Contributor Aimee Eckert
Courtesy of Aimee Eckert
When I started my first year of A-Levels, my father sat my younger sister and I down and told us he was terminally ill. Despite surviving previous tumours of the throat and lymph, cruelly and almost mockingly, a melanoma scattered its metastases and took residence in his brain. I cannot remember much of that conversation apart from that he might ‘have a year left.’ After the most courageous fight imaginable, he passed away at home eight months later in May, aged only 43 years old.
Biology has always been a passion for me, as during school I was astounded by how the individual units of our bodies – our cells – work, and what goes wrong in the event of disease. My family’s experience was a key factor in cementing my decision to study cell biology at university and pursue a scientific career. However, due to the prevalence of cancer (in the UK, 1 in 3 people will be diagnosed with it) my story is far from unique; throughout my undergraduate and now postgraduate study, I continue to meet people who have had extremely similar experiences. This has reinforced the fact that I am not alone and it is a powerful source of inspiration when lab work gets stressful.
When it was time for me to apply for PhD positions, questions that needed to be answered on the application forms and personal statements included ‘why do you want to do a PhD?’ and ‘why are you interested in this area of research?’ For me, thinking about my father helped me describe my motivation and discipline and to write a strong application. I was concerned as to whether it was appropriate to briefly mention my experience of cancer in PhD applications. I imagined unpleasant images of my application going straight into the ‘No’ pile if I did. In the end, I decided that what had happened to my family was relevant: it had contributed to my development as a scientist and that the laboratories I was applying to should know about it.
In my cover letters I included the following sentence: ‘My personal experiences have made me passionate about pursuing research that has the potential to translate into improved treatment outcomes for cancer patients.’
I asked two supervisors (my future PhD supervisor, and a supervisor from one of my unsuccessful applications) about their thoughts on this issue. I told them about my father and whether what I had done was sensible, or would they have done anything different if they were in my position. My PhD supervisor said that students should not bring such emotional and private matters into an interview. Fortunately, he agreed that I did the right thing by mentioning on the cover letter that I have a personal reason to be passionate about cancer, without sharing details with people I have never met before. However, he added that this is a very subjective point of view and different institutions around the world have different workplace cultures. The second supervisor said that he was not aware from my application that I unfortunately lost my father to cancer. His opinion was that it is right to let your science do the talking, as this will be the main criterion for selection. However, motivation is a key part of being successful in science and allowing the supervisor to understand that you are driven is no bad thing.
I am not qualified at all to give advice and have provided only my example, so this case study has an N of 1(!) but hopefully this can help you decide what is right for you and your situation. Alternatively, a referee who knows you well may mention difficult obstacles you’ve had to overcome in the past. Overall, a potential PhD supervisor wants to see how you have great potential for the future and that you have the right stuff to complete the PhD successfully. This means you should show off your creativity, motivation and discipline. Overcoming certain challenges can be evidence of motivation and genuine interest in the subject, but it’s important to remember that previous research experiences, interests and suitability for a postgraduate position are the priority. Some top tips for writing PhD applications from supervisors are:
- Keep it brief – a page is enough.
- Specific – no one likes a letter that might have gone around all your institutions of interest. Why this position?
- Demonstrate you have some understanding of the field/person you are applying to. This will make it clear that you put in the work to prepare the application.
- Spell-checked, one colour, one font, and also proof read – one supervisor told me “you would be amazed at some of the poorly formatted letters you get.”
- Clear English – “again you would be amazed.”
Many of the above points seem very obvious. However, bear in mind that your application will probably be in a pile of 100, so make reading your letter as easy as possible for those making the decisions.
I am extremely excited about starting my PhD and beginning my scientific career. When I reach an inevitable trough and an experiment has not worked for what will feel like the hundredth time, I will take the time to reflect and be thankful that I am able to study science to try and help others. There are thousands of people all over the world who are working together to ensure that, someday we do not lose the people we love so soon. I know that my Dad would be proud of me.
Aimee Eckert is a MRes Cancer Biology student at Imperial College London. She will begin her PhD in September, jointly at the University of Sussex and the Institute of Cancer Research in London. When not in the lab, She enjoys getting involved with a variety of science communication schemes and relaxes after all this excitement by drinking tea and baking cakes.
Your CV cover letter is both an introduction and a sales pitch. “It should show what sets this individual apart from all others,” advises Jeffrey Stansbury, vice chair of the Department of Craniofacial Biology at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine in Aurora. Like any good sales pitch, your cover letter should motivate the customer to learn more about the product—in this case, you.
A good cover letter, like a good sales pitch, has several characteristics. First, like a good doctor, it does no harm: It avoids making a negative impression. Second, it demonstrates that the product suits the consumer's—your future employer's—specific needs. Third, it assures the customer that the quality of the product (you) is superb. Accomplishing all this is easier said than done. So how do you write a cover letter that will do you justice and earn an interview? First you need a plan.
If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.—Kenton Whitmire
“A successful candidate impresses the committee right off with the cover letter and makes the committee members actually want to dig through the CV and recommendation letters to pull out the details that start to validate the positive claims,” Stansbury says. “It also provides a glimpse into the applicant’s personality and gives some guidance as to whether or not they can communicate in an organized, effective way.”
One of the most important jobs of any good sales pitch is to avoid doing harm. Some cover letters inadvertently convey negative impressions of a candidate, especially if they “look sloppy or indicate an inability to communicate in English,” says H. Robert Horvitz, who shared the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine and has chaired search committees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “These things can kill someone's chances," adds Kenton Whitmire, chemistry professor and former chair of the chemistry department at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Horvitz adds that cover letters “should be neat and professional,” and should fit on one page. Whitmire would allow applicants a bit more room: The letter, he says, should be “no longer than one to two pages.” To keep it short, “the cover letter should not reproduce the information in the CV, publications list, or other documents provided," Whitmire says, "but it should be used as a vehicle to highlight those things that the candidate believes will make him or her a good match for the position at hand.”
An effective cover letter doesn't just emphasize your best qualities; it also shows how well those qualities are likely to mesh with the open position. “Applicants should begin by reading advertisements for faculty positions carefully and be sure that their background and goals are appropriate for the position in question. You lose credibility if you can't make a case that you fit the ad,” Whitmire says. “If the cover letter is to be effective, it must definitely be tailored to the particular institution.”
“There's no excuse for not writing a cover letter that shows how your education, experience, and interests fit with what the institution is seeking,” warns Julia Miller Vick, coauthor of the Academic Job Search Handbook, which is now in its fourth edition. “Not doing this would reflect laziness,” Horvitz observes. At best, Vick adds, “a form letter or one that is generic doesn't accomplish much and leaves how the application is reviewed completely up to the reviewing committee." At worst, a generic cover letter can make you seem undesirable.
“While many people applying for academic positions tend to think that the review process is an evaluation of their previous work—how good is it?—the issue that is as important is the match," Whitmire says. "How will this person fit in here? The former is necessary, but the decision to interview will often be made upon research area or some other measure of fit to the department's needs at that moment in time.”
Begin by learning about the department in general and the open position in particular. Department websites are a good starting point, but don't stop there. Go beyond the public information, and seek a sense of perspective. “It is best if candidates speak with their advisers and mentors to get some feel for the institution where they wish to apply,” Whitmire suggests. Close senior colleagues can serve the same purpose. Read beyond the job ad, and figure out what they're really looking for.
Once you've got a fix on the institution, the department, and the open position, ask yourself what abilities or special qualities a candidate needs to excel in that position. Then determine which of your qualifications and accomplishments will particularly interest this department. Think about your research plans, past research accomplishments, special projects, and previous employment.
What evidence can you put forward that your background and plans prepare you well for this opening? How well do your research interests match those described in the advertisement? How well will they complement the work of the current faculty? How will your presence there make the department better? All this information will determine what to emphasize in your cover letter.
Writing the body of the letter
Your research accomplishments and plans should constitute the body of your cover letter for a research university position. At institutions where teaching is the primary emphasis, your primary focus should be your teaching experience, philosophy, and goals—and the suitability of your research program to a teaching-focused environment.
“An outline of plans for teaching and research needs to be specific to be meaningful,” Stansbury says. Focus on your most important two or three examples of proposed research projects and innovative teaching plans, such as developing novel courses. These examples should change from one cover letter to another, as you customize your letters for different jobs.
After the body of your cover letter has been drafted, you come to the most critical step: writing an attention-getting introduction. Salespeople call this "having a handle." Your handle is what you offer that makes you especially well qualified for a particular faculty opening. For example, summarizing how well your research interests match the ones the department advertised provides an effective letter opening.
The opening paragraph should be short but more than one sentence. After you've captured the reader's attention with the handle, clearly but briefly summarize your most important—and relevant—qualifications. Anything less than a sharp focus and your readers will quickly lose interest and move on to the next application.
Closing the letter
End your letter decisively. Don't let it meander to an indefinite or weak close. A decisive close projects an image of you as assertive, confident, and decisive. It never hurts to close by requesting an interview.
Make your cover letter an example of your best writing by editing it carefully. It must be easy to read. Focus and clarity of expression in your letter imply focus and clarity of thought—very desirable qualities in a faculty member.
Then return to the critical issue: whether your research interests, other qualifications, and personality meet the search committee’s requirements. Anything that doesn’t accentuate the match should be deleted ruthlessly.
Now, set your letter aside for a day or two before editing it again. The detachment you gain from this short break will help you see what you've written more clearly. Detachment makes it easier to determine whether your paragraphs flow smoothly from one to the next. The logic that seemed so obvious when you were writing may seem much less so a day or two later. Carefully review both your cover letter and your CV to be sure the information in them is perfectly consistent. Often, a committee won't bother to try to resolve any discrepancies they find; they'll just move on to the next application.
Finally, Whitmire advises, “be sure to have your cover letter reviewed by someone [who] can be trusted and who has experience. Often, getting a second opinion about how something sounds to the reader—i.e., what they got from reading the letter, not what you intended in writing it—can be very valuable.”
This article is an updated version of an article originally published on 10 March 2006.
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John K. Borchardt
John K. Borchardt has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He is the author of the book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.