the best students who rise to the top are selected by faculty as formal advisees. It is important to consider how independent and competitive you are. If you thrive on competition and are very independent (i.e., have all the necessary research skills), this type of environment may be the right fit for you..

    • Other programs employ an “apprenticeship” model where students are admitted based on the alignment of interest between student and professor. Professors admit graduate students and mentor them from day one. If you prefer to be mentored closely and are very interested in what the professor is researching in, this would be a good fit for you.

  • What is the climate of the program?

    • This may be related to the graduate school model of an I/O program. During graduate student visitation, you can probably observe some aspects that could appeal to you. Are the people in the program competitive types or collaborative types? Are they cold or friendly?

    • Generally, a more collaborative atmosphere helps because one gains more by having good research collaborators.


How... to succeed in graduate school

The following suggestions are really suggestions, based on my own observation and opinion, on what it takes to do well in graduate school and to maximize your chances of obtaining a tenure-track position at a research school. Each person has their own strategy but these appear to be fairly consistent across different fields of study.


Select the right school and advisor.

  • Unfortunately, a lot of graduate school success depends on whether one enters the right school and has the right advisor. I have seen many smart enthusiastic graduate students become discouraged by their advisor and eventually drop out of academia. Or, if lucky, they manage to switch advisors in time and become successful academics. So the take home message is to ensure that when one is applying for graduate school, one has (1) a good GPA; (2) high GRE scores; (3) strong research experience; (4) strong recommendation letters from academics (preferred over non-academics). When admitted to different programs, you should carefully choose an advisor who would help you succeed. See section on “How to select a graduate program.”


Your mentality should be that graduate school is a full-time job.

  • You should no longer have a “student” mentality. Instead, you should treat graduate school as a full-time job. In many ways, working toward tenure begins on the first day of graduate school..

  • Don’t compare yourself to other graduate students. Instead, compare yourself to other working professionals. How many days of leave do they get a year? How many days do they work a week? How many hours do they spend each week working? For example, when I was in graduate school, I never compared myself to what other graduate students are doing. I compared myself to my friends in Asia working as lawyers and investment bankers pulling 80-90 hours a week. The hours I was working were nothing compared to them – moreover, I loved what I was doing.

  • You are doing a “start-up.” You are not working because you want to please your advisor. Your business is yourself and your CV. You need to invest the long hours without seeing much return at the start – but it will pay for itself in due time. Another aspect of doing a “start-up” is being enterprising and proactive. Don’t wait for opportunities to land in your lap. Instead, make research and publication opportunities happen. Discover what you need to learn and figure out how you can contribute to your advisor’s research.

  • Working the hours does not guarantee success, but in graduate school where the next person is probably as smart, or perhaps even smarter than you, it gives you an edge. The academic CV is very honest: the quality and strength of the academic CV is generally commensurate with the number of hours worked.


Recognize best strategies for developing a publication stream.

  • Set your sights on being an expert in one topic within the first two years. This means reading a lot. Always start with “review” articles, “meta-analyses”, and “handbook chapters” on specific topics. This gives you the big picture schema. Then skim and read through many research articles to build on what you know.

  • Be good in methodology. There are several reasons: (1) methodology brings about new perspectives to your data and theorizing. For example, if you know multilevel modeling, it can help you think about multilevel phenomena in the organization; (2) methodology avails more opportunities for research projects. For example, someone may have a large dataset but not know how to analyze it. They might bring you on board and you do not need to conduct your own data collection, which saves time; (3) methodology broadens your research so you do not end up putting all your eggs into one basket.

  • Take every opportunity to collaborate and generate research. For example, use classes as an opportunity to develop into a working research project or review that you can use for publications.


Expect to work hardest during the first 3 years of graduate school.

  • My observation is that the first 3 years are particularly critical in graduate school. It is then you develop a reputation of whether you can finish research projects, how responsible you are, etc. This will either open more opportunities to you (e.g., research projects, funding, etc.) or it will close certain doors. Usually, if within the first 3 years the student has been unproductive (i.e., little research projects, little progress in research, no papers submitted for journal reviews), the academic doors to tenure-track research positions are closed. After the first three years, it gets substantially easier…


Develop a good work-life balance.

  • Although graduate school can be intense, it should not be a sprint but a marathon. Schedule time to rest and relax. Find good leisure activities. Travel. Join a club, society, or religious organization.