The most common challenge that my master’s and PhD applicant clients face when writing a statement of research interests or a statement of purpose (SOP) is how to describe in concrete terms what their research interests and goals are. This is understandable. Their ideas are still evolving, and some worry that they’ll later be held to the ideas they stated in their applications, as though 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, I promise that no one will pop up and wave your SOP or research interests statement around, saying, “But that’s not what you said here!” Everyone knows that your knowledge and ideas will develop throughout your grad program.
Here are the two things that a great statement of research interests or SOP will do:
- It 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. You will sound naïve if you talk about ideas that are too vague or nebulous, or ones that cannot be addressed adequately through your discipline.
- It will explain any relevant background you have in this field, why you find it compelling, and why you are well suited for this career track.
Four questions to help you find your statement focus
To narrow your interests into something that is concrete enough for you to be able to write about convincingly, without being overly general, ask yourself these questions:
- What are the broad research questions/issues that interest you? Create a summary of your interests that you can work with, and describe your interests in a sentence – or a paragraph, at most.
- Within those broad areas of interest, can you begin 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, and go to conferences if you can. Reading the literature 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?
Understanding 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 your ambitions, and try to identify some element of your interests that you can pursue as a first step.
Once you have demonstrated your skills (and past experience) in your field, you will be better equipped to define your next steps.
Focusing your interests will also involve doing more detailed research about the programs to which you plan to apply. For example, consider the following questions:
- Who might be your research supervisor?
- How do your interests relate to the work this scholar or these 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. Consider this: do you envision yourself pursuing 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 a master’s degree, be prepared to discuss what your future plans are and how the degree will help you.
Working on your SOP or statement of research interests?
Your SOP needs to be direct, informative, and… well… purposeful! When you choose Accepted, we match you with a 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 have received millions of dollars in scholarship offers? Don’t delay – get started now by checking out our Graduate School Application Services.
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