How graduate students can help you translate HR theories into practice

How graduate students can help you translate HR theories into practice
Even with the rise of people analytics, there is still a large gap between what organizational science recommends and what organizations actually do. Partnering with graduate students is one way to close this gap.

More and more companies are forming people analytics teams and the field is now a formal offering at universities. But despite advances, the way many companies practice HR and make people-related decisions remains relatively unchanged. For example, unstructured interviews continue to be used to make hiring decisions around the world, despite substantial scientific evidence that recommends otherwise.

But this evidence, like most other research that has the potential to change the nature of work, is often complex and confusing for organizations to navigate. The findings are often too theoretical, making it difficult for organizations to apply findings to their specific situations.

What organizations need is someone who can translate the language of science and research to that of their own world. Luckily, there are translators who are eager to help: graduate students in organizational science fields. Reading, interpreting, and summarizing research findings is a routine part of graduate student life, and many students are more than willing to offer their aid at little (and sometimes no) cost in exchange for the practical experience. Speaking from personal experience, we find it extremely rewarding to work outside of the realm of theory (and to provide value to real people!).

A common way that companies have partnered with graduate students is to have them review the external scientific literature, analyze internal employee survey data, or design tailored experiments. Jared recently partnered with the learning and development (L&D) division of a large organization to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs after meeting the L&D director at a conference. Through Jared’s statistical analysis, the team realized that one of their learning programs was highly effective while another needed some work. They used the statistical evidence to secure more funding for the first more effective program and noticeably improved the effectiveness of the second program.

Here are some pointers for how best to partner with a local graduate student:

  • Check your own expectations. Graduate students may not be the best people to look to for help if you need someone to work 40 hours per week, if your question cannot easily be answered with a scientific approach, or if you have reservations about sharing access to data with a grad student for analysis purposes (but non-disclosure agreements may help).
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. To find graduate programs near you, visit and reach out to the faculty contact. Typically, the faculty contact will email a few students to gauge interest before responding with a few individuals for you to contact. Be patient; it may take a few weeks before you hear back.
  • Be clear about your expectations. In your initial outreach, do your best to outline the following: the primary question(s) you want answered (e.g., how can we increase gender diversity in our organization?), what kind of work you need help with (e.g., a literature review or data analysis), and any terms and conditions (e.g., important deadlines, compensation).
  • Make sure they’re the right fit. Interview interested grad students as you would any other candidate joining your team. Be sure to ask about any consulting projects they’ve done in the past and if they’re familiar with the scientific literature related to your case. Neither are necessary, but they certainly give an edge.

Organizations aren’t the only ones to benefit from this type of partnership — ultimately, organizational science advances, too. So the next time you find yourself in need of scientific expertise, consider reaching out to a local graduate student.

Jared and Frank are both graduate students in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology at the University of Waterloo. Jared aspires to combine his I/O expertise with data science in order to help organizations lift their people to new heights. Frank enjoys using his I/O expertise to tackle analytic challenges and fairness issues in organizations.