How to Approach Crafting Your Ph.D. Cover Letter

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If you are aiming for a doctorate degree, you have likely done a fair amount of research to find a program that will meet your specific needs and have narrowed down your choices. There is no shortage of great Ph.D. programs out there, and it can be difficult to sift through them all to determine which one suits you best. 

Making a decision about where to get your Ph.D. requires due diligence, but it is only the first step. Once you have found the program where your contributions to your field will be most valued, you will need to fight for a spot on it. Unfortunately, there will be many other qualified candidates vying for the honor, so you must persuade the admissions officer that you deserve it more than your peers. Your academic record is likely stellar, but it can’t always paint the full picture, which is where your Ph.D. cover letter comes in.

Sometimes referred to as a motivation letter, your Ph.D. cover letter is your moment in the sun. This is where you can state your qualifications, explain gaps or discrepancies in your CV, and show why that particular program would benefit from your research and passion. Before you start, though, here is an important reminder: Double-check that a full cover letter, rather than a statement of purpose, is required for your application. Every program has its own submission requirements, and you must follow them to a T if you wish to be admitted.

Regardless of how confident you are in your skills and abilities, writing a cover letter can feel daunting. To make the process a little less overwhelming, avail yourself of our unlimited revisions on CVs and cover letters so you can focus on the content. 

The structure

Just as when writing a thesis or a research paper, a good outline can help you organize your thoughts, maintain a good flow, and avoid tangents. Here is what your cover letter should look like, paragraph by paragraph.

  1. Introduction (3-5 sentences)

This can be brief. Have a few sentences about who you are, your overall research aim, and any connection you might have to the program or its supervisor. Keep everything succinct and relevant to the program and your studies. Here’s an example:

Dear Dr. Schaus,
I am immensely pleased to submit my application to the Entomology and Insect Science Ph.D. program at the University of South Metalmark. I worked with the department during my inspiring internship with the San Bruno Center for Biodiversity. It is my hope that I can expand on my current research in Lepidoptera to further conservation efforts on behalf of the endangered callippe silverspot butterfly.

  1. Academic background and relevant experience (1 paragraph)
    This is where you can elaborate on the information included in your CV (if you need help writing a CV that is detailed yet concise and highlights your best attributes, take a look at our academic CV and resume rewriting services). List the educational institutions where you have studied and explain why your time with those institutions has prepared you for the research you wish to undertake. Dive into the topics you studied, the projects you worked on, and the papers you wrote, noting how they have prepared you for this Ph.D. program.

Follow this by detailing your relevant experience, which can include internships, lab or field work, volunteer positions, or related travel. You can also mention hobby projects or activities, if relevant—this is a great way to highlight your passion for the topic while simultaneously demonstrating your relevant experience and skills. Remember to be as specific as possible about your skills, interests, and inspirations. 

III. Why you are the ideal candidate (1 paragraph)
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you write this section:

  • What makes you stand out from other applicants? 
  • Why are you passionate about your field? 
  • Who do you admire in the field and why?
  • What can you bring to the program that others might not be able to? 
  • Why have you chosen this particular program? 
  • How can the program help you achieve your personal and professional goals? 

When you answer these questions, you have the opportunity to restate your ambition, show your motivation, and use what you know about the program to ensure that your qualifications are on point. 

In this paragraph, you can also elaborate on what sparked your interest in the field, why you are so passionate about it, and what you intend to achieve through your research and academic work. Basically, you want to highlight anything that can distinguish you from your peers and demonstrate that not only do you have the skills and experience for this program, but your passion also uniquely qualifies you.

IV. Conclusion (2-5 sentences)
Like your introduction, this should be brief. Leave the lines of communication open by encouraging the reviewer to contact you, and thank them for their time. Always maintain a polite, professional, and confident tone. Here is an example:

I appreciate you taking the time to read this letter, and I want to thank you once again for considering my application to the Entomology and Insect Science Ph.D. program. I hope that my unique qualifications inspire you to reach out for an interview. I look forward to working with you. 

All the best,

[your name here]

5 things to keep in mind as you write

  1. Consider your audience. Remember that your cover letter will most likely be viewed by your future supervisor, so use a formal address and keep the tone consistent. Choose a standard font and apply proper formatting throughout. You want your Ph.D. cover letter to reflect your professionalism and organizational skills. Don’t get creative with the design—you want to stand out because of your words, not a fancy visual design.
  1. Tailor the letter to your desired program. Just as when applying for jobs, it is important to tweak your Ph.D. cover letter for each individual program you seek to join. A generic one does not show full commitment, and since each academic institution is different, your letter needs to be specific. State what appeals to you the most in a given program and why you would be a good fit. The bulk of your content will likely stay the same, but make all the adjustments necessary to tailor the letter to each program.
  1. Take your time. If you feel rushed or pressured, it will transpire in your cover letter. Write a rough draft, wait a day or two, and edit it slowly. Don’t forget to get multiple pairs of eyes on it before submitting it. Go through a round of self-editing, hand it over to a trusted friend or colleague for their input, and then consult a professional editor to make sure you have the best possible version of your cover letter. Get a combined proofreading and editing quote from us and start working with one of our experts right away. 
  1. Make sure that everything is up to date. Errors such as a phone number that is no longer active or references that are too old can make it seem as if you’re not detail-oriented and professional. Moreover, if your contact information is outdated, the admissions officer won’t be able to reach you. Carefully review these details to ensure that you are reachable.
  1. Let your personality shine. Your CV provides a history of your education and experience, but a cover letter allows you to elaborate on what your research means to you. If your cover letter is articulate, engaging, and passionate, then whoever is reviewing your application will be more confident in your skills. Have your friends and colleagues read your cover letter and share their opinions so you can get an idea of whether it works.

Hopefully, your excellent cover letter will lead to an interview, and you will be well on your way to obtaining your doctorate degree. Check out our post-interview follow-up letter service when the time comes, but for now, exhale and pat yourself on the back for taking the first step toward joining the doctoral program of your dreams.

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