Guide to I/O Graduate Research Report Writing

Fall 2012 Revision

Purpose of Report

A master's degree in I/O Psychology signifies that you understand a number of key content areas and that you also possess research skills. Much of your content knowledge can be obtained from course work and related readings. The research report requirement allows you to refine and demonstrate your research skills. These skills are essential for conducting sound studies for employers, for consulting work, and for Ph.D.-level graduate work. The report project will enable you to demonstrate your ability to

  • conduct a literature search on a selected topic,
  • critically review the literature,
  • compare, contrast, and integrate the findings,
  • identify areas for further research, and
  • design a (hypothetical) study to investigate at least one of those areas.

When to Write the Report

Signing up. Normally, students sign up for the Research Report (PSY600) during the fall semester of their second year in the I/O graduate program. (If you plan on doing a thesis, you should sign up for it a semester earlier.) If the report is not completed by the end of one semester, a "NG" (no grade) designation will appear on your transcript. You will then have until the ninth week of the following semester to complete it. If you do not complete your Research Report by the ninth week of the semester following enrollment, you will receive an "F" in PSY600 and will be dismissed from the graduate program.

Since research report writing is an iterative process, sufficient time must be reserved for reviews and revisions. You will need to agree explicitly with your advisor on deadlines for submissions if you plan to obtain a grade or graduate by a specific date.

Integration with a master's thesis. A research report must be completed even if you contemplate writing a master's thesis. If you plan to complete a thesis, the research report is normally used to review the literature and to propose a methodology for the thesis. Since a thesis involves actually collecting and analyzing data, the proposed topic and methodology must be thought out very carefully. This will involve extra effort and planning for both you and your advisor. If you decide upon a thesis after you are already well into your research report project, you may run into the problems of

  • not having a report topic that lends itself to thesis work,
  • not having the time or resources to collect and analyze data,
  • not having the time to assemble and meet with a thesis committee, and/or
  • not having time to finish writing the thesis and making required alterations to it.

The bottom line is that doing a thesis requires a serious commitment at the start of the research report project and completion of the research report at least six months prior to intended graduation.

Research reports and theses. A master's thesis is not required for the I/O master's program. However, students who complete a master's thesis must successfully complete the research report first.

General Report Characteristics

The report consists of two distinct parts: (a) the literature review and (b) a proposal for conducting a study that extends beyond the reviewed literature. Ideally, the finished product should approach the quality of published literature reviews (e.g., those appearing in Annual Reviews of Psychology, Academy of Management Review, and Psychological Bulletin).

Literature review. This is the major part of the report. Typical reviews range from 25 to 40 double-spaced typed pages and reference 30-60 (primarily empirical) research articles (a minimum of 25 references is required). The aim is to show insight and to be thorough rather than to fill space and drop names. Verbose wording can obscure your key points and detract from overall quality. The length and number of citations should be governed primarily by your topic. The review should conclude with a discussion of areas for further research that follows logically from the reviewed literature.

Study proposal. This part of the report should be considerably shorter than the literature review. Typical proposals range from 3 to 6 double-spaced typed pages. The aim is to demonstrate your ability to design a psychological study. The proposal focuses upon an area for potential further research by

  • discussing the research question and its significance,
  • defining research variables (i.e., dependent and, if appropriate, independent ones),
  • stating a theory or hypothesis based on those variables (with justification), and
  • detailing the design and implementation of a study that could be used to test the theory or hypothesis.

You are not expected to actually conduct the study or to collect data for the research report; you are expected to think out the design of the study carefully, including the statistical methods of data analysis and experimental conditions, if applicable. Essentially, the last step above entails writing the equivalent of a METHOD section. Good models for METHOD sections can be found in most empirical journals (e.g., Journal of Applied Psychology, Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science).

Report format. The entire report should follow APA format (see Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed); the WCU bookstore usually stocks this book or it can be specially ordered). The format requirement applies particularly to headings, in-text reference citations, and the References list at the end of the report. To maintain clarity, one or more levels of sub-headings will be needed.

Common format errors. Attention to detail is essential to a successful report. Here are some of the more common sources of errors. Reports submitted with excessive or distracting format problems may be returned for re-submission without comment about the content. This list is by no means complete and should not be used in place of thePublication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Citations should generally appear in one of three ways:

  1. within the text [e.g., "In a 1994 study by Bloom and Duncan, the effect was shown to persist for several hours."],
  2. with name(s) and date(s) in parentheses [e.g., "There is evidence that the effect persists for several hours (Bloom & Duncan, 1994)."], or
  3. with just the date(s) in parentheses [e.g., "Bloom and Duncan's (1994) research showed that the effect can persist for several hours."].

If a parenthesized citation involves multiple sources (e.g., Bloom & Duncan, 1994; Smythe, 1924; Zeller, Cole, & Brooks, 1978), the sources should be separated by semicolons (";") and should appear in alphabetical order (i.e., the same order as in the References list).

If you cite a representative source or sources to support assertions, use "e.g.," at the beginning of parenthesized citations (e.g., Bloom & Duncan, 1994; Smythe, 1924) or mention the words "for example" (or some synonym) within the text to let the reader know that you are simply giving examples of sources rather than a complete listing.

Cite page numbers for all quotations (e.g., Bloom & Duncan, 1994, p. 24). Quotations requiring more than three lines should be set apart from the surrounding text, indented from the left and right margins, single spaced, and should not include surrounding quotation marks. See the APA Guide for more details.

Avoid trivial or extensive quotations. Try to capture the essence of long passages in your own words rather than quote them verbatim. Generally, use quotations sparingly, and only to add emphasis or clarity to your writing.

Use the "&" sign in place of the word "and" for parenthesized citations with multiple authors (see above examples). The "&" sign is not to be used outside of parenthesized citations except in tables, figures, or the References list.

Every citation must have a corresponding entry in the References list. Every entry in the References list must have at least one corresponding citation.

Journal numbers in the References list should not accompany the volume number unless the page numbers start over with "1" in each volume. For example, "Journal of Applied Psychology, 4, 425-437" should be used in the References list instead of "Journal of Applied Psychology, 4(3), 425-437" because the Journal of Applied Psychology's volume number and page numbers are sufficient for locating the appropriate article.

Use one space between all sentences, not two; optionally, full (right and left) text justification may be used unless you are using a monospaced font whose characters appear typewriter-like (e.g., Courier, Courier New, etc.).

Writing style. The report should be written in the third person. In addition, note that it is inappropriate for a research report to present advice for readers, individuals, or organizations (e.g., "all large organizations should have stress management programs") or to state conclusions or speculations that extend far beyond researched samples (e.g., "turnover is probably greatest among uneducated employees"). Furthermore, unsubstantiated and overly general statements about human nature, managerial work, organizations, etc. should be avoided (e.g., "most managers are not concerned with setting long-term performance objectives") together with unsubstantiated statistics about populations (e.g., "two-thirds of the managers in the United States are over forty years old"). As general rules,

  • try to cite references to back up major assertions,
  • be cautious and logical about making extensions beyond published research findings, and
  • use words that denote judgment (e.g., should, must, good, bad, etc.) very cautiously if at all.

Selecting a Tentative Topic

Invest considerable care in choosing your topic. One that is too broad will overwhelm you (and the reader); one that is too narrow will not provide you with enough literature to review. To sustain your efforts, it is also critical that you have a strong interest in your topic. This is your opportunity to become a specialist and to build a knowledge area that can enhance your career prospects.

Focusing Your Topic and Locating Literature

Unless you are already an expert on the topic, focusing your report may require several iterations. Here are some general guidelines:

Read widely. Be sure your proposed topic is clearly I/O-related and read as much as you can about it. Seek out recent literature (especially review articles, if possible) on your topic or on topics closely related to yours. (Computer searches in the library, based on keywords, are an excellent way to start.) Consult prior course readings. Seek out as many empirical (data-oriented) articles as possible before looking for practitioner-oriented articles. For some topics, business or educational journals may be appropriate to consult. Whenever you locate a relevant article, check its References list for additional publications that may pertain to your topic. One sign of thoroughness in searching the literature is when most of the entries in references lists point to sources you have already investigated.

Take stock of what you have found. You should be able to evaluate the practicality of your topic after you have read widely. Ideas from the literature may very well give you a new or revised perspective. If you can't find enough articles (e.g., on "career development of sanitation engineers"), you may need to broaden or change your topic area. If you find an overwhelming amount of literature (e.g., on "motivation in the workplace"), try to identify a facet of your original topic that is more limited in scope but still addressed sufficiently by the literature (e.g., on "motivating workers through pay for performance systems"). Another way to limit your topic is to concentrate upon recent theories, research, and/or developments in rapidly changing areas. Overall, the content of your research report should represent your original thinking and should not overlap substantially with existing review articles or reports.

Keep track of what you have read. Many students prefer to photocopy the articles they review so that they can be highlighted and marked up. If you copy an article, be sure that the full journal citation is clearly identified on the copy. For some individuals, taking notes on index cards works well.

Seek input from your report advisor. It might be appropriate to discuss the feasibility of your initial ideas with him/her before reviewing a great deal of literature. However, your report advisor cannot be expected to be an expert on your topic nor to be a source of topic ideas and literature references. You are expected to take independent initiative to generate potential topics and to become knowledgeable with what has been written about them. Which advisor you work with will depend partly upon your preference, your proposed topic, the advisor's areas of interest, and his/her schedule. Generally, you are expected to do some preliminary reading, literature searching, and hard thinking on your proposed topic before selecting and meeting with an advisor. In some situations, it may be appropriate to have a backup topic that you have also investigated.

Organizing and Refining Your Literature Review

Good organization is one of the keys to a successful research project. Here are some suggestions:

Create an outline. Reading several published review articles will give you a good sense for how literature reviews are organized. It is best to outline your review before writing it. Most reviews are organized with headings and sub-headings. Start by determining the headings of the major sections of your review. Then create sub-headings under each heading that list the major concepts or ideas to be addressed. Under each major concept or idea, you can then identify specific articles or finer points that are to be explored.

Refine your ideas. You may have to rearrange headings or information in your outline in order for ideas to flow smoothly and to be integrated. Seeking additional references may be appropriate for categories that appear to be incomplete. When you draft your review based on the outline, you do not have to devote equal space to each sub-topic; it is common for reviews to initially overview several broad areas before delving into a logical subset of them in more detail. It is a good idea to briefly review your outline with your advisor before actually drafting the review.

Create a rough draft first. Most sound reviews are written by successively improving upon earlier drafts. Your first draft should aim to capture your basic ideas without emphasizing fine wording. Later, read over and edit your draft, focusing upon the readability and logic of what you have written. It is also essential to check carefully for spelling, grammatical errors, and typos before you hand in anything. In addition, you will need to verify that (a) every in-text reference citation is backed up by a matching entry in the References list and (b) every entry in the reference list is cited in at least one place in your text.

Show insight. Most published reviews go beyond simply reporting research results. Selectively, they also

  • compare/contrast findings from different studies,
  • compare/contrast methodologies used to arrive at those findings,
  • critique the methodologies, noting important strengths and/or weaknesses,
  • suggest extensions of studies, and/or
  • combine results or findings from multiple studies into an integrative picture or pattern.

These same approaches are crucial for creating a successful research report. The integration stressed in the last point above is especially important since literature reviews aim to crystallize readers' thinking about a broad topic.

Submit a refined draft to your advisor. Once you have created a "near-final" draft, you may submit it to your advisor for review. Although you can expect a significant number of constructive suggestions to be made, you will be graded only on your final report. You are expected to respond to suggested improvements in your next draft. When you re-submit a draft, attach the previous marked-up draft to it. Two or three submissions to your advisor may be necessary to achieve a polished product.

Writing the Study Proposal

The study proposal section is placed after the literature review and just prior to your References list. The intent is to propose an empirical study and describe applicable methodology. Normally, the study will not be carried out unless the research report is used as a basis for a master's thesis. Here is a partial list of things to be discussed in the proposal:

Research question. Select an idea (or closely-related set of ideas) for further research, based upon the suggestions you have discussed near the end of your literature review. Discuss the research question, why it is important to investigate, and the potential implications from having the research question answered.

Research variables. Define study variables that can logically be used to investigate your research question. At the very least, you need to clearly identify one or more dependent or outcome measures. You may need to create operational definitions of constructs (e.g., motivation, career progress, turnover, performance, etc.). For most studies, you will also need to identify predictors or independent variables that you would expect to influence the outcome measures (e.g., gender, salary, years of experience, amount of training, personal or situational characteristics, etc.).

Population. Specifically describe the population to which the proposed study applies.

Hypotheses. Based on your research variables, state one or more hypotheses about how the dependent or outcome measures should relate to (a) the predictors or independent variables or (b) each other. Be specific (e.g., "involuntary dysfunctional turnover will be lower when workers are paid on a piece-rate system than when they are paid at a fixed hourly rate."). Justify your hypotheses by

  • citing research you have included in your literature review,
  • citing specific theories or frameworks by others, and/or
  • creating a theory or model of your own of the mechanisms by which the outcome measures may be influenced.

Participants. Describe the number of subjects you propose to use, how they will be selected (including important subject screening characteristics), and how they will be recruited. Do they represent a sample or a population?

Design. Describe the analytical design of the study (e.g., "A 4 x 2 (Training Method x User Friendliness) factorial analysis of variance (ANOVA) would be employed, with 10 subjects randomly assigned to each condition."). You need not propose a classical between-subjects experimental design; within-subject, correlational, factor-analytic, survey-based, and case-study designs are also permissible if they lend themselves to the research question. You also need to describe the quantitative or statistical methods that would be applied to the data to test your hypotheses. If you propose an experiment, describe the levels of the independent variable(s). Consult one or more statistics texts if you are unsure about design considerations.

Procedure. In a systematic way, describe how your data will be collected: What stimulus materials will be used? How will they be administered? What constraints or safeguards are important? How long will the procedure take? Who will collect the data and what training or orientation do they need? If you propose an experiment, describe any unique administrative procedures within each condition. Also, describe how subjects will be debriefed.