When I applied to PhD programs, I didn’t really find the advice I was seeking for how to write a statement of purpose, so I wrote this post in the hope that it might help someone in a similar position.
Folks will tell you that your statement of purpose is the most important part of your PhD application and they’re right. While your transcripts might demonstrate your past academic success and your letters of recommendation can speak volumes, especially if written by significant scholars in your field, no piece of your application package can make more of an impact than your statement. It is your opportunity to clearly and succinctly discuss your past and future research goals in an interesting way. From this document (as well as the rest of your application package), an admissions committee will decide if you are the right “fit” for their program.
While you’re determining which programs are the right fit for you, you can simultaneously put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and start the first of many drafts of your statement of purpose. While you of course want your statement to be unique and stand out from the masses—seriously, masses; some programs review pretty much a gazillion applications—there is a bit of a formula to crafting a stellar statement.
Your first sentences are how you initially capture the committee’s attention. Be unique and engaging, but professional and academic. Remember, you’re applying to a PhD program, not for a job at Google.
Also keep in mind that a statement of purpose is very different from that college admissions essay that you wrote in high school. This must be more about your research and goals than about who you are as a person. As my advisor told me, you need to find subtle ways to have the story of your research also tell a bit about you.
In the meaty middle section of your statement, you’ll want to address several questions:
- What are your main areas of scholarly interest? Broadly define the areas that your research touches. If you’re planning to do a food studies dissertation project, make sure you frame your food studies work within the discipline to which you’re applying and integrate it.
- What is your general research agenda—in a sentence or two? This can be hard to do, but including an elevator pitch in your statement demonstrations how far you are along in your thinking. Be clear. Be specific. Be succinct.
- What is your proposed dissertation project? You can change your research direction during your doctoral studies, but in your statement, you need to demonstrate your ability to develop and communicate a compelling and original project. Cite the scholarly work that your project will build upon and/or contribute to.
- What research/work/experiences prepare you to complete your project? Whether you’ve taken classes, already done research in this area, have a degree in the topic area, or have some other experience, paint the trajectory of your academic and professional work, demonstrating how it culminates with you being prepared for doctoral work.
- Why do you want a PhD? What do you see yourself doing with your degree? What’s your plan for the future? How will you contribute in a unique and effective way to your field? Do not say you just want more education or to stay in school, even if it’s true.
- Why you? Throughout your statement, you need to be building the argument for why a program should choose you over other candidates. Remember the “show don’t tell” rule your high school English teacher taught you, though. Do not be boastful. Do not let your words come off as arrogant. Let your CV and transcripts speak for themselves and use the statement to focus on your research.
Here, explain why this particular school and program are the right fit for your work:
- What professors do you want to work with? Why? How do your research interests/areas align? How would their work inform your own?
- What resources are available that would support, influence, or enhance your specific research project and goals? Find out if there are relevant archives, special collections, centers, groups, etc. and include them.
- How does your work or background align with/contribute to institutional goals or initiatives?
Show that you’ve done your homework and have researched the university and program/department, corresponded with faculty, and figured out if and how you fit. End with a sincere, but not overly flowery (I find the minimally flowery bit particularly challenging) sentence about how you would look forward to the opportunity to study, research, and teach at “X” University, as well as make your own contributions.
Ideally, you should go through several drafts of your statement. Send it to current professors who are willing to give you feedback and to current PhD students who have learned from their own experiences how to write a killer statement.
Several reviewers is key. Some professors give you the positive feedback you need to not want to throw in the towel, which is balanced by the very critical, but in the end extremely helpful, feedback you’ll get from others. Absorb it all. Work in as many changes as you can. Anyone willing to take the time to give you feedback is giving you a gift of their time and expertise, so make good use of it. And send thank you notes!
You should have a strong draft of your statement ready by the time you ask professors for letters of recommendation, so that they can reference it, along with your transcripts and CV, in their writing process. While due dates vary by institution, here’s a general timeline to work from, if you’re a control freak like me and want to get things done ahead of time:
- September-October: Write the best first draft of your statement that you can. Send it to 2 to 3 reviewers for feedback. Make edits accordingly.
- Mid-October: Submit revised statement and all supporting materials to professors who are writing letters of recommendation for you (usually 3), allowing 4 to 6 weeks of notice because they’re insanely busy people. Ask for their feedback on your statement and incorporate their comments accordingly.
- November: Have a professor or advisor who has reviewed a previous draft (or drafts if you have an awesome advisor like I did), read over your “final” version. (This is the person to whom you must send a really nice thank you when the application madness concludes.)
- December: Submit your final statements (customized to each program) with your applications.
I’m sure there are plenty more great statement writing tips out there. If you have insights, please share in the comments—and best of luck to anyone out there writing and editing (and editing some more) a statement of purpose!