Studying a PhD in Psychology is a great way of levelling up your knowledge, pursuing more specific areas of interest, and accessing research-focused careers. However, PhD programmes in Psychology are typically very competitive, and it is essential that applicants meet the minimum entry requirements in order to have a realistic chance of securing a place.
This guide goes through different types of Psychology PhD you can study, the entry requirements for programmes at top universities, and top tips on how to maximise your chances of receiving an offer.
Different types of Psychology PhD
Psychology is a broad field of study that encompasses many different academic and professional disciplines. You may see PhD programmes under the title ‘Psychology’, and these PhDs are offered by some of the top universities in the UK, including Cambridge, Oxford and UCL (see the entry requirements section below). These courses allow you to specialise in an area of interest from across the broad Psychology discipline.
However, there are some specialised PhD programmes that offer more focused research in particular areas of Psychology. The table below shows some of the different types of Psychology you can study at PhD level and what each type involves.
|Type of Psychology||Description||Example specialist courses||Career details|
|Cognitive Psychology (PhD)||Cognitive Psychology is concerned with perception, human learning and memory, consciousness, thinking and problem solving, language and intelligence, as well as applications of these research areas to everyday settings. Cognitive Psychology programmes often overlap with other areas of psychological research, such as developmental, social, clinical and neuroscience.|| University of Kent – PhD Cognitive Psychology/Neuropsychology|
UCL – MPhil/PhD Cognitive Neuroscience
University of Manchester – MPhil/PhD Cognitive Neuroscience
|Cognitive Psychologists often work at colleges and universities, government agencies, corporate businesses and in private consulting in a range of roles, including University Instructors, Human Factors Consultants, Industrial-Organisational Managers, and Usability Specialists.|
|Social Psychology (PhD)||Social Psychology looks at the fundamental principles underlying social behaviour and addresses practical questions about everyday relations among people and the way we act in societies. It includes research into social interactions and the factors that influence them, such as group behaviour, attitudes, public perceptions and leadership.|| LSE – MPhil/PhD Psychological and Behavioural Science|
University of Edinburgh – PhD Social Psychology
University of Kent – PhD Social Psychology
|Social Psychologists study interpersonal and group dynamics and social challenges, such as prejudice, implicit bias, bullying, criminal activity and substance abuse. They are often recruited in the public and private sectors as Industrial-Organisational Psychologists, Human Resource Specialists, Political Strategists, Public Relations Specialists, and more.|
|Forensic Psychology (PhD or Doctorate)|| Forensic Psychology is the study of criminal behaviour and the legal and institutional systems through which offenders and victims are managed.|
Forensic Psychology also looks at the issues of diversity, equality, and inclusion in the context of victims and offenders.
| University of Kent – PhD Forensic Psychology|
University of Birmingham – Forensic Psychology Practice Doctorate (ForenPsyD)
University of Manchester – DForenPsy Doctorate in Forensic Psychology
| Forensic Psychologists analyse offending behaviour and help people who have committed crimes. They also analyse the effect of crime on victims, as well as managing, assessing and planning treatment strategies for both victims and offenders.|
Forensic Psychologists typically pursue careers working in prisons and with the police, as well as policy, strategy, management, and consultancy roles in the public and private sectors.
|Clinical Psychology (PhD or Doctorate)||The goal of Clinical Psychology is to improve our understanding and treatment of psychological disorders. Clinical Psychology PhDs typically cover research into areas such as: addiction, clinical neuropsychology, forensic clinical psychology, oncology and palliative care, psychosis and complex mental health, and more.|| University of Manchester – PhD Clinical Psychology|
King’s College London – Doctorate in Clinical Psychology DClinPsy
UCL – Doctorate in Clinical Psychology
| A PhD in Clinical Psychology typically does not allow you to become a professional Clinical Psychologist. In order to pursue this career, students need to study a Clinical Psychology Doctorate training programme, which combines academic with professional study. You will also need to have studied a course that is accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS).|
PhD programmes in Clinical Psychology are less common and typically lead to careers in academia and consulting.
|Counselling Psychology (PhD or Doctorate)||Counselling Psychology deals with examining and treating a wide range of mental health problems. It involves studying the different psychological theories and approaches underpinning counselling and applying these to real-life contexts. Counselling Psychology also looks at the significance of wider factors in people’s mental health, as well as the social, cultural and political domains within which Counselling Psychology operates.|| Goldsmiths, University of London – MPhil/PhD Counselling and Psychotherapy|
City, University of London – Counselling Therapy DPsych
University of Manchester – DCounsPsych Counselling Therapy
|Counselling Psychologists examine people’s experiences, exploring underlying issues and treating a wide range of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, personality disorders, bereavement, abuse, trauma and relationship issues.|
|Educational and Child Psychology (Doctorate)||Educational and Child Psychology is the study of how children and young people learn, including teaching methods and individual learning differences. It explores the cognitive, emotional, behavioural and social influences on the learning process.|| University of Birmingham – Applied Educational and Child Psychology Doctorate (App Ed and Child Psy D)|
UCL – Educational and Child Psychology DEdPsy
University of Southampton – Doctorate in Educational Psychology (DEdPsych)
|Educational Psychologists support children and young people who have a range of social and emotional issues and/or learning difficulties. They apply psychological theory and their understanding of how people learn to develop instructional strategies and help students succeed inside and outside of school.|
Is a Doctorate in Psychology the same as a PhD?
A Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD) is a different qualification to a PhD in Psychology. Whilst they are both postgraduate qualifications, Doctorates tend to focus on the application of knowledge and typically provide practical training as well as research/taught elements. Psychology Doctorates are therefore usually tailored towards a particular profession; for example, Doctorates in Clinical Psychology (DClinPsy) trains students to become Clinical Psychologists, while Doctorates in Educational and Child Psychology (DEdPsy) train students to become Educational Psychologists.
A PhD in Psychology, on the other hand, focuses on research and building new knowledge, providing advanced research skills rather than professional, vocational training. PhD Psychology graduates therefore often go on to pursue careers in research or academia, rather than clinical work.
5 tips for getting a PhD in Psychology
1. Check the entry requirements
Typically, in order to apply for a PhD, you will be required to have an undergraduate degree and sometimes a Master’s degree in a relevant subject. However, different universities have different entry requirements, so it’s always important to check with your chosen institutions directly. The table below shows the entry requirements of Psychology PhDs at top UK universities for Psychology.
|University of Cambridge||Good 2:1 undergraduate degree (or equivalent) in Psychology, Neuroscience or in another related subject (such as Physiology, Sociology, Linguistics, Computer Science or Engineering).|
|University of Oxford||1st class or strong 2:1 undergraduate degree (or equivalent) in Psychology or a related discipline that is relevant to your proposed research.|
|UCL||2:1 undergraduate degree or a taught Master’s degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject.|
|University of Bath||1st class or 2:1 degree in Psychology (or equivalent) as well as a Distinction or Merit level Master’s degree, or appropriate research training.|
|King’s College London||2:1 undergraduate degree (or equivalent). A 2:2 degree may be considered only where applicants also offer a Merit level Master’s degree (or equivalent).|
|University of Bristol||2:1 undergraduate degree (or equivalent) in Psychology or a related discipline.|
Opening/closing dates for applications
The opening and closing dates for PhD Psychology applications differ depending on the university you are applying to. Typically, application deadlines fall between March and July of the same year your course starts (for courses starting in September or October). For example, for the Cambridge PhD in Psychology (which starts on October 1st 2023), applications open on September 15th 2022 and close on April 26th 2023.
One thing to note is that some PhD programmes have multiple start dates. For example, King’s College London has entrants in February, June and October each year, and the deadlines for each start date differ, so it’s important to check which start date your application is for.
2. Check the other requirements
Aside from the academic entry requirements for a Psychology PhD programme, there are other requirements that you will need to meet in order to be considered. These include English language requirements and references (listed below) as well as written application documents such as a research proposal, CV and personal statement (listed in section 3).
English language requirements
If you are applying to study a Psychology PhD at a UK university and have not previously studied in the English language, you will be required to take an English language test. The most common and widely preferred test is the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). The table below shows the minimum scores you will need to achieve in order to qualify for entry to some of the UK’s top universities.
|University of Cambridge||7.5 overall and at least 7.0 in every individual element.|
|University of Oxford||7.5 overall and at least 7.0 in every individual element.|
|University of Birmingham||7.0 overall and at least 6.5 in every individual element.|
|LSE||7.0 overall and at least 6.5 in every individual element.|
|University of Warwick||7.0 overall and at least 6.0 in every individual element.|
|University of Manchester||7.0 overall and at least 6.5 in every individual element.|
For more information about the IELTS, check out our IELTS resources or get in touch with our team of experienced IELTS tutors. Our experts can help you prepare for the test and reach the increasing minimum scores required by top universities.
Most universities will ask PhD Psychology applicants to submit up to two references. These references should typically be written by a course mentor or supervisor, or a professional manager, who can vouch for your academic ability and other skills necessary for studying a PhD.
The admissions officers looking at your application will also want to know that you’re trustworthy, hard-working and enthusiastic about the research area you have applied for. They will want to know whether you are committed to the field and feel confident that you will successfully complete your 3-4 year PhD programme.
Academics listen to their colleagues’ opinions carefully, so we recommend that you can get a mentor or supervisor you have worked closely with to put in a good word for you beforehand if you can. Every element of your application helps when it comes to standing out against other applicants for competitive PhDs like Psychology.
3. Invest time in getting your written application right
There are typically multiple written elements to a PhD Psychology application, including a CV, application letter, personal statement, research proposal, and even additional questions to answer. Depending on what type of PhD and which university you are applying for, which written elements you are required to submit will be different, so always check before submitting your application.
Application letters, also referred to as PhD cover letters or motivation letters, are a counterpart to your CV and submitted as part of an application for a PhD programme. They are short, persuasive essays addressed to a specific individual (usually a potential supervisor or admissions officer) and designed to highlight your qualities as a candidate.
Application letters can be difficult to write, however you should try not to overcomplicate them. They should be short, positive and targeted effectively to your proposed research area and the skills and experience that make you a great applicant.
Above all, it is important to show your enthusiasm for the specific area of Psychology you are applying to study in your application letter. Remember, a potential supervisor won’t shortlist you for an interview if they aren’t convinced that you are passionate and committed enough to get over the finish line in 3-4 years’ time.
Top tip: If you can, speak to someone at your chosen university before you submit your application – specifically a potential supervisor or researcher. You could ring them up, send an e-mail or even knock on their office door for a quick chat. Whichever way you choose to get in touch, you’ll make a clear impression, which is always useful when that same person is looking through hundreds of applications for the same PhD.
If a university asks for your CV as part of the application process, it’s important to tailor it carefully to the research you are proposing and the supervisor who will be reading it. Try to avoid giving too much space to general skills and experience that are not relevant to the programme you are applying for.
You should also make sure that the key information you want your chosen university to see is on the first page of your CV, ideally highlighted in your statement at the top. This is because supervisors will not always have the time to read the entire document and you don’t want them to miss key qualities and qualifications that may help your chance of being shortlisted for interview.
Top tip: If there are gaps in your CV where you have been out of work or education for any reason, then don’t be afraid to highlight this in other parts of your application. Some applications even feature a box for additional comments where you can explain these gaps in more detail. Supervisors will generally be sympathetic towards gaps in your CV and it is best to put their mind at ease early in the application process.
If you are required to submit a research proposal, it’s important that you think carefully about the topic you propose and the way you present it. Before you begin writing, make sure you check on your chosen university’s website to ensure that they are open to receiving proposals on your desired topic.
Then, think about what a successful PhD project looks like. Ultimately, your goal is to make a significant original contribution to knowledge in your chosen field – meaning proposing a research area that no one has specifically researched before. While your PhD proposal itself doesn’t have to meet that criteria, it does need to show that your PhD project eventually will. Speaking to a supervisor or expert in your field to talk through this aspect of your proposal is a great way to maximise your chances of success.
You also need to explain how and why your proposed research will be academically significant. To do this effectively, you should acknowledge relevant existing academia and explain how your research will relate to it. You don’t need to go into great detail, but you should show how your PhD will contribute to its field and – ideally – indicate some of the gaps that you aim to fill.
4. Check your funding options
Getting funding for a PhD programme is usually more complicated than it is for undergraduate and Master’s courses. There are many different ways you can have your PhD funded and your funding situation may also change during the 3-4 years it takes to complete your studies.
Most students’ goal is to be awarded a fully-funded PhD. This is usually via a full studentship covering their PhD fees along with the majority of their living costs and other expenses. Many universities offer full PhD studentships however, unsurprisingly, these are typically extremely competitive and are only awarded to a handful of students each year at most.
There are also partial funding options for PhD students. Partially-funded students typically receive a partial scholarship or studentship (usually contributing to either fees or living costs). In this case, students usually need to top up their funding with other grants and/or rely on their own savings/earnings to complete their PhD. Partial studentships are also competitive, however are sometimes easier to get than full studentships. For support with applying for PhD funding, reach out to our experienced postgraduate admissions team.
Finally, if you are unable to secure funding, there is an option to undertake a self-funded PhD. Students usually self-fund via a combination of student loans, savings and/or earnings.
Top tip: Deadlines for applying for PhD funding are usually set quite far in advance and, oftentimes, the deadline for applying for funding is different to the deadline for submitting your PhD application, so it’s important to plan for this in advance. You may need to submit your funding application during the winter or spring of the academic year before your degree starts. This provides time for universities and organisations to assess all applications and select candidates.
5. Reach out to a PhD Psychology admissions expert
Applying for a PhD can be an unfamiliar and oftentimes overwhelming process. However, that needn’t be the case. The Profs have a network of expert postgraduate admissions tutors and Psychology specialists that can support you with all aspects of your application.
From finding the most suitable course for you to helping you tailor your statement of purpose, our experts work closely with you at every stage to maximise your chances of getting into your first choice university. In fact, 90% of our postgraduate applicants receive an offer from their first or choice universities. Get in touch with our team today to get started.
What can I do with a PhD in Psychology?
A PhD in Psychology is a great way to enhance your knowledge in a topic of interest. Naturally, many PhD Psychology students go on to pursue a career in academia, becoming full-time researchers and lecturers.
Depending on which area of Psychology you specialise in during your PhD, there are also a wide range of career paths open to you. For example, if you complete a PhD in Forensic Psychology, you can go onto work as a Forensic Psychologist in a prison, police force or for the government. By contrast, students who complete a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology typically go on to become professional Clinical Psychologists for the NHS or other health organisations.
PhD Psychology graduates are also recruited for research, advisory and consultancy roles in a range of government organisations, NGOs, and private companies.
Can you get a Psychology PhD without a Master’s?
Most universities will consider applicants without a Master’s degree, so long as they can demonstrate the necessary skills and passion for the subject area. Some top universities, however, require applicants to have a Master’s, and this usually gives you an edge over other applicants for the most competitive courses.
How long does a PhD in Psychology take?
Full-time PhDs usually last for three or four years, with most PhD students finishing their theses in their fourth year. If you study on a part-time basis, a PhD can take up to six or seven years.