What Can I Expect from an Industrial-Organizational Psychology Ph.D. Program?

What Can I Expect from an Industrial-Organizational Psychology Ph.D. Program?

If you’re contemplating continuing your education to seek a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology, you are to be applauded. Getting a Ph.D. in this field – or any field, for that matter – is tough work, and it takes a special kind of student to stick with it to earn a terminal degree.

Although receiving accolades about your desire to get a Ph.D. is well and good, you no doubt have more on your mind than getting praise. You certainly have some essential questions about what to expect from an industrial-organizational psychology doctorate degree program. You’re in the right place for just that!

Whether you’ve just started your undergraduate studies or you’re about to graduate with your master’s degree or you’re somewhere in between on your educational journey, the outline below will give you the essential details you want to know about getting a Ph.D. in this field.

Why Get a Ph.D.?

Why Get a Ph.D.?If you’re considering a Ph.D. program, you’ve likely already determined that the benefits of advancing your education outweigh the time and cost it will take to get the degree. But just in case you need a little more motivation, getting a Ph.D. offers the benefits of:

  • Expanding your knowledge and skillset to better serve your clients
  • Making you more attractive to potential employers
  • Being qualified for more positions and more varied positions in a greater breadth of employment areas
  • Increased earning potential
  • Offering specialization opportunities
  • Offering the chance to conduct detailed research (and have funding for it)
  • Being able to be licensed 

Of course, there is a personal satisfaction component to this as well. Getting a Ph.D. is something that should give you a lot of pride!

Ph.D. or Psy.D.?

As you think ahead to your doctoral program in industrial-organizational psychology, you’ll need to consider whether you want to pursue a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. Each program offers a slightly different learning experience.

A Ph.D. program is usually focused more on research, whereas a Psy.D. program tends to focus more on providing direct industrial-organizational psychology services to clients.

Either way, you’ll end your education with the highest possible degree in the field and you’ll be prepared to pursue advanced employment opportunities, including practicing as a licensed psychologist. Just know that the focus of the programs, the courses you will take, and the methods by which you are trained will differ if you are in a Psy.D. program as opposed to a Ph.D. program.

The details provided below about what to expect from your industrial-organizational psychology doctoral program are applicable to both Ph.D. or Psy.D. programs.

Admissions Requirements of Industrial-Organizational Psychology Doctorate Program

Admissions Requirements of Industrial-Organizational Psychology Doctorate ProgramWhile each individual program will vary somewhat, we can be confident that no matter which program you select at what school, you will find certain admissions requirements.

To be admitted to a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program, you’ll need to have a master’s degree in psychology or a closely related field, though some schools might offer the opportunity for bachelor’s degree students to be admitted to a doctoral program and earn their master’s degree along the way. This is relatively rare, though.

Additionally, Ph.D. and Psy.D. students will need to have acceptable GRE scores (if that is a requirement for admission) as well as a sufficient undergraduate and graduate GPA (e.g., 3.0 on a 4.0 scale), letters of recommendation from undergraduate and graduate professors, and satisfactory performance in a faculty interview.

Some programs also ask prospective students to submit a personal essay along with a curriculum vitae. Doing so gives admissions panels greater insight into who you are as a person both inside and outside of the educational environment. The aforementioned faculty interview serves the same purpose. Faculty interviews might be done remotely or in person, and usually involve a short discussion with a panel of professors that are part of the admissions team for the program.

Once admitted, Ph.D. programs in this field usually take between five to eight years to complete. Psy.D. programs in industrial-organizational psychology tend to be a little shorter, with an average length of study of four to six years. Either way, you’re in it for the long haul!

It should be noted that Ph.D. programs in industrial-organizational psychology tend to have lower acceptance rates than Psy.D. programs. Again, this is not set in stone, but generally speaking, Psy.D. programs are easier to get into. Since there are many, many more Ph.D. programs, there are many, many more students applying to them. This means that schools that offer Ph.D. programs in industrial-organizational psychology can be highly selective. In fact, some Ph.D. programs in this field might only accept a handful of new students – four or five – each year.

Psy.D. programs, on the other hand, are fewer in number with fewer students applying to them. As a result, your chances of gaining admission are much greater. In fact, some Psy.D. programs accept dozens and dozens of new students each year. That’s just something to keep in mind as you decide which type of program you want to pursue.

Focus of a Doctorate Program

Because of the nature of the work of an industrial-organizational psychologist, specific courses in a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program cover a broad range of topics and issues.

For example, you might expect to take courses in psychology research methods and statistics, which prepare you for your dissertation or research project later in the program (of course, these are valuable skills to have for your practice or career, too). But you might also take courses in leadership and motivation, two topics that industrial-organizational psychologists must be intimately familiar with as they seek to help businesses and organizations achieve their long-term goals.

Likewise, you might take courses in organizational behavior, test construction and validity, organizational change, and workplace attitudes. 

While the courses you might take may vary in their general direction, the overall focus of these courses is on two things – first, helping you build a strong foundation of knowledge upon which you can draw for your dissertation or research project, and, second, giving you the skillset needed to be an effective industrial-organizational psychologist in the workplace.

Due to the fact that an industrial-organizational psychologist can work in a variety of areas with a doctorate, a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program will typically have a specific focus for a student as well. 

For example, if you’re in a Ph.D. program, your specialty might be on testing and research. As such, you might take courses that are more closely focused on psychological statistics, psychological assessment, and research methods.

On the other hand, if you’re in a Psy.D. program, your specialty might be organizational change. With that focus, you might take courses geared towards personnel recruitment, occupational health, employee training and evaluation, and organizational culture.

Of course, these are just two examples. You may well find that the specific doctoral program you choose offers other options, like: 

  • Job analysis
  • Performance appraisal and management
  • Individual assessment and psychometrics
  • Remuneration and compensation
  • Training and training evaluation
  • Motivation in the workplace
  • Occupational stress
  • Occupational safety
  • Group behavior
  • Productive behavior
  • Counterproductive work behavior
  • Leadership

In some cases, a student may elect to develop a focus for his or her course of study to obtain a doctorate in industrial-organizational psychology that involves more than one of these specifically enumerated areas.

For example, while your primary focus might be on group behavior in the workplace, you might also choose to focus your studies on productive behavior, counterproductive behavior, and job analyses.

Therein lies the beauty of pursuing a doctoral degree in industrial-organizational psychology – you have the ability to really drill down to your specific interests and pursue those interests in your educational training, research, and career preparations.

What to Expect From the Dissertation Requirement

If you go the Ph.D. route, you will be required to complete a doctoral dissertation. However, if you elect to pursue a Psy.D., the chances are good that you will not have a dissertation requirement. Instead, many Psy.D. programs require a doctoral project that is less research-based and more narrowly focused on demonstrating practical skills specific to working as an industrial-organizational psychologist.

For example, as a Ph.D. student, your dissertation topic might be on the role of authentic leadership in the developing resilience amongst employees. This would be a topic that you research for the purposes of adding to existing research on these particular subjects. It is a theoretical exercise. And while you could certainly use what you learn and apply it in a workplace setting after graduation, the focus would be on the research itself, not its application later on.

In a Psy.D. doctoral project, though, the opposite would be true. While the project would entail a great deal of research, the overarching goal would be to show the faculty committee that you have developed the skills you’ll need to be an effective practitioner.

For example, you might devise an evaluative tool that can be used to match job applicants with ideal positions in a company by utilizing the applicant’s personality features as the primary matching tool.

You can see the difference in approach here. The Ph.D. dissertation looks at a specific issue from a theory standpoint and explores it using existing and new research. This, in turn, could lead to an improved understanding of how leadership and resilience in the workplace are related. 

The Psy.D. project, meanwhile, also focuses on a specific issue, but that focus revolves around highlighting the knowledge and skills you already possess and how you can use those tools to develop practical approaches to solving real-world workplace problems.

In either case, a dissertation or a research project requires copious amounts of time to complete – typically, you’ll have between 15-18 credit hours devoted wholly to your dissertation or project. You must also present your project (or defend your dissertation) to a faculty panel in order to complete the program.

Of note is that many Ph.D. programs offer students a stipend or other types of financial assistance while they work on their dissertation. In some cases, you might be asked to assist a professor with their research or serve as a teaching assistant. In other cases, you might get grants to fund your dissertation research. In any event, there are options for easing the financial burden of having to spend so much time in the research phase.

Psy.D. projects are typically not funded to the degree that Ph.D. dissertations are, simply because they are not as focused on developing research. Nevertheless, you can expect to find some forms of financial assistance for your Psy.D. project, usually in the form of small tuition stipends or perhaps as paid assistantships in the psychology department.

Support Organizations for Ph.D. Students

When studying to get a doctorate in industrial-organizational psychology, you can access all manner of supportive services at your school. You don’t have to embark on this course of advanced study on your own!

An important resource for a person employed in the field of industrial-organizational psychology or interested in pursuing an advanced academic degree in this area is the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology, or SIOP. This organization offers full professional memberships as well as affiliate memberships for students that still give you full access to the Society’s benefits of membership.

At this point in time, the field of industrial-organizational psychology remains a rather “exclusive” profession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By that, it is meant that there is a relatively small number of people who are engaged in industrial-organizational psychology, including those with Ph.D. or Psy.D. degrees.

However, the BLS predicts that this field will continue to grow at a higher-than-average pace. With some I-O psychologists retiring and switching to other roles, additional positions are expected to open for new graduates. By pursuing a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., you will prepare yourself well to find employment. With support from organizations like SIOP, you’ll be able to make the most of your knowledge, skills, and talents as an industrial-organizational psychologist.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated September 2021

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