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

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Applying to study for a PhD in psychology

2 Checking your expectations: the PhD skillset

This section reviews the skills that you will use in studying for a PhD in psychology. You are not expected to have all these skills at the outset. Although you may already have acquired many of them through your previous study and your life more generally, you will develop others during the PhD itself – as with other educational activities, the PhD will offer you the opportunity to grow and change.

The main purpose of the section is to make you aware of the skills a PhD student uses, not least because this will give you extra insight into what PhD study will involve. The following quizzes invite you to consider different groups of skills, and how you might include evidence of the skills in your application to become a PhD student.

Activity 1 Your skillset

Timing: Allow approximately 40 minutes.

Quiz 1: Academic reading and writing

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

  • Read academic texts (like journal articles) efficiently, to understand and extract the main points.
  • Search library catalogues and datasets to find new sources and obtain an overview of an academic field or sub-field.
  • Summarise and critique research you have read about.
  • Write essays and similar texts to present an argument or claim and support it with evidence.
  • Revise writing in response to feedback.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

This list summarises the main skills acquired in undergraduate and taught postgraduate study. They will be of central importance in your PhD research, particularly in the initial development and the final ‘writing up’ stage. In addition, you will utilise these skills to produce outputs that present your research to wider academic audiences, such as conference papers and (later) refereed journal articles.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

The main evidence for these skills in your application will be your research proposal and other documents that you present, and also the results from your previous study.

Quiz 2: Research skills

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

  • Develop research questions.
  • Design a research study.
  • Collect research data.
  • Analyse data to produce new findings or interpretations.
  • Use the findings or interpretations as evidence to develop and support a novel argument.
  • Understand and explain the premises of different approaches to data collection and data analysis.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

You will also have practised these research skills in your previous study. You will have had some experience designing a viable, ethical research project and developing research questions, probably in your undergraduate dissertation project and possibly also as part of a Masters degree. These will be important skills for a PhD project. Most psychology PhDs involve the collection and analysis of original data so you will need to become proficient in the specific qualitative and/or quantitative method(s) you want to utilise. In addition, you will need to explain and defend your choice of approach and demonstrate your understanding of its underlying premises.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

The main evidence you can provide for research skills in your application will be high grades and marks for undergraduate and Masters research projects and dissertations. Many universities require PhD students to have a full Masters in Research Methods, but it may be possible to present other study of research methods (e.g. in short courses and summer schools) as an alternative. Some studentships will fund a Masters as a preliminary to PhD study (Section 2.5).

Many of the other skills that you will need are ones that you will develop during the PhD itself, and there will almost certainly be some training provided.

Quiz 3: Project management

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

  • Work independently.
  • Keep records of your reading and other work, for your own future reference.
  • Plan your work and maintain a schedule, with enough flexibility to change in response to new circumstances.
  • Be critically reflective about the work you have done, and need to do.
  • Meet deadlines.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

The project management skills relate particularly to managing your own research.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

You might cite previous work experience in your application, as evidence that you are already able be self-directed and autonomous, You might also ask your academic referees to confirm that you have these skills.

Quiz 4: Communication

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

Communication with audiences

  • Write a Power Point presentation.
  • Present to an audience in person.
  • Present to an audience online.
  • Communicate academic ideas to a non-academic audience.
  • Teach about your own work and other areas of psychology.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Communication in groups

  • Contribute to a discussion to present an argument or claim and support it, for example, through references to sources.
  • Answer questions about your work, explaining points that the questioner did not understand.
  • Defend your work, responding courteously to criticisms.
  • Accept new ideas and explore their implications.
  • Comment on other people’s work.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

You will utilise the skills of communicating with audiences in order to work with other academics, and with non-academic audiences relevant to your research. Communicating with groups will be important when you join your new academic communities, to enable positive and effective discussion and collaboration. These skills will take time to develop.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

Again, you might have relevant work experience that you can refer to in your application. If you are undertaking a PhD in psychology in order to enter or advance a career as an academic lecturer, you might already have teaching or research experience that you can cite, and of course experience of presenting at conferences or other similar events will be relevant. For the skills of communicating with groups, you might cite experience of working successfully in academic or non-academic teams.

Quiz 5: Presentation

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

Self presentation

  • Write a positive account of yourself and your achievements.
  • Introduce yourself in person to an audience, with a short positive account of your achievements.
  • Contact people you don’t know to introduce yourself and ask for assistance.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Digital presentation

  • Create a webpage.
  • Record a podcast.
  • Record a short video.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

Self-presentation skills are included here because PhD study always involves contacts with other people. In addition to the interaction involved in reading someone else’s work, you will get in touch more directly with the authors of papers and other academics whose work interests you, in order to talk to them further. You will communicate with other PhD students. You will contact organisations and research-users outside academia. This kind of ‘reaching out’ will be part of your learning process.

In addition, contemporary academic contexts are crowded and competitive so you will need to work actively to promote yourself and your research. This may feel uncomfortable, especially if you have previously assumed that good results will speak for themselves. However, self-presentation is an inescapable requirement of academic work.

A further aspect of self-presentation is that as a PhD student you will need to continue to promote yourself and build up your academic profile, in person and online. Maintaining an online presence is an essential aspect of career-building for a contemporary academic and digital skills have become additionally important during the pandemic.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

Although, again, there will be opportunities to gain or develop these skills, you will need to utilise some of them in the application process. In the application itself, it will be useful to mention any evidence of relevant media training and/or accomplishments, in your CV and also your covering letter.

Quiz 6: Administrative skills

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

  • Send and answer emails.
  • Read and understand complex regulations.
  • Fill in forms.
  • Maintain financial records and keep to a budget.
  • Write reports.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

These administrative skills may seem rather mundane in comparison with the others, especially those in the first two quizzes. Nevertheless, as a psychology PhD student and researcher you will almost certainly be working in one large institution, a university, and you may well have contacts with others, depending on your research area (e.g. the NHS, schools, charities). You will need to make formal applications, including for registration and funding, that require careful attention to regulations and form-filling. One particularly important example in a psychology PhD will be applications for ethical approval.

Even if you become a self-funded student, your project is likely to involve costs (for instance, for equipment and expenses) that require you to apply for institutional funding and manage financial records and budgets. And as your PhD proceeds, you will need to complete reports, comply with institutional requirements and regulations, and deal with the enormous amount of information that is circulated in a modern university. To achieve specific goals, you will have to identify relevant gatekeepers and information providers. All of these aspects of research will require efficient communication, particularly through email.

You will also need to read regulations, fill in forms and engage in email communications during the application procedures.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

In your application, you might refer to relevant work experience, in your CV and in a covering letter as evidence of these institutional skills.

Quiz 7: Interview and collegial skills

1. Go through the list of skills and grade yourself, then read the reveal.

  • Participate effectively in informal and formal interview situations, as an interviewer or interviewee.
  • Maintain positive working relationships with colleagues.

Pick the option that you think reflects your abilities.

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Discussion

General interview skills will be relevant whatever the focus of your PhD because you will need to initiate and lead interactions with other academics and with people from outside academia. These interactions are a form of interview, even if they are not formally described as such. (If you are using interviews as a research method, you will need to justify this form of data collection and also explain the premises underlying your analysis of interview data – these are part of the research skills discussed in Quiz 2.)

The category of collegial skills is very large and inclusive. Everyone has some positive working relationships with other people, and probably some that are more difficult. The relevant point for doing a PhD is that you will not be working alone and in isolation, freed from the requirements to communicate, collaborate, negotiate or be generally sociable. Instead, as Section 1.1 discussed, you will be working with other people, in person or through other media (e.g. written text). All workplaces have a political aspect and sensitivities that need to be negotiated. In addition, research involves conflicting interests, around different academic positions and also in relation to its applications. (This ‘impact agenda’ is a key aspect of contemporary academic research). You will need to explain your research, persuade others of its value, and receive disagreement and criticism. You will become part of different communities as you progress. This will be a part of your PhD experience and it will be important to think in advance about how you will manage it.

2. How could you evidence these skills in your application?

Discussion

You can evidence your interview skills in the application process as you will need to present yourself in interview contexts, informal and formal.

Collegial skills are difficult to evidence but you will have an opportunity to evidence them at various points, in your initial contacts with prospective supervisors and in an eventual interview if your application advances. (Session 2 sets out the overall process that includes those stages.)

This section has consisted mainly of a self-assessment of your skills, but in the process you have received more detail about PhD study in general.

It’s unlikely that you chose the first option for every item (‘I enjoy these activities and I do them pretty well’), but before applying to do a PhD you should be able to choose that for most of the skills in Quiz 1 and 2.

Ideally you chose the first, second or third option for a fair proportion of the skills in the other quizzes. If you chose the fourth option (‘I don’t enjoy these activities at all’) for a lot of the items, it’s worth thinking again about whether PhD study is right for you at this point.

The next section turns to the starting point for your own potential PhD, your research area and topic.

PHD_1

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