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

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3 Finding your starting point: a PhD research area and topic

This section is relatively short because, like most people who are contemplating registering for a PhD in psychology, you probably already have some idea of what you want to research. However, you may not be aware that, as the next section explains in more detail, what you propose to research will in part determine where you apply to do a PhD (i.e. which university’s psychology department or school or faculty) and who will work with you as your supervisor(s).

The development of your topic from your first possibly vague idea to your application to study will probably not be straightforward and may take some time. However, there are a few initial points to consider.

Activity 2 Points to consider

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes.

What kind of psychologist are you?


Your previous studies will probably have indicated the area of psychology that most interests you, such as social, developmental, counselling, cognitive, biological, forensic, coaching or occupational psychology (and many more options could be added to that list).

How will you utilise your previous study of psychology in your PhD research on your proposed topic?


Think about the modules and assessed tasks, especially research projects, that you completed in your previous degree(s), and the theoretical traditions and previous research that you found most interesting.

Is there an issue or question that you would like to investigate?


Research is not purely descriptive. It addresses a question or issue and presents a claim (an answer or solution) supported by evidence. The initial question or focus often changes as the research develops, but at the start of a project you need some idea of the problem you’re investigating.

What recent and current psychology research relates to your possible topic and investigation?


Although you will address this question in more detail when you begin your actual PhD research, at this point you need some broad familiarity with what is happening in the area you propose to enter, in order to understand how to move forward and, eventually, make an original contribution to current psychological knowledge. Remember that a PhD project will always be ‘of its time’: a question or issue that was worth investigating ten or twenty years ago would now need to be substantially modified, to take account of subsequent developments in theory and research.

What research methods do you intend to use?


Think about the different methods of data collection and analysis that you have previously encountered, both qualitative and quantitative, and the different theories of people and the social world that underlies each of them. There are significant differences between, say, an experimental approach that assumes predictable behaviours, an interpretation that adopts the psychoanalytic concept of the dynamic unconscious, surveys and general qualitative approaches that assume that what people say (or write) provides a reliable indication of their views and likely behaviours, and critical discursive approaches that propose a more complex relationship between people and their language practices. The approach you adopt will probably follow in large part from your proposed research area, but you will need to understand its premises.

Is there an academic or group of academics whose research you are familiar with and would like to become involved with?


You will follow up these names when you begin to search for prospective supervisors (see next section).

Does the research you propose potentially have applications or uses for people outside academia, such as a particular community, or people facing a common problem?


This kind of larger relevance is generally referred to as ‘impact’ and is an important aspect of contemporary academic research. Your PhD proposal, and any funding application, will be strengthened if it can indicate the potential impact of the research project, including its connection to current issues.

For each of these questions, find answers that interest you personally. A good starting point is likely to be an assignment or research project from your previous study that you particularly enjoyed. Your interests will drive your application and your eventual research. The next section sets out the application procedures that you need to follow.