Some months ago I finished my MSc. I immediately started to send several applications for Ph.D vacancies. So far I've spent a lot of time in doing this, but there is only one place that did not reject me. This place was actually the least interesting for me in terms of the job, therefore I was not keen from it at all. I believe almost no one applied for the place I was not rejected by... As for all other applications, I'm seriously thinking the problem is my final MSc mark. To tell the truth with my mark I can access to most of the Ph.D programs (it's a UK "merit"). However if I know there are almost no chances for me to do what I would like to do then I resort to something else and avoid waisting my time in writing cover letters that no one bothers.


1 Answer 1


When I look at an application there are four aspects that count:

  1. grades
  2. cover letter
  3. earlier written work (BS/MS thesis)
  4. Recommendation letters

Out of these, I focus most of my attention on the latter two: if the thesis is well-written, has received a good grade, and the letters of recommendation support the candidate in terms of ability to do research (from reading up on the field to writing everything up) and independence (how much (or little) support the candidate needed.

The cover letter would not make the application, but could break it if it is unfocussed and does not show any skills in expressing the interest in a structured way while avoiding irrelevant information. The grades would, in most cases, be the least interesting since they primarily show one's ability to read and understand, not necessarily reasoning and deduction. The exception is the grade for the thesis.

So, to answer the question, I am not sure which might be more important but anything that supports your ability to do research is of prime interest to anyone evaluating an application.

EDIT: To follow up on Gerrit's suggestion, my personal ranking list would be (in falling order):

  1. Earlier written work
  2. Recommendation letters
  3. Cover letter
  4. Grades (although the grade on the written work is included in 1)

But, all parts are useful and in the end some mix of all will be used. I would also add that 1 and 2 will "make" the application while 3 and 4 will mainly help to "break" the application.

  • 2
    The quality of the writing in the cover letter and thesis can also damage one's chances, if they are not well-written.
    – aeismail
    Apr 29, 2013 at 14:03
  • 1
    Perhaps you can rank them by importance?
    – gerrit
    Apr 29, 2013 at 14:05
  • @PeterJansson Thanks a lot, with your advice you just told me to give up. I think what blocks my applications are exactly the most important points, ie the grade of my MSc thesis and possibly the references.
    – ragnar
    Apr 29, 2013 at 14:17
  • @PeterJannson what if I added in my CV I have started a Ph.D but I'm probably quitting it because I don't like the topic? may it be a good reference like eg a discrete MSc thesis grade?
    – ragnar
    Apr 29, 2013 at 14:22
  • 1
    @ragnar In response to your second comment. To start a program and then drop it might come across as not having drive or direction. What you certainly can do is to to list that you were offered the PhD position, after all, that is a merit. But you then also need to explain why you did not go for it in a way that does not seem undecisive. Apr 29, 2013 at 14:28

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