Tips on how (not) to apply for a PhD position (2)

Following up on my previous post, in which I gave a glimpse behind the scenes of selecting the top contenders for a PhD student vacancy, I'd like to discuss the letter of motivation. Also called the cover letter, I like the name "letter of motivation" (LOM) better - because that is exactly what I, as a PI, am looking for: your motivation.
I like reading these letters, even if it takes up a lot of time. I read them carefully. I read every single line - and I read between the lines. So craft them like Rodin would craft his most precious sculpture. What am I looking for? Her are my five tips for crafting your letter of motivation.

1. You tickle my curiosity
Your LOM should convince me that I need to spend more time with you. It should invite me to really go over your CV in detail, because I get the impression that you've got something to offer that I might want. How do you do that? As I said before: the golden rule is that you should give me no reason to doubt that you would make a perfect PhD candidate. Spelling errors, grammar mistakes: get them out of the way. If I ask for you to be fluent in English, please be so when you write this letter.


2. You want me
This is not about flattery. We all know that gets you nowhere. But I do want to get the feeling that you thought about applying to this specific position. This specific lab. Of course, the worst LOMs are the ones that look like total form letters. A robot could have sent them out. They are generic. They do not mention a single detail about the advertisement. They look like they are copied and pasted from application to application.
Are you rolling eyes and saying "but I would never do such a thing"? Good. Then make sure you actually tailor your letter to this position and this job. Don't write about how awesome my University is. Or my city. Neither of those make you sound interested in what I have to offer. You don't have to sing my praise and tell me I am the smartest thing since sliced bread, but there is nothing wrong with showing that you have an inkling of an idea what I am doing right now (google my website) or have done in the past (read a paper). Tell me what you like about the job. Is it the topic? The field? The particular question? Something must have excited you, or otherwise you will not be right for this job. So tell me what that something was!

3. You make me want you
Don't repeat your CV in prose, but lift out some of the main points that make you a good candidate for this position. Does your prior education provide a seamless fit? Do you have experience with a particular model organism? Does your prior research experience make you super excited about finally working on a single question for four years? Let me know!
Of course you can also overdo it. I'm okay with your LOM being over one page in length. Really. But three pages, to the point where you are repeating yourself? That is just making me dread the editing of your future papers. Knowing when to stop is a skill in and by itself. And with that I will move on to the next point.

4. Lift my concerns
Your CV alone might confuse me. Perhaps your background doesn't sound like the perfect fit. If so, take extra care to motivate why is should consider you after all. Remember, you are up against candidates with CVs that look like a more "logical" fit. Is there a weird gap in your CV with a perfectly good explanation? Let me know. There are all sorts of little red flags that will be just that, red flags, if you don't explain them away. Are you currently working for a company? Then why on earth do you want to come back to academia to do a PhD? If you don't offer a plausible reason, I will just fill this in myself, and you may not like the stuff I come up with.

5. Show me who you are
Now this may not go for everybody, so don't take my word on this. But I like to see a bit of your personality shine through in a letter. We will both be better off if we get along at some level. So I'd like to get a taste of the person behind the application.
At the same time, you don't want to overdo it. This is still academia. I am not expecting 3D animations and fancy slideshows. Clean and crisp, that is still what your aiming for.

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