How to Write a PhD Personal Statement For Psychology

If you’re applying to study Psychology at PhD level, you may be required to submit a personal statement. Crafting an excellent personal statement is more than simply relaying a list of your qualifications and skills – it involves careful planning and putting thought into your motivations, interests, commitment to the subject area, and more.

This guide contains ten tips on how to write a stand-out personal statement for a Psychology PhD programme. You’ll also find top tips from The Profs’ expert postgraduate admissions tutors as well as Profs Co-Founder, Dr Leo Evans, who has personally helped students develop successful applications for top universities.

1. Check what is required of you

Before you begin writing your personal statement, make sure you check what is required of you. Some universities do require you to write a personal statement for PhD Psychology, while others do not (instead, they may ask for other documents along with a research proposal).

It’s important to note that a PhD personal statement may not always be called a personal statement. For example, you might see it referred to as a ‘statement of purpose’ or ‘Reasons for applying’.

Each university that does require a personal statement for PhD Psychology specifies slightly different guidelines. For example, Bristol asks that your personal statement be approximately one side of A4, while Birmingham asks for a statement of approximately 5,000 characters. Specific questions may also be given as prompts around which to structure your personal statement.

Whether you are required to submit a personal statement, and what you include in that statement, may also depend on whether you are applying for a defined PhD opportunity (e.g. a funded studentship) that is on a topic chosen by the university, or an open PhD programme that asks you to submit a research proposal on a topic of your choice. There may also be some taught elements to your PhD, such as compulsory research methods and research integrity modules – if this is the case, think about how you can prove that you are prepared to develop these advanced research skills and succeed at this element of the programme in your personal statement.

2. Consider what appeals to you specifically about the course

It is important to research the specific PhD programme you’re applying for and discuss exactly why it appeals to you in your personal statement. University-specific research is often the most overlooked part of a postgraduate application and so it is a great way to stand out to universities. Consider why you have chosen to apply for this PhD Psychology programme over another – perhaps it is the strong links the university has to your desired industry, or maybe the Psychology department specialises in your particular area of interest. Whatever the reasons why your specific course appeals to you, make sure to include them in your personal statement.

Top tip: Make sure you are aware of the different types of postgraduate Psychology courses and which careers they can lead to. A PhD in Psychology tends to focus 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.

A Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD), on the other hand, 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.

3. Think about your motivations for applying

Your chosen university will want to know your motivations for applying for a PhD in Psychology. It’s all well and good to be interested in the subject area, but having a more specific purpose or goal in mind will show the university that you are an excellent candidate to study the subject at PhD level.

For example, perhaps you have a particular career goal and completing a PhD will help you achieve it. If so, how will it help and what specifically do you hope to gain from the course? Maybe you have been inspired by a particular event related to your chosen course and want to enact real-world change. If so, tell the university how pursuing this course will help you do this.

Founder of The Profs and Imperial College London graduate, Dr Leo Evans, also recommends making it clear that you are committed to the subject area for the long haul: “Not only will academics be trying to gauge whether you are suitable for a PhD (i.e. that you are intelligent, qualified, a self-starter, driven and committed), they will also be judging whether you are likely to see it out when the going gets hard. Drop off rates are high in PhDs and it is quite expensive for departments to essentially train people who then leave (i.e. they take up departmental resources by having classes and taking up supervisors’ time, etc.).”

4. Go into detail about your past studies

When applying for PhD Psychology, you need to outline exactly why and how you are well-suited to the course based on your previous academic experience. Universities will know what you have studied as it will be outlined in your grade transcript, so don’t be too vague. It’s best to talk about specific modules or topics you covered in your Master’s degree (or undergraduate degree, if you are applying without a Master’s) that have prepared you for studying Psychology at PhD level.

You should focus on discussing any independent work you have completed, both during your studies (such as a dissertation or independent research project), as well as work that has allowed you to develop the necessary skills for studying Psychology at an advanced level (particularly strong technical and problem-solving skills). This will help to demonstrate your academic competence, commitment to the subject, and ability to work independently – a highly important skill at postgraduate level.

As an example, if you are proposing to research the impact of increased automation in the healthcare sector on employee distress and happiness in the UK, you will ideally need to demonstrate that you have a solid understanding of automation and the healthcare sector from the modules you studied at undergraduate level. If you researched a similar topic in your undergraduate or Master’s dissertation and can cite specific findings and academics, even better. You will also need to show an appreciation of the interdisciplinary context of this topic (see tip 8 below).

Top tip: If you have any gaps in your education history, make sure you address these in your PhD personal statement. Your university will be keen to know that your postgraduate degree is not just a ‘back-up’, but that you are serious and committed, and that it is part of your academic or career plan. Similarly, if you are lacking any subject-specific experience (for example, if you studied your undergraduate degree in a subject other than Psychology), compensate for this by explaining how you have developed your foundation of relevant knowledge in other ways.

5. Include any relevant work experience

Including any relevant work experience you have completed in your personal statement will help to further demonstrate your genuine interest and real-world understanding of advanced level Psychology on an industry-specific level. It is particularly important in a postgraduate personal statement because it shows proactivity and dedication to your future academic or professional career – something that your chosen university will be looking for closely.

Relevant work experience for a Psychology PhD might include: Clinical Psychology placements in the NHS, volunteering for a mental health charity, a placement at a unit for people with substance abuse, taking a post as a research assistant, and more. Many UK universities look for an understanding of how the healthcare system works in the UK, so it can be beneficial to have experience in the NHS or with a clinic that works closely with the NHS.

Rather than simply listing the relevant work experience you have, make sure you show a degree of introspection. Tell your chosen university not only what you did on any work experience placements, but also what you learnt from it and how you intend to apply that experience in order to excel in your PhD.

Top tip: Though it’s important to include it if you have it, don’t worry if you are lacking in professional work experience. Many people who apply for a PhD have been in education their whole adult lives, so if you are missing experience then simply fill the space with further educational experience and skills that prove you are well-suited to studying at PhD level.

6. How else have you developed your interest in the topic?

Universities won’t just be looking at your past studies and work experience, but also how you have pursued and developed your interest in your chosen research topic in your own time. For example, maybe you led the Psychology society at your previous university, or perhaps you have simply explored your interest in the topic through reading relevant academic papers in the discipline/industry. Make sure to include examples and name-drop any significant organisations, news, papers, and academics throughout your personal statement to support your claims.

Keeping up to date with news in the psychological and medical communities, especially updates about the NHS and health policy, is also a great way to enhance your personal statement. It will allow you to make relevant references and anecdotes, show your commitment to the subject area, and demonstrate your understanding of the wider context of your research area. Some resources that will help you do that include the New Scientist, the Psychology section of The Guardian, the BPS, and the BMJ.

7. Briefly outline your 5-year plan

Universities will be looking for PhD applicants who are driven and committed to their industry. A strong personal statement should outline your goals for the future and explain how studying a PhD in Psychology will help you to achieve your 5-year plan.

If you don’t have a 5-year plan, you’re not alone! Start by thinking specifically about what you hope to achieve by the end of your PhD, whether educationally or professionally. If you have professional objectives, explain how this course will help you move towards your career goal.

Top tip: Coming up with a 5-year plan may seem like a daunting task, but remember that plans can always change. The 5-year plan you outline in your personal statement does not have to be set in stone and it is expected that you will inevitably adapt your plans based on your changing circumstances and interests. However, no matter how daunted you are, don’t be tempted to leave this part out – it is invaluable for demonstrating your motivation and commitment to the course.

8. Consider an interdisciplinary approach

Psychology is an interdisciplinary subject, containing elements of Biology and Medicine in particular at all levels. When it comes to studying Psychology at PhD level, the importance of an interdisciplinary understanding and approach becomes even more paramount. For example, many areas of research intersect heavily with Sociology, Education, Marketing, Business, and even Politics and Law. Universities will expect to see an appreciation of the intersection between Psychology and any other disciplines that are relevant to your chosen research topic in your personal statement.

For example, if you are proposing research into the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of various age groups, you will need to look at a broad spectrum of factors (such as social isolation, the role of technology, the political response and role of the media, etc.) in order to gain a holistic view of the psychological effects, many of which draw on other disciplines.

9. Show that you have the technical skills required

University-level Psychology requires students to have more than just excellent subject knowledge and essay-writing skills – it is actually a highly quantitative subject that requires excellent technical skills. Depending on the research you are proposing, you may need to demonstrate that you are able to use certain software and experiment equipment, and have strong data analysis skills.

If you studied Psychology at Master’s level, you will almost certainly be familiar with much of the software and technical skills required and will be able to demonstrate this in your personal statement. However, if you studied a slightly different (but related) subject area, you may need to research what skills you will need in order to conduct your research project effectively. This will help to reassure your university that you are prepared to study Psychology at PhD level.

10. Consider how your work can contribute to the department, university, and wider society

Our final tip for writing an excellent PhD personal statement for Psychology is to consider how your work will contribute – not only to the specific department and university you are applying for, but also to wider society. Universities will want to know that you understand the wider context in which your research will sit and what gap it will fill in the current research.

When applying for a PhD (especially a funded PhD), you’re also essentially asking a university to invest in you, so you need to convince them that you are worth that investment. A major way to do this is to explain how you will add value to their department and be an excellent member of the academic community.

Psychology research can also have real impacts in a range of other disciplines and in wider society. For example, research into the psychological development of young children and their response to different educational approaches has heavily influenced the style of teaching and curriculum of primary schools, which in turn impacts a whole generation of society.

How can we help?

The Profs’ PhD admissions consultants are true experts in helping students prepare for study at PhD level, submit stand-out PhD applications, and get into their first-choice universities. Our network contains current researchers, lecturers, and ex-admissions staff who have reviewed hundreds of postgraduate applications, as well as Psychology experts, so they know just what universities are looking for in PhD applicants.

More than 90% of students who work with our team secure places at their first or second choice university. These universities often include top 10 institutions like Oxbridge, Warwick, Manchester, Bristol, and more.

For professional, one-to-one guidance on your PhD application, get in touch with our team today.

Further resources

FAQs

What can I do with a PhD in Psychology?

A PhD in Psychology is a great way to enhance your knowledge of 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 on to 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.