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

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4.1 Step 1: Finding a supervisor

You might expect to begin with your choice of university (for instance, the one that is most local to you, or most prestigious). However, psychology is such a wide-ranging field that most, if not all, UK universities cover only a selection of its subdisciplines and research areas, with different specialisms and strengths. Your task will therefore be to locate psychology academics whose research fits with your chosen area and topic, because these are the people who might agree to supervise you. The choice of university will probably follow from the academics who work there (although sometimes a supervision team combines academics from different universities). You might look for a department or school known for research that fits with your interests. Alternatively, you can approach individual academics directly.

When you have identified prospective supervisors, you can send them your qualifications and a draft research proposal for consideration, perhaps after some initial contact by email or even in person (for instance, at a seminar or conference).

A photograph of a person hiding behind a stack of books.

At this point, you may find that the academics you have approached are not available, for instance, because your topic is not close to their current research area or because they are already working with other PhD students. Alternatively, you may be asked for more details or invited to discuss your proposal and perhaps revise it. Prospective supervisors will want to see how the research that you’re proposing to conduct will make a positive contribution to their own research areas.

As you see, during Step 1 you are engaged in a relatively informal process in which you take the initiative. It is your responsibility to mark out an area of study and question(s) as a starting point for a PhD, then identify and approach potential supervisors. In effect, you will be saying ‘I want to conduct this research and here are the reasons why it’s worth doing, and I’m suitably qualified to do it, and you are the academics who can guide me in this research and have a positive experience working with me’.

Another version of this first approach is to send an initial application to a psychology department or school, hoping to be noticed by prospective supervisors. This is probably less likely to be successful but in either situation you will need to present an initial research proposal and a CV (Part 2 provides guidance on writing these). Even if you have strong academic qualifications, your application may not be taken further You may have to repeat these first approaches several times. Until you find prospective supervisors, you will usually not be able to proceed to a formal application, even if you have a strong CV.