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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 them that you have the personality and drive to succeed.

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 their 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.

With our 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:

  • Choosing a format that will showcase your academic motivations
  • What to include in the introduction, middle part, and conclusion
  • Making your academic application stand out from the rest
  • 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 their format and structure. Anyone that 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 format:

  • 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)

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. 

The 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 the details.

Adaptable cover letter example

Dear Dr. Jahns,

I am writing in reference to my application to carry out my doctorate research at Avon University, exploring the sociophonetic perception of second-generation immigrants. Since my undergraduate, I have been aware of the ground-breaking research in the field of linguistics that is carried out at Avon. I believe that the institution would be an excellent fit for my profile and this research project.

Since early on in my academic studies, I have leaned towards the psychology of linguistics. This is evidenced through the subject matter of my undergraduate dissertation, which explored early language development in bilingual children. My tutor expressed that they were impressed by my supporting research which was recognised by the university when I received the Grant Hughes Prize for Exceptional Research at my BSc graduation.

While my PhD research proposal centres on questions of bilingualism, the topic first became of particular interest to me through my research into monolingualism. I studied the accents of immigrants who in adolescence spoke only the language of their country of residence. 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 raised from their sociophonetic perception. Much of the existing research that I referenced during my MRes came from Avon University. 

I believe that my background in the psychology surrounding polyglotism in sociophonetics could further enrichen the department and field. I hope to be able to discuss my research proposal further 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.

Cover letter greeting and introduction

It should not be a difficult task to understand to whom the cover letter should be addressed. If you are writing to someone in your faculty you should know them. 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/Doctor Surname’ is the only acceptable greeting, no matter how well you know them. Other academics may read it but address the letter to your future supervisor.

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

Why do you want to study this PhD 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 which has led 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.

Check out the intro from our PhD cover letter example:

Adaptable cover letter greeting and introduction example

Dear Dr. Jahns,

I am writing in reference to my application to carry out my doctorate research at Avon University, exploring the sociophonetic perception of second-generation immigrants. Since my undergraduate, I have been aware of the ground-breaking research in the field of linguistics that is carried out at Avon. I believe that the institution would be an excellent fit for my profile and this research project.

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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. Taking on board 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.

Bullet points may help to highlight some of your key achievements. They offer the reader’s eye a break on the page. Although they are not a typical part of academic prose, they play a crucial role on a PhD cover letter. Start the bullet point with a powerful action verbs that outlines your accomplishment and include numbers and context where possible.

Any PhD student will also be curious as to how their work will fit into the strategy of the overall department. 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 opportunity. Tell your future supervisor what you are interested to discuss during an interview. Let them imagine meeting you.

The final piece of the middle part 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.

The middle part of this PhD cover letter example offers one version:

Adaptable cover letter body example

Since early on in my academic studies, I have leaned towards the psychology of linguistics. This is evidenced through the subject matter of my undergraduate dissertation, which explored early language development in bilingual children. My tutor expressed that they were impressed by my supporting research which was recognised by the university when I received the Grant Hughes Prize for Exceptional Research at my BSc graduation.

While my PhD research proposal centres on questions of bilingualism, the topic first became of particular interest to me through my research into monolingualism. I studied the accents of immigrants who in adolescence spoke only the language of their country of residence. 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 raised 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 the 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 further at an interview. Adopt a hopeful tone and don’t be presumptuous. Depending on the prestige of the faculty they 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.

Look at a PhD cover letter sample conclusion:

Adaptable cover letter conclusion and sign-off example

I believe that my background in the psychology surrounding polyglotism in sociophonetics could further enrichen the department and field. I hope to be able to discuss my research proposal further 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 analysed. 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 the cover letter will be judged alongside your words. A suitably professional cover letter template from a reputable provider will ensure that the text is read as it is on the page with 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. Offer your supervisor a feel for whom they will be working with.

Key takeaways

  1. Tell your PhD supervisor why your work will make a difference to them.
  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.

Looking for some more inspiration to fuel your cover letter writing? Check out our related cover letter samples here: 

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