Applying to study for a PhD in psychology
Session 1: Why do you want to do a PhD in psychology?
If you have chosen to do this OpenLearn course, you are probably considering studying for a PhD in psychology, in the near future or at some later point. Here are some possible reasons.
- You enjoyed your previous study of psychology and you’d like to continue.
- You were successful in your previous study of psychology so you’d like to take it to the next level.
- After studying psychology courses led by other people, you now want to work on your own project.
- You want to advance your career in psychology.
- You want to investigate a topic or question that interests you.
- You want to build on experience and expertise that you’ve already gained, in your work or other activities (for instance, as a community volunteer).
Although all of these are good reasons for doing a PhD, each raises some issues that you may not have considered. Let’s discuss them in more detail.
You enjoyed your previous study of psychology so you’d like to continue. You were successful in your previous study of psychology so you’d like to take it to the next level.
These can both be described as necessary but, perhaps not sufficient reasons for doing a PhD in psychology. Obviously, you won’t want to continue if you haven’t enjoyed your previous engagement with the discipline, and in order to be accepted for a PhD you will probably need good results from your previous studies (although work or practice experience can also be be taken into account) . But the idea of the ‘next level’ is misleading because a PhD is very different from a taught course at undergraduate or Masters level. It is more appropriate to think of a PhD as a new engagement with the psychology discipline, involving continuities from your previous study (for instance, in the emphasis on reading and academic writing) but a generally different experience and level of commitment.
After studying psychology courses led by other people, you now want to work on your own project.
Your previous study will certainly inform your starting point. For example, you may want to take forward a project that you enjoyed in your previous study, such as your work towards an undergraduate or Masters dissertation. Your interest will motivate you but a PhD is not an entirely solitary or individual project. Throughout your study, you will work with other people.
Your research will be supervised by an academic team who will help you progress. In addition, over the course of the PhD you will join different academic communities. Although your supervisors will assist in this, you will also need to make your own contacts, both with peers and more senior academics. You will learn about ongoing research related to your project and publicise your own research findings, for instance, by presenting at academic seminars and conferences. You may work on a research team and you will be part of a research student community. As the PhD progresses, you may also make contact with people outside academia who have an interest in your research, including potential users of the research findings, and people who will become participants in your data collection.
All of these involvements will be an essential part of your life as a PhD student, and require you to use appropriate social skills to communicate and interact (see Section 2).
You want to advance your career.
A PhD is not the only option for further study in psychology, so you need to decide whether it is the best choice for your own career pathway. It is an additional degree that will certainly look good on a CV, and the skills developed in psychology PhD study will be relevant to employment in many occupations and industries.
In the UK, a PhD is probably most commonly valued as a qualification for an academic career, as a university lecturer or researcher. Some PhD students will already have embarked on this pathway, by working as a research assistant or university tutor. If you have different aims, for instance to work as a practitioner such as a counsellor, it may be more appropriate to undertake occupational training, like a certificate or diploma, or a different kind of degree such as a professional doctorate. Section 1 gives an overview of some of the alternatives and you can find more by looking at the degrees offered by different UK universities. It is also worth thinking about non-academic alternatives. For example, if your main aim is to build on your previous professional experience, you might consider a writing project to produce a publication like a guide or textbook or even a memoir.
You want to investigate a topic or question that interests you.
This is one of the best reasons for undertaking PhD study, provided that your proposed research will potentially make an original contribution to psychological knowledge and the discipline. Personal interest is therefore important, but it is not the only criterion.
You want to build on experience and expertise that you’ve already gained, in your work or other activities (for instance, as a community volunteer).
It is sometimes said that academics research themselves, meaning that their choice of research topic is in some way always linked to their own lives. For instance, they may conduct research relevant to a social group that they identify with through their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class etc. You may therefore be considering a PhD that will build on your own life experience. However, this will only be the starting point because PhD research must produce original findings that take forward current academic thinking. You will therefore need to engage with the research of other academics, particularly through reading their work.
In addition, your PhD research will be primarily directed to an academic audience, although you may later communicate the findings to other audiences. This academic focus is an intrinsic aspect of a PhD. If you will find it frustrating, for instance, because you have extensive career experience that you want to utilise, you may want to consider whether there is an alternative way to take forward your interest and expertise (see Section 1, and Section 2).