Writing About Professors in Your SOP: Don’t Screw It Up

Professors

GradCafe, Reddit, Quora – they’re full of advice on writing about professors in your SOP. They give you hard and fast rules like: “Don’t mention professors you haven’t contacted as potential advisors.” (I disagree with this). Others tell you to target research groups instead of individuals. One former admissions director advises you to not mention professors at all…because they might not have lab openings. (Really? This is oblivious nonsense.)

Sigh.

Why is it so hard for these accomplished people to give clear, useful advice?

I’ve just read through a dozen posts across the Internet. In each, a nervous applicant asked experts how to show “fit,” how to explain their research interests, or how to reference a professor’s prior work. Unbelievably, in the dozens of responses, not a single responder asked the applicant the single most important question:

Are you a Master’s or PhD applicant?

No joke. In every case, the responders just assume that the OP is a PhD applicant, as if master’s applicants should never worry about this. Yet, if this is the case, why do I know so many master’s applicants who were wildly successful after describing specific professors in their SOPs?

More importantly, how can there be a million social media posts giving advice about how to mention professors in PhD SOPs, and still everyone is confused?

Really, Internet. You’re not doing a great job of providing helpful, actionable information. This isn’t rocket science (even if you’re applying to a PhD in aerospace engineering). To know how to write about professors in the all-important “Why This Program” section of your SOP, you first need to determine where you are in the process, and then we can determine exactly what you need to say.

Master’s Applicants

First things first, you must determine the nature of the curriculum for your target program. Is this a course-based degree? Or is it lab- or project-based?

If it’s course-based, then you need to be careful. You won’t have research opportunities, so it would be stupid to wax poetic about a professors’ fascinating work in sentiment analysis and opinion mining. What does their research matter if you’ll only be taking survey courses in Natural Language Processing? Instead, you should mention one or two courses by interesting professors, but only if you’re truly familiar with their work, and only if it specifically aligns with your goals. Think of it as a “study plan.”

For example:

“I plan to take Machine Learning 1 & 2 in my first two semesters. This will allow me, in my third semester, to enroll in Advanced Machine Learning for Telepaths with Dr. Charles Xavier. Having written a 40-page honor’s thesis inspired by the questions in his famous book, Cerebro For the New Millenium, the opportunity to study under Dr. Xavier will benefit my hopeful career in AI-driven mutant detection in ways that no other graduate program can provide.”

But what if I can do an independent study or thesis option?

Are you certain of this opportunity? Are you certain you’ll take advantage of it? Not every course-based master’s degree has the resources to make this happen. At others, the opportunities are limited and highly competitive. But if you CAN do an independent study or thesis option, then you should absolutely mention this in your SOP.

State clearly and directly that you look forward to taking advantage of the independent study option, and hope to do so under the guidance of Professor So and So, largely due to her research experience in ABC (which aligns with your goals).

For example:

“I fully plan to take advantage of the optional independent study in my fourth semester, hopefully under the guidance of Professor Jean Grey. Her expertise in Psychic Energy Synthesis aligns with my interest in ambient psychic energy, and this alone makes the Neuropseudoscience Department at Xavier University unique among similar programs in the field.”

BUT…don’t go too far. This is still a course-based program. Classes are still the overriding focus of the degree. Thus, if you spend your entire “Why This Program” section writing about an independent study, it will seem like you aren’t fully invested in the program’s goals – like you aren’t a good fit.

In my experience, master’s applicants who write this sort of SOP are often failed PhD applicants making a last-ditch effort at master’s programs instead. I can’t say that admissions committees have noticed this trend, but I certainly have.

But what if I’m applying to a lab- or research-based master’s program?

Great question, friend. If you’re applying to a program that requires one or more semesters of lab rotations, then you should absolutely mention target professors in your SOP. Often, these programs transition graduates into PhD programs. Thus, when writing your “Why This Program” section, you should discuss target professors in nearly (but not entirely) as much depth as PhD applicants (see examples below). There is one huge difference, however: you don’t need to contact potential advisors in advance.

But what if I’m applying to a course-based program with a required final internship, practicum, or capstone?

Ah yes. I can hear all you MS in Marketing and Masters in Health Administration folks clamoring in the back. All you professionally oriented rock stars. Settle down. This is easy.

Don’t mention any professors in your SOP. Thank you, and have a nice day.

(Seriously – just flesh out a study plan, mention the courses that will be most beneficial to you, and give some idea what you want to do in your capstone. That’s it. Carry on.)

PhD Applicants

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is the most important part of your SOP. Now, I could argue that your academic goal (your research proposal) is the most important part. Yet, in my mind, these elements are inextricably intertwined.

At this point, you’ve done extensive research. You know which professors you want to work with. You’ve emailed them, and perhaps even done a preliminary Zoom interview. Now, your target professors are basically the entire reason you’re applying to the program. The name on your diploma won’t matter nearly as much as the name of the professors advising your dissertation.

So, what to say about them in your SOP?

Yes, you must mention their names explicitly. Yes, you must mention their research. Most importantly, however, you must convey an understanding of this research and explain how it’s necessarily intertwined with your own uber-specific goals. It’s not about what their research specialty “is.” It’s about the techniques they used, the questions they posed, the questions they uncovered, and how these techniques and questions are essentially related to your own research proposal.

This will take more than one sentence, friend.

Curiously, however, it might not need more than two. Let’s look at some examples.

C Example:

“I am interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my own.”

B Example:

“I am interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his current research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my goals in Clinical Telepathy.”

A+ Example:

“I am interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his current research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my goals in Clinical Telepathy. Specifically, in his recent study of high-functioning autism occurrence in telepaths, he employed the novel Grey Jumpstart technique which I believe will be integral in my own research on Psionic Shields.”

The key to the A+ example should be obvious. It shows a deeper understanding of the professor’s work. The author doesn’t have to SAY that she’s read and understands Professor X’s research – it’s obvious in the way she relates his techniques to her own proposal.

Now, you’ll have to write statements like this for every professor you mention in your SOP – at least two, and perhaps even three. But only the first two need to go into such detail. Let’s be honest: you’re giving second and third choices here. Thus, if you’re writing about three professors in your SOP, it may look something like this:

“I am especially interested in working with Professor Charles Xavier because his current research in Mutant Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aligns with my goals in Clinical Telepathy. Specifically, in his recent study of high-functioning autism occurrence in telepaths, he employed the novel Grey Jumpstart technique which I believe will be integral in my own research on Psionic Shields. I am also interested in Dr. Hank McCoy’s work on the neurochemistry of psychic mutation, particularly his study of latent telepathic acquisition and the use of ADHD medication in post-puberty telekinetic expression. Additionally, I am interested in Dr. Bruce Banner’s robust work on the theory of gamma particle resistance in pre-adolescent mutants and the behavioral implications of early telepathic interventions.”

Writing About Professors in Your SOP: Tying It Altogether

If you’ve downloaded my free SOP Starter Kit (for Master’s or PhDs), or read Structure is Magic, then you already understand how easy it is to structure a cogent, whip-smart statement of purpose. The second section of your SOP is the “Why This Program” section. It should require no more than 1-2 paragraphs, in which you provide proof that THIS university is the perfect place for you to achieve your hyper-specific academic goal.

This section explains the courses and concentrations in which you hope to enroll. It explains which professors you want to work with, and why. It might even explain how THIS program is different from similar programs at other universities, and thus, presents a unique opportunity for you. Most importantly, it answers this question:

“How will this graduate program help me reach my goal?”

If you can’t answer that question for yourself, then you aren’t ready to start writing about professors in your SOP. You need to have mature, thoughtful answers. If you aren’t certain you have these answers, then download the free Starter Kit and get cooking. It’ll clarify everything faster than you can imagine.

Conclusion

When writing about professors in your SOP, you first need to determine what’s appropriate for the type of program to which you’re applying. Master’s or PhD? Lab-based or course-based curriculum? Your answers to these questions dictate what you should write. Remember that your “Why This Program” section is a study plan – it shows that you’ve thoroughly researched the degree, and have a very clear idea what you’re going to accomplish in the next few years. The way you discuss potential teachers or PIs should reflect this thoroughness and maturity.

And hey, you may disagree with me. That’s okay. You may believe the admissions committee honcho who says you shouldn’t mention professors at all because they might not have advisory openings. That’s fine with me. Bad advice, even the most well-intentioned kind, only makes things easier for the thorough and thoughtful students I hear from every day.

Oh, by the way. If you found this post helpful, do me a favor and click the links below to share it with your friends or any underclassmen who might need help with their graduate application. Sharing is caring, friend, and I’ll love you forever for it.

Newer Readers: For those unfamiliar with my blog, I have three high-quality SOP Guides in order: 1) The SOP Starter Kits for Master’s or PhD applicants, 2) Structure is Magic and 3) Structure is Magic: The Official Guidebook. In order, you learn how to outline and answer the 4 most essential questions in any graduate SOP, how to structure it in a compelling narrative, and how to troubleshoot the most common problems applicants face. The first two are free, and honestly, the Starter Kit is all most applicants need. Good luck!

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