Inside Ph.D. admissions: What readers look for in a Statement of Purpose

Actually, I can’t speak for admissions committees in general — only for myself as a faculty member responsible for weighing in on graduate admissions decisions in particular STEM fields. (I am at the intersection of two STEM fields — computer science and linguistics — and review applications in both doctoral programs at Georgetown University. This advice pertains to Ph.D. programs in the United States, which typically include a master’s degree and can be expected to take 5+ years in total. Ph.D. programs in some other parts of the world are structured differently.)

The statement of purpose (SOP) is considered alongside grades, test scores, CV, letters of recommendation, and sometimes a writing sample. All of these are important for those reading your application (generally faculty) to get a holistic impression of you as a candidate. By the time you are applying to graduate schools, the SOP may be the part of the application you have the most control over.

The SOP is an exercise in persuasive writing (an important skill in academia!). When considering an application, I ask myself about three criteria:

Qualifications: Does the candidate have the preparation to begin Ph.D.-level courses and research in my department/research group?

Focus: Does the candidate demonstrate a mature awareness of the (sub)field and how they will contribute to it?

Fit: Do the candidate’s research interests — subfield, topics, methodologies — mesh with the kinds of research performed in the department? Or (if considering the candidate for my research group), the kinds of research I’m excited about and feel comfortable advising? Will the candidate bring diversity, new ideas, and fresh energy to the program/group?

As an applicant, the Qualifications criterion is the most straightforward: it is about your record. Focus is about what you anticipate doing in your Ph.D.: beyond stating a subfield, you should put some thought into articulating what you are most interested in and how you would approach research as a Ph.D. student. Fit is hardest to address directly in the SOP — as a candidate, you are probably not intimately familiar with the specific department or program you’re applying to — but you should mention why you’re applying to that program.

I elaborate on these criteria below.

Qualifications

The main way to demonstrate preparation for the Ph.D. is to summarize your research experiences thus far. Have you been mentored in research in a university setting? Explain briefly: What problem were you trying to solve and how? How did you contribute? What progress did you make? Was there an outcome such as a presentation, publication, honors thesis, or award? Did it help you to discover new problems you’d like to examine in the future? This narrative will be most credible if it is backed up by an enthusiastic recommendation letter from your mentor. Achievements should be listed on your CV as well.

You may want to mention other learning experiences that helped prepare you for the discipline: for example, if you are applying to study second language acquisition, experience as a language instructor will be relevant.

Focus

Moreover, you should have some insight into how you want to approach a Ph.D. in the field. This does not mean you need to propose a dissertation topic! But you should have an initial sense of the subfields, topics, or approaches that you find most exciting and want to specialize in. Think about the ways people in the field self-identify. For example, you might situate yourself as more theoretical or more applied, more quantitative or more qualitative. You can argue that your experience with some specific topic gives you a foothold to continue working on that topic—or you can indicate your intention to broaden or shift your focus.

Fit

So to demonstrate fit for the program, it’s a good idea to name 2 or 3 faculty members as potential advisors, and explain which aspects of their research appeal to you. In addition to underscoring your fit for the program, it will also be used in the admissions process to help route your application to those faculty members for their input. As a general rule of thumb, I recommend 2 or 3, because if you only name 1 person, there’s a risk that they will not be taking new advisees, which will hurt your chances; and if you name a large number of faculty, it could make your interests look unfocused. Do your homework and browse websites of interesting faculty in each program you apply to. Also keep in mind that different faculty have different roles: in many departments, it is the tenure-track/tenured faculty who do the bulk of the research and advising of Ph.D. students.

Style

FAQ

How long should my SOP be?

How should I go about writing the SOP?

Should I discuss nonacademic activities/achievements?

Should I comment on weaknesses in my application (such as some bad grades)?

Where can I find examples?

Thanks to Amir Zeldes and Chris Brew for helpful feedback on a draft of this post.

Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Computer Science, Georgetown University ▪ http://nathan.cl