An academic cover letter is one of the documents you may be required to submit as part of a PhD application. It should complement your academic CV and explain why you are applying. Also known as motivation letters, PhD cover letters provide an opportunity to write with greater flexibility and personality than in other parts of the application.
What is a PhD cover letter?
An academic cover letter is a counterpart to a CV. It is a short essay addressed to a specific individual and written in prose. It should explain your PhD application in your own words, demonstrating what you can offer and why you should be selected.
There are several reasons why the PhD cover letter is an important part of a postgraduate application.
Firstly, it provides the chance to clarify any gaps in the CV and explain certain aspects in further detail. This should not repeat information on the CV (the letter will probably be read in parallel). Rather, it’s a chance to expand on the story that the CV tells.
It’s also an opening to further tailor your application to the PhD project specification. Here, you can directly address and match your skills and experiences to the skills and experiences asked for.
Finally, it’s a chance to show your communication skills and enthusiasm. These are important qualities for a postgraduate applicant, but they can be quite hard to show in a CV or application form. Here, you can write in your own words and present your interest and passion.
Cover letters vs personal statements
Although there are similarities between a motivation or cover letter and a personal statement, they are different. A cover letter is more functional - it unites and presents your application; a personal statement is more useful for providing detail on your experience, interests and ambitions. If you are submitting both, you may need to bear this distinction in mind and adjust the detail in each accordingly.
What if I don’t have research experience?
Although a PhD cover letter is a good place to expand on any research experience and publications you may have, as Bachelors or Masters students you will not be expected to have lots of this.
In this case, it’s more important to show enthusiasm and commitment for research. Fortunately, the academic covering letter is an ideal place to show this.
What to include in a PhD cover letter
The first thing you should include in an academic cover letter is a few introductory sentences. Simply outline who you are, what you are currently doing, whether it be a Masters or a job, and what position you’re applying for. Make sure to include the project reference number if one is provided in the description.
Next, you’re going to want to explain why you are applying for the position. It’s a good idea to put your best, most compelling, or most relevant argument first. The earlier that you can make an impact, the more likely the addressee will read further. Make sure you’re to the point and concise. An academic cover letter may be there to help illustrate your personality and passion but academics do not have the time to read elongated essays.
After detailing why you want to apply for the project, you need to explain why you’re eligible. Present you relevant skills and achievements in a brief and precise manner. Additionally, make sure to back up your claims with evidence.
It is also important to demonstrate that you have done your research about the PhD project, supervisor and department. Be specific about why you would be a good fit for the project and department.
You should also detail clear understanding of the potential research impact the project could have, and your enthusiasm for it. But, make sure your passion is routed in some research. Just discovering the unknown or novel may not be a compelling reason to research something.
Overall, the motivation letter should show a clear identity and personality, while remaining professional. You need to demonstrate why you are a better and more interesting candidate than other applicants.
What to avoid in a PhD cover letter
The motivation letter will accompany the CV, and therefore should not repeat anything on it. You should refer to information but not reiterate it.
You should also avoid listing all of your achievements, experience etc. It is better to focus on the best aspects of your application.
There should be no statements presented without evidence. A PhD supervisor will see through this straight away.
Also, an ideal cover letter should avoid offering too much information. This includes technical information, jargon and abbreviations. Focus on being clear and concise instead.
Lastly, you should avoid any vagueness, arrogance / boasting, and negativity. And make sure there are no typos or grammatical mistakes.
Formatting a PhD cover letter
The formatting rules for an academic covering letter are very similar to those for a CV. Ensure there is correct spelling and grammar throughout, use consistent and clear font, and get the tone right – this should be enthusiastic and assertive without arrogance.
How long should an academic cover letter be?
For an application, the PhD cover letter should be approximately one A4 page in length (around 500 words). If necessary, it can be a little longer but should not be longer than two pages.
An academic cover letter should have a beginning, middle and end.
The introduction should explain who you are, what you are applying for and how you started this application (i.e. where you heard about the PhD project, or if you have previously met the supervisor). You can also give a brief background about yourself and your research interests.
The main body should cover your skills and achievements as a counterpart to the CV. This should present your convincing argument as to why you should be accepted for a PhD position. You can also present your ideas for your future research.
Finally, the conclusion should explain why you want to study the PhD project and why you are a perfect fit. It should summarise your application as a whole. It can end with a respectful request to take the application further, such as an interview.
How should I address an academic cover letter?
A cover letter should be addressed to a named person i.e. “Dear Professor Smith”. For a PhD application, this will usually be the PhD supervisor, but may be a specific person in charge of recruitment.
If you are still unsure who to address the cover letter to, it should be directed to the Head of Department.
Check that you have the correct title for the addressee.
How should I end an academic cover letter?
Because the cover letter should be addressed to a named individual, it should be signed off with either “Yours sincerely” or “Kind regards”. Prior to this, it may be worth adding a polite prompt to reply, such as “I look forward to hearing from you”.