UCL Institute of Mental Health


About the programme

Information about the UCL Wellcome 4-year PhD in Mental Health Science

Mental illness is very common and a major public health problem. Over half of adult disorders begin by age 15, and one-in-four people in the UK has experienced clinically relevant symptoms within the past year. Treatments help many, but do not work for a large proportion of people, and so far have failed to reduce prevalence.

To create genuine change in this field, we need to develop innovative preventative strategies and treatments, and apply existing ones more effectively, through understanding the mechanisms that drive symptoms.

The UCL Wellcome 4-year PhD in Mental Health Science is an exciting opportunity for students to train in a wide range of the latest methods and techniques in the field of mental health research. This programme, funded in 2019, is the first of its kind in the UK, representing an investment of over £5 million by the Wellcome Trust. It is based in the UCL Institute of Mental Health, and will recruit six students per year from 2020-2024.

The programme will provide a platform for the interdisciplinary research we need to translate findings from work on mechanisms and risk factors into novel treatments and prevention strategies. Its ultimate objective is to train outstanding scientists and policy leaders for whom interdisciplinary working is the norm, and who can communicate their findings to a wide audience so that their research delivers change. An important priority for the programme is developing transferable skills relevant for a variety of career pathways both within and outside academia, including, for example, policy, the charitable sector, and commercial research organisations.

Key Dates

Application deadline:11 January 2022 (23:59 GMT)
Interviews:8 and 9 March 2022
Start date:26 September 2022

Studentship details

Students receive a stipend for 4 years at Wellcome Trust rates (see Wellcome Trust website for London rates). Tuition fees, travel and training expenses, and a generous allowance for research consumables costs are all included in the studentship. At the end of the programme students have the option of applying for funds to support transition to the next stage of their career, whether in academia or another sector. 

Overseas  applicants (EU and non-EU) are eligible, and if accepted to the programme will not be required to pay any additional fees.

This studentship is also avalible to be undertaken on a partime basis. If you wish to undertake this option please indiacte so in your statement of motivation. 

Through this programme, students have the option of joining the UCL-NIMH Joint Doctoral Training Program in Neuroscience, which would involve conducting part of their training at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), situated near Washington, DC. This would extend the studentship to a 5th year. For students opting to pursue this opportunity, their stipend and research expenses would be supported by the NIH during the period spent there.

Improving diversity

Equality, diversity & inclusion are fundamental to society, and a key goal for this programme is to increase the representation of students with minoritised status, and to support their progress and welfare once recruited. With respect to the Equalities Act of 2010, by minoritised status we refer to: ethnicity, recognising that differences between individual ethnicities are very important; gender; sexuality, gender identity and reassignment; disability; age; marriage and civil partnership status; and pregnancy and maternity. We welcome neurodivergent applicants, and will make adjustments to the recruitment process to help overcome specific challenges.

At every stage of the educational and professional journey there are barriers to advancement faced by minoritised people; of particular relevance to this programme is the underrepresentation of ethnic minority groups from undergraduate to PhD level studies in mental health-related disciplines. This is a matter of retention as well as recruitment - once in place students from ethnic minority groups are vulnerable to discrimination by staff and peers (see Supporting students, below).

We recognise that each stage of the recruitment process involves barriers: who feels eligible or entitled to apply; who undertakes the selection process; how applicants are assessed during shortlisting; how interviews are conducted; and how final decisions are made. We are taking steps to tackle each of these:

  • One place each year is ring-fenced for a candidate from an ethnic minority background.
  • We will develop outreach strategies to overcome barriers to application, for example by targeted dissemination into non-research-intensive universities (which have more diverse student populations), and through ethnic minority societies, as well as organisations that aim to support the participation of ethnic minority students in academia.
  • We have put measures in place to treat students fairly during shortlisting and interview, including removing identifiable and demographic information when the shortlisting panel are scoring applications; and by wider funding criteria than simply academic grades, in particular evidence of motivation and insight to assess the whole person.
  • We are sensitive to how differences in cultural background between applicants and the interview panel may disadvantage students, and we will ensure that no interview panels are exclusively white.
  • All supervisors must undertake UCL’s Online diversity training for staff, and harassment prevention training.

We are also guided by long-term UCL strategies for advancing equity and inclusion, for example the UCL Equity and Inclusion Plan 2020-2021 (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/equality-diversity-inclusion/equalityucl/new-ucl-plan-launched-ensure-momentum-equity-and-inclusion/equity-and-inclusion-plan).

Programme structure and training

The programme follows a “1+3” model, with three, 12-week rotation projects during Year 1. Each rotation project will be from a different theme of the programme. These short projects will familiarise students with the different groups in which they may choose to conduct their PhD project.

The different themes of the programme are:

  • Mechanism: Identification of the biological, neural and cognitive processes that drive and maintain the symptoms of mental illness from childhood to old age, particularly drawing on UCL’s world-leading neuroscience. Includes research in: molecular genetics; cellular and systems neuroscience; pharmacology; cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging; and cognitive psychology.
  • Population Mental Health: Understanding risk factors for mental illness using epidemiological methods, using birth cohorts to identify social and environmental determinants of mental illness, as well as genetic epidemiology. Incorporates the rapidly developing field of mental health data science, including new remote data capture approaches and the application of novel machine learning methods to large datasets.
  • Intervention: Development, targeting and evaluation of new treatments and preventative interventions for mental illness, including experimental medicine and clinical trial methodology. Builds on knowledge relating to modifiable risk factors and causal mechanisms, enabling the development, implementation and targeting of more effective interventions.

During Year 1, students will follow a taught curriculum of Master’s-level modules at UCL, bespoke to their training needs and focused on areas in which they do not have specific academic training. They will be guided in creating this curriculum by an independent mentor. Students will also have the opportunity to gain experience in clinical mental health settings. This will develop their understanding of clinical problems and enable them to make links with clinicians and patient representatives.

Students will complete modules in statistics, data analysis and computer programming, and good research practice, as well as courses covering other transferrable skills that will serve them well during their PhD and beyond.

Students will have the opportunity to engage in a wide range of training available at UCL, including through its Doctoral Skills Development Programme.

The main PhD project will be completed in Years 2-4, supported by an interdisciplinary Thesis Committee, which includes representation from each of the three themes of the programme, a clinical mental health practitioner (typically a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist), and a person with lived experience of mental health problems.