We wanted to put together a list of dos and don’ts for a strong PhD application. So, who better to give you this advice other than a real-life, successful university professor who looks at hundreds of applications every year?! We went to the wonderful Professor Andrea Munsterberg for advice.

If you haven’t heard of her or her work you are missing out. She has made some amazing discoveries and published some ridiculously cool papers in the field of developmental biology – being involved in the pioneering work on sex determination when she was a student herself, to her work today that focuses on muscle development and cell migration.

What you should put in your PhD application

The first thing we asked Andrea – what do you want to see in a good PhD application? The most obvious thing she could think of was having a decent academic record. Most applicants these days will have first-class degrees or a Master’s. So, break out those textbooks and get studying!

Andrea Münsterberg

“It goes without saying that strong academic grades are a prerequisite, as this shows a level of intelligence, ability to work, to learn and to deliver (usually to deadlines). But grades don’t necessarily need to be stellar. It is also good to include A-level (or equivalent) results as this can show the applicant’s progression and maturation as well as his/her broad research interests.”

When it comes to writing the application, Andrea could not emphasize enough how important it is that a PhD application sounds specific and directed to the advertised project. Make sure you read up on the lab, where you are applying for a PhD. Know your stuff. Target your application appropriately.

“Make the application relevant, show how you are a good fit, say what can you bring to the project and to the lab. Highlight any previous experience that is particularly relevant. Any extra experience is always good, such as summer projects (funded or voluntary internship) – because it does show enthusiasm, initiative, drive to succeed.”

Make sure when you write the application that your enthusiasm comes across! No one likes misery guts. A nice way to do this is to write a cover letter. Even if the application process doesn’t ask for a cover letter, just write one. Show that you are keen and interested. Show off your previous lab experience.

“What should stand out is the enthusiasm for the topic (embryo development in my case), and more specifically for the project itself. Explain your motivation more generally and say why are you interested in this kind of PhD project. The CV should be accompanied by a cover letter, or statement, that works alongside the CV itself and highlights and summarizes some of the important points. Perseverance and tenacity are some important qualities for PhD study and if they can show in a person’s CV that’s great.”

What you shouldn’t put in your PhD application

On the flip side of things, we asked Andrea what she doesn’t like to see in an application. An application that is too generic, was her major concern. Show that you know who you are applying to. Get their name right! Are they a doctor, professor, do they still work in this certain field? Show that you know your stuff and that you have read up on their work.

“Some applications do not seem at all relevant to the project on offer, these go straight to the reject pile.”

The other no-no for a strong PhD application is to overcomplicate it. Keep your application structure neat, tidy, and to the point. No fancy text boxes. No weird fonts. Just clear, simple text that is easy to read and understand. Put that comic sans away, it’s not welcome here. Or anywhere!

“The application should be clearly organized and not cluttered. Have a clear and consistent layout with relevant headings and points under each. Don’t over format things, using a complicated layout is not necessary for science (unless you apply for a post in graphics, arts, etc.)”

If you want to include your interests/hobbies that’s fine, if you can use that to reveal something about you as a person (without being cheesy). Reflection and self-awareness are informative/telling.

What is immediately off-putting about an application

Spelling mistakes! Everyone makes spelling mistakes but if they are glaringly obvious it makes it very clear that you haven’t looked twice at your application. It comes across as sloppy and lazy which aren’t traits that PhD supervisors are going to buy into. Get your grammar right. Get someone to proofread it. Stick to one font and font size. Come across like a pro and PhD application success will shortly follow.

“Lack of attention to detail is off-putting, so proofread the application before sending it (best to sleep on it). Correct any grammar and spelling errors.”

Secondly make sure all the information for the application is there, ready, and clear to see. No one wants to have to chase you up for extra details you’ve missed from your CV. Think, plan, make sure everything is there.

“First impressions are important, so if there is missing information, or the relevant parts are too hidden, or in the wrong order and/or difficult to extract that’s off-putting.”

Include the names of your referees (don’t say “available on request”)

Top 5 tips for a strong PhD application

  1. Write a clear and concise cover statement that is specific to the research project you are applying for – why do you want to do a PhD more generally, and why this one specifically?
  2. Show your enthusiasm for the topic – what have you already done to get to this place?
  3. CV with all the relevant information listed clearly, including the names of your referees, who will provide letters of recommendation
  4. Highlight what you bring to the project, for example through previous experience or through personal attributes.
  5. Don’t be afraid to contact the potential supervisor of a project that interests you. Tell them you’re interested and why – find out more information.

Now you are fully equipped to go out into the world of PhD applications! Round up your references. Fire up your word processor. Get those applications done. Because if you don’t ask you don’t get! Apply for a PhD today.

Stop thinking and just do it. What’s the worst that could happen? Today you could be sitting and stressing over which font size to use. Tomorrow you could be basking in full PhD glory – lab coat and all. Seize that opportunity today. Seize it!


Photo by Kristopher Roller