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Writing an Academic Cover Letter for a PhD Application

Summary

  • The aim of an academic cover letter is to convince the supervisor that you are a strong candidate for the PhD position on offer.
  • Your cover letter should be half a page to a full page in length; it should be concise and to the point.
  • Your PhD cover letter should include your personal details, the position you’re applying for, your motivation for applying, what you know about the project, what relevant experience you have and what makes you suited for the position.

The two documents crucial to get right when applying to a PhD are your CV and covering letter.

In this article, we’ll set out the core guidelines you should follow to create an effective academic cover letter.

What Is An Academic Cover Letter?

An academic cover letter is a written document that accompanies your CV and application form when applying for a PhD.

It’s different from a CV as instead of being a structured summary of your skills and experience, it is a summary of why you believe you are suited for a particular PhD programme. As a result, all academic covering letters should be tailored for the specific position you are applying for and addressed to the supervisor who is overseeing the project. They also shouldn’t repeat what is already stated in your CV, but rather expand on the details most related to the position you are applying to.

Note: An academic cover letter is sometimes referred to as a PhD application letter, but never a motivation letter. The latter is different in that it concerns the reasons as to why you want to undertake research, while a cover letter focuses on demonstrating your suitability for a programme. This is an important distinction to note.

What Is the Purpose of An Academic Cover Letter?

The aim of an academic cover letter is to convince the PhD supervisor that you are the perfect candidate for the PhD project.

Academic cover letters should complement your CV and sell you as a person – will your potential supervisor be excited to work with you after having read your cover letter?

What Should I Include in My Academic Cover Letter?

You should demonstrate that you have the skills which make you suited for research. It is essential that you recognise these skills in you and that you use them to promote yourself.

1. Your Personal Details

Include your name, address, email address and phone number in the top right corner of the letter. This is so the supervisor can reach you should they have questions or require any further information.

2. The Position You’re Applying For

Help the supervisor establish exactly which PhD position you are applying for as there may be several positions being advertised at one time. If they provide a reference number as part of the project description, it would be a good idea to include it in brackets.

3. Why You’re Interested in The Position

Use this section to explain your motivations for applying to the specific PhD and where your research interests stem from. Is it related to the dissertation you produced as part of your final year undergraduate dissertation, etc?

Whatever your motivation for applying to the PhD, make sure that your enthusiasm comes across clearly. The supervisor will appreciate how great a role self-drive plays in completing PhD projects and you will want to convince them you have the level of drive required to be successful.

4. What You Understand About the Project

Besides explaining your motivations for undertaking the project, show that you possess a basic understanding of it. In doing so, make sure you reinforce each point with some level of evidence; avoid making general statements or talking loosely around the research subject. This will show the PhD supervisor that you’ve taken the time to research the background to the project.

5. What Relevant Experience You Have

In this section, briefly discuss your academic background and any relevant experience you have within the field of research. Don’t worry if you have little experience in this area as this will be the case for most applicants. If this the case, then use this section to explain how you will be committed to the PhD research project. If you have experience in conducting research, explain what your role was, the analytical methods you used and any other aspects of your work which may be relevant. Similarly, discuss any teaching experience if you happen to have it.

Tip: You can also discuss any work experience you may have, but before you do, ask yourself whether it genuinely adds to your application and sells yourself as a potential PhD student. If little to no transferable skills were involved in the professional experience, consider leaving it out as it will only clutter your document.

6. Closing Statement

Keep this short and concise. Thank the supervisor for taking the time to read your application and let them know that you’re looking forward to hearing from them.

How Long Should My Academic Cover Letter Be?

Your academic cover letter should be between half a page to one full page.

To keep it effective, make it as concise as possible and only discuss points which are either relevant to the project or the aspect of being a doctoral research student. This may feel difficult to do, especially if you have much you want to include, but keep in mind that your cover letter can also be used as evidence of your communication skills, more specifically, whether you can convey important information in a clear and logical manner. As this will be a key skill of any research candidate, the prospective supervisor will take it into account when evaluating your capabilities.

How to Format an Academic Cover Letter for A PhD Application

Your cover letter should be written in paragraph format, with bullet points only reserved for situations where a list would improve clarity. This is because a cover letter is one of the few places where you are expected to show your personality, so using too many bullet points will diminish your ability to do this. The best way to approach writing your application letter is to see it as a very short personal essay.

Use a common font like Times New Roman or Calibri, and if possible, avoid the use of highlighting, underlining and tables as they become too distracting. Keep your font size between 10 to 12 points and your margins to at least 0.5 inches around all edges. Try to match the font size, type, line spacing and margin size to your academic CV for neat and consistent presentation.

Your cover letter should be addressed to the PhD supervisor, starting with a “Dear [academic title] [surname]”, for example, “Dear Professor Williams”.

Tip: Make sure to get the title of the supervisor correct. Are they Dr. or Professor? It might seem like a minute detail, but if you get it incorrect, you will give the impression that you lack attention to detail. Given that you are applying for a PhD position, this will not fill them with confidence.

Hopefully, you now know what it takes to write a successful cover letter for a PhD application. While a strong cover letter will go a long way to helping you stand out, you will need to learn how to create an equally strong CV if you really want your application form to excel. To this effect, we recommend you next read our step-by-step guide for creating effective academic CVs.

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