The most common challenge that my clients face when writing a Statement of Purpose for a masters 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 have a depth of interest and understanding 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 to go through as you try to focus/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 live 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 intend to apply to. Who might be your research supervisor? How do your interests relate to the work this scholar (or scholars) is 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?
Next time, I’ll talk more about how to show you have the skills to succeed in grad school.
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, author of Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School, Rebecca is available to help you write clear essays and personal statements that communicate and persuade.