Unlike medical or law school, statements of purpose for PhD programs are rarely about telling the story of how and why you became interested in your field. Instead, the essay is a relatively straightforward document that communicates the following:
- Your research experience (2-3 paragraphs)
- Your research ambitions (1-2 paragraphs)
- Why the particular program to which you are applying is suitable for your research goals (1 paragraph)
Why do you need to write about your research experience? This section is not necessarily about demonstrating your research skills. Instead, graduate committees want to see that you have explored what it is like to commit to a life of research in your particular field, and your desire to pursue a graduate degree is based on an informed decision. Too often, graduate students do not complete their degrees. This is sometimes due to the realization that research is not for them. Committees would much rather accept those who have already seen what they are getting into. So remember to communicate not only what you were researching and the role you played in the lab but also what you found interesting and exciting about it. What about a particular research experience left you wanting more? By demonstrating a real motivation for research, you are showing your readers that you have the drive to get you through a long program. If you are writing or have written an honors thesis, be sure to include that information!
A PhD program is about research – conducting your own research and making an original contribution to your chosen field. That is why your readers want to know what kind of research ambitions you have. If you know what kind of research you would like to do right down to your approach, great! But many applicants have not had the chance to fully develop a research project for graduate school before getting there, so instead, pose the questions you are interested in exploring as a graduate student. By writing questions, you are demonstrating that you already think like a researcher. By starting with the questions, you may find yourself beginning to figure out how you would like to go about exploring and answering those questions.
Finally, it is absolutely crucial to talk about why the particular program to which you are applying is a good fit for you and for the work you want to do. The biggest factor here is faculty. Which particular faculty members would you like to work with? Usually, this means they are working on something similar to your own research interests. Sometimes you might want to work with faculty who are not doing research exactly like yours but instead on research that would inform or speak to your work. Aside from faculty, consider the resources available at the university (labs, archives, centers), opportunities available to graduate students (funding, conference and research travel support, teaching opportunities), and partnerships (between the university/program and other academic, government, and non-government institutions relevant to your interests).
Though the above describes the three essential components of the statement of purpose, if possible, it is nice to conclude with a paragraph describing what you bring to the table. This might be academic – another major or area of study that would add a new voice to the conversation in your field. It might be personal – something about your background or experiences that would bring an interesting perspective to work your field. The point is that everyone has something they bring to the table, and committees are interested in what applicants can bring to their department and to their field.
Unless a program says otherwise, aim for a 2-3 page essays (double spaced). Start drafting early and do not write alone. Be sure to include your faculty advisors and recommenders. It is also important to have someone outside the field you can go to. Resources like The Writing Center can certainly help review drafts, but they can also help before you write anything at all – when you are trying to figure out what your research ambitions are or which experiences you should include.
Ultimately, the process of writing the statement of purpose is a process of self-discovery in which many applicants figure out for the first time why they really want to go into a PhD program and what they want to do when they get there. So starting the drafting process as early as possible can be helpful in more ways than one.
Source: Rob Patterson, Director, The Writing Center (firstname.lastname@example.org)