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I am applying for a PhD programme in Europe. For that I need to write a cover letter. It will be more like a SOP (technical but shorter version, as it's one page) or it can be more general stuff, as in why I want to do a PhD, what I like about this particular field, what background I have. Any suggestions welcome.

2 Answers 2

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There's plenty of examples on the Web of the basic format a cover letter should take. There's a good template here on page 23 from Harvard. (Make sure to do it in TeX if applying for a math or comp. sci. PhD.)

Otherwise, my own personal advice ...

What not to do

The most common mistake I have found in cover letters is that they are too generic. Either they could have been written by anyone ("I have a keen interest in science. I was always curious as a ...") or could have been written for any programme ("I want to do a PhD as I believe I would be well-suited to a career in academia ..."). Keep such generic sentences to a minimum: the more of these a cover letter has, the more impersonal and unremarkable it is, and the more it leaves the suspicion that the same cover letter has been recycled for multiple applications and/or by multiple students.

Also, avoid hyperbole ("I am the best candidate for this position because ..."). You cannot know that you are the best candidate.

What to do

Make your cover letter personal, remarkable (i.e., stands out from other cover letters), specific to you and specific to the position at hand. Be enthusiastic. Be specific. Show that you've put thought into the position and why you are applying.

Relate your specific skill sets and previous experience to the programme you are applying for. Relate the content of specific aspects of your CV to the programme:

"During my masters, I enjoyed working on the topic of A, which relates to your programme [in this way]"

"I worked three summers at company B, where I gained experience in topic C ..."

"I visited your university in March last year and was impressed by ..."

"I read paper entitled 'D' published by your group at 'E' and was interested in ..."

"I recently published a paper 'F', which I believe complements work by 'G' in your department on 'H' ..."

... and so forth.

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In addition to all the advice above, there are two more Europe-specific issues you might want to keep in mind:

  1. Many European universities and funding agencies expect a very specific and advanced research proposal. It might be more important than the cover letter itself.

  2. In Europe, you often know beforehand who your supervisor will be, and you will have likely met them. Feel free to ask them (or the admissions office, departmental secretaries etc.) what exactly is expected from each of the application documents - expectations vary between universities, and Europe is a different academic landscape than America.

Good luck with your applications!

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