I have background in languages (BA in English Literature and Teaching in China, MA Conference Interpreting in Manchester, UK) and I am eager to do a PhD in cognitive science in the UK.

During my MA studies, we were studying fundamentals of psychology and cognitive sciences related to translating/interpreting. During the course of this study, some modern research techniques such as FMRI, EEG were touched upon but the course was not very comprehensive, as the focus of the field was never really on how the interpreters’ brain works during simultaneous interpreting or other language activities.

I found languages and cognitive sciences closely related, because it is very natural to bring up questions in one area while discussing the other. It’s close to instinct that an interest in one can seep into another, at least that was the case for me.

I am really keen to further my education in the area of Cognitive Sciences, and it's been the case for the last couple of years. But it’s a bit saddening to see that the minimum entry for these programs usually require a science degree in relevant fields, for example, CS, EE, Psychology, Neuroscience, etc. And at the moment (I'm 26), I can't really do one more undergraduate degree.

However, I understand that there are gaps to fill for a person to change their area of study. Usually in the UK, PhD programs would encourage the students to do the 1+3 program, where first years have the opportunity to fill this gap. But I fell that even for these 1+3 programs, students who have a liberal arts degree are still discouraged from applying because these PhD programs specifically require students to have background in relevant science fields.

So what should I do to be more qualified and have a better chance to be accepted as a PhD student?

My plan is to learn some fundamentals by finishing online courses in the following areas: Math (e.g. Calculus, Linear Algebra, Probability, to be more comfortable with fundamentals), Computer Science (such as basics of algorithms and Python to be able to perform some scientific computing), and Neuroscience (as it is fundamental to Cognitive Sciences). What about MOOC courses, more specifically, how are they viewed in the academia in the context of someone who is using them to fill in the gaps when changing fields?

I would like to know whether or not I have underestimated the difficulty and hard work required to put myself on this track.

  • 1
    There are lots of questions here. This site encourages having one question per post. Perhaps you could split your question into multiple smaller questions (linking them together if you like)? Jul 31, 2014 at 7:12
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    A first stab: here is a discussion of MOOCs in academia. And you'll need statistics, and lots of it, not only probability. AFAIK, most psychology students get treated to a full-year, two hours per week course. There are actually a couple not-bed Coursera stats courses, which could serve as an introduction. Jul 31, 2014 at 7:15
  • Yes, you have underestimated the difficulty. I make this as a comment, not an answer, because we always underestimate the difficulty of those things we want to do. Go for it!
    – Bob Brown
    Sep 2, 2014 at 1:50

2 Answers 2


I studied at Edinburgh with a few friends who had come for the arts world into CogSci and CS Masters courses, they shared many lectures with us (Bio-Informatics). I would suggest either doing a Masters in a related field, before jumping into the PhD.

I took some CogSci and Neuroinformatics modules for my MSc and I struggled not coming from that background, if I were doing it again and wanted to prepare I would look to the online courses. Many of them are excellent.

MIT have an Opencourseware section on CogSci: http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/brain-and-cognitive-sciences/ No one will look down on you for saying you have worked through an MIT course. They also have extensive CompSci resources. Coursera also has many excellent course, that will help fill in gaps in you education.

I don't think you will find many people in academia who will look badly on people using any resources they can find to expand their knowledge and understanding of a given field.


As a PhD science student you will be expected to handle numbers, statistics, algebraic manipulation, calculus, and in particular these days, computational numerics---all as a matter of (relative) ease. Not that you can do it in your head, or you know the answers off by heart, but rather that you are not daunted when an author casually jumps between prose and mathematical symbols every few words, because you have been literally solving similar problems for the past five years.

There will be some PhD projects that are more "numeric" and some that are less, of course.

I don't say this to put you off! Rather I am trying to say that the typical beginner PhD scientist has spent as much time steeped in this kind of thinking as you have spent learning and thinking about languages. It's not so much doing coursework and ticking the boxes, rather it's three plus years deeply embedded in this kind of world. So that puts you in a very different place.

Now that isn't to say this is impossible. Your language skills may well give you an edge somewhere, and really the student molds the project to his own strengths, so I encourage you to apply. But you should definitely discuss this situation with potential supervisors before you apply. Some will be happier than others to accept what is an edge case, if you don't mind me saying.

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