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I/O Psych MA/PhD programs - Lacking research experience


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Hi guys -

I'm hoping to apply to several I/O Psych MA and/or PhD programs for Fall 2013. I have a good undergrad GPA from the psych department of a respected liberal arts school, and strong GRE scores. I've been out of undergrad for 4 years, employed for the duration as an analyst at a media research and consulting firm. However I have at least 2 gaping holes in my application material/background:

1. I have literally no undergrad research experience whatsoever. I volunteered for a summer at a psych lab (at a different university than where I got my undergrad degree), but it was so insubstantial that I'm pretty reluctant to even mention it on my CV. I.e., if I were asked about it, I would have a hard time justifying how the experience prepared me in any way for a career in higher academia.

2. While I can definitely acquire 3 recommendations from people who will say nice things about me (2 undergrad professors, 1 work supervisor), I'm concerned my academic references won't be able to say much of value besides that I was a bright and conscientious student.

I do have a really strong interest in the field and some work experience that I think is legitimately relevant to I/O psych (at least in an applied sense), and I don't think I'll have trouble expressing this in my statement. However I'm just very concerned that the lack of any real evidence or testimonies as to my performance in and suitability for academic research will hurt my chances.

So, my questions are as follows:

1. Any thoughts as to how much this will hurt me? I.e., will it eliminate me from consideration from the top programs? Does it make a difference in terms of MA vs. PhD (in other words, would I have significantly better chance of getting into an MA program)? Does it help at all that I have a substantial amount of experience in media/market research in a business context, or not really?

2. Anything I can do in the meantime (i.e., before sending my applications in the next month or so) to mitigate the potential negative impact of that blemish on my background? E.g., would it help for me to reach out to professors in programs I'm really interested in? And if so, does it seem like a better approach to directly address my lack of academic experience and insist that my interest is serious, or to just express my interest in the field in a general way?

Any thoughts or advice would be incredibly appreciated.

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1. Yes, it makes a difference MA vs PhD. You will have significantly better chances getting into a Masters program. That said, you say you have significant on-the-job research experience.....what was that experience? Does it include experiments or surveys? If yes, talk about that and how you made significant contributions and gained skills. If not, well, talk about what you can but it does make the likelihood of being admitted to a strong PhD program a lot lower. On the masters' end, it won't matter as much, but the better you can connect your experience to what you'll be trained in the better.

2. Well, go ahead and contact faculty you'd like to work with...but keep it SHORT. A few sentences expressing interest, saying what you've been doing since graduation, and why you want to work with them, then just ask if they are taking students. This should be less than a full paragraph. Then wait for a response...if the professor wants to engage you more, great, if not, they probably don't engage with any applicants like this before the interview stage. NEVER state a reason why they shouldn't take you. Address it, but in a way that sells yourself. If you didn't realize you wanted to go to grad school until you were working and realized how much you loved the research component, say THAT (and then go into detail explaining how your work has prepped you to be a super awesome grad student)

3. What do you want as a final outcome? If you want to be in academia (i.e., a professor) you'll go the PhD route. If you want to go back to industry then you might want to stick with the MA/MS.

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