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How to Write a Letter to Apply for a Ph.D.

by Jen Saunders, studioD

Applying for a Ph.D. can be a very stressful process and placement is highly competitive. Your application letter can often be a deciding factor when admissions boards sift through piles of resumes. The application letter gives you the opportunity to showcase your passion, talent and drive. When writing a letter expressing your desire to join a Ph.D. program, there are some important steps you should take to improve your chances of admission.


Before you write the letter you will want to research the university, the department you are applying to work for, and the professors who might be overseeing your graduate work. Johns Hopkins University advises doctoral candidates to read the school’s website and articles about the department, determine their core values and goals and research the industry they want to eventually work in. You will want your letter to demonstrate that your values and goals are in tune with those of the university. This will help you stand out as being a good fit for the program.


Your introduction should have a professional greeting, a few sentences introducing yourself, and a reason to continue reading. Michigan State University reminds students that your letter is ultimately trying to convince someone to accept you, and knowing exactly what they want will help your chances. After researching the school you should know what the department wants in its doctoral students. Briefly state something about yourself that reflects the standards they seek.

Dissertation and Career Goals

Though they tend to be more common in the UK, if you are seeking to enter to a U.S. program and already have grant funding, there's a chance you'll need to submit the research proposal used to apply for the funding along with your application. Your letter should mention the proposal and state the topic and research aspects you wish to pursue in a Ph.D. Onati International Institute for the Sociology of Law states that the research proposal is the most important part of your Ph.D. application letter. It showcases the field area where your passion lies, how you think critically, and depending on the current research being done at the school you are applying to, it could fit into an area undergoing research by its faculty. If this is the case you can name the professor you wish to work with.

Finish Strong

Be sure your letter ends on a strong, positive note. Just as you started with a powerful introduction, you will want to end with an equally powerful conclusion. Just be careful not to brag or come across as arrogant. Name-dropping, in moderation, can be another way to empower your conclusion if you state who mentored your previous academic growth. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for an interview. Show the program you are confident in your worthiness and they just might feel inclined to agree that you are worth meeting.

About the Author

Jen Saunders is an entrepreneur and veteran journalist who covers a wide range of topics. She made the transition to writing after having spent 12 years in England where she studied and taught English literature.

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