How to Write Your Neuroscience SOP: A PhD Success Story

I fully admit, editing a neuroscience statement of purpose is a daunting task. When working with a PhD applicant, it’s even more intimidating. The research nuances are mindboggling. (Literally?) Molecular assays and signaling pathways – the  jargon is dense, and the details are important. It takes a great deal of work to make sure the SOP portrays the applicant in the clearest and most compelling way.

Luckily however, some students are so awesome they make this job a breeze.

As a former professional ballerina with a 4.0 GPA, two years of neuroscience research, and publications in TWO different majors, Martina is the type of student who makes the rest of us feel lazy. Yet, like most STEM students, Martina didn’t feel 100% confident about portraying her candidacy in writing.

I’m telling you, this task is hard for everyone.

This was especially true during the super-competitive 2020-21 admissions cycle, when lots of amazing PhD applicants received surprisingly unfortunate results.

Yet, coming from a small regional college, and with only two weeks of revision, Martina wrote, edited, and perfected one of the most amazing SOPs I’ve ever read. And her success speaks for itself.

The Results

Martina applied to 12 top-ranked R1 programs. She received interview offers from 10. She interviewed at 7, was accepted at 5, and ultimately enrolled at her top-choice school.

“I feel really lucky to have done so well during this crazy application season,” she said.

But in my opinion, luck had little to do with it. Instead, Martina’s success was born in her incredible work ethic, her research accomplishments, and her willingness to write the strongest SOP possible.

What’s great about this SOP?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perfect utilization of the Structure is Magic SOP template, and this is something that should inspire every applicant in every type of degree program or academic field.

  • Two paragraphs in the Introductory Frame Narrative
  • Two paragraphs for Why This Program
  • Two paragraphs for Why I’m (Overly) Qualified
  • One resounding frame narrative conclusion paragraph

The frame narrative starts with a highly memorable story. (She was a professional ballerina!) But like all great SOPs, it quickly moves into an intellectual journey. This journey concludes with a beautifully specific “academic goal.” It relates her research proposal to a larger humanistic issue, but lists the specific problems she hopes to explore in her PhD: “I hope to continue elucidating hypothalamic metabolic circuits, and exploring how obesogenic diets affect long-term developmental outcomes in relation to the normal functioning of the satiety hormone leptin.

TIP: If you don’t know how to write a hyper-specific academic goal, the SOP Starter Kit will tell you exactly how.

Really, I love how Martina took great pains to elaborate her research proposal (just as I described in this previous article). It’s a symphony of intellectual depth and research competence. As she describes her potential PIs’ work, she constantly links it to her own experience (and her future goals).

She doesn’t just say: “Dr. So-and-So’s work is fascinating, and I hope to contribute.”

Instead, she says: “[Dr. So-and-So’s work] has been critical to my understanding of sensitive periods for the trophic actions of leptin in the brain…[and] my experience with quantitative immunohistochemistry and RT-qPCR make me well qualified to contribute to such research…[and this is why] I am interested in studying the role LepRb and its developmental actions might play in leptin resistance and obesity in adulthood.”

Notice that 3-point argument? That’s the SOP in a nutshell.

  1. The professor’s work on X intrigues me…
  2. Because it correlates to my past experience in Y…
  3. And this is why I’m confident about studying the related topic Z at this university.

With every word, Martina crafts a persuasive intellectual argument. It’s not about her. It’s about the research. It shows that she has a solid understanding of how she might fit into these professors’ labs, and what they might accomplish together.

When Martina finally presents her credentials, it’s almost an afterthought. She’s written with such nuance and depth that the reader already knows she’s an incredible neuroscience researcher. Her successes as an undergraduate are icing on the cake.

Seriously, this essay makes me giddy. But enough of my rambling. Let’s take a look at the SOP that helped Martina achieve such awesome results:

A Brilliant Neuroscience Statement of Purpose

When I ended my career with the California Ballet in 2016, I looked forward to an academic experience studying the metabolic and neurological systems which had silently governed my physical reality as a performer for so long. Surprisingly, the opportunity proved more rewarding than I could have imagined. The perseverance I cultivated as a ballerina proved essential as I immediately dove into the Psychology, Biology, and Philosophy curricula at Stark University, and I soon developed an interest in the neural regulation of metabolic development. After joining Dr. Jean Grey’s research lab in my sophomore year (a position I have maintained ever since), I had the great fortune of studying the effects of obesogenic diets on conserved signaling pathways governing metabolic regulation in Drosophila melanogaster. Through this work, I have become singularly fascinated with the myriad factors that contribute to the growing obesity epidemic, and its developmental origins in particular.

The questions that underpin our work in the Grey Lab are compelling. How do critical or sensitive periods of neuroendocrine development contribute to long-term functioning in animals and humans at the behavioral and cellular levels? Interestingly, current research at Gotham University seeks answers to these very questions, and that is precisely why I apply as a PhD candidate to the interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience.

At GU, I hope to continue elucidating hypothalamic metabolic circuits, and exploring how obesogenic diets affect long-term developmental outcomes in relation to the normal functioning of the satiety hormone leptin. I am quite interested in the work of Dr. Jonathan Crane, whose research on the development of hypothalamic circuits, and how they regulate feeding behavior, has been critical to my understanding of sensitive periods for the trophic actions of leptin in the brain. I believe my experience with quantitative immunohistochemistry and RT-qPCR make me well qualified to contribute to such research. 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. While Dr. Crane’s investigation into the necessity of LepRb for typical hypothalamic development is fascinating, I am interested in studying the role LepRb and its developmental actions might play in leptin resistance and obesity in adulthood.

Additionally, Dr. Otto Octavius’s research on the effects of high developmental sugar consumption on memory circuits is fascinating to me; it dovetails nicely with my experience using high-fructose corn syrup diets to mimic obesogenic conditions, while using both behavioral and molecular assays such as weight, food intake, and RNA sequencing to investigate physiological and neural changes. For these reasons, I believe I would be a great fit in either the Crane Lab or the Octavius Lab, given my experience researching metabolic development at both the behavioral and cellular level.

Having averaged 25 research hours per week during the last few academic years, and up to 50 during the summers, I believe I have acquired all the necessary tools to succeed as a graduate student at GU. I lead the developmental subdivision at the Grey Lab, a project investigating how the timing of a high-fructose diet during development affects cellular and behavioral outcomes in adult Drosophila as it relates to unpaired 1 – the Drosophila analog of leptin – and its downstream JAK/STAT signaling pathway. In investigating this evolutionarily conserved circuit, I created a new experimental protocol for carrying out developmental feeding experiments with Drosophila larvae, as well as performing behavioral assays related to feeding such as weight, two-choice feeding preference, and capillary feeding assays. Additionally, I have performed dissections and imaging with destabilized transgenic fly lines to quantify neuropeptide-f and STAT92E expression at both the cellular and terminal levels, hoping to elucidate the potential role of SOCS36E in receptor functioning. This work has lead to me identifying a unique obese phenotype related to early dysregulation of unpaired 1, of which I was slated to perform RNA sequencing prior to COVID-19 related disruptions.

Pursuing these research projects as an undergraduate has been a monumental task, I admit, so I am proud to have maintained a 4.0 GPA, all while achieving numerous successes in my second major, Philosophy. Having coauthored a paper in the American Journal of Bioethics, as well as winning the California Philosophical Association’s undergraduate award and presenting at their annual conference, I am all the more confident in my readiness to succeed at GU.

When my career in ballet drew to a close, I looked forward to fully devoting my time to the study of the human brain’s infinitely curious adaptive processes. Now, I find myself in a similar situation, once again eager to devote myself to the study of the developing brain and how it governs metabolic regulation. The rigorous standards of The Grey Lab, along with Dr. Grey’s strict belief in personal responsibility, have shown me that (like dance) true intellectual contributions are only possible through perseverance, determination, and a ruthless eye for weakness in both experimental design and execution. Balancing laboratory workloads with a full schedule of undergraduate classes has been a taxing endeavor, but this too has been essential to my growth as a researcher. Today, I look forward to the new intellectual challenges that Gotham University will provide, and I am sure that I will discover new passions, curiosities, and questions as I prepare for my hopeful career in academia, as a professor.

The SOP Symbolizes and Summarizes Your Entire Candidacy

Again, I admit that Martina is a rock star. Not all of us can mimic her remarkable undergraduate experience. But we CAN learn from the thoughtfulness of her writing.

Martina didn’t cobble together an essay and expect her credentials to win the day. Instead, she understood that this piece of writing, these 900 words, represent everything about who she is and what she aims to be. Her statement of purpose wasn’t just a part of her application, one more sheet of paper in the pile. It represents her entire application. It integrates all of her strengths and intelligence. It presents her research goals fully, and convinced no small number of readers that she is a clear communicator too.

Everything we NEED to know about Martina is in this SOP. There’s no fluff. No out-of-place material better left to the CV. It’s just 100% airtight writing about a talented scholar and her specific goals.

I’m incredibly grateful to Martina for allowing me to publish this (pseudonymized) SOP. Students like her inspire me every day, and I hope her example inspires you as well.

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