How do you earn admission to the #1 PhD program in your field? How to get admitted to 5 more for good measure? The answer isn’t as complicated as it seems: you need to be a rock star researcher, and you need to write a luminous, fiercely intelligent statement of purpose. One of these I can’t help you with. The other, however…well that’s exactly what we’re going to study in this astonishing SOP for PhD sample essay.
When I first met Erin, her credentials were amazing. She had 6 years of research experience, 4 as an undergrad, and 2 as a post-baccalaureate research fellow in an NIH lab. As a burgeoning scientist and child of immigrants from a low-income background, Erin was wildly impressive. Yet, her first-draft SOP (written using Structure is Magic) had one clear problem that MANY students face.
Let’s review that problem. Then, let’s see what makes Erin’s SOP so spectacular, and figure out how you can achieve similarly magnificent success.
In Erin’s own words:
“I wanted to share that I was just admitted to my top choice PhD program this week [editor’s note: school redacted]. I have also been officially admitted to [schools redacted], and have been told to expect an admit from [redacted] next week. Of 12 total PhD programs that I applied to, I am extremely fortunate to have gotten 6 acceptances, in an extremely competitive engineering discipline, and within an extraordinarily difficult application cycle.”
In Jordan’s words:
“Woohoo! Digital high-five, Erin!”
How She Did It
I particularly love Erin’s story because she was NOT one of my private students. We met via Reddit, and I did offer her some quick feedback on the first draft of her SOP. But this essay is entirely her own work, and she proves what a hardworking student can achieve if they think deeply, plan early, and use the best free resources available.
Again, however, it’s probably best to let Erin explain the process herself:
“Even though it was just one round of feedback, your comments truly did transform my SOP quite significantly. My old version was wordy and unfocused, and you and your blog posts were a large part of the reason that my new SOP found clarity and precision.
I also attribute my success this cycle to this new SOP. I had the research experience, GPA, and letters of recommendation necessary, but in all of my interviews, professors kept referring back to my SOP. I think they could clearly see the vision and purpose that I was able to communicate on text, which was not there beforehand. One professor even commented how much they resonated with my research story, and how impressed they were with my ability to home in on where exactly I fit into their graduate program and what I will bring to my research niche.” [Note: emphasis from editor]
Pay attention to those final points Erin made, which were so important to her success:
- Where exactly I fit into their graduate program;
- What I will bring to my research niche.
As we go through Erin’s essay below, pay attention to how thoroughly she conveyed these ideas. There’s no fancy writing. There’s no magic tricks or secret sauce. She just explained exactly what the professors want to see, in a tight, cogent, well-structured essay.
The Early Problem with this SOP for PhD
As stated earlier, I did read an early version of Erin’s SOP, and pointed out that it featured a fairly common problem: the intro was long, somewhat flowery, and a little too heavy on the storytelling.
I wrote about this issue previously in SOP Introductions: Why Gimmicky “Hooks” Look Silly, and it’s an aspect of the WriteIvy formula that many students face. Unfortunately, this might be my fault. In my old “Structure is Magic” eBook, I presented a hypothetical SOP, and the introduction was a bit…too much. So, I take responsibility.
Remember it’s not the style of your writing that should impress your reader. It’s your intellect. Your candidacy should be expressed in a mature, professional, and unemotional way.
Luckily, this was an easy fix for Erin. I pointed out the issue, noting that the intro would work better with a condensed version of her story, one that only hit the major “plot points.” Then, I said she should quickly transition into her research questions. She revised her intro accordingly, and submitted the beautifully concise, deeply intelligent, and yet, still very professional “story” you see below…
Maybe the Best PhD SOP I’ve Ever Seen
In 2012, when my mother required skin grafting to treat a third-degree burn on her arm, I found myself captivated by the physiological properties of human tissue. I marveled at how skin taken from her thigh could develop new blood vessels and connect seamlessly to surrounding healthy tissue. Seeing this phenomenon, I posed my first research question: Is it possible to grow functional human tissue in a laboratory? Ten years later, as a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I still pursue this question. My mother’s procedure is a constant reminder of the humanity that drives the science. To me, tissue biofabrication research represents the tantalizing potential to usher in new approaches to medical procedures and expand our understanding of various disease states. Over time, my work has unearthed more intricate questions: How can we engineer more physiologically relevant tissue in vitro and better recapitulate native tissue architecture? Can these tissues be modulated for functional use in clinical and translational applications? These are ultimately the questions I seek to answer through Gotham University’s (GU) PhD in Biomedical Engineering.
Dr. Victor Fries’s lab is the ideal environment to explore my interests. His research has been instrumental in pushing the boundaries of my current experimental approaches: because of his work on using decellularized extracellular matrix bioinks for bioprinting, I am motivated to incorporate more biologically inspired materials in my tissue constructs. I can also foresee how my interdisciplinary research experience can help extend his lab’s research scope. Through a forthcoming collaboration between my NIH lab and Dr. Fries’s and Dr. Edward Nygma’s GU labs, I can bring my experience in developing vascularized lung tissue for high-throughput screening platforms to create lung-based disease models in his lab. I can thereby act as an institutional bridge, connecting government and academic research sectors for a mutual scientific goal. Drs. Selina Kyle and Lucius Fox’s work is also extremely compelling – their respective cardiac tissue and tumor microenvironment models are wonderful avenues to use tissue engineering to understand complex diseases. For these reasons, I can visualize myself thriving at GU: I am confident I can fit in well with current projects, but I also believe I can contribute to expanding GU’s scientific impact in tissue biofabrication.
I have dedicated nearly six years developing the skills to excel as a graduate student. At Empire State University, I conducted four years of research, with each opportunity guiding me closer to tissue biofabrication. I first started in Dr. Talia al Ghul’s lab, where I worked for a year using adeno-associated viruses and CRISPR/Cas9 to regenerate inner ear cells. I soon became fascinated with CRISPR/Cas9 and started in Dr. Dick Grayson’s lab to explore my curiosity for disease modeling. I thus worked for two years generating a CRISPR/Cas9-based system to induce Alzheimer’s-disease-related phenotypes in stem cell-derived neurons, after which I wondered how I could study pathogenesis on more complex in vitro systems. Consequently, I co-led a project in Dr. Barbara Gordon’s lab developing tumor spheroids and analyzing volatile metabolites to understand the metabolic processes of ovarian cancer. Through undergraduate research, I learned crucial biological experimentation, but also exercised my passion for adaptive science communication – this allowed me to independently win competitive research grants and present six posters at local and national symposia.
I was first introduced to tissue biofabrication research when I interned in Dr. Harleen Quinzel’s 3D Tissue Bioprinting Lab and developed 3D omentum tissue to model ovarian cancer metastasis. Previous projects had fascinated me, but this one stirred something deep within, reminding me of initial scientific motivations and inspiring a new commitment to improve drug discovery platforms. This motivated me to accept a two-year position as a postbaccalaureate researcher in Dr. Quinzel’s lab. In this role, I spearheaded three projects focused on the lung. The first two – 2D and 3D lung epithelium models – were used to study viral infection and conduct COVID-19 drug screening, and the third was a collaborative project with GlaxoSmithKline to model and conduct drug screening for non-small cell lung carcinoma. My work has culminated in several poster presentations, a first-author publication (in preparation), and a second-author paper for a project developing 3D epithelial tissue on a microfluidics screening platform. Overall, my projects have trained me to identify a promising research question, execute experimental milestones, overcome obstacles with novel solutions, collaborate with diverse individuals, and finalize a project to publication.
At the NIH, I have worked diligently to understand the limitations of current in vitro platforms and the advantages afforded by 3D vascularized tissues for disease modeling. Now, I strive to cultivate more skillsets and tackle new scientific questions, both of which GU hosts unique opportunities for. I am excited by the prospect of taking classes alongside medical students and initiating new collaborations with physicians, which will provide the vital clinical perspective that I hope to gain for my career. Using my education, I aim to build a future as an educator, translational scientist, and biomedical engineering professor, leading my own tissue biofabrication lab to engineer new medical technologies. I believe that the past few years of dedicated work have prepared me extensively, and I look forward to taking on the intellectual challenges that GU has to offer.
What I Love About This PhD SOP
There are 4 things about this essay that make it, perhaps, the best and most technically proficient I’ve ever seen.
- No Style
Remember what I said earlier about avoiding “style” in your writing? Erin’s SOP is a perfect example of this. There is zero fluff in this essay. Nothing fancy. Her accomplishments speak for themselves, and the writing doesn’t get in the way of that. It’s tight, dense, focused, and professional (just like the super-successful Neuroscience essay featured in my free SOP guide for PhD applicants).
- A Perfect Frame Narrative
The “story” in Erin’s essay amounts to 3-4 sentences. Not 2 paragraphs. A few sentences. One professor mentioned in the interview that they resonated with this story, but that wouldn’t have happened if Erin had dragged it out for 300 words. Doing so would have obscured the more important research questions. Instead, this brief and meaningful (hint of a) story conveys that 1) she has real, human reasons for caring so much about this stuff, and 2) she knows that it’s the research questions themselves that really matter to her audience.
- Smart Research Questions
In Erin’s SOP, everything revolves around the questions she proposes in the introduction:
- How can we engineer more physiologically relevant tissue in vitro and better recapitulate native tissue architecture?
- Can these tissues be modulated for functional use in clinical and translational applications?
Notice how these questions aren’t insanely specific? They’re somewhat broad. But they’re written in a such a subtle way, we understand immediately that Erin isn’t LARPing. She knows exactly what she’s asking. She also knows that the answers to these questions — the specifics of her hopeful research —will be revealed shortly afterward when she discusses how she “fits” with her potential PIs.
A competitive SOP for PhD must include smart research questions. However, when posing these questions in your intro, don’t get insanely specific. That might make you look a little rigid, or a little naïve about the realities of working under doctoral advisers who will influence your direction. Instead, think of these questions as a well-made umbrella for your future research topics. They can’t be too broad (else you’ll sound like an undergraduate). Nor can they be too specific (you’ll sound presumptuous). Think of it this way:
- Your questions encapsulate the niche topics you hope to research within your field.
- Your Why This Program section indicates the routes you’ll take in uncovering new, focused questions which haven’t yet revealed themselves.
- Why This Program
Interviewers remarked that they loved how Erin expressed clearly how she’ll fit into their program. She’s done her homework. She knows all the professors. She knows what they do. She knows what they want to do in the future, and she knows exactly how she can help.
This is “fit,” and it takes some time to figure out. You have to learn everything you can about your target programs. You have to do preliminary interviews.
It should be no surprise that I first heard from Erin in May, 5-7 months before application deadlines. She’d already written a strong SOP draft. At a point when most applicants are wondering how to begin, Erin had all but finished. This is the kind of effort, planning, and research it takes to write a truly persuasive SOP for PhD.
- “What I Will Bring to My Research Niche”
Erin’s Why I’m Qualified section doesn’t beat around the bush! It wastes no time talking about undergrad GPA or extracurriculars. She knows that every top applicant will have similar credentials. So, she focuses 100% on her preparedness for her specific research niche.
The second paragraph of this section begins: “I was first introduced to tissue biofabrication research…” She’s not talking about her preparedness for a PhD in general. She’s talking about her preparedness to be a professional tissue engineering researcher. She knows what these specific professors are looking for, so she leaves zero uncertainty. Everything in these paragraphs declares with confidence: “I’m 100% ready to be your next tissue engineering advisee.”
Of course, we have to admit that Erin’s credentials are startlingly impressive. Few students will have such amazing experience. Nonetheless, her example teaches us what kind of attitude we need to have when writing the Why I’m Qualified section. This is a job application. Your goal is to show them that, if they give you the job, you’ll be able to handle the work.
Don’t think of this as “selling yourself.”
Think of it as “honestly and logically informing the committee how you’re prepared to meet all their expectations.”
In a research article, you present the empirical evidence that supports your hypothesis.
In the SOP, the implicit hypothesis is that you will successfully produce new knowledge as a professional researcher in this target program. The Why I’m Qualified section provides honest, smart, and thorough evidence to support this.
How to Write Your SOP for PhD
Even if you don’t have Erin’s somewhat intimidating credentials, you can still do exactly what she did to prepare her SOP.
- Read my free guide, The Statement of Purpose for PhD Admission: A Universal Formula, or consider the free SOP Starter Kit.
- Get familiar with the idea of a focused “Sentence of Purpose.”
- Plan to structure your essay in 4 parts:
- Frame Narrative Introduction (with a “hint” of a story that introduces research questions);
- Why This Program;
- Why I’m Qualified;
- Frame Narrative Conclusion.
- Plan to spend a month or two researching your target programs and professors, so you too can project exactly what you’ll bring to their graduate program and your research niche.
If someone had told me that a bioengineer would write the best SOP I’ve ever seen, I’d have laughed in their face. No offense to the many STEM students who make my work so rewarding, but usually it’s the humanities applicants who produce the best writing.
Yet, Erin is truly a special case.
As always, I’m grateful to the students who achieve success, then by allowing me to publish their writing, inspire all of us to submit the best applications we can. I owe Erin tremendous thanks, and I hope you’ll feel the same way.
In the future, I might publish Erin’s Diversity Statement as well. It was just as sophisticated as her SOP, and it teaches us what may be an even greater lesson: if a working-class child of immigrants can become a world-class researcher AND brilliant writer, then what’s stopping you from being the best scholar you can be?
For now, however, I just hope Erin’s work will give you confidence that you too can write a spectacular SOP. You’ve got the same resources she had. It’s up to you to use them.
Still unsure how to structure your story as a mature, intelligent, professional essay? I can help!
How are you going to write your SOP for PhD admission?