Recently, a noble PhD applicant asked me a brilliant question on Reddit about how to show fit in your SOP. It’s a tricky topic, one everybody struggles with, and it causes a lot of anxiety. Yet, the idea of “fit” isn’t a problem that only PhD students face. The most successful master’s applicants also take great pains to show that they’re a perfect match for their target school. The criteria are different, but the question is the same:
How can I prove to my dream school that I’m their dream student?
Luckily, this isn’t as hard as you may think. If you approach the question from a different angle, it actually becomes easy to understand what “fit” really means, and how you can tailor your SOP to reap the maximum rewards.
What is Fit and What Does it Have to do with Swimsuit Models?
Fit is a simple concept. It’s a lot like dating when you have really high standards. Think about Leonardo DiCaprio, who for 25 years has dated nothing but 5’10 supermodels, mostly blonde, and never over the age of 23.
Want to be Leo’s girlfriend? Well, you better fit the mold, because the man has tunnel vision when it comes to the ladies.
Grad schools aren’t so different. Just like Leo loves his 23-year-old blonde supermodels, so professors and grad programs have specific kinds of needs.
Master’s programs seek students whose career goals match those of the program. PhDs advisors seek students whose research goals match their own. That’s true…in general. Unfortunately, grad programs and advisors don’t advertise what they’re looking for specifically.
Or do they?
We only know Leo’s dating type because he’s been swooping the same type of woman for a quarter of a century. He doesn’t have a Tinder profile that says “Accepting applications from 5’10” blondes.” But if we look at his record, the data is clear.
Likewise, if we know where to look, we can reverse engineer what grad programs really want, and thus understand what it means to truly “fit.”
How to Show Fit if you’re a PhD Applicant
My advice to this applicant was short, but powerful:
Ask the same questions the professors are asking.
At this point, you should have already spent a great deal of time reviewing your hopeful advisors’ old papers. You know the general trends of their work, and have an understanding of the methods they use.
You should also have already emailed them and set up a phone interview. In this interview, you’re going to ask them two very important questions: 1) What are you currently working on? and 2) What do you plan to work on in the next few years?
A smart applicant may go one step further and say: “What are the questions you’ll be asking in this research?”
Why all this talk of questions?
Because if you know which questions they’ll be asking, and present the same/similar/adjacent questions in your SOP’s research proposal…well, that fits like a LEGO block. It’s not enough to present your past research and show that you’re capable of doing good work in the professor’s general field of interest. A hundred other applicants can do the same, and most of them will get rejected. The real key to your SOP is presenting big questions that matter to you, and that show this professor that you’re on the same wavelength.
It’s bewildering to me, but many applicants don’t think about their SOP in terms of the questions they’re presenting. The present topics, highlight their past work, suggest niche fields where they’d like to poke around. But they stop short of doing the one thing that a professional researcher must do: ask intelligent questions.
“Do we need different machine learning algorithms for QSAR modeling?”
“How can we use federated learning to connect fragmented healthcare data sources while maintaining privacy?”
“What are the most suitable biomarkers when using antibody-based removal of cerebral amyloid β (Aβ) plaques to treat Alzheimer’s?”
Imagine your target advisor has asked this question in their last two papers, continually refining it, and confirmed for you that she’ll continue doing so in the next few years. If you ask 1-3 similar questions in your SOP, then clearly you’d be a better fit than someone who’s willing to research anything (as long as they’re accepted), or someone asking completely different questions. This also helps you avoid the problem of seeming inflexible or too rigidly focused on your own goals. The very act of asking a question means you’re open to using whatever methods possible to find an answer.
This is obviously a bit of a simplification, and people will misinterpret it as a gimmick to “hack” the SOP. It’s not a gimmick, because there’s no way to “hack” the fierce intellectual complexity that permeates a great PhD statement of purpose. Instead, this is a suggestion that you reframe your perspective.
Steer away from an essay that says: “This is what I want to research.” Instead, reframe so that it says: “These are the questions I’d like to play a role in answering.” After all, the ability to ask smart questions – that’s what doctoral work is all about.
Want to see a great example? Check out Martina’s uber-successful PhD SOP. Note how clearly she states her research questions, and how explicitly she connects them to her hopeful PI’s work:
“In fact, Dr. Crane’s continuing work on the molecular signals connecting postnatal overnutrition to abnormal development of hypothalamic circuits represents questions similar to those that drew me to studying the neurobiological aspects of feeding and development. It also defines the kind of work I hope to accomplish as a doctoral candidate.”
That, my friend, is “fit.”
How to Show Fit if You’re a Master’s Applicant
While it’s often beneficial for master’s applicants to highlight professor’s work in their SOPs, it’s a bit ludicrous to dig into their future research. Though you may have the chance to conduct research in a master’s program, it’s not the point. The point is to obtain a high-order overview of a specific field or professional practice. The key to showing “fit” with these programs is to know what kind of graduates they churn out – to know their unique goals.
Consider MIT’s Master of Business Analytics program. It’s a one-year degree in advanced analytics, but it’s not at all suitable for someone who wants a general mastery of data science. Their expressed goal is “to prepare you for the challenges you will face as a business leader.” In a way, it’s kind of an MBA Lite.
If we look at their current and former students, we don’t find a bunch of mathematicians and statisticians. We find BAs in Social Studies, Finance, Geophysics, and Industrial Engineering. We find former employees of defense contractors and management consultants, alongside experienced data analysts, all of whom are chasing corporate jobs where they can “add business value” or make a “social impact.”
Just as we understand Leo DiCaprio’s “type” by looking at his past girlfriends, we can determine MIT’s type by looking at their past students. To show fit with this program, it won’t be enough to show a deep interest in data science. You have to show that data science is your pathway to becoming a “business leader.”
Of course, there are plenty of generalist programs whose goals are purely academic in nature. Compare UT-Austin’s Online MS in Data Science with that at Georgia Tech. The former is entirely academic, providing you “a balanced understanding of the field” and “foundational statistical knowledge.” The latter offers a 6-hour practicum where you work with real companies.
Whatever kind of master’s you’re applying to, you need to determine the “flavor” of the program and tailor your SOP accordingly.
Want a Master’s in Biostats from Johns Hopkins? They have two programs. An ScM for elite undergrads seeking professional research careers, and an MHS for experienced professionals or folks with PhDs. You show fit by 1) being the right kind of applicant, and 2) explaining clearly in your SOP how your career goals match those listed in the “Learning Outcomes,” “Career Outcomes,” or “Meet Our Students” section of the website.
Applying to a master’s program that DOES offer unique research opportunities? Highlight that! In your Why This Program section, say that this is a big reason why you’re applying, and give an example of what you’d like to research. Maybe even mention a professor you’d like to work with, and explain why. But don’t dig as deep as a PhD applicant. The goal here isn’t to become a PhD-caliber researcher, but to obtain more general experience.
In any case, the key to showing “fit” in a master’s SOP is by understanding the program’s goals, and showing that your own unique goals match. It requires a little time and effort. You’ll have to scour the program website and maybe attend recruiting webinars. But if you can determine what kind of students they envision graduating, you can a paint a similar portrait of yourself in the Why This Program and Why I’m Qualified sections of your SOP.
To show “fit” in your SOP you need to understand what the program needs, what they’re looking for, and what kind of student they want to graduate. In many ways, it’s just proving that you’re part of the same tribe. It takes a little time and research. We can’t avoid this.
PhD applicants can demonstrate fit by reverse-engineering the research questions that keep their target PIs up at night, and showing that they want to dedicate their life to answering these questions too.
Master’s applicants can demonstrate fit by looking at their programs’ past students, determining their career outcomes, and showing that they’re pursuing the exact same goals.
The magic of it all is realizing that there are real human people on the other side of the application. Your SOP isn’t just about you. It’s an opportunity to say: “Hey people, I see you, I understand you completely, and this is how I’m certain that I’m the same people as you.”
Want help demonstrating “fit” in your own Statement of Purpose, I’m here for you!
How will you prove to your dream school that you’re their dream student?