Statement of Purpose for Robotics: PhD Superstar Story

PhD admissions all come down to “fit,” right? That’s what everyone tells us. You can be the most qualified student in the world, and you still might only “fit” with one program. It’s the nature of PhDs, right? And when writing your statement of purpose for robotics, one of the most competitive fields in existence, this is doubly true, right?

Wrong.

Sure, “fit” can influence applications in wildly unpredictable ways. But every year, I see students who prove this notion wrong. They’re so impressive, they “fit” everywhere. Jennifer is one of those students.

In the 2021-22 cycle, Jennifer was admitted to 7 of the top-12 PhD programs in Engineering and Robotics. She interviewed at 2 more among that same starry list, was admitted to 3 master’s programs for kicks, and received 5 special fellowship offers beyond the typical full-funding package.

By all contents, Jennifer is a superstar. Maybe even a supernova.

What made her so special?

You’re about to find out, because Jennifer spent 4 weeks writing one of the most impressive SOPs I’ve ever seen. Her robotics statement of purpose is a wonder, and she’s graciously shared it so you can learn how to craft a research proposal that impresses everybody.

The Student

Let’s call this a disclaimer, because Jennifer has always been a superstar. She doesn’t mention her academic background in her SOP, instead focusing entirely on her recent work experience (imagine the confidence!). But, she graduated cum laude from a university that many consider the best in the world.

Many of you might read that and sigh: “Great, another super genius. What can I learn from her?” But, just like Jennifer did in her SOP, I want you to ignore her undergrad credentials.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. As impressive as her grades were, Jennifer had ZERO undergrad research experience. True story. She never ventured into research until she got her first job.
  2. Jennifer’s background has nothing to do with the elegance of her essay.

That first point should give hope to readers who doubt their qualifications. The second should prove that, no matter their background, anyone can write a good essay with thoughtful research goals.

How did Jennifer write such an elegant essay? In fact, in crafting her research proposal, she used the same template as Martina and Erin, who also destroyed the concept of “fit” with 7 and 6 elite PhD admissions, respectively.

Among these three amazing young women, one graduated from a super-famous Ivy-type school, one a top-150 state school, and one a tiny regional college you’ve probably never heard of.

What’s the common link between them (other than their untapped brilliance)?

They all built their essays with PhD SOP Starter Kit.

You’d be wise to do the same.

What Can You Learn From This SOP?

As you read the sample essay below, pay attention to a few key elements.

  1. Structure

Exactly as prescribed in the Starter Kit, Jennifer structured her essay in 4 distinct sections:

  1. Frame Narrative Introduction: 1 paragraph, 15% of word count
  2. Why This Program: 2 paragraphs, 35% of word count
  3. Why I’m Qualified: 3 paragraphs, 38% of word count
  4. Frame Narrative Conclusion: 1 paragraph, 12% of word count

These four sections provide all the info universities need to determine if you’re a student they want strolling their gilded halls and laboratories. More importantly, they’re constructed in an elegant way that makes the SOP easy to read, and makes you impossible to forget.

  1. Storytelling Elements

A lot of applicants have trouble managing this “story” aspect of the introduction. But this doesn’t have to be hard!

In only two sentences, Jennifer makes herself unforgettable. She gives the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, why), and includes a single, beautiful turn of phrase that lingers in the reader’s mind:

“While working as lead engineer of the AGV team at Katara, a vertical farming start-up, I developed three versions of an environmental sensing AGV for scale. Amongst the fragrant Canadian blueberry plants, I experienced many facets of novel robotic design, and discovered a passion for research development.”

That’s it. Two sentences, and we know exactly who this student is and why we should pay attention.

Also note that Jennifer didn’t write about some big, important, “Ah ha!” epiphany where she saw her future in an instant. She only said that she “experienced many facets of novel robotic design, and discovered a passion for research development.”

That’s really all it takes!

  1. Sentence of Purpose

The best SOPs all feature a thesis statement that I call the “Sentence of Purpose.” It’s best placed at the end of the Introduction, and it declares the applicant’s goals for graduate study in the clearest possible terms. Jennifer’s actually spanned two sentences, but still, it’s short and sweet:

“My long-term goal is to utilize robotics to automate more complex tasks in manufacturing, thereby making environmentally friendly technology more financially viable and prevalent in industry. The ME PhD program at Gotham is the ideal environment for me to combine theoretical concepts and hands-on application to achieve this goal.”

As you start writing your own statement of purpose for robotics, make sure to declare your goals in the exact same way.

  1. Why This Program = Research Proposal

One thing that’s unique about Jennifer’s essay, and something I really love, is the incredible detail of her two Why This Program paragraphs. Obviously, she mentions the professors she hopes to work with. But, instead of simply stating a few observations about their research (and saying it aligns with her goals), Jennifer took this opportunity to elaborate (with masterful intelligence) the various questions and problems they could explore together.

By writing in such detail, Jennifer truly shows that she’s an intellectual peer of her future professors. She writes with authority about their shared field, proves that she’s deeply familiar with their work, and  convinces us that she’s fully prepared to dive into the same big problems they’re already working on.

Jennifer didn’t just scan a few published research articles and say, “Professor So-and-So aligns with my interest.”

She proved it.

  1. Constant Reminders of How She’s Prepared for PhD Research

In a recent article (describing another engineer admitted to the #1 program in his field), I pointed out something curious in the Why I’m Qualified section. After listing all his skills and qualifications, every paragraph ended with a sentence that “future projects.” It explains how these skills have prepared him to succeed in grad school.

Jennifer did exactly the same. For example, after describing the “soft skills” she gained working in industrial robotics, her 6th paragraph ends by saying:

“…I believe my ability to (constantly and proactively) reevaluate timelines, understand the boundaries of minimum-viable products, and employ diverse hardware and software engineering skills will all be invaluable assets in effectively conducting doctoral research without getting bogged down on non-critical components.”

Sentences like this give us huge confidence in Jennifer. They remind us of the point of all these fancy credentials: that you’re 100% ready to be a PhD student, that you know what it takes to succeed.

  1. Frame Narrative Conclusion

Many students never take the time to “close the frame” from their introduction. That is, they don’t remind us of the interesting story that made them memorable in the first place.

This doesn’t take much. Jennifer wrote:

“Developing a blueberry-sensing AGV from idea to mass deployment has been a rewarding learning experience.”

It seems innocuous, but by reminding us of those poetically fragrant blueberry fields from the first paragraph, Jennifer gives us a sense of harmony, of circularity, a feeling that this essay is complete. This is masterful writing, and it’s something you should absolutely mimic in your own SOP.

A Brilliant Statement of Purpose for Robotics

While working as lead engineer of the AGV team at Katara, a vertical farming start-up, I developed three versions of an environmental sensing AGV for scale. Amongst the fragrant Canadian blueberry plants, I experienced many facets of novel robotic design, and discovered a passion for research development. Today, as a hopeful PhD student, I am excited to expand this work in robotics for industrial applications by improving autonomous arm manipulation and interaction. I am interested in exploring how to combine physical sensors with visual feedback for state estimation and inference for manipulation, and how to take inspiration from humans to explore non-conventional means of managing internal arm impedance. My long-term goal is to utilize robotics to automate more complex tasks in manufacturing, thereby making environmentally friendly technology more financially viable and prevalent in industry. The ME PhD program at Gotham is the ideal environment for me to combine theoretical concepts and hands-on application to achieve this goal.

At Gotham, I am particularly interested in working with Professor Lucius Fox in the Tetra Lab on his work in state estimation and inference for manipulation. Robotic arms have seen success in controlled industrial settings, but advanced feedback is critical for robotics to complete complex reactive tasks, such as releasing objects from molds and inspecting delicate products. I hope to work with Professor Fox to advance closed-loop manipulation by integrating more dense tactile sensor arrays, methods from online SLAM, and computer vision technology, and thus develop robots that can more precisely interact with unknown environments. Specifically, I am interested in exploring another task family in addition to the insertion and pushing tasks already investigated in the Tetra Lab. I believe object rolling shows great promise because, similar to pushing and insertion, the mechanics are well understood and there is greater potential for task diversity as complexity increases: ball rolling, cylinder rolling, and disc rolling. The optimal robot interactions may also be more complex as object rolling lends itself to non-linear motion. I appreciate how closed-loop robotic manipulation has countless applications and that, for each of those possibilities, there are just as many options for different combinations of feedback; I look forward to incorporating my experience in closed-loop feedback controls in autonomous robots.

I am also interested in working with Professor Dick Grayson in the Thomas and Martha Wayne Laboratory for Biomechanics and Rehabilitation, and helping advance his lab’s work in human-inspired control strategies for constrained-motion tasks. Professor Grayson’s research compares null-space projection and impedance superposition in kinematically redundant robots, and I would hope to expand this by investigating the disparity of task conflict between the two methods in different constrained motion tasks, such as loop-closure constraints and nonholonomic constraints. I look forward to exploring the different facets of physics modeling, algorithm development, and algorithm validation. The benefit of greater robotic arm accuracy and control in constrained movement and forceful interaction could have great applications in detailed industrial recycling applications. For this reason, I would also be interested in working with Professor Ra’s al Ghul’s Mechatronics Laboratory 3D Deprinter to explore a more application-specific approach to robotic electronics recycling, which I believe can be built upon to create other task-specific intelligent robots for industrial manufacturing settings.

I believe my diverse industry-based research experience makes me a unique candidate for PhD study at Gotham. While working at Katara for the past year and a half, I redesigned our entire environmental sensing AGV, “Karl,” three times over, incorporating automation capabilities, a variety of feedback systems, closed-loop navigation, and electronics safety features. Karl can perform reliable data collection while navigating over uneven terrain and will be deployed in all future farm units. I have gained considerable experience in multi-controller system coding, circuit and circuit board design, sensor integration, and autonomous robotics controls design, thus becoming a full-stack roboticist, and giving me a strong foundation for all aspects of robotics research.

Much like I would in a PhD lab research setting, I have led research development for Karl: identifying areas of exploration, investigating literature on the subject, and implementing a solution appropriate for my system while deciding the overall project direction. I reach out to my engineering advisors when I need more experienced guidance, and when my advisors do not have experience in the relevant area, I embark on ground-up, methodical, rewarding research-based learning. For example, I decided to completely transfer the communication protocol between subsystems within the robot to CANOpen in order to reduce points of failure and allow for easier scalability. However, no one at my company had experience with CANOpen, so I bought a textbook, read it cover to cover, and emailed my device’s technical support daily for over a month. I have now become my company’s CAN and CANOpen expert. This feeling of ownership and expertise has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my work at Katara and a strong motivator to pursue a PhD.

My industry robotics development experience has also given me the unique ability to deftly break down and prioritize tasks in a complex engineering project. When my deadline for version two of Karl (dubbed “Karlie”) was moved up, leaving me with half the time to complete my work, I had to reorganize my timeline, postpone non-critical features, and truly understand how to achieve “good enough” on each subsystem to meet the target date. I prioritized consistency in critical navigation and data-collection functionality, and deprioritized auxiliary failure notification systems. After over a year of adjusting to ever-changing deadlines, I believe my ability to (constantly and proactively) reevaluate timelines, understand the boundaries of minimum-viable products, and employ diverse hardware and software engineering skills will all be invaluable assets in effectively conducting doctoral research without getting bogged down on non-critical components.

Developing a blueberry-sensing AGV from idea to mass deployment has been a rewarding learning experience. It has given me a taste of the excitement and fulfillment that comes from directing novel engineering investigations, and diving deeply into learning new techniques, frameworks, and tools. It has also opened my eyes to the fact that a PhD is the perfect environment for me to grow my research skills, help innovate the field of robotics, achieve my long-term goal of advancing automated manufacturing, and bring environmentally-friendly technology to the forefront of the industry. After graduate study, I hope to start or join an early-stage start-up and lead from a deeply technical point of view; the analytical research mindset, technical knowledge, and academic connections from a Mechanical Engineering PhD from Gotham will be invaluable towards this goal.

Conclusion

Listen, don’t let me be too hyperbolic. “Fit” really is important. For most PhD applicants, it’s everything. But just like Martina and Erin before her, Jennifer is proof that some students fit just about everywhere. (Even if they had no undergrad research!)

Jennifer is a marvelous researcher, a true superstar, and I’m incredibly grateful to her for sharing her essay. If you only take one thing away from her example, let it be this:

She spent 4 weeks working almost daily on her SOPs. She didn’t rest on her credentials — PhD admissions are too competitive for that. She knew there are lots of other amazing young researchers in the world.

But she also knew that crafting a brilliant, laser-focused, memorable, and persuasive SOP would set her apart. I hope you’ll be as wise as Jennifer and do exactly the same.

Want insanely detailed feedback and 1-on-1 guidance for your own essays? I’m always available.

How will you craft your PhD statement of purpose for robotics?

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