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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

PhD Cover Letter Example

You will have so much to say about why you want to do your PhD. Distilling your motivations and academic achievements into a compelling PhD cover letter is challenging.
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PhD Cover Letter Example
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Your PhD supervisor needs to understand that you have the academic qualifications and motivation to take on the toughest challenge in further education. Your academic CV will outline your educational achievements, but it is your PhD cover letter that will show that you have the personality and drive to succeed.

With Resume.io's broad choice of cover letter examples and writing guides, we can take you through every aspect of writing a cover letter. Although a PhD cover letter has a more academic focus, it is as much of a sales pitch as any other cover letter. Here is what we cover in the PhD cover letter example and writing guide:

  • Understanding how to structure your cover letter, with each part serving a purpose: header, greeting, introduction, body and conclusion
  • Effectively showcasing your academic motivations throughout the cover letter
  • Avoiding mistakes that may cast a shadow on your application.

Best format for a PhD cover letter

Academics understand the need for convention. They certainly won’t be expecting any wildly original cover letters in terms of format and structure. Anyone who tries to do something ‘different’ with their PhD cover letter may seem like they are overcompensating for unknown deficiencies in their application. Keep it simple and stick with the standard framework of cover letter parts:

  • The cover letter header
  • The greeting / salutation
  • The cover letter intro
  • The middle paragraphs (body of the letter)
  • The ending paragraph (conclusion and call-to-action)

Before taking you through each cover letter section with step-by-step writing advice, here are some general considerations.

While the cover letter should contain a mix of personality and academic achievement, we would advise mixing the two together in your PhD cover letter story. 

How well do you know your area of research? Do you have a vision for the next couple of years? Why do you want to do this PhD in the first place? It may be worth sharing snippets of information about some of your projects, but it is more important to convey your motivations and the impact that your research will make.

If you know the professor who will be your PhD supervisor, you can tailor it to that person's interests. If you briefly mention one of their pet interests, that will surely fire their imagination. Describe what they will gain from supervising your PhD. Write the cover letter for them.

While the cover letter should contain a mix of personality and academic achievement, we would advise mixing the two together in your PhD cover letter story. 

A paragraph about academics may seem dry without hinting at the obstacles that you faced to get it done. While a paragraph that describes your approach without any context will not linger long in the memory. Share the words that will spark conversations in your interview.

It is also worth considering the research priorities of the department and supervising professor in question. It is best to share details about the potential ‘fit’ at the beginning or very end of the cover letter. Let your professor know that you have carefully considered why exactly you wish to be undertaking your PhD with them. 

Our comprehensive cover letter guide shares more on cover letter etiquette. You may not have written such a letter before, so take the time to ponder all the details.

Moving ahead to our writing tips for each cover letter section, this is the adaptable PhD cover letter example we’ll be referring to.

Adaptable cover letter example

Dear Dr. Jahns,

I’m excited by the prospect of carrying out my doctorate research at Avon University, exploring the sociophonetic perception of second-generation immigrants. Since the time of my undergraduate studies, I have been aware of Avon’s ground-breaking research in the field of linguistics. My fascination with this work has long inspired my hope of being part of your research team. I think the fit with my profile is excellent and would be mutually rewarding.

Since early on in my academic studies, I’ve leaned towards the psychology of linguistics. This is evidenced in the subject of my undergraduate dissertation exploring early language development in bilingual children. My tutor was impressed with the supporting research that was recognized at my BSc graduation with the Grant Hughes Prize for Exceptional Research.

While my PhD research proposal centres on bilingualism, the topic first sparked my interest while investigating monolingualism. I studied the accents of immigrants who in adolescence spoke only their adopted country’s language. It was during the completion of my Master of Research (MRes) that I noticed the relationship between the monolingual members of these communities and the wider questions and consequences arising from their sociophonetic perception. Much of the existing research that I referenced during my MRes came from Avon University.

I’m hopeful that my background in the psychology surrounding polyglotism in sociophonetics could further enrich the department and field. I hope to be able to discuss my research proposal with you soon.

Sincerely,

Yasmin Kirtzman

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Cover letter header

The header of a PhD cover letter should contain all of your essential contact information. Include your full name, email address, and mobile number. You may assume that your academic institution has access to your contact details, but it is best to include here and in the CV. It will be the PhD supervisor who invites you to an interview.

You don’t need to include your full address (for data protection reasons), but you should include the ‘inside address’ of the college/university concerned. This is only required on formal occasions and is traditional etiquette for a professional letter. While it may be sent by electronic means, it is best to include it. 

The visuals of the template that you choose should be monotone and understated. There can be some sort of pattern for the cover letter header — a blank page is also a little uninspiring and maybe makes it looks like you rushed the application.

Goal of the cover letter header: Stand out from all the other PhD candidates with a visually distinctive cover letter header that prominently displays your identifying information.

Cover letter greeting

It should not be a difficult task to identify your cover letter recipient and address that person by name. If you are writing to someone in your faculty, you likely know the person — perhaps quite well. If you are applying to another university, finding out the name of the professor in charge of your area of expertise should not be a tricky research task for someone embarking on a PhD.

‘Dear Professor/Dr Surname’ is the only acceptable greeting, no matter how well you know the recipient. Other academics may read it but address the letter to your future supervisor.

Goal of the cover letter greeting: Establish a direct connection with the hiring professor by addressing that person by name.

The introduction should then hit with your academic one-two punch.

Cover letter introduction

Why do you want to study this PhD subject and how can you demonstrate that you have what it takes to come up with a ground-breaking piece of research?

Motivation needs to come first in your cover letter. A PhD is a tremendous undertaking— if you are not laser-focused on your why, doubts may arise. Consider sharing a part of your journey leading to this point and highlights the PhD as a logical next step. You have likely been working towards this moment for many years. Share your struggles.

Goal of the cover letter introduction: Engage the hiring professor’s attention by expressing the motivation behind your PhD goals in a relatable manner.

Check out the greeting and introduction from our PhD cover letter example:

Adaptable cover letter greeting and introduction example

Dear Dr. Jahns,

I’m excited by the prospect of carrying out my doctorate research at Avon University, exploring the sociophonetic perception of second-generation immigrants. Since the time of my undergraduate studies, I have been aware of Avon’s ground-breaking research in the field of linguistics. My fascination with this work has long inspired my hope of being part of your research team. I think the fit with my profile is excellent and would be mutually rewarding.

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Cover letter middle part (body)

The middle part of a PhD cover letter should be packed relatively densely with the details of how your past research will qualify you to take the next academic step. Don’t just list down your achievements — offer a little more information about how you got there. 

Completing one assignment doesn’t guarantee that you will complete the next one, but tenacity and intelligent decision making can be replicated.

If you have any academic recognition from awards bodies, this is the place to share. Embracing external perspectives on your work is central to any PhD. Show that you seek out contrary opinions and look to inform your thought processes. Critical thinking starts and ends with what is in your head.

Expert tip

Bullet points may help to highlight some of your key achievements. They offer the reader’s eye a break on the page. Although bullet points don't typically belong in academic prose, they can have a useful place in a PhD cover letter. Starting with a powerful action verb, each bullet point should describe any accomplishment or contribution to past research activities. Incorporate quantifying numbers and and provide context where possible.

Most PhD students will be curious as to how their work will fit into the hiring department’s overall strategy. While most of your questions should be reserved for the interview process, a carefully targeted question in the cover letter can show that you have considered the most nuanced angles of the PhD opportunity. Tell your future supervisor what you are keen to discuss during an interview. Let the recruiting team imagine meeting you.

The final part of your cover letter body should focus on your academic soft skills. Your work will likely involve collaboration with others, so don’t fail to mention successful group projects or how you have made a difference to your student peers in the past. Students who learn together, grow together. No PhD student will enjoy success in isolation.

Goal of the cover letter body: Elaborate on how this university faculty would benefit from your contributions as a PhD researcher.

The middle part of this PhD cover letter example illustrates:

Adaptable cover letter middle part example

Since early on in my academic studies, I’ve leaned towards the psychology of linguistics. This is evidenced in the subject of my undergraduate dissertation exploring early language development in bilingual children. My tutor was impressed with the supporting research that was recognized at my BSc graduation with the Grant Hughes Prize for Exceptional Research.

While my PhD research proposal centres on bilingualism, the topic first sparked my interest while investigating monolingualism. I studied the accents of immigrants who in adolescence spoke only their adopted country’s language. It was during the completion of my Master of Research (MRes) that I noticed the relationship between the monolingual members of these communities and the wider questions and consequences arising from their sociophonetic perception. Much of the existing research that I referenced during my MRes came from Avon University.

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How to close a PhD cover letter (conclusion and sign-off)

A powerful close for a PhD cover letter might focus on the impact of your PhD work. Show that you have some real-world experience in your field and tell the supervisor why your work will move the needle. While you cannot know the exact outcomes of your work at this early stage, it is perfectly acceptable to hypothesise. If you do not express any sense of purpose for your work in these final words, the interviewer may question your motivations.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, say how keen you are to discuss your ideas further during an interview. Adopt a hopeful tone in your “call to action” without sounding presumptuous. Depending on the faculty's prestige, it may receive hundreds of applications, so don’t assume that you will secure an interview. Gently say how much you would value the chance to find out more. Hopefully, the PhD supervisor will feel the same way.

Goal of the cover letter closing: End on an optimistic note by restating your potential value as a PhD hire, with a call to action that puts some onus on the faculty to follow up.

Look at a PhD cover letter sample conclusion:

Adaptable cover letter conclusion and sign-off example

I’m hopeful that my background in the psychology surrounding polyglotism in sociophonetics could further enrich the department and field. I hope to be able to discuss my research proposal with you soon.

Sincerely,

Yasmin Kirtzman

Copied!

Basic mistakes in a PhD cover letter (and how to avoid them)

Checking your work for mistakes and plagiarism might come as second nature when submitting an academic paper, but you should realise that your PhD cover letter will be analysed no less rigorously. If anything, its brief nature means that every word and phrase will be scrutinised. Check that your words impart the intended meaning.

These mistakes might seem basic, but in your haste to send off the application it is easy for just one of them to sneak in. One mistake is all it takes to take the gloss off a stellar cover letter. Take care with the following:

  • Spelling and grammar: While you might be in the habit of putting any piece of written work through Grammarly to check for mistakes, it is well worth asking a fellow academic to give it a read through to ensure that it hits the right notes.
  • Keep the look professional. The look of your cover letter will be judged alongside your words. A suitably professional cover letter template from Resume.io will ensure that the text looks great on the page with suitable consistent formatting.
  • Don’t make it all about the academics: You will be rightfully proud of your academic achievements but remember that your cover letter is more about your motivations and personality. Don’t hide who you are behind a long list of research papers. Those details will appear in your CV. Offer your supervisor a feel for what it will be like to work with you.

Key takeaways for a PhD cover letter

  1. Tell your PhD supervisor why your work will make a difference to the faculty.
  2. Share your journey up to this point — the PhD work is merely the next step.
  3. Showcase examples of determination and resilience –— completing a PhD is tough.
  4. Be curious about finding out more. Mention that you are looking forward to meeting.
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