Statement of Purpose for PhD Admission (A Universal Formula)

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Formulas are beautiful, aren’t they? Whether the elegance of a binary logarithm or the universe contained within the laws of thermodynamics, it’s wondrous to see how much we can explain through gracefully arranged information. Prose writing is no different. Even with the statement of purpose for PhD admissions, when we filter our thoughts through an elegant formula, the reactive power can be amazing.

Of course, the opposite is true as well.

If our writing doesn’t conform to the timeless formulas of narrative structure, our words fall flat. We don’t overcome the activation energy requirement. Our code doesn’t compile. We submit an essay hoping it convinces some erudite professor that we’re a worthy student, but it only makes them scratch their chin and flip to the next essay in the pile.

This isn’t good, friend. Especially considering that for PhDs, writing well is part of the job.

Luckily, we don’t need to be literary scholars to utilize the eternally elegant formulas of writing. (I’ve already done that hard work for you.)

Instead, we only need the formula itself, and specific instructions about which information to plug in. Then we can fully ignite the minds and hearts of PhD advisors.

Sound good to you? If so, keep reading.

It’s time to cause a life-changing reaction.

The Statement of Purpose for PhD Formula

You may have already read “Structure is Magic,” my article which illustrates how successful SOPs adhere to the classic “hero’s journey.” You may also have read my SOP Starter Kit, which describes the 4 questions that every successful statement of purpose must answer to be effective. Both present the same structural formula for your SOP:

Section 1 – Introductory Frame Narrative & Academic Goal (1-2 paragraphs)

Section 2 – Why This Program (1-2 paragraphs)

Section 3 – Why You’re (Overly) Qualified (1-3 paragraphs)

Section 4 – Closing Frame Narrative (1 brief paragraph)

You should read those resources if you haven’t (especially the SOP Starter Kit which basically writes your essay for you). Yet, for our purposes today, let’s think of the formula like this:

Statement of Purpose for PhD Formula

1. Introductory Frame Narrative & Academic/Research Goal

In this introduction, you use a tiny bit of storytelling to make yourself memorable. You won’t use too much, and everything you write will build toward expressing your hyper-focused academic goal – your research proposal. It’s not a story of your childhood. In fact, it won’t mention anything prior to the last few years when you truly became a researcher. Because that is the story we’re telling – how you realized that you want to become a professional researcher.

Now, what problems do you want to solve in grad school? How did you discover these problems? Were you working 20 hours per week in the Xavier Lab at Marvel University? During an independent study, did you grow fascinated with the way Latin American literary critics have overlooked certain economic aspects of the 19th-century Belgian slave trade? In the last year or two, you took a mental leap. You transformed from a talented undergraduate to a burgeoning researcher. In this section, you tell that story, then end it by stating exactly what you hope to achieve in your PhD research.

Example:

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.

2. Why This Program

This section is all about “fit.” This is your proof that “University X” is the perfect place for you to achieve the goal you expressed in the previous section. As you write, you’ll notice an elegant logical flow from the previous section. You’ve just told the reader: “this is my goal.”

Now, you’re telling them: “…and University X is the ideal place for me to pursue this goal, because…”

(Notice how the formula works? The seamless logical and narrative transitions are the magic behind it all.)

So, what do you say in this section? You describe the professors with whom you hope to work. You’ve already emailed them. You’ve already read their recent research. Now, in 2-4 sentences, you describe how your Academic Goal from Section 1 is uniquely related to their current work. You’ll engage with that work intellectually. You’ll link it to your own proposal. Then, you’ll repeat this 1-2 more times for each professor who you believe will be a great mentor. All the while, you’ll emphasize exactly what you want to research for the next 5 years.

Example:

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.

3. Why You’re (Overly) Qualified

This section is your “Greatest Hits” list. In it, you provide relevant proof that you’re ready to succeed as a professional researcher. What is relevant proof? Your excellent undergraduate grades – that’s a good start. Specific research skills you’ve acquired (here’s a list for STEM students, if you’re unsure). Any unique accomplishments you’ve achieved, such as presenting at conferences, co-authored papers, time you’ve spent in journal reviews, or awards from national academic organizations.

You will not mention anything unrelated to your potential as a researcher, like your job as a campus tour guide or volunteer work at homeless shelters. Admittedly, non-academic achievements can be important in showing that your values align with the department. But since the SOP has a strict word limit, such stories cause a bad reaction in our formula. They distract the reader from your TRUE academic talents, and thus, they’re best left as a side note in your CV or topic of discussion in your interviews.

The only way you would mention something “non-academic” is if it relates uniquely to your research. For example, if you’re pursuing an Art History PhD specializing in Buddhist architecture, and you’re dual-citizen in India and Hong Kong who doesn’t need to apply for visas to conduct field work, then you have a competitive advantage over others.

Example:

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.

4. Closing Frame Narrative

This is the end of your journey, friend. This is where you compile the code. This is where you make the calculations work.

In this section, you’ll briefly refer back to the story you told in the introduction. This is important. It involves a literary technique called “circularity,” which gives the reader an emotional sense of completion. They’ll feel like they’ve read something elegant, something composed by a truly talented writer. If you don’t do this, the essay will feel dry – like a movie with an anticlimactic ending.

You’ll also reaffirm your academic goal and remind the reader that University X is the perfect place to achieve it. You may also end by stating your career aspirations. Want to pursue a tenure-track teaching job? Work in R&D at SpaceX? Tell them here.

Example:

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.

Lab Warning: Avoid Regurgitating Research Experience

For PhD applicants, few things can bungle an application like long, meandering, and un-focused accounts of past research projects.

If you’ve mixed up all the proper SOP ingredients, pipetted them carefully into your literary test tube, and…blah…nothing happens, this is usually the reason.

In the example above, you’ll notice that the applicant NEVER ONCE mentioned any specific, singular project on which she worked. She described the problems they tackled. She described her role in the lab, new protocols she developed, and the most relevant skills she acquired. But never once did she make the mistake that hundreds, maybe thousands of applicants make every year: writing 200-word paragraphs that describe nothing more than the facts of a research project.

At University X, I spent eight weeks working on a project titled ‘Algorithmic stability for adaptive analysis of fart expansion.” First we did A (etc etc). Then, we did B (blah blah blah). Then, we did C (yawn). Then, we did D (tear out hair). Through this project, I acquired relevant skills in teamwork and the Washburn-Bunting Method.

Don’t confuse the “Statement of Purpose” with the “Research Statement” that many programs require. This latter statement DOES require you to list the facts of your research, even though it should still focus on the problems and their implications.

For example, the PhD program in Biomedicine at the University of Pennsylvania provides the following prompt:

Please provide a description of your research experience(s), including the goals of each project, approaches used, results obtained, and implications of the findings for the project and the field at large. You may choose to describe a single research experience or several experiences, but please limit your statement to around 1000 words in length.

The SOP is not a Research Statement. Much like the tricky Diversity Statement, Research Statements are all about the past. The Statement of Purpose, however, is all about the future.

So, don’t fall into the trap of drowning your essay in meaningless laboratory details. It’s not an info dump. I repeat: the statement of purpose for PhD admission is not an info dump. It’s an argument. It’s elegant writing. It’s a carefully measured formula.

You can avoid this problem by adhering to the rough word-total percentages illustrated in the graphic above:

  1. Frame Narrative & Academic Goal – 20-25% of word total
  2. Why This Program – 30% of word total
  3. Why I’m Qualified – 30% of word total
  4. Closing Frame Narrative – 15-20% of word total

Conclusion

Writing is no different than any other intellectual field. A great many brilliant people worked across the centuries, testing all sorts of ideas and techniques, finding some that worked and some that exploded in their face.

Even Einstein made mistakes. But no one remembers mistakes. No one saves shoddy peer-reviewed papers that don’t stand the test of time, just like no one saves SOPs from students who didn’t get admitted. Yet, Einstein’s name is synonymous with “genius” because he found a way to describe the universe with a formula that even schoolchildren know: E = mc2.

Now, you understand the (seemingly) simple formula that makes great essays work. You might not recognize the elegance in it, the circularity, the balance, the woven thread of narrative, but it’s stood the test of time. And if you experiment with it yourself, pouring in your own unique ingredients to see how they react, at the very least you’ll save yourself a great deal of time and trouble.

At the very most? Well, you might ignite that magical reaction where a professor finishes reading, runs her hands through her hair, and says to herself: “Whoa, this one is special.”

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