The most common challenge that my clients face when writing a statement of research interests or 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. This is understandable—some people worry they’ll be held to their still-evolving ideas as if they were chiseled in stone. Others simply haven’t yet thought those ideas through very much.
Take a deep breath! By the time you begin writing your thesis, no one will pop up from behind and wave around your SOP or research interest statement, saying, “But that’s not what you said here!” Everyone knows that your knowledge and ideas will develop throughout your grad program.
A great statement of research interests or SOP is one that will clearly illustrate to the admissions committee that you possess a 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 cannot be addressed adequately through your discipline, then you risk sounding naïve. The statement should also include any relevant background you have in this field, why you find it compelling, and why you are well-suited for this career track.
4 steps to finding your statement focus
Here are some questions to ask yourself to narrow your interests into something that is concrete enough to write about, yet not overly general:
- What are the broad research questions/issues that interest you? Try to create a summary of your interests that you can work with. Afterward, you should be able to describe your interests in a sentence, or a paragraph at most.
- 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—read recent journal publications, go to conferences if you can. 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?
Understand how to present your goals
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, and 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. For example:
- 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 post-degree, longer-term goals. 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 how the degree will help you and what your future plans are.
This post is part of our Get Your Game On: Prepping for Your Grad School Application series. Click here to read the complete series.
Working on your SOP or statement of research interests?
Your statement of purpose needs to be direct, informative, and…well…purposeful. When you choose Accepted, we match you with your own dedicated advisor who will help you create an SOP that best reflects your experiences, goals, and intense desire to attend your target graduate school program. And did you know that Accepted’s clients received over $2 million in scholarship offers in the last application cycle? Don’t delay–get started now by checking out our Graduate School Admissions Consulting Services.
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, former Accepted admissions consultant. Dr. Blustein has a BA and PhD from UCLA in English and Comparative Literature. She formerly worked as a Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center where she gained experience guiding applicants in areas of admissions and funding. Dr. Blustein’s clients have been accepted to top Master’s and PhD programs in dozens of fields across all disciplines. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• Fitting In and Standing Out: The Paradox at the Heart of Admissions, a free guide
• Focus on Fit, a podcast episode
• 4 Ways to Show How You’ll Contribute in the Future