10 Things to Con­sid­er When Choos­ing Your PhD Pro­gram in Psychology

In this arti­cle, I will present 10 fac­tors to con­sid­er when choos­ing your PhD pro­gram, to make sure it will meet your pro­fes­sion­al needs, as well as allow­ing you to main­tain a decent work-life bal­ance. I chose these spe­cif­ic fac­tors because they are com­mon to most PhD pro­grams in Psy­chol­o­gy, and can influ­ence your expe­ri­ence both in the short, and in the long term.

I had a hard time choos­ing my PhD pro­gram myself, so, for each sec­tion, I will share a bit of my per­son­al expe­ri­ence, telling you how each fac­tor con­tributed to my choice.

The four fac­tors described below are the main char­ac­ter­is­tics that will frame the over­all expe­ri­ence, deter­min­ing what you will study, where, and at what cost.

1. The research topic

Psy­chol­o­gy is vast. It can go from the suc­tion pat­terns of new-borns to the drink­ing pref­er­ences of under­grad­u­ate stu­dents. There are var­i­ous ways to define a research topic.

Using the “bot­tom-up” approach, the topic main­ly comes from you: you already have an idea in mind (e.g. study­ing children’s moti­va­tion at school), you get in touch with a researcher that is knowl­edge­able about the topic and, togeth­er, you write a grant proposal.

With the “top-down” approach, you look up fund­ed PhD posi­tions on aca­d­e­m­ic web­sites, and apply direct­ly for them. In these cases, PhD super­vi­sors have already defined the research topic and are look­ing for the ideal can­di­date to fill the role.

Often, a com­bi­na­tion of “Bot­tom up” and “Top down” process­es are at play. Even if you have a very spe­cif­ic research project in mind, you will have to define and refine it with your poten­tial super­vi­sor to fit their inter­ests in addi­tion to yours, and to be in line with the funder’s requirements.

Con­verse­ly, if you apply for an exist­ing offer, you will often have some free­dom to bring your own ideas to the project. If your range of inter­ests is broad, it is good to keep some cri­te­ria in mind to help you fil­ter opportunities.

These can be the psy­cho­log­i­cal process­es that you are inter­est­ed in (e.g. mem­o­ry, emo­tions, moti­va­tion, etc.), the pop­u­la­tion you would like to work with (e.g. chil­dren, adult, elder­ly peo­ple), and the meth­ods you would like to use (e.g. neu­roimag­ing, behav­iour­al meth­ods, a mix of both, etc.).

 

In my case, it was impor­tant to work with chil­dren, on an edu­ca­tion­al topic. I would often browse the web­site of the Cen­tre for Edu­ca­tion­al Neu­ro­science. This is where I found a posi­tion being adver­tised to study the impact of class­room noise on learn­ing in pri­ma­ry school. My two main cri­te­ria were there! The topic was also mean­ing­ful and applic­a­ble to real-life. Although I did not know much about noise, the project involved test­ing whether children’s exec­u­tive func­tions (e.g. atten­tion, mem­o­ry) were pro­tec­tive when work­ing in noisy con­di­tions. I was famil­iar with exec­u­tive func­tions, and this was reas­sur­ing to me. The project was built in part­ner­ship with Caul­dron Sci­ence who cre­at­ed the Gorilla Exper­i­ment Builder, which was launched in 2016. I want­ed to strength­en my tech­ni­cal skills and to learn more about non-aca­d­e­m­ic path­ways, so this was also attrac­tive to me.

2. The lab­o­ra­to­ry and the University

It might seem like an obvi­ous ques­tion, but it is an impor­tant one to con­sid­er for your work-life bal­ance. Where is the lab? Would you need to move to work there? Some peo­ple would leave every­thing to pur­sue a PhD pro­gram on their favourite topic, in a top-ranked Uni­ver­si­ty. Some would pre­fer to stay in a more famil­iar envi­ron­ment as long as they can carry on with their studies.

This choice depends on many per­son­al fac­tors. How often do you need to see your fam­i­ly and rel­a­tives? Do you have any spe­cif­ic per­son­al or admin­is­tra­tive con­straints when it comes to choos­ing a country?

If you would need to move, con­sid­er whether you would be happy liv­ing in the city of your PhD pro­gram, the relat­ed costs, and long-term con­se­quences. It can be as spe­cif­ic as search­ing about med­ical care facil­i­ties (if you have a med­ical con­di­tion), the school sys­tem (if you have chil­dren), and, of course, the cost of life. You may want to see the PhD as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cov­er a new coun­try, and a new cul­ture… or you may find that it is too chal­leng­ing to add on top of your degree.

My PhD pro­gram was adver­tised by the Cen­tre for Edu­ca­tion­al Neu­ro­science, which gath­ers edu­ca­tion­al researchers from Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don and Birk­beck Uni­ver­si­ty – two Uni­ver­si­ties geo­graph­i­cal­ly very close to each other. These insti­tu­tions were renowned for their research in Psy­chol­o­gy, and I had the chance to visit both dur­ing my master’s pro­gram. I was aston­ished by the intel­lec­tu­al effer­ves­cence in this area: there were sev­er­al talks every sin­gle day, with nation­al and inter­na­tion­al speak­ers. I want­ed to become more flu­ent in Eng­lish, since it is the dom­i­nant lan­guage in research, so there could not be a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for this.

3. The location

Here, you want to have a look at the broad­er envi­ron­ment: the lab­o­ra­to­ry (your most imme­di­ate envi­ron­ment), the Depart­ment (all the peo­ple work­ing in Psy­chol­o­gy), the Uni­ver­si­ty (all the Depart­ments put together).

Scrolling through their web­sites will give you an idea of the facil­i­ties, and of who is work­ing there. Uni­ver­si­ty rank­ings are also avail­able through exter­nal insti­tu­tions (see the Times High­er Edu­ca­tion World Uni­ver­si­ty Rank­ings, or the QS World Uni­ver­si­ty Rank­ings).

These rank­ings take into account things such as teach­ing, research, employ­ment, and impact. Basi­cal­ly, you would want to work with researchers whose exper­tise is recog­nised, in an envi­ron­ment with enough facil­i­ties to carry out your work effi­cient­ly, while also ben­e­fit­ing from a solid pro­fes­sion­al network.

Check out people’s pub­li­ca­tions, their out­reach activ­i­ties, the events they organ­ise with­in the laboratory/Department/University.

Mov­ing to Lon­don was chal­leng­ing, but it did not come out of the blue. I vis­it­ed this city sev­er­al times before I start­ed my PhD pro­gram: I went there on a week­end, then attend­ed sum­mer Eng­lish class­es, and stayed for 6 months dur­ing a gap year as part of my Mas­ters. Every time, I found myself stay­ing a bit longer! I come from Paris, which is also a big city. I found that Lon­don offered the same advan­tages of an effer­ves­cent city (with its cul­tur­al events, con­certs, mar­kets, etc.), while being less stress­ful than Paris – I know some would dis­agree with that! Both cities are very expen­sive to live in, which is quite a big sac­ri­fice, but I thought I would rather burn my money in Lon­don. How­ev­er, I was quite anx­ious about the admin process­es (I hate admin!): open­ing a new bank account, hav­ing a new phone num­ber, reg­is­ter­ing to a new doc­tor, under­stand­ing the sys­tem for taxes… Here, the friends I met dur­ing my PhD helped a lot and had the patience to answer my questions.

4. Fund­ing

Here comes the ques­tion of money. Let’s be real­is­tic (although there is no need to panic): A PhD pro­gram is intense, requir­ing a lot of time and ener­gy. Depend­ing on the coun­try, it will also cost you more or less money.

It is impor­tant to con­sid­er the Uni­ver­si­ty fees, and your per­son­al main­te­nance. Grants can cover one of these types of expens­es, or both.

Bud­get­ing is the key! If you get some fund­ing but need to top-up by work­ing a bit on the side, how much time will it take you? If you are com­plete­ly self-fund­ed, how will you organ­ise your pro­fes­sion­al and study lives?

Some peo­ple would never con­sid­er doing a PhD if they are not fund­ed, their income being both a neces­si­ty and a form of recog­ni­tion for their work. Some will man­age to do the pro­gram while work­ing at the same time. Again, think about your priorities.

I did not con­sid­er doing a PhD with­out being fund­ed. It was impor­tant to me to be finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent while being able to devote most of my time to the pro­gram. Fund­ing also appeared as a form of recog­ni­tion for my work, since a PhD pro­gram is long and chal­leng­ing! My project was fund­ed by the Eco­nom­ic and Social Research Coun­cil. The grant cov­ered the Uni­ver­si­ty fees and my per­son­al main­te­nance. It includ­ed a top up for liv­ing in Lon­don (the Lon­don weight­ing allowance) and an extra top up because it involved “Advanced Quan­ti­ta­tive Meth­ods”. I was not rich, but not poor nei­ther so I could live com­fort­ably dur­ing my pro­gram. I also worked as a Demon­stra­tor for Birk­beck Uni­ver­si­ty, once or twice a week. This pro­vid­ed a com­ple­men­tary income while being coher­ent with my career goals.

If you are con­vinced by the research topic, the lab­o­ra­to­ry, its loca­tion, and the fund­ing scheme, then you are already in a good posi­tion! Past these fea­tures, some more in-depth inves­ti­ga­tion will help you judge whether your cho­sen envi­ron­ment will meet your pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al needs.

5. Super­vi­sion style

That’s a tough one, because there is a lot of vari­abil­i­ty out there. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, super­vi­sors have oblig­a­tions towards their stu­dents. These are often writ­ten up on the Uni­ver­si­ty web­site: check it out! Your supervisor’s role is to guide you along your jour­ney, by offer­ing sci­en­tif­ic advice and help­ing you to meet the require­ments of a PhD program.

But not only. Your super­vi­sor will also help you get around the University’s facil­i­ties, will intro­duce you to other researchers, and will point out more pro­fes­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties (such as con­fer­ences, train­ing cours­es, etc. – more on that below).

How­ev­er, in prac­tice, super­vi­sors will have dif­fer­ent ways to organ­ise their time with you: some will organ­ise week­ly meet­ings to track your progress, oth­ers will be more laid back and organ­ise a big 3‑hours catch up every month. Some will be avail­able to answer your ques­tions by email as you go along, oth­ers will pre­fer to address issues dur­ing the ded­i­cat­ed meetings.

While you are apply­ing, you can ask how the meet­ings would be organ­ised – not only will this help you, but it will show that you are con­sid­er­ing the posi­tion thor­ough­ly. You can also get in touch with other stu­dents who have been super­vised by the same per­son to have a feel about their expe­ri­ence. Again, bear in mind that every­body has dif­fer­ent expectations.

Make sure you know what you need: Do you pre­fer get­ting more free­dom in your research, even if you have to face some respon­si­bil­i­ties by your­self, or do you pre­fer to have a super­vi­sor who is more involved in deci­sion-mak­ing, even if this can reduce your choic­es? Since we are talk­ing about a 3‑years+ rela­tion­ship, it is impor­tant that you feel com­fort­able with your future super­vi­sor, and that they make you feel pos­i­tive about the chal­lenges you will go through.

I had two super­vi­sors dur­ing my PhD: Prof. Denis Mareschal (who was also the Deputy Head of the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy) and Dr. Natasha Kirkham. I had never worked with them before, and I met them both (at the same time) dur­ing my inter­view, which was also attend­ed by Michael Thomas, the direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Edu­ca­tion­al Neu­ro­science and the Post­grad­u­ate Tutor. Although it was quite impres­sive, I had the feel­ing that it was a friend­ly atmos­phere. It is not com­mon in every coun­try or Uni­ver­si­ty to have two super­vi­sors, and it was quite reas­sur­ing – if one turned out to be unavail­able, the other would be able to take over. Dur­ing my first year, we met every week. After that, the fre­quen­cy of the meet­ings was tai­lored to my needs and to the stage of my projects. Out­side of the meet­ings, I had quite a lot of free­dom to man­age my own sched­ule and I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed that.

6. The lab atmosphere

The lab atmos­phere is very impor­tant if you do not want your PhD to be only between you, your super­vi­sor and the library cat. You might want to have an idea of people’s inter­ac­tions in your work environment.

Are there reg­u­lar lab­o­ra­to­ry and/or depart­men­tal meet­ings? These will allow you to get to know other peo­ple and to receive more feed­back on your work. Will you work on indi­vid­ual desks? In an open plan office? Are there any com­mon areas where you can socialise?

Ide­al­ly, you would visit the lab and the facil­i­ties before mak­ing your deci­sion. This way, you would be able to feel if you can “see your­self there”. How­ev­er, this is not always pos­si­ble (e.g. if the pro­gram is in anoth­er coun­try). In this case, infor­mal­ly talk­ing to PhD stu­dents who are already in the lab will give you a good feel.

I could visit the Uni­ver­si­ty dur­ing my inter­view but dis­cov­ered my office when I start­ed. I was in an open plan office with other PhD stu­dents and post-doc­tor­al researchers, which was a bit intim­i­dat­ing at the begin­ning because it was hard to delin­eate the time to socialise and to work. We had a sep­a­rate meet­ing room and ended up cre­at­ing a “sofa cor­ner” there for peo­ple to talk and have lunch. I ended up mak­ing a lot of friends in the office. I was also invit­ed to infor­mal meet­ings with other PhD stu­dents from the Cen­tre for Edu­ca­tion­al Neu­ro­science, and it was very help­ful to receive feed­back on my work, to share advice and ques­tions. We also had week­ly sem­i­nars, one spe­cif­ic to the Depart­ment, and one spe­cif­ic to our research cen­tre (the Cen­tre for Brain and Cog­ni­tive Devel­op­ment). As much as I like social inter­ac­tions, I can be quite sen­si­tive to noise and dis­trac­tions – it is hard for me to focus if I know my friends are just right there. There­fore, I did long writ­ing ses­sions in cafés or at home. It was impor­tant for me to have some free­dom in my sched­ule in order to find the right time and place to work.

Final­ly, it is impor­tant to keep a long-term vision. Your PhD should be an enjoy­able expe­ri­ence in itself but it needs to open up career options. Will the pro­gram pro­vide you with suf­fi­cient “oppor­tu­ni­ty for growth”?

In other words, will you be able to devel­op a strong set of trans­fer­able skills that will help you build a research career, while stay­ing open to other career paths in case your goals shift down the line? Sev­er­al oppor­tu­ni­ties pro­vid­ed by PhD pro­grams are out­lined here. You can check these out by direct­ly ask­ing your super­vi­sors, and fel­low students.

7. Paper submission

Pub­li­ca­tions often appear as the “holy grail” in acad­e­mia. They give weight to your research by “putting it out there” after hav­ing it been checked by peers. They also con­tribute to your CV and make you attrac­tive to future employ­ers, wish you stay in acad­e­mia – the rat­ings of Uni­ver­si­ties are part­ly depen­dent on the num­ber and qual­i­ty of their staff’s publications.

Pub­lish­ing papers is a long, dif­fi­cult process, and it is eas­i­er to go through it if you are in good com­pa­ny and receive appro­pri­ate advice. Have a look at your poten­tial supervisor’s web­page: How often do they get pub­li­ca­tions out? Do they co-author papers with their PhD students?

As part of my PhD, I pub­lished three papers: one as a first author, two as a sec­ond author. These are:

Two things allowed me to pub­lish dur­ing my PhD. First, I start­ed to write early – I sub­mit­ted the first paper with­in the first year. This was pos­si­ble because I ran an exper­i­ment dur­ing the first six months of my pro­gram. This was facil­i­tat­ed by the organ­i­sa­tion of a pub­lic engage­ment event organ­ised by a group of PhD stu­dents from the Cen­tre for Edu­ca­tion­al Neu­ro­science, dur­ing which we col­lect­ed data. Col­lect­ing data early on was reward­ing, but I also wish I had more time to set­tle in and to read more papers at the begin­ning. Sec­ond, I col­lab­o­rat­ed with other researchers. It was enjoy­able, it opened my eyes to other ideas and it also ended up being ben­e­fi­cial career-wise. This is some­thing I would real­ly rec­om­mend to do.

8. Con­fer­ence attendance

Con­fer­ences are a key oppor­tu­ni­ty to present your work and meet fel­low researchers. Will your lab give you the time and resources to attend con­fer­ences? Some research groups have their “favourite” con­fer­ences, where they tend to go every year, and your super­vi­sor should be able to point at these opportunities.

If you have exter­nal fund­ing, your grant can cover the costs, but your Uni­ver­si­ty / Depart­ment may also have ded­i­cat­ed funding.

I attend­ed sev­er­al con­fer­ences dur­ing my PhD. My fun­der, the Eco­nom­ic and Social Research Coun­cil, had a spe­cif­ic bud­get for it, but my Uni­ver­si­ty also con­tributed. When I was in my first year, it was quite impres­sive: I was just start­ing and I some­times felt that I was too early in the pro­gram to be con­fi­dent in what I was say­ing – this is where you have an advan­tage if you do a PhD pro­gram on the same topic as your Mas­ters dis­ser­ta­tion! The sec­ond year was very excit­ing to me because I start­ed to have more results and could dis­cuss them. I trav­elled around Europe, and to the USA. I realised that you often tend to meet the same peo­ple when you go to edu­ca­tion­al con­fer­ences! I could there­fore devel­op col­lab­o­ra­tions over time, while also get­ting to know new peo­ple. I calmed down on con­fer­ences dur­ing my third year as I want­ed to focus on writ­ing my thesis.

 

9. Train­ing sessions

Train­ing ses­sions allow you to receive appro­pri­ate advice for your PhD pro­gram (e.g. how to write in an aca­d­e­m­ic style, how to pre­pare a poster pre­sen­ta­tion), while addi­tion­al­ly build­ing trans­fer­able skills and being aware of alter­na­tive career paths.

Ses­sions can address a wide vari­ety of top­ics such as how to com­mu­ni­cate on social media, use a spe­cif­ic soft­ware, be time effi­cient or main­tain a work-life bal­ance. Train­ing ses­sions can be orga­nized by your Uni­ver­si­ty, your fun­der, or exter­nal organizations.

They can com­ple­ment the sup­port offered by your super­vi­sor, help you build con­fi­dence, and pro­vide a refresh­ing change when things do not go so well dur­ing the PhD. Again, you would need to make sure you will have the time and fund­ing for it. You can ask your super­vi­sor, and fel­low stu­dents.I had the chance to ben­e­fit from mul­ti­ple train­ing ses­sions, as part of my Uni­ver­si­ty, and Funder’s net­works. These cov­ered the aca­d­e­m­ic top­ics I men­tioned above (e.g. advice to cre­ate a poster, present at con­fer­ences, com­mu­ni­cate to a wider audi­ence). I had a mind­ful­ness taster ses­sion and attend­ed a pho­tog­ra­phy work­shop on a day where things were not going so well. I also reg­is­tered for some sta­tis­ti­cal class­es deliv­ered by exter­nal insti­tu­tions (e.g. Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge, Uni­ver­si­ty of Kent). Over­all, I real­ly liked attend­ing train­ing ses­sions. It allowed me to meet new peo­ple and to devel­op new skills. Some­times, the con­tent was not imme­di­ate­ly use­ful to me, but I would get back to the mate­r­i­al a few months later when I need­ed it.

10. Teach­ing

Depend­ing on your PhD pro­gram, you may or may not be involved in teach­ing and men­tor­ing duties. It could be lec­tur­ing, help­ing under­grad­u­ate or grad­u­ate stu­dents dur­ing practical’s, or super­vis­ing interns. Teach­ing can help you take a step back from your research, by adopt­ing a broad­er approach to Psy­chol­o­gy and feel­ing use­ful to other peo­ple. It can also be a plus if you later want to apply for a lec­ture­ship and can pro­vide a com­ple­men­tary income.

I taught at Birk­beck Uni­ver­si­ty dur­ing my sec­ond and third year. I was help­ing stu­dents in two dif­fer­ent mod­ules — to under­stand sta­tis­tics, and to design their own psy­chol­o­gy exper­i­ments using Gorilla. Although teach­ing was tir­ing (it was in the evenings, after my nor­mal day of work), it was very reward­ing. I felt use­ful, and it also helped me to be more con­fi­dent. Dur­ing the PhD, we are often focused on what we don’t know. Teach­ing helped me to be more aware of the skills I had and could transmit!

So… If you have read this arti­cle, it means that you are already quite seri­ous about your PhD plans. I hope this advice will help you make the right choice, and I wish you good luck on this excit­ing journey!

Writ­ten by Dr Jes­si­ca Massonnié

Jes­si­ca Mas­son­nié came to the UK after com­plet­ing her master’s degree at the Ecole Nor­male Supérieure (Cog­mas­ter) in Paris. She recent­ly sub­mit­ted her the­sis, super­vised by Denis Mareschal and Natasha Kirkham at Birk­beck, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don. Her pro­gram was fund­ed by an ESRC CASE stu­dentship, devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Caul­dron Sci­ence the cre­ators of The Gorilla Exper­i­ment Builder.

She is now a Research Fel­low at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Will­ing to keep an eclec­tic approach to research, she is also teach­ing, writ­ing blog posts, and act­ing as the EARLI SIG 22 “Neu­ro­science and Edu­ca­tion” JURE coor­di­na­tor. More info here!