Applying for a PhD position

Gepubliceerd op 26 mei 2023 om 12:00

It is the end of the afternoon, you are mindlessly scrolling through the job listings with a drink in your hands and: BAM! There it is! The PhD position of your dreams! Or at least one that has caught your interest. You are going to apply! But, what exactly do you put in your letter and on your resume?

Big fat clincher

What we do not recommend is to write one standard letter, in which you only change the sentence referring to the specific job in each new application you send out. You usually do not impress with that. It significantly decreases your chances of being invited for a job interview. To increase your chances for an invitation, it is better to write a targeted letter. We have five useful tips on how to do this.


Tip 1: Check the workplace

Start by carefully reading the job listing. What is the research about and why do you find this an interesting project? Look beyond the research topic. For which university, department or organisation would you be working as a PhD candidate? What kind of goals or missions do they have? What else are they doing? Does the department have a website or an annual report about their scientific studies? It would be advisable to check that out! It is wise to concretely mention the things you find interesting in your letter. This way you show the people who screen your letter that you have really made an effort to research the job listing and their organisation.


Tip 2: Research the project team

The same goes for the people who you will be working with as a PhD candidate. Who are your supervisors? An easy way to get am impression is to check out their LinkedIn-profiles. What other studies are these researchers involved in? If you already know them, definitely mention this in your letter. If you do not know them, it is not a bad idea to reach out to the people already working with these PhD supervisors. They could give you an impression how it would be to work as a PhD candidate with these people. A fulltime PhD project generally takes around four years to complete, so a pleasant work environment is very important. If you are invited to a job interview, you often get a sense of whether or not you would fit within the project team.



Tip 3: Motivation is everything!

Experience is something you can gain, but motivation is something you need to have. Make sure that this is prominently featured in your letter. Describe exactly what your motivation is for the PhD position you are applying for. This could be anything, of course. Perhaps you would really like to get a PhD on this topic, or maybe you are very interested in the population that is being researched? Elaborate on why this is the case. It is also possible that you would like to get a PhD position with a certain organization, or department, or university, or even specifically with certain people. Emphasize this and preferably explain why this is the case (also see tips 1 and 2). Of course your motivation can simply be that you really want to become a researcher. In that case, emphasize your ambition to become the Greatest researchers Of All Time and describe how you plan to use that enthusiasm in the PhD project you are applying for. However, do realise that substantive motivation for the research project usually does give you an edge when it comes to the final candidates.


Tip 4: Pretty (resume) please!

Do not make your resume too long. Keep it short, to the point, well-organized, readable and if possible visually attractive. It is especially relevant to mention which education(s) you (almost) have completed and what kind of research work you have done thus far. What kind of programs have you worked with, for example? What kind of statistical experience do you have? Do you have experience with qualitative or quantitative research? If you have done research work after your Master degree, for example as a research assistant or research coordinator, then this is the most important thing to include on your resume. If you have only just graduated, or are about to, then you will (logically!) not have a lot of research experience yet. In that case it is usually best to describe the research activities you have done during your education. Explain what kind of research you have done for your Master thesis and which research skills you have practiced there.



Tip 5: Address your letter to the right people

Be conscientious and address your letter to the right people, the ones who will screen your application. These are usually named in the job listing. They are generally the people who will supervise the PhD candidate. Also search for the proper academic titles of these researchers, while you are at it: ‘prof.’ for a professor and ‘dr.’ for a (senior) researcher who already has a PhD (in the Netherlands at least). We frequently receive letters addressed to ‘Esteemed gentleman, lady’ or ‘Dear application committee’. This is not necessarily wrong, but if the PhD supervisors are named in the job listing, it is usually better to address them personally.


Bonus tip: Use an example

Has someone you know recently been accepted into a PhD position? Perhaps they will allow you to read their application letter for some inspiration! Perhaps this person is even willing to read your own letter. It is always easier to write when you have an example. Check of course whether your example letter has our tips in them!

These are our main tips when it comes to applying for a PhD position. Just to reassure you: the best letter is not always the best candidate! If you are not the greatest writer, use our tips to at least make sure your letter is good enough to receive an invitation. During the actual job interview there will be plenty of opportunity to demonstrate why they should definitely hire you. In the end, the candidate is selected based on the interviews and not the letter.


PS. We do not need to talk about avoiding ‘linquistic errurs’, right?


Do you have any further tips for upcoming PhD candidates about how they can write an even better letter of application? Or have you ever made a huge blooper while writing such a letter? Please let us know in the comments or send us a personal message through the contact page.

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