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Applying to study for a PhD in psychology
Applying to study for a PhD in psychology

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1 Taking forward a career in psychology: some options

Psychology graduates have a number of options for further study. This section sets out some of the main university courses and degrees available in the UK. (Other countries offer different degrees, including different arrangements for PhD study.) The details given below are indicative, not final, because the requirements vary from university to university. The summary indicates the period for full-time study but many of these degrees are also offered part-time. ‘Postgraduate’ refers to any study that requires you to have a Bachelor’s degree so, rather confusingly, both taught degrees and research degrees can be described as ‘postgraduate’.

Notice that training for practitioners, such as counsellors, psychotherapists or practitioner psychologists (clinical, counselling, educational, forensic etc), may be offered by a university or a different training body. In either case, it will be important to check that the course does lead to a practitioner qualification, if that is what you are seeking. For practitioner psychology programmes this means a training pathway accredited by the British Psychological Society and approved by the Health and Care Professions Council. For counsellors and psychotherapists, it means accreditation by a professional body, such as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapists.

Practice-related courses

These may be training courses lead directly to a practitioner qualification, such as an accredited counselling or psychotherapy qualification, or a more academic course (e.g. a Postgraduate Certificate) that is a preliminary to practitioner training but not a qualification for it. Notice that the levels of practitioner qualifications vary: they include, but are not limited to, both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications.

You can find extra information about training pathways here. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Remember to open this link in a new window or tab so you can return to OpenLearn when you are ready.)

Taught academic degrees

MSc or MA – Study for a Masters degree usually consists of a combination of taught modules and an independent research project, written up in a dissertation of about 20,000 words.

There is a fixed study programme, usually for one year fulltime or two years part-time. Some Masters degrees are general (e.g. MSc Psychology) while others have a more specific and/or applied focus e.g. Masters in Occupational Psychology. (Unless specified as such, these are not usually a practitioner qualification.)

Professional doctorate

This has elements of both taught and research degrees. The study programme is some combination of taught units, placements and supervised practice, and a research project written up in a dissertation (25,000 – 40,000 words). There is usually a strong focus on practice, and the doctorate will usually be an accredited practitioner qualification.

The length is usually three years full time. Examples include a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology and Doctorate in Educational Psychology.

Research degrees

MPhil in Psychology – The nature of an MPhil varies according to the university. It can be a shorter version of a PhD, in word length requirements and study period, or it can include a taught element. PhD students are often initially registered for an MPhil, then upgraded after one or two years’ study.

PhD in Psychology – The focus of this OpenLearn course. In the UK, a PhD is awarded for an original research project, written up in a dissertation of 80-100,000 words. The study programme consists mainly of the research; taught elements are minor. The PhD is not a practitioner qualification.

The allocated period of full-time study for a PhD is usually three years, though many students require extra time to complete it.

A less common version is a PhD by publication, awarded for a portfolio of published academic research (for example, refereed journal articles), with an accompanying commentary or discussion. Because of the publication requirements, in the UK this PhD is usually undertaken only by academics who have already established careers. The period between registration and submission can be quite short (months rather than years).

This is only a brief summary to indicate some of the many possibilities for further study in psychology. You can search for more information on university websites.