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!