Notes on the Statement of Purpose

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When I was applying to grad school, I had no idea what to include in my statement of purpose. My statement ended up including big, lofty topics and goals that I could never reach during the course of the PhD. After helping others with their applications, here are my personal thoughts on content and how to structure the statement of purpose.

Disclaimer: These guidelines are biased towards PhD programs or other programs that are research-based. The content will need some tweaking if you are applying for a professional Masters program, for example.

Purpose

The goal of the statement of purpose is to convince a potential advisor that you will be a good fit in their lab group. That means you need to show you have the relevant skills and experience (or are willing to learn the needed skills) to contribute to their research and your general research interests align with theirs. If you aren’t applying for a research program, then you will need to show that you will fit in with the department values and the program will help you achieve your professional goals.

Structure

The statement of purpose is typically 1-2 pages. In this short space, you need to tell a cohesive story that will meet the goals discussed above. Below is my suggestion for how to organize your information:

  1. What are your big goals? These are usually career-based. For example, you may want to become research faculty at an R1 university. This is just a brief intro, so only spend 1-2 sentences on this.
  2. What do you want to study that will lead you to this goal? This is where you get into the details of your intended research question. If you aren’t doing a research program, this could be the area of industry you want to work in and what specialty classes you want to take. If possible, make this section as specific as possible; this will demonstrate that you have put serious thought into your goals and you already have some knowledge of the field you want to go into. For example, your research question could be “I want to study how teachers use analytics dashboards”. You could also add some details about why you think this is an important question. Some examples that are bad are “I want to study machine learning” or “I would be interested in studying brain signal processing, programming languages, or NLP for low-resource languages”. In the first case, this is way too broad. There are a lot of people doing machine learning, so it won’t convince a potential advisor that you want to do the research that they are doing. In the second case, it sounds like you have no idea what you want to study and are sort of interested in a handful of random topics. Your goal is to show that you are serious. You can always change your mind on a research topic once you get into the program! This section should be a few sentences.
  3. What is your story that led you to this goal? This is where you can get into more details about your personal experience. Maybe you had a great teacher who used a particular tool to help their students and you wonder how you can make it better. You could talk about your related work or research experience that led to this question. This section can be a few paragraphs.
  4. What skills and experience do you have that will make you good at studying this? This is where you can get technical. If you have previous research experience, brag about it! Talk about the responsibilities you had. Much of this stuff will already be on your resume, but you should elaborate on it to tell a full story. On the other hand, do not try to fit in every single bullet point on your resume.
  5. What about this program makes you want to study there? This is perhaps one of the most important parts of the statement. This shows that you know what you are getting into and are serious about your application. For example, I applied to CU because I wanted to do the combined Cognitive Science PhD program; since I’m not a traditional computer science student, I was looking for an interdisciplinary department which would allow me to take classes in a variety of subjects. Especially for research programs, it is important to list a few specific faculty you want to work with. This will help the admissions committee direct your application to the right people to read. For example, you could mention that you want to work with Dr. Adams because their work in human-robot dancing is relevant to your experience.

Final Thoughts

The statement of purpose is your chance to let potential advisors know what kind of student you will be. Are you an independent worker? Do you have extensive experience in this area already? Are you really excited to work on their projects? This is your opportunity to show that you have researched this specific program; people want to know there is a good chance you will come to the school if you are accepted, compared to the other schools you are applying to. You can also use the statement to explain any other parts of your application that are a little lacking (for example, circumstances leading to a bad GPA one semester, lack of research opportunities at your undergrad). This probably doesn’t need to be said, but do not lie in your statement! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when looking at the accomplishments of others. If you feel like you aren’t interesting enough, talk to someone with an outside perspective who can tell you how awesome you are.

If you want another set of eyes on your application or have questions, please reach out!