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Doing PhD research

If you are passionate about psychology and want to familiarise yourself with various viewpoints about what a PhD in Psychology actually involves before weighing up the benefits and costs of doing one, read on.

One way to find out what a PhD is to look at the standards set by national bodies like the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). The Society has also published its Guidelines for Assessment of PhDs in Psychology and Related Disciplines, which set out recommendations for good practice in UK universities and are a useful reference for prospective doctoral students.

Another way to find out what a PhD is to look at the requirements of individual institutions. Often you will find that a PhD is viewed in terms of ‘learning outcomes’. As well as showing you the areas that are central to your proposed area of research, they allow you to start forming an idea of the ways you might be able market yourself for life after the PhD – whether you want to pursue a future postdoctoral career or chosen career path outside academia.


According to John Wakeford, a national consultant in higher education, once you have removed weekends, holidays, teaching, family and personal commitments and illness from the approximately 1000-day allocation to do a PhD (according to a full-time, three-year model), there are actually less than 500 working days to complete it.

So, in psychology, depending on the kinds of data collection you embark on, you are likely to draw on evening and weekend time. If you’re studying animal learning or memory you may find yourself working alone in a darkened laboratory over the weekend. If you are researching with specialist, low-incidence populations you may find yourself travelling the length and breadth of the country at unsociable hours. Of course, the kinds of research questions you will be able to pursue will depend upon your availability as a part-time or full-time PhD student.

A prompt completion not only leads to career, financial and personal benefits: it also means that both you and the university avoid institutional penalties for delayed submission or extension of your studies.

The student experience

If you read through the acknowledgement section prefacing PhD theses you gain a glimpse into the kinds of support and resources that students called on to achieve their Doctoral award (such as parents, supervisors, partners, the local pub). A three- or four-year journey is bound to involve a range of highs and lows.

The end product

A doctoral dissertation in psychology can normally be expected to be in the region of 70,000–100,000 words long. If this seems a daunting prospect, bear in mind that over 570,000 theses entries across all subject areas have been accepted on to the Index to Theses database - so all these people before you have faced a similar challenge and achieved it.

There is a benefit in perusing a thesis early on – actually physically looking at one – to give you an idea of your goal. To look for a topic relevant to your area you might want to try the Digital Archive of Research Theses.


An important part of the PhD process is choosing the right supervisor and working with him or her.

See our page on PhD supervision for guidance.

Teaching responsibilities

As well as topping up any student grant, undertaking teaching responsibilities such as demonstration sessions, seminar teaching, marking and sessional lecturing, is a good way to gain experience for a future career in academia. However, most PhD funding agencies stipulate the maximum number of teaching hours a student is permitted to undertake in any one teaching year. A PhD teaching studentship (which usually pays more than the research councils) is a model that offers an alternative way to manage the time and cost payoffs of doing a PhD.

Monitoring of progress

It is normal practice for universities to have guidelines for the submission of an end-of-first-year report (in the case of a full-time student) by both student and supervisors. Progress will be charted against the framework for supervision set up in the first phase of the registration for a degree.

At the end of the full-time degree, or at the end of the second year in the case of a part-time degree, normal practice requires recommendation for transfer to a doctorate (rather than masters level) programme of study. Although the methods for doing this will vary across universities, standard practice involves the appointment of a panel at a departmental or faculty level. Methods of appeal are normally cited in the research handbook of the university concerned.


To ensure that your thesis meets the UK national standard, external examination is through a viva, which serves as a check that the thesis is the student’s own work. Crucially, it looks at your competency in defending and talking about your research.

Resources available for support in preparing a viva include our Guidelines for the Assessment of the PhD in Psychology and Related Discipline.

Back to Postgraduate Research Degrees.