How to Write about Your Research Interests

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Set out your plans and goals

“How to Write about Your Research Interests” is excerpted from the special report, Get Your Game On: Prepping for Your Grad School Application. To download the entire free special report, click here.

The most common challenge that my clients face when writing a statement of purpose (SOP) for a Master’s or PhD application is how to describe, in concrete terms, what their research interests and goals are. It’s one thing to express interest in a field, or explain where that interest came from—but when it comes to setting out some plans and goals, people get a bit anxious.

This is understandable— some people worry they’ll be held to their still-evolving ideas as if they were chiseled in stone; and others simply haven’t thought those ideas through very much yet. Take a deep breath! No one’s going to produce your SOP when it’s time for you to start writing your thesis and expect it to correspond exactly—everyone knows your knowledge and ideas will develop throughout your grad program. On the other hand, the SOP is the way for the committee to see that you possess depth of interest and comprehension in your field, and that you understand what goes into research. If you talk about ideas that are too vague or nebulous, or that aren’t addressable by your discipline, then you risk sounding naïve.

Here are some questions/pointers to help you focus and narrow your interests:

• What are the broad research questions/issues that interest you? Can you describe your interests in a sentence? In a paragraph? Try to create a summary of your interests that you can work with.

• Within those broad areas of interest, have you begun to focus on more specific questions? If you’re not sure what the current questions/problems are in your field, now is the time to start catching up—look at recent journal publications, go to conferences if you can, etc. Reading the lit in your field will also give you a sense of how to frame your ideas in the language of your field.

• Have you done any research in this field already? If so, do you intend to build on your previous work in grad school or go in a new direction?

• How will your research contribute to the field?

• Some projects described in SOPs are achievable in the short-term, while others are big enough to last a career. If your interests/goals fall into this latter category, acknowledge the fact that you’re being ambitious—and try to identify some aspect of your interests that you can pursue as a first step.

• Use your SOP to demonstrate your skills (and past experience) in your field, as well as to define the next steps you intend to take.

• Focusing your interests will also involve more detailed research about the programs you plan on applying to. Who might be your research supervisor? How do your interests relate to the work this scholar or scholars are doing now? How would you contribute to the department, and to the discipline?

• Your SOP will also address your longer-term goals (post-degree). Do you plan to pursue a career in research/academia? (For many PhD programs, this remains the department’s formal expectation, even though many PhDs find employment outside the academy.) If you’re applying for your MA/MS, be prepared to discuss what your plans are. How will the degree help you?

 In the next post I’ll talk more about how to show you have the skills to succeed in grad school.

Download our free report: GET YOUR GAME ON: Preparing for Your Grad School Application

Rebecca Blustein By , editor and former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, and author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School. Rebecca will be happy to assist you with your grad school applications.

Related Resources:

• 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid in Your Graduate School SOPs
• Choosing a PhD Program: 3 Tips
• Obtaining Graduate Assistantships

HEC Paris Launches New MBA-MIF Program

Check out our HEC Paris b-school zone!HEC Paris Business School just announced the launch of its new MBA-MIF program in a press release Monday. The 20-month program (16 months for the MBA and 10 months for the Masters in Finance) will provide students with an integrated curriculum, allowing for different tracks for students with different skills and experience levels. Within the MBA component of the program, students will be able specialize in entrepreneurship, strategy, or general management, and combine that with the finance specialization in the MIF component. Students will receive “early intensive training in finance, thereby enhancing preparation for banking and consulting interviews.”

Upon completion of the dual degree program, students will receive an MBA and an MSc in International Finance.

According to Jacques Olivier, HEC Paris Professor of Finance and Program Director, “The financial crisis has challenged business schools to find new ways to equip their graduates with the right set of knowledge, skills and values. HEC Paris has designed the MBA-MIF dual degree for young professionals who wish to acquire not only the general management education and leadership skills from a leading MBA program, but also advanced technical knowledge in finance to differentiate themselves from their peers. This unique combination will allow dual degree students to fast-track onto senior management positions within finance and consulting.”

See the HEC Paris website for more information on the MBA-MIF program.

For advice on how to get accepted to HEC Paris, please see our HEC Paris B-School Zone.

Click here for the lowdown on one of the most up and coming specialized masters programs in the business world. Helping You Write Your Best

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Writing About Your Experiences Abroad

Learn how to use sample essays to create exemplary essays of your own! [Free Downloadable Guide]

Ensure that your study abroad experience serves a role other than window-dressing.

You’ve done it – you studied, worked, or volunteered abroad and now you want to include part of this in your personal statement. Maybe you want to show that you’ve experienced a different culture or that you’ve managed to go outside of your comfort zone. Maybe you’ve had interesting experiences – met people, climbed mountains, or lived without air-conditioning. Or maybe you had the opportunity to help people who genuinely needed it.

But, at this point, you’ve also realized that many other applicants have similar experiences, and you are right. While the experience may have been transformative for you, requiring you to learn how to operate without your usual safety net in a foreign environment, you need to ensure that your study abroad experience serves a role in your essay as something other than window-dressing.

There’s an Onion article which jokes that someone’s short work experience in Africa allowed her to post a better Facebook photo, and, without the proper analysis, descriptions of abroad experiences can feel the same way in an admissions essay. Often, I read essays with lush descriptions of exotic scenery and people who speak different languages, yet you the writer – the most important person – stays the same. Without showing admissions committees why a study abroad experience was transformative, these types of stories simply blend together and give the impression that you were there simply to add another notch to your resume.

So, what should you do? Studying abroad can be a pivotal moment in your personal journey, but a personal statement needs to explain exactly why. If, indeed, gaining experience with other cultures was important to you at that stage, what exactly did you learn? It can’t be enough to just give a story about someone you met while traveling, you have to explain why that person changed you. An admissions committee member once told me that it mattered less what an applicant’s experience was, what mattered was how she talked about it. Even the most seemingly dull experience can be transformative to someone who is really paying attention.

Learn how to use sample essays to create an exemplary essay of your own! Click here to download our free report!

Jessica PishkoCheck out Jessica Pishko's bio! graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She spent two years guiding students through the medical school application process at Columbia’s PostBacc Program and teaches writing at all levels.


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• Two Ways to Reveal Leadership in Your Applications
What is Passion in Admissions?
7 Signs an Experience Belongs in Your Application Essay

Harvard’s School of Public Health Receives $350 Million Gift from Hong Kong Group

Applying to med school? Download your free copy of Navigate the Med School Maze!On Monday, Harvard announced the largest gift in its history, $350 million to the School of Public Health from the Morningside Foundation, a Hong Kong group run by two Hong Kong brothers, Ronnie and Gerald Chan. The school will be renamed for T. H. Chan, the brothers’ father. (Gerald Chan earned degrees from the School of Public Health in the 1970s – a master’s in medical radiological physics and a doctorate in radiation biology.)

This will be the seventh largest donation ever made to an American institution of higher education.

According to Harvard officials, this gift will be used in the following four areas: pandemics (like cancer and obesity); failing health systems; poverty and humanitarian crises; and harmful environments (like pollution or violence). The Ebola outbreak, for example, would hit three of four areas – it’s a pandemic that relates to poverty and highlights a significant health system problem.

Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, says that the gift will give students more financial aid and enable the school to expand its programs. “It’s always been, as the whole field always is, under-resourced,” she said. “It’s overwhelmingly dependent on money from federal grants that are under threat….We’re all realizing how important public health is as we become more global and diseases are shared across boundaries.”

For more info, please check out

Download your free special report: Navigate the Med School Maze! Helping You Write Your Best

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• Med School Secondary Essay Handbook: School Specific Tips
Medical School Admissions 101
• Shaping the Evolution of Humanity’s Health: Harvard Medical School Student IV

Choosing Graduate Programs to Apply to

Download your free copy of Get Your Game On: Prepping for your Grad school Application“Choosing Graduate Programs to Apply to” is excerpted from the special report, Get Your Game On: Prepping for Your Grad School Application. To download the entire free special report, click here.

As you bring your interests into focus, start to create a list of target programs. Many factors will influence your decision-making process. Here are some things to think about:

• Do you have geographical considerations? (Do you need to be near family, or in a certain city where a spouse works?)

• What are the strengths of the programs that interest you? If you’re looking to work in industry, does the program offer networking/internships/career placement? If you’re considering a PhD, is the program strong in your subfield?

• If you’re planning to apply for a PhD program, is there a faculty member in the department who is doing work in your area of interest, or who could serve as your mentor/research supervisor?

• How many students does the program accept each year? (Some doctoral programs enroll as few as 3-4 students annually, so know that even if your credentials are stellar, you should have more than one plan!)

• Is there funding available?

• For PhD programs: Does the university publish the average time-to-degree of students in the program? (This is sometimes rather different from the stated program length you’ll find in the program catalog.)

• Are there opportunities to work as a teaching or research assistant? If grad students in the department are expected to teach, is there a mentoring program in place? How many semesters do students TA?

• If you’re hoping to work as an academic, inform yourself about the structure/expectations of your discipline. Do the programs you’re looking at have a strong record of placing their PhDs in post-docs and tenure track positions? (Do the professors you’re thinking about working with have such a record?)

• If you have a good relationship with a current or past faculty mentor, ask for advice about programs and potential grad advisers you should consider.

In the next post, I’ll address how to develop a concrete description of your research interests.

Download our free report: GET YOUR GAME ON: Preparing for Your Grad School Application

Rebecca Blustein By , editor and former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, and author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School. Rebecca will be happy to assist you with your grad school applications.

Related Resources:

Kisses of Death for your Grad School Application
Obtaining Graduate Assistantships
Graduate School Admissions 101