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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 Preparing an initial PhD proposal

Developing a PhD application usually takes time and involves a number of iterations, including after discussions with potential supervisors. The process is in many respects contradictory. At the outset, you need to present a strong enough initial proposal to capture the interest of potential supervisors, and if the application proceeds, you will be asked to explain your ideas and plans in interviews and written communications. Yet you are also required to be open to opportunities, such as studentships, and to other research, such as the work of the prospective supervisors. Later, some application forms may ask for additional detail, for example regarding the potential impact and contribution of your project and your plans for disseminating the findings of your research.

A photo of a PhD notebook.

Over the course of your PhD study your project will develop so that it is very likely that your eventual topic and research question(s) will be rather different to your starting point. You will therefore need to be flexible, yet have a sufficiently strong interest to hold onto, so that you can work towards completing your own project without being diverted onto other people’s projects.

  • How can you manage the requirements to be flexible yet committed to your topic and research questions?

  • The solution to the contradictions is to think through your ideas and read around your research area and topic. Prospective supervisors will be looking for evidence of this thinking, and of your familiarity with related research and your awareness of the issues that the project raises (there are always some, including ethical issues). You are therefore strongly recommended to spend time ‘playing’ around ideas, considering different directions and, of course, reading. Go back to material from your previous studies and research projects but also look for recent publications. Google Scholar is often a good starting point, as are academics’ own webpages. (If you don’t currently have access to a university library, you can usually find pre-publication papers in university research repositories. Also, look for Open Access publications.)