Getting a PhD in Psychology: Tips for Applying, Publishing, and Completing

... And advice for early career researchers


A guide for PhD psychology students

Increasingly people are undertaking PhD study in psychology to develop their academic and professional skills. Such students often go on to pursue successful careers in academia, get onto the hyperselective clinical training courses (e.g., ClinPsyD), or get highly paid jobs in industries which value the skills set of doctoral graduates. But success is far from universal; it can be difficult to get accepted as a student in the first place, and whilst most people that start a PhD do pass, many will not have a highly employable CV at the end. Success is very readily achievable at all stages of the PhD but in addition to having specific academic skills, it critically needs the student to understand and navigate the culture and zeitgeist of academia, which particularly involves adapting the right attitude towards publication from Day 1. This informal Q&A style insider’s guide aims to let future and existing PhD understand how the game works, so that everyone can get the most out of their experience (or at least not be hampered by the free availability of knowledge). The guide is designed to be of use to both prospective and current PhD students in psychology (so some sections will be of more relevance to some readers than others; existing PhD students would benefit from reading it all, but get more useful tips from the second part of this guide).

This guide is about succeeding at a PhD in Psychology in the UK.
Much of the advice here (e.g., approaching supervisors, career options, and where to publish) will be useful to students in other behavioral and social sciences, both in the UK and abroad, however other subjects and countries have particular requirements and norms and this guide is not designed to generalize to these other settings. Rather, students in these other fields should use this guide as "food for thought" being an example of how things occur in another field, which can be useful in comparing and contrasting with discipline and country specific advice given by trusted postgraduate research tutors and supervisors.

... And early career researchers

This page began life as an insiders guide into starting, conducting, and completing a PhD in psychology, with an emphasis on getting a job at the end. Increasingly, as it grew, it became useful for early career researchers, particularly the second section which contains advice about where to publish and of course as they should be thinking of supervising PhD students themselves. Whilst still aimed at prospective and current PhD students in psychology, hopefully it also promotes general good practice for more experienced researchers, both within psychology and more widely across the behavioral and social sciences.

Starting a PhD in Psychology

What is a PhD?

A PhD is an independent piece of research. In psychology it will normally involve a series of studies written up in around 80,000 words (main text, not including tables, references, etc.); your “thesis”. How many studies and what these would entail will vary across disciplines. A good way to think of it is sufficient empirical work for three papers in good journals. What is a sufficient number of studies and suitably extensive methodology for paper depends on the field and type of work. Within some areas, such as cognitive psychology, a good paper would require three or four small scale experiments conducted on students (so for three papers, you'd need to do nine easy to conduct studies). In others, such as clinical psychology, a good paper would involve a single much larger study using clinical participants (perhaps longitudinally or as part of a randomized control trial; three of which in a PhD would be very extensive). The general idea is that all PhDs should contain the same amount of work; examiners generally expect to see more studies if they were quick and easy to conduct, and less if they are intensive and involving Seeing what generally constitutes a paper in good journals in your field - and imagining doing it three times! - would be an indication as to how many and what type of studies you need to conduct. A PhD is based on research; it is not to be confused with the mostly practical clinical training (commonly called DClin or ClinPsyD) necessary to work with patients as a clinical psychologist.
Example PhDs in Psychology

If you are considering or currently studying for a PhD you are strongly advised to read good theses so that you know what you are expected to do. There is a paradox in that anyone who has to ask whether they have done enough work for a PhD isn’t ready for one and people that know they are ready don’t have to ask. Here are examples of four very good theses which passed very easily (with no or very little corrections), lead to good publications, and were completed in between 2 to 3 years; my three previous students Peter, Jude, and Becki,as well as my own (!). All of these are experimentally based; Christoper's (in which I played a role) provides an excellent example of a thesis at the interface of psychology and economics (perfect for either field) which exclusively uses large datasets. Because of the publications gained during the PhD period we all found good jobs at the end (my students went straight onto clinical training, I was given a lectureship, and Christopher has never been turned down for any research fellowship he's asked for). Of course PhDs are commonly awarded for much less than these examples of good practice, although the work included is a realistically attainable amount, for which people should strive if only for the publications (and note that Peter, Jude, and Becki also had difficult data collection, whilst Chris completed an Iron Man!). For more theses, the British Library offers an excellent service where they will scan any British PhD and make it available on their website without charge (this list of theses may provide suggestions).

What are the formal requirements to pass a PhD in psychology?

A PhD is normally defined to be; (a) in principle of publishable quality, (b) an original contribution to knowledge, and (c) commensurate with three years work. The first criteria is sufficient; if you’ve published widely (and in good journals) during your PhD then; (a) it is clearly publishable, (b) two world experts and an editor will have agreed on its contribution to knowledge, and (c) as many people never publish during their PhD, it is clearly commiserate with three years work. The precise examination criteria for PhDs differ between universities (see, for example, Warwick and Manchester's) and normally take up a lot of words, but normally boil down to these three criteria, for which publication is the sufficient criteria.

How are PhDs examined in psychology?

The PhD is assessed at the end by two examiners (one from your department and an external expert in your field). These examiners will carefully read your thesis and give you an oral examination (the viva), commonly lasting around two hours. They may; (a) pass the thesis without corrections (very rare), (b) pass subject to minor corrections, often defined as involving only a limited number of pages and less than two months work (very common), (c) pass subject to major corrections, involving up to a year’s extra work and possibly re-examination (less common), or (d) take various other options including downgrading to a Masters degree or outright failing (exceptionally rare, partially as in practice students normally drop out [or are pushed] if it obvious that this may happen). The best way to pass with only minor corrections (and stress) is to have already published at least two papers in a B rated journal or higher (preferably A rated). With these you shouldn't even need to feel nervous going into your viva.

How long do PhDs in psychology take?

The PhD lasts 3 years full-time, or up to 6 years part-time. Extensions are possible, but look bad for everyone, and will not be needed if everything has gone right. Do set yourself realistic although ambitious goals as (like always in life) work naturally expands to fulfill all the available time. For example, one of my old supervisors infamously misread the guidance for his own PhD thinking he only had two years to complete. A natural sciences department in my old Uni tells people when the first arrive; “don’t worry, you’ll be allowed a fourth year extension if you need it”. My old supervisor finished in two years; students at this department never take less than four. There is never any need for a full time PhD with proper planning (at the start and throughout) to take more than three years (or really, for a part-time to take more than four).

What can I do with a PhD in psychology? What jobs can I get with a psychology PhD?

With a PhD in psychology you can go onto a variety of professions. People often think of a career in academia as the obvious outcome. For this, having a PhD is necessary, but people are sometimes surprised that a PhD is just one (albeit necessary) tick in a box; what will get you the job will be the number and quality of your publications. For a career in academia it is common to do a few years after your PhD as a post-doctoral researcher (in research intensive universities, salaries are commonly on Grade 6; £29,249–35,938) then lecturer (Grade 7; £37,012 - £45,486), potentially progressing to senior lecturer (Grade 8; £46,846 – £55,908) and professor (ungraded and negotiable, but commonly around £65,000). To put these wages context, UK government figures place a post doc in the top 25% of wage earners ( >£30,900), senior lecturers in the top 10% ( >£46,600), and professors in the top 5% (>£63,200). Wages for a post-doc, lecturer, and senior lecturer correspond to Sergeant, Captain, and Major in the army, or constable (4 year plus of service), Sergeant, and Inspector/Chief Inspector in the police force; although the academic culture is less hierarchal and your more likely to get papers rejected than get shot. These figures are relevant as people are apparently more affected by how their income compares to others than how much they actually earn; although neither is strongly related to happiness.

Alternatively, people often go onto clinical training, with the aims of becoming a clinical psychologist and directly treating patients. This requires a further three year clinical training (often called a ClinPsyD or DClin). You do not need a PhD to get onto the training, but it can help a lot. The ClinPsyD is one of the hardest courses to get onto in the UK, chiefly as you get paid £25,528 whilst training and many of the large number of psychology graduates want to become clinical psychologists. In your application you will need to demonstrate truly exceptional practical experience and/or outstanding research skills. Different institutions give these two components more or less weighting and it’s worth trying to find out who values your particular skills the most. People normally go down the practical experience route, spending three or four years after an undergraduate psychology degree working in psychiatric settings. In terms of experience, jobs such as a nursing assistant in a NHS hospitals would count, whereas “soft” experience such as “nightline” phone counseling or volunteering to work with children would not, although this may help get the real experience further along the line. (The placements that count are those that give direct experience with clinical patients.) After this experience people then commonly spend a few years as an assistant psychologist, from where they can make a serious application to get onto the course. Commonly this route can take up to seven years after the undergraduate degree. This time frame can be shortened if some of this experience is gained part time during the undergraduate degree, which is strongly advisable if you want to take this route (again, going for the experience that counts for the most). Many students manage this, although academic studies can't be neglected as a result; a 1st class degree will also be needed, although a 2.1 can also be accepted if there is compensation elsewhere on the CV. However, as an alternative to this route, people can base their application primarily on research excellence. Some courses will accept this in preference to practical experience. Studying for a (funded or self-funded) PhD after an undergraduate degree is increasingly used as a way to demonstrate such research skills and achievements. This can be a very viable way of getting into clinical psychology. If you are going down this route you are advised to ensure your PhD topic is clinically relevant and will involve clinical participants. Collecting data from this group will also build up practical experience. As with all PhDs you should publish during your course. Publications in clinical journals will count for more than anything when making an application for a clinical course based on research excellence; if you publishing in the same places as the people on the interview panel you’re going to be onto a winner!

Finally, a PhD can lead to an excellent career in industry. It is a myth that employers think that people with PhDs are over qualified. Quite the opposite, employers value the PhD as way to develop and demonstrate key transferable skills, such as running a three year project on time and on budget, teamwork, dealing with supervision, quantitative analysis skills, scientific thinking, independence of thought, and excellent writing skills. Such skills are prized by employers. If there is any truth in the myth that employers don’t like a PhD, it is that if you apply with an “I can do it because I’m a doctor” approach, then disaster beckons. But with a humble attitude and playing down your title whilst bigging up your up your skills profile you can use a PhD as a springboard onto an excellent job in industry.

As should be clear from the above, the PhD as a piece of paper doesn’t directly help you get an academic, clinical, or industry job; rather job application processes always value what you develop during the PhD, which for academia is publications, for clinical training is clinical research experience and publications, and for industry is transferable skills.

Can I do a PhD in Psychology?

You (and the potential supervisor and university) have to decide whether you are ready. Formal requirements are low (normally only an undergraduate degree at lower second level or international equivalent, in any discipline, not only psychology). What’s most important is that you have a genuine passion for research, are determined to see through what can be a difficult process, are committed to learning new skills, and dedicated to publishing high quality research. A certain level of existing skills are often felt to be necessary, including a reasonable writing style and the skills associated with “intelligence” (all of which, incidentally, are actually learnable). Many people will have a first or upper second undergraduate degree and a Masters – these can be useful in that they would have helped you develop the existing skills and will allow you to objectively demonstrate that you have them. They are however not essential, as what is more important is whether you are ready to develop during the PhD. If you’re not ready right now, studying for a Masters degree may be a sensible option, or alternatively getting paid or unpaid work as a research assistant on a research project. Many research active academics welcome being contacted with offers of volunteering, and department secretaries will often circulate an offer of help by e-mail (with a carefully worded statement and CV).

How do get accepted for a PhD in psychology? Applying for a PhD in psychology

Agreeing to supervise a PhD student is a major commitment of time and effort and academics will want to know that you value their personal unique input and that you will further their research aims (not, for example, that you are choosing them as they happen to be in a convenient location). Make sure that any e-mail is well-presented; from your first e-mail you are in an interview process and it is amazing how many candidates are immediately ruled out through poorly written emails and attachments with typos, multiple fonts, poor English, and obvious copying and pasting (my favorite was a candidate who copied and pasted the potential supervisor's "personal interests" section of their website onto their own CV, in what would have been a perfect act of plagiarism had they not still managed to introduce a spelling mistake). Your first e-mail should state (a) your motivation to do the PhD, (b) why you want to work with this particular academic, showing a high awareness of their work (with specific mention of some of their individual papers to show that you've read them), and (c) what you would like to research as part of your PhD. Opinions differ as to how much information you should provide on what you’d like to research. Some candidates are in a position to make a very precise proposal (including the design of two of more studies). This can be highly impressive if it shows strong existing research skills and a good writing ability. However, it does slightly risk alienating an academic if you propose something that they don’t want to supervise. There is no right answer here; whether or not to include a precise proposal depends on whether you can make a strong proposal on your own (or want the academic’s help, which would normally be expected) and whether you genuinely only want to do one topic (and to do so more than to work with a given supervisor). It is totally fine to just express interest and ask for the academics help in developing ideas, which is the position in which most candidates will find themselves. If you do include a proposal, it may be worth also indicating how willing you would be to work on another topic, which can help avoid any misunderstanding. Finally, remember that any interview is always a two way process.

How much does a PhD in psychology cost? Can I get funding for a PhD in psychology? Self funding a PhD in psychology

PhD fees vary by university, but are commonly around £3,900 per year for EU residents (and can be up to £15,000 for non-EU residents). These fees are heavily subsidized by the university, as you’ll get a computer, your own desk, filling cabinet, room in a shared office, and personal staff time (some estimates say that a PhD costs £10,000 per year more than fees cover). Given this, it is highly unlikely that universities will reduce fees further. Getting funding is possible but very difficult and extremely competitive. Universities will commonly advertise funded places, as will websites such as and Funding can be generous, but you may have less flexibility (having to accept a particular project or supervisor). Given the low chance of funding, people are increasingly people self-funding PhDs. It is likely that in the mid-term PhD fees will rise to match the new undergraduate tuition fees (£9,000 per year) so self-funding sooner rather than may be advisable (as once you are on the course the fees will not increase). Given that undergraduate degrees will soon cost £27,000 in tuition fees alone, you may think that around £11,500 for a PhD is a good investment, particularly as it will make you much more employable, and the positions available for graduates who follow the advice here are well paid (all in excess of £30,000). There best way in which to limit costs is to ensure that you will complete within three years (beginning with choosing right supervisor to ensure that you can do so).

What should I look for in a PhD supervisor? Choosing a PhD supervisor

Your choice of supervisor is incredibly important; it is the biggest single predictor of how well you will do and the biggest choice you have to make when choosing a PhD. Other than the odd seminar, your supervisor will be providing the only “teaching” you’ll receive and normally most of the guidance on your research.

Your supervisor should:

1. Be a prolific producer of high quality papers (they should have several recent A rated and preferably a couple of A* rated publications). If your supervisor isn’t publishing well themselves, then the chances are that they don’t have the skills to teach you and will not “socialize” you into a high publishing career. Commonly, even decades later, the former student will not be publishing at a higher level than their old supervisors was at the time of their PhD. Evaluate your supervisors CV carefully for both number of publications (for their career stage) and their quality (using the journal quality list).

2. Be prepared to spend significant time with you. How much will spend naturally vary depending on what you are working on at a given time, but meeting once a week (with the supervisor having read your work before hand) is a reasonable expectation, with additional contact by e-mail in between. Sometimes students only see their supervisor once a month (or less) and they tend to struggle.

3. Have a track record of having supervised PhDs that (a) were completed within three years and (b) generated multiple good quality papers, with the student as first author.

4. Develop a close and supportive relationship with you. A PhD is more than just a piece of paper, it is the introduction to the academic world, and PhD training involves the development of many other skills (including presentation, getting through the peer-review process, advanced writing skills, independently planning research, developing ideas for the future, etc.) and for this to happen it is critical that you have someone supportive who can help you develop. Often, in later years a former PhD student will still be in contact with their old supervisor and consider them to be a personal friend.

Other issues to consider:
Supervisors range from adopting a mentorship approach to an apprenticeship approach. At the extreme, the mentoring supervisor will refuse to give you any ideas for what to research (but will encourage and support you in developing your own ideas). At the other extreme, the apprenticing supervisor will have already planned out all of your studies in detail and may not initially be receptive to your own ideas. Most supervisors fall somewhere in the middle but tend somewhat more towards one side than another, and often hold very strong views about why this is the best approach for the student. Mentorship gives the student the most freedom but can lead to a slow start, feelings of being lost and “out of depth”, and lower quality research ideas being pursued. Apprenticeship leads to fast initial progress, and possibly very good research programs, but can be stifling to individual development. Neither approach is right or wrong, but it is important to have a supervisor who prefers to adopt the style you think you’d benefit most from. Some supervisors are happy to adopt either model, or naturally vary during the PhD (e.g., initially adopting an apprenticeship model and transitioning to a mentorship model over time as you develop more skills and are thus able take a more independent lead in the research projects).

Points to discuss:
Before committing to a supervisor; (1) check their publications on their website, (2) discuss their views about publishing during the PhD (if they don't say "of course, that's the point", then look elsewhere), (3) discuss their views regarding mentorship verses apprenticeship, (4) ask them about their previous students, especially whether they've completed on time and what, if anything, they published during their PhD period (checking the student was first author), and (5) generally think about whether you like and want to work with them. Do be diplomatic and tactful as academics have notorious egos, but asking these questions will lead to information you need to make an informed decision and can show that you are aware of the issues involved in undertaking a PhD.

Succeeding at a PhD in Psychology

How do I pass a PhD in psychology? Getting the most of a PhD in psychology. Publishing during a PhD in psychology

Publication is the key objective of a PhD and its importance cannot be over emphasized. You should aim for quality first and quantity second. Five specific reasons to publish during your PhD are:

1. It is the easiest way to pass. All PhD’s are examined on the three criteria (publishable, a contribution to knowledge, and three years’ work). If you’ve published widely and highly you’ll know you’ve fulfilled these criteria and “passed” before you’ve been examined.

2. It is the only way to get an academic job. Thirty years ago, when very few people were undertaking PhDs, the degree itself would be sufficient for an academic job. Now, with lots of people doing PhDs, the quality control (and hence the “gold plating”) has corroded, and now the only rigorous and fair way to tell between candidates is based on the quality and number of their publications. Given that accepted papers will have been fully peer reviewed by three world experts, with the stringency and quality of the review process proportional to the quality of the journal, then publications in top journals will be a much better indication of the ability of the candidate than the award of a doctorate.

3. It is the only way to develop key skills. Preparing a paper for publication is a skill in itself, as is getting it published (dealing with editors and revising the manuscript to take into account the reviewers comments, for example). These are key necessary career skills which should be learnt during the PhD.

4. It will help your long term career. Publications always stay on your CV and will be counted even when you’re applying for a professorship years down the line.


5. Publication is the point of an academic research career and undertaking a research doctorate. If you’re not dedicated to publishing you should question your motivation for undertaking a PhD.

In which psychology journals should I publish? Which are the best psychology journals? Psychology journal rankings. Publishing in psychology.

Journals vary massively in quality and it is important to publish in the good ones. Academics are very sensitive to the quality of a journal and rightly so; given everyone tries to get into the best journal they can, although there is a lot of noise in the system, the quality of a paper is well indicated by the quality of the journal in which it is published. The review process is also much stronger in the best journals, increasing the chance that papers published there will be of top quality. As a PhD student you need to engage in understanding the quality of journals in your field; just asking your supervisor where to publish on a paper by paper basis is not acceptable because you'll not be developing a key academic skill (although you'll certainly want to regularly discuss journal quality in supervision meetings) and as conventionally the choice of destination is the first authors responsibility (not the most senior collaborator, although you'll want to ensure that all co-authors are happy with submission to a particular journal). An exercise that every PhD student (and experienced researcher entering a new field) should do involves taking a couple of recent issues of a journal and making short notes on each paper noting their key features such as the extent of the novelty, methodology (e.g., number of participants and whether cross sectional, longitudinal, or experimental methods are used), analysis (e.g., simple or advanced stats and which kinds), conclusions (e.g., clear and important or otherwise). If you do this for each journal in your field you will rapidly get to recognize the difference in quality and learn what you'll have to do to have a shot at a particular journal.

You also need to understand and evaluate the two main bibliographic methods of judging the quality of a journal (the impact factor and the ERA list) and engage with the literature evaluating their relevant pros and cons. The impact factor of a journal refers to how often recent papers in that journal are cited by other researchers in the field. On the assumption that the best papers will be cited the most, then the journal with the highest impact factor will be the best. There are of course a number of problems with this assumption and by extension the use of impact factors. First, impact factors are not a "common metric", in that they cannot be used to compare journals in different fields. Journals in say, physics, will generally have higher impact factors than journal in psychology, simply as there are more papers published in physics, and hence more citations overall. Similar problems occur between sub-fields of psychology where, for example, more papers are published in cognitive than applied psychology, and even between types of journals, where those that include reviews generally attract more citations than those that exclusively focus on original research. Second, citations are not normally distributed; a small number of highly cited papers will determine a journal's impact factor (Mayor, 2010). Third, there are other confounds such as more citations being associated with shorter papers (Bertamini and Munafo, 2012, see also Ledgerwood and Sherman, 2012), number of references, length, number of participants and co-authors, as well as other factors (Hegarty and Walton, 2012). However, although caution need to be used when interpreting impact factors, they still offer a useful way to give a quick indication of the quality of a journal (and do influence employment and promotion committees). To minimise the problems with the
interpretation of impact factors, you should never use the "raw" impact factor, but rather the rank of the journals impact factor within the sub-discipline category (e.g., 1 out 109 in Clinical Psychology). To get this information, go to, click on "Journal Citation Reports", find the relevant journal, click“view journal summary list”, then sort by impact factor, which will give the rank position of the journal. At the end of the day, journals that rank in the top third of a discipline are probably good, whilst journals in the bottom third are probably not.

An alternative, and in many ways superior method of ascertaining journal quality was developed (and then sadly abandoned) by the Australian government, the“ERA list”, which was formed following a massive consultation exercise of academics, who were invited to rate journals in their field on a scale of A* to C. The box below provides the ERA definition of each classification as well as exemplar journals in each category (my addition). To find the classification of a specific journal see and

Journal Quality According to the ERA Classification System
Classification Description Area Exemplar Journals
A* Typically an A* journal would be one of the best in its field or subfield in which to publish and would typically cover the entire field/subfield. Virtually all papers they publish will be of a very high quality. These are journals where most of the work is important (it will really shape the field) and where researchers boast about getting accepted. Acceptance rates would typically be low and the editorial board would be dominated by field leaders, including many from top institutions General Psychological Bulletin; Psychological Science; Psychological Review
Social Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Cognitive Cognition; Cognitive Psychology; Journal of Experimental Psychology ("General"; "Animal Behaviour Processes"; "Human Perception and Performance"; and "Learning, Memory, and Cognition")
Developmental Developmental Psychology; Journal of Educational Psychology
Clinical Health Psychology; Journal of Abnormal Psychology; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
A The majority of papers in a Tier A journal will be of very high quality. Publishing in an A journal would enhance the author’s standing, showing they have real engagement with the global research community and that they have something to say about problems of some significance. Typical signs of an A journal are lowish acceptance rates and an editorial board which includes a reasonable fraction of well known researchers from top institutions. General Review of General Psychology
Social Journal of Personality; Journal of Research in Personality; European Journal of Social Psychology; Social Indicators Research
Cognitive Cognition and Emotion; Journal of Behavioural Decision Making; Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Developmental Developmental Science; Scientific Studies of Reading; Journal of Experimental Child Psychology; Journal of Research in Reading
Clinical Behaviour Research and Therapy; Clinical Psychology Review; Journal of Affective Disorders; Journal of Traumatic Stress; Psychological Medicine
B Tier B covers journals with a solid, though not outstanding, reputation. Generally, in a Tier B journal, one would expect only a few papers of very high quality. They are often important outlets for the work of PhD students and early career researchers. Typical examples would be regional journals with high acceptance rates, and editorial boards that have few leading researchers from top international institutions. General American Journal of Psychology; British Journal of Psychology
Social British Journal of Social Psychology; Personality and Individual Differences
Cognitive Experimental Psychology; Judgement and Decision Making
Developmental British Journal of Educational Psychology; British Journal of Developmental Psychology
Clinical British Journal of Health Psychology; Cognitive Therapy and Research; Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy; Journal of Clinical Psychology
C Tier C includes quality, peer reviewed, journals that do not meet the criteria of the higher tiers. General Psychological Reports; Perceptual and Motor Skills; International Journal of Psychology
Social Journal of Individual Differences; Journal of Social Behaviour and Personality; Self and Identity
Cognitive Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience; Thinking and Reasoning; Journal of Mind and Behavior
Developmental Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology; Reading Psychology; Teaching of Psychology
Clinical Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy; Cognitive Behaviour Therapy; Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy; Journal of Mental Health
Description wording from For more journals, see and

The ERA list has many strengths especially in providing a common metric; A* journals should be of equal quality in both physics and psychology, overcoming a fundamental limitation of impact factors. As with any aggregation system it is not error free, and it certainly seems that journals in some sub-fields (particularly social psychology) get lower ratings than they deserve (Haslam, 2010). However, as a scheme developed from a survey of people in our field, it will probably be a better indication of what one's peers (including those on interview and promotion boards) think about specific journals, including any bias that may exist in their opinions!

What you should publish during your PhD in psychology

Everyone should aim for A* publication. Publishing in these journals will get the research the most credibility and coverage. If you want a highly successful research career, it is essential that you eventually work towards A* publication. However, even for the oldest and best academics, A* publications normally make up the minority of their portfolio, and as this is your first research project, A* publication is realistically unlikely (given time and resources; although both Peter and Jude did it!). What is important, however, is that you consistently keep working towards the A* level, learning the skills to get there in time. Many very talented people haven’t made the most out of their careers as they start at a lower level and get comfortable there, ceasing to strive for A*. A’s are very impressive even for leading academics and B’s are impressive for early career researchers. As a rule of thumb, if you have two B’s before the end of your PhD then you are safe; you will walk through your examination. To employ a lecturer, the very best universities in the world normally expect four A* publications (probably plus a few others). Good PhD students, with appropriate guidance, should normally get somewhere between two and 4 papers in B, A, or A* journals (two As or A* plus two Bs is considered exceptionally impressive). If you’re not heading this way then you should question what needs to be changed about your strategy or the support that you are receiving.

You should plan your thesis to get the most publications during your 3 years. Occasionally the advice is given to spend your first year planning your studies, your second year collecting data, and you’re third writing it up (the so called “traditional thesis” model). This will not lead to publications, will probably involve 4 years of study (if you don’t fail completely), will involve a stressed first year (not seeing where your research is heading), an inefficient second year (data collecting is rarely a 40 hour per week task), and a stressed third year (trying to learn three years of skills and do three years of write-up in 12 months).The best model is to conduct a study as soon as you can, ideally collecting data within your first few months. Go for the minimum and quickest publishable project. This will allow you write up your first paper around the six month mark, critically already developing key skills including (a) running research projects, (b) analyzing data, and (c) writing for publication. Having done this, you will be in a much more advanced position and able to plan your next study. Each paper you do will develop you further. This highlights the cyclical nature of PhD research – you conceptualize, test, and write-up to be better at conceptualizing, restarting the cycle at a higher level. This is why the traditional thesis model doesn’t work – if you only write up in the third year you wouldn’t have time to publish and would wish that you’d done everything differently.

By focusing on producing papers throughout the PhD they work becomes split into a smaller number of more approachable tasks. It will always be clear what you need to do – the next study. Once papers are accepted, they can literally be copied and pasted into your thesis. Top and tail it with an introduction and discussion and you’re done! (There is another model of a thesis with focuses on a telling a single story, with single introduction, method, and results sections, rather than a series of papers which each have their own sections; this other model is outdated and incompatible with publication. An informal study by our faculty found that people this other format had a worse time at examination and less papers by the end.)

How does authorship work in psychology?

Of all of the complaints the American Psychological Association receives, by far the greatest regard authorship. It is a minefield that can lead to lasting resentment. Were we producing physical products, then the credit would be monetary payment given according to relative input of capital and labor. For publication, the credit is authorship, and given the importance of publication, such credit is integral to employment and promotion, as well as being the psychological pay-off for the effort expended by collaborators (for a discussion of these issues see Biagioli and Gailson, 2003). Conventionally, in psychology, authorship is given in order of contribution (so the first authorship counts the most, other progressively less so). Confusingly, in medicine and many of the physical sciences, the first author counts the most as they have most likely done the work, but the last author counts nearly as much, as this position is reserved for the guiding influence. This convention is sometimes also adopted in psychology, so it is worth always checking with the authors who have done the most whether they would prefer to go last or in order of contribution). The challenges with authorship involve determining (a) who deserves an authorship and (b) what is the order of contribution. This is a decision for the first author (not, say, the supervisor). There is guidance out there to help with this (see Dingfelder, 2007; Game & West, 2002; Fine & Kurdek, 1993) with which you should make yourself very familiar; this is an important professional responsibility and can save you enormous stress. In all normal circumstances, you should expect to be first author on anything that you produce during your PhD. However beyond this, as with most modern ethical systems, there are no hard and fast rules. As a general strategy, I’d very strongly suggest that you develop a strategy of “very generous inclusivity”. At the end of the day, adding additional authors costs little, avoids stress, and in the long term fosters helpful and collaborative behaviour in the field. You should also be thinking in terms of long term relationships; good academics will reciprocate with opportunities to contribute to their work; what goes around comes around. People also gain reputations for being generous and collaborative or mean and obstructive (and even not to be trusted), increasing or limiting the help they get from others. Having said this, people who clearly haven’t contributed anything to a project can’t be included, not least as it dilutes the other genuine author’s contributions. So although this is likely to be one of the difficult issues you’ll encounter, awareness of this issue, being up front and discussing authorship with collaborators at the start and during the project, combined with a default position of generous inclusivity should help you gain reputation and collaborators during this process.

How do I change a PhD supervisor? What do I do when my relationship with a PhD supervisor has broken down?

This can be tricky, but changing supervisors is certainly possible and is not something from which students should shy away if necessary. Your PhD and personal development are too important for you to allow them to be harmed by a supervisor who, for example, isn’t meeting you enough, giving enough guidance, giving bad advice, or with whom your relationship has degraded. The most critical thing is that you always get the appropriate support, which at the end of the day is all your department will want. Sometimes when a student isn't happy with their supervisor they strike up a relationship with another member of staff whounofficially provides the necessary support. This can be difficult however, with the member of staff not wanting to seem to undermine their colleague. Alternatively, it is always an option to formally change supervisors; students should always take this option if it seems right and not worry about the supervisor's feelings. Supervisors have students year in year out, but this is your big shot to start a path towards research excellence. Your advisory or the Postgraduate Director can help organize a transition in the most diplomatic fashion. But fortunately, this generally should not be necessary. With a careful initial choice of supervisor, combined with a strong initial focus, your supervisor should end up becoming a close friend.

Concluding Remarks

I hope that this guide has been helpful. Starting a PhD can be daunting and there are times during everyone’s doctorate when moral slips. This includes the "mid PhD crisis" when one realizes how things actually work in research (including that the results that you trusted as an undergrad are actually not as trustworthy as they seemed) and that you aren't actually going to change the world with your work. Try and remember that the former actually indicates developing critical skills (relevant to all life) and for the latter I myself was helped by a friend Yusef's advice: "Get over yourself, Alex, you're never going to discover anything "true", ever. (There is no such thing.) The value of academia is in the dialogue and to contribute to that dialogue is a great thing". An alternative view is
Kuhn's, which states that science doesn't progress based on truth heaped on truth. Rather an idea exists and evidence is built up around it becoming the dominant "paradigm". Eventually there is disconfirming evidence which cannot be explained by the paradigm. Evidence builds up around this disconfirming evidence, like a pearl around dirt, until there is so much evidence that it displaces the existing paradigm and takes its place (a "paradigm shift", that phrase much loved and abused by people in suits who have never read Kuhn). A third view is that of Taleb, in his excellent and very readable book black swan (which every researcher needs to read, as well as every citizen), which states that knowledge progresses by a single finding, which by its very nature is impossible to predict and see the importance of at the time. Either way, as Yusef says, you'll be contributing to the greatest dialogue there is. Pragmatically, Keep Calm and Carry on (or the humorous derivatives) by splitting the PhD into a smaller set of publications (each of which will individually seem more doable). Do always have at least a vague thesis plan, but often you just have to ask yourself what you need to do next to get your next publication. And do it, not letting anything stand in your way. Do this enough and one day you'll wake up, have a thesis, great job prospects, and soon be bothering the bank to change your cards to read "Dr".

Feel fr
ee to e-mail me for advice ( and I'd love to have feedback on this site. I'm always happy to consider supervising PhDs in any area connected to my competence (broadly anything involving well-being, personality, social psychology, or large datasets as well as other areas; see my website taking either a apprenticing or mentoring role, although this would ordinarily have to be self-funded. If you’ve experience with large datasets, an example project we could do is here: Finally, if you've found this site helpful please link to it, so it will become more prominent on Google and help others.


Biagioli, M. & Gailson, P. (2003). Scientific Authorship: Credit and Intellectual Property in Science. London: Routledge
Bertamini, M., & Munafo, M. (2012)
. Bite-size science and its undesired side effects. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 67-71.
Dingfelder, S. F. (2007). Get the credit you deserve. GradPSYCH, 4, 42-47.
Fine, M. A.,& Kurdek, L. A. (1993). Reflections on determining authorship credit and authorship order on faculty student collaborations. American Psychologist, 48, 1141-1147.
Game, A., & West, M. A. (2002). Principles of publishing. The Psychologist, 15, 126-129.
Haslam, N.,& Koval, P. (2010). Possible research area bias in the excellence in research for australia (ERA) draft journal rankings. Australian Journal of Psychology, 62, 112-114.
Hegarty, P., & Walton, Z. (2012). The consequences of predicting scientific impact in psychology using journal impact factors. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 72-78.
Ledgerwood, A., & Sherman, J. W. (2012). Short, sweet, and problematic? The rise of the short report in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 60-76.
Mayor, J. (2010). Are scientists nearsighted gamblers? The misleading nature of impact factors. Frontiers in Psychology, 1, Article 215.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of the University of Manchester who has no control over or input into this website.

Professor Alex Wood

Mental Health and Happiness across Psychology, Economics, and Psychiatry/Medicine

Centennial Chair in Psychology at LSE, London School of Economics and Political Science