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How to write a PhD personal statement

Advice for making sure your PhD personal statement demonstrates why you’re suitable for doctoral study.

 
CONTENTS
  • What is a PhD personal statement?
  • How to write a PhD personal statement
  • Structure
  • What to write
  • Style
  • Check and check again
  • PhD cover letter and personal statement tips
 

What is a PhD personal statement?

When applying for a PhD course, you may have to submit a research proposal as well as a personal statement or cover letter.

The proposal details your research project (such as proposed methods, results and planned analysis) and why there is value in exploring it.

Your personal statement (or cover letter) outlines why you are suitable for doctoral study. In addition, it should say why you’re interested in the specific PhD with that particular department and how your experiences can add to it.

Sometimes you only have to submit a proposal or a personal statement. If you have to submit both, be sure that they clearly cover these separate areas.

 

How to write a PhD personal statement

Your PhD application is very different from an application you may have made before through UCAS. It goes directly to the university and needs to be fully tailored to what the department is looking for. It’s similar to a job application.

If you haven’t already, get in touch with the PhD supervisors or other contacts within the department you want to work in. They regularly need PhD students to support their work, so they will probably be happy to help you with your application!

 

Structure

When planning what to write, read all relevant information about the course and any guidance from the university. For example, did they give you a list of desirable criteria, or a person specification? You can use each criterion as a heading and make bullet points on what to write under each one.

For your structure, you generally want:
  • An introduction that outlines why you want to do the PhD
  • Middle paragraphs that say how your interests and experiences make you right for doctoral study, and why the university department is a suitable fit for you
  • A concluding paragraph that summarises why you’re the best person for the course

 

What to write about

Aim to explain how your skills and experience make you a suitable candidate for this particular PhD at this specific university.

Think about:
  • Why should you be completing research in this area?
  • What are your strengths and achievements?
  • What are your influences?
  • Why is this university the right one for your project?
  • Why do you want to work with this team?
  • Make sure that you give evidence and not just state points, especially if the criteria are specific. What have you done to match the requirements?

You can discuss your wider achievements or extracurricular activities, but try to keep it suited to the PhD. If you want, add information about gaps in your CV or any other issues that are relevant.

If you're applying for a fellowship (a funded PhD), you should tailor your application to the funder. Spend enough time researching the fellowship so you talk about why it will be beneficial to you.

 

Style

Aim to be concise in your writing. The university may set a limit on the word count, but if not, your personal statement should ideally be no longer than one side of A4. Be concise and make every word count!

Your statement should reflect the academic nature of the writing you’ll be doing in the PhD. For example, if your work is scientific, the people who will read your statement want to see that you can evidence and an explanation with each point you make.

For more information on how to write a personal statement, see our general postgraduate advice article.

 
 

 

Check and check again

When writing your application, spend plenty of time rewriting sections to perfect it. A good idea is to spend 20 minutes editing for every hour you spend writing. If you can, sit in a different environment to edit than where you write from, as this will help keep your mind clear and fresh.

 

PhD cover letter and personal statement tips

Develop a strong academic CV – this is what admissions tutors will usually look at before reading your personal statement. Use the CV to list your experiences, and don’t repeat the same information in your statement.

Start putting your application together early, even as early as a year before the PhD will begin. This will give you time to contact supervisors. Your applications may be due in January before you start, so you’ll need to set aside plenty of time if you’re applying for funding.

 

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