When you apply for a PhD, you will need to write not just a research proposal but also a letter of motivation. This letter describes why you wish to undertake a PhD and why you would be well-suited to researching your proposed topic. But what needs to go in this letter, and what tone is appropriate for it? To give you some ideas, today we're sharing a sample letter of motivation so you can see what your letter needs to contain.
It should be mentioned that a European-style motivation letter focuses on your academic background, as opposed to the US-style personal statement which discusses your life experiences. A motivation letter should be professional and describe your previous research experience, without giving too much personal information.
In order to strengthen your application as much as possible, your letter should include the following essential components.
If you're writing a motivation letter to apply for a PhD in economics, then follow these tips to increase your chances of success.
In this article:
- What to include in a motivation letter
- Sample motivation letter
- An introduction which states which program you are applying for
- Information about your academic background
- Why you want to do a PhD
- Potential impact of your proposed research
- Your future career plans
One bad habit that many people have when writing their motivation letter is being too vague. Saying that you enjoyed your economics undergraduate course or that you find economics interesting is too vague to be meaningful. After all, it can already be assumed that you enjoyed studying economics or you wouldn't be applying for a PhD. Instead, try to be more specific: mention which particular courses or topics appealed to you most, what you learned from them, and why you want to learn more about them.
Another common mistake is to make claims without giving any evidence to back those claims up. For example, you'll often see people say “I work well independently” or “I am highly organised and good at managing all of my assignments”. But without demonstrating how these things are true, there is no reason for the hiring committee to give weight to your self-assessment. For better results, give concrete examples of your claims in action, such as “My high level of organisation was demonstrated when I completed my economics undergraduate courses while also working a part-time job, which required excellent time management skills.” or “In my second year, I successfully organised an undergraduate conference with 50 attendees.”
It is important to be professional in your motivation letter, so the letter should not contain jokes, sarcasm, or irrelevant personal information. However, you also needn't be dull and impersonal. You can and should allow your personality to shine through in your letter, and show how you are different from other candidates. Maybe you have strong opinions about a particular topic in economics, or perhaps you have taken an unconventional career path that involved working jobs as well as studying. In these cases, you needn't hide your individuality. Show how your background gives you a unique perspective on economic issues and your approach to academic work. Remember, the point of the motivation letter is not to show how similar you are to an imagined perfect candidate – it's to show off your unique personal approach and how you could be a great economics PhD student.
Another issue that some people have in writing a PhD motivation letter is the gulf in requirements between an undergraduate or master's course and a PhD course. In an undergraduate or master's course, you have to attend classes, complete assignments, and perform well in assessments. In a PhD, you will often have to come up with your own research questions, choose the best methodology to answer those questions, and motivate and organise yourself to complete your work. If you don't have direct experience with doing these PhD tasks, that's okay – you won't be expected to know everything before you even start the PhD. However, you do want to show that you have the capacity to perform this kind of work. In order to do this, you focus on the skills that you have – such as data analysis, writing, research, presentation, and so on. Try to give examples of how you have used these skills in the past to show that you're ready for the challenge of a PhD now.
Something that hiring committees like to see is that you are interested in working in the field of economics in the future. This means that you need to talk about what your plans are for after the PhD if you want to be accepted. For most people applying for a PhD, the interest will be in doing a postdoc once they have completed the PhD. Other people may know that they want to work in industry, or for an NGO or for the government. Any of these answers is fine, but the committee will want to see that you have thought about your long-term career. Do mention your long-term plans near the end of your motivation letter to show that you are serious about a career in economics.
To Whom It May Concern,
I am writing to express my interest in the doctoral program in the psychology department at Humboldt University.
I am particularly keen to apply for the doctoral program in the psychology department as its research interests are an excellent match for my academic background. While studying for my BA in psychology at Manchester University in the United Kingdom I developed a particular interest in the neural structures which underpin memory. My BA thesis, supervised by Dr Barry King, was on this topic of semantic versus episodic memory activations in the prefrontal cortex, which engendered my interest in this complex topic. After completing my BA, I undertook an MSc in psychology at University College London. While studying there I came into contact with Professor Joanna Smith, whose enthusiasm and innovative experimental approaches to the study of memory were an inspiration to my work.
I now wish to continue my academic career with a PhD in psychology, and I cannot imagine a better place to study this than the psychology department at the Humboldt University. With the department's expertise in both memory processing and in research methodologies like fMRI, it would be the ideal location for my project on neural correlates of episodic memory. Further, I wish to work with Dr Jenny Henry in particular, as she is a world-leading expert in the use of fMRI techniques in the investigation of episodic memory, and I wish to utilise the connectivity approach which she has piloted in her recent work for my project.
This research has the potential to contribute to the academic understanding of memory processes, but more than this, it may have an impact on wider society and healthcare too. With an ageing world population and increasing levels of memory problems like dementia, understanding the neural basis for memory processing will allow the development of better pharmaceutical and therapeutic methods for the management of memory disorders.
I am confident that I can complete the research project which I have proposed, as I already have experience in fMRI, experimental techniques for the assessment of memory, and in running a research project. In my masters project, I designed the experimental methodology, recruited participants, assisted with the data analysis, and contributed theoretical knowledge to the write-up. I believe that these skills and experience will allow me to complete a larger-scale project like a PhD effectively.
After completing the PhD, I plan to pursue a postdoc placement within academic psychology, likely in the area of episodic memory processing. Driven by a lifelong interest in human psychology, I am keen to continue my education in this subject and to perform my own research which can contribute to the knowledge of the field.
Many thanks for your consideration.
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