Once you’ve gone through the process of finding potential grad school advisers, the next step is to contact them. It can be quite scary. That fear that you’ll craft a seemingly marvelous letter, attach your well-written CV, send it off, and then…hear back nothing. Or worse, you’ll hear back, but they aren’t interested in your obvious brilliance. Try not to get in your own head too much. Think of it more as the start of an epic journey towards the next step in your blossoming academic career. The professors that show the most interest in you are going to be the ones that are the best fit for your unique interests and skills. Writing about yourself is hard, but now is the time to brag on yourself a bit. Say it with me, “I am a badass science baller and all the profs want me.”
Keep in mind that this letter does not need to be perfect
. I just looked back at the cover letter I sent to my MS advisor (keep anything you write about yourself!
) and it’s nearly 2 full pages long with way
too much information. Thankfully, she wasn’t bored, and I had a wonderful, productive Master’s experience.
|Say it again!
There’s a fine line between a letter of inquiry and a cover letter. Basically, if there is a posted opening with the advisor, then it is a cover letter. Otherwise, it’s a letter of inquiry, simple as that. The aim of such a letter, when writing to potential advisers, is to express your informed interest in them and their research, while also presenting a focused snapshot of yourself. Informed interest is important. Make sure you familiarize yourself with their work. Read their papers. Brainstorm ideas for how your work could compliment theirs. I’m not going to lie, this can be tough. I find it helps to remind yourself that you are not contractually bound to follow through with the ideas you come up with and present during your application process (Editors Note: This was my mantra to Meridith during her PhD application! Glad to see it sunk it.). You just want to show that you are an intelligent being with a real interest in a similar field of research and that you can come up with relevant ideas.
To begin, you’ll want to state your interest in their lab and ongoing project(s). A common pitfall is to contact a professor about an area of research in which s/he is no longer active. Check the dates on those publications! Additionally, some professors will be looking for more than one student to work on a several different projects. Clarify early why you are writing to them. They get numerous emails daily and the easier it is for them to read your email, the easier it will be for them to respond. Next, the second paragraph should be a self introduction. What are your recent experiences, and how would the skills you have benefit you if you were to join this person’s research group? The third paragraph should be dedicated to expressing your interests, goals, and ideas for research. The final paragraph is a little more general. You can think of it as a summary:
I think my interests, skills, and future plans could potentially fit in well with your research program. If you have room for a PhD student in the (interest term and year here), please let me know if you would be open to discussing my interests or experiences further. I have listed some of my major accomplishments below, but I have also attached my full CV if you would like further information about my past experiences and skills. I know you are very busy, so I appreciate any time you can give me. Thank you very much.
I like to include a little bulleted list of notable accomplishments to whet their appetite. I wouldn’t advise giving them more than your “top 5.” The goal here is to entice them to open your attached full CV. Good achievements to mention are:
- Grants or scholarships awarded (and how much $$ you were given)
- Examples of academic excellence (exceptional GRE scores, special skills, unique courses taken with grade)
- Evidence of research experience (REUs, internships, volunteer positions in research groups, etc.)
- Publications (with links) or presentations/posters
The internet already has loads of posts on this topic and plenty of sample letters to reference. Don’t rely on just this post!
Contemplative Mammoth’s Post
Dynamic Ecology’s Post
The Professor is In’s Post
Simple Sample Letter
In Depth Cover Letter Essentials
Please let us know if you have any other great cover letter references! We’d love to let this list grow and provide a wide array of recommendations for the future graduate students among us!