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

Qualifications

A Ph.D. program is training to become a scientist/scholar in a discipline. Though successful Ph.D. students share many of the same qualities as successful master’s students, it is important to recognize that they are distinct endeavors: a master’s program revolves around coursework, whereas for a Ph.D. student, the ultimate goal is success in research. So for master’s applicants, grades in relevant courses and test scores are an important, if not primary, basis for predicting future academic success — whereas in a Ph.D. application, excellent grades/scores are a necessary but not sufficient condition. Hence the importance of the SOP (and letters of recommendation).

Focus

Based on the experiences that underlie your qualifications, your SOP should demonstrate a certain level of familiarity with the discipline. This does not mean you need to give a laundry list of things you’ve learned, but you should articulate how your contributions and ideas relate to important questions in the field, using the language of the discipline.

Fit

Fit is about whether the particular program is right for you, and you are right for the program. This can come down to all sorts of factors beyond what’s in your application — factors such as whether the research strengths of the department match your specialty area, and which faculty members are looking for new advisees that year or are about to retire. The admissions committee will be looking for your “path to victory” as a student. However brilliant you might be, you’ll need mentorship and training suited to your development as a researcher, and the committee won’t (shouldn’t!) admit students that it thinks will have a hard time succeeding.

Style

Writing an SOP is hard. When I was an applicant, I found it awkward and intimidating. It may help to consider that you are not being asked to write poetry; you are being asked to make an argument. The point you are arguing is that you would make an outstanding Ph.D. student in a particular field and program. This is the implicit goal of every SOP, so you do not need to say explicitly “I believe that I would make a great student”. Instead, focus on providing solid evidence and details regarding your potential with respect to the criteria of Qualifications, Focus, and Fit. You can make the case with arguments like “(Research project) gave me experience with (topic or skill)”, “I am interested in (research area) — in particular, (topics)”, and “(Department/potential advisors) would be a good fit because…”.

FAQ

How long should my SOP be?

1 or 2 pages should suffice. Don’t pad it with flowery oratory; focus on the persuasive argument. Your life history before you entered the discipline is probably not of much interest to the committee — unless it’s something really unusual!

How should I go about writing the SOP?

My advice is to start well in advance of the deadline, write a bad draft, get feedback from a mentor such as a faculty member or current Ph.D. student, and revise. Be sure to give the SOP to your recommendation letter–writers so they can echo the main themes.

Should I discuss nonacademic activities/achievements?

Evidence that you would contribute to the field and department you are applying to more broadly, beyond getting good grades and doing good research, is welcome. If you have served as a TA, have participated in outreach on behalf of your field, or have demonstrated strong leadership and communication skills, those are worthwhile qualities for you (and your letter-writers) to mention. But they should not be the centerpiece of your argument.

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

Maybe. It could put the reader’s concerns at ease if you have a good explanation. However, this can be a double-edged sword, as it can draw further attention to weaknesses rather than strengths, or even come across as making excuses. Ask your letter-writers for advice; one of them may offer to put the explanation in their letter, where it will sound more authoritative.

Where can I find examples?

Swapneel Mehta’s website has several, and Nelson Liu has shared his for NLP.

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Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider

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