Written by Chris Banyard
An PhD 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. PhD cover letters offer you the chance to write with greater flexibility and personality than in other parts of the PhD application. This page will take you through what a PhD cover letter actually is and how to write one, along with some top tips on what to include (and what not to!).
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What is a PhD cover letter?
A PhD cover letter is a counterpart to a CV submitted as part of an application for a PhD programme. You may also hear it referred to as 'motivation letter' or 'academic cover letter'. 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.
Motivation letter for a PhD application
You may have heard the term 'motivation letter' being used at some places. A motivation letter is essentially the same thing as a cover letter when it comes to your PhD application. It is a short essay, accompanying your CV, in which you detail why you want to pursue that particular PhD programme.
What is an academic cover letter for?
There are several reasons why the PhD cover letter is important for university admission. It is an opportunity to:
- Clarify any gaps in the CV and explain certain aspects in further detail. This doesn't mean you should repeat information on your CV (the letter will probably be read in parallel). Rather, it’s a chance to expand on the story that the CV tells and demonstrate your knowledge.
- Further tailor your PhD application to the project specification. Here, you can address and match your skills and experiences to those asked for by the university or supervisor.
- Show professional 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 research interests and passion.
Do I need a cover/motivation letter for a PhD application?
Many universities require an academic cover letter as part of the PhD application. It is therefore highly likely that you'll have to write at least one. If you're applying for multiple PhD projects then you will need to make sure you tailor your cover letter for each application.
Cover letters vs personal statements for a PhD application
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 keep this in mind and adjust the detail in each.
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.
It’s more important to write with enthusiasm and show your 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 your cover or motivation letter is a few introductory sentences. Outline who you are, what you are currently doing, whether it be a Masters or a job, and what PhD position you’re applying for. Make sure to include the PhD project reference number if one is provided in the description.
Next, you’re going to want to explain why you are applying for the PhD 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.
An important tip is 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 this project in particular.
You should also detail clear understanding of the potential research impact the PhD 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 your subject.
Overall, the academic cover 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 for a PhD.
What to avoid in a PhD cover letter
The academic cover 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 PhD application.
There should be no statements presented without evidence. A PhD supervisor will see through this straight away.
Also, an ideal motivation 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, or 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 a cover letter be?
The cover/motivation letter for a PhD application should be approximately one A4 page in length, or 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.
Who should a PhD cover letter be addressed to?
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 to 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”.
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