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!