Part Three: The Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose is a very difficult genre to master, not least because it asks you to cogently present a lot of information within just 1-2 pages. Despite being a very important part of the application, the statement of purpose often leaves students confused about what should be mentioned and what left out. To clarify misconceptions about this genre, we must know exactly what the statement of purpose is and what it is not.

Unlike undergraduate application essays, the graduate school statement is not a story. It is not a narrative about how you came to appreciate a particular discipline or topic. The statement is also not a comprehensive list of everything you have accomplished during your previous degrees. In contrast, this is a carefully crafted professional document, something like a job application, one that argues for why you would make a great researcher and why you are a good intellectual fit for a particular program. 

The statement of purpose achieves its intended effect by doing a few key things:

1. It elaborates your research project and explains why this project is crucial or necessary.
2. It shows how your academic trajectory has prepared you for future studies as a researcher and student (both generally for graduate school and specifically vis-à-vis your project).
3. It shows how some related experiences may have contributed to your preparation for undertaking intensive independent research.
4. It creates a fit between you, your research, and the institution you want to attend.

Let’s look at each of these aspects in turn:

1. The Research Project: 

Defining an intelligent, necessary, and manageable research project is key to the statement of purpose, especially at the doctoral level. For American and Canadian schools, the purpose of this section is, primarily, to see whether the applicant can think through a research question and formulate an area of inquiry. Describing a project here does not force you to commit to this same topic for the whole duration of the program. Indeed, since most students in U.S. and Canadian doctoral programs only start the dissertation in their third and fourth years, their research interests change more often than not.

The definition of a research project involves several steps. The first is finding a gap or weakness in current research on the topic. There are few, if any, areas of research that remain completely unexplored, so the project must position itself in relation to existing research. Even if no one has worked on, say, Urdu and Malayalam literature together, the writer should be able to contextualize their proposed project within current research on Urdu and Malayalam respectively.

You should not simply describe the research project but must also mention why it is significant and necessary. Not all unexplored topics are necessarily important. It is thus crucial to think through and lay out the stakes of the research being proposed. What is at stake is easily established if one answers the following questions: what do we lose out on when we do not acknowledge the role X plays in the broader field? Alternatively: how would accounting for X improve research on Y? What new kinds of knowledge would it unearth and how would this reshape present research?

Lastly, when defining the research project, you should have a good sense of your sources and interlocutors. Retaining the example of Urdu and Malayalam above, for such a project you would need to note exactly which or what type of texts you will be examining. Similarly, for a project in anthropology or history, you will have to define the subjects, texts, or archives you will be dealing with and building research upon. In each case, you will also need to position your work methodologically and/or theoretically with other scholars in the field. Who are some scholars that are particularly useful for your work, and what aspect of their research do you intend to engage? Being able to concisely answer each of these questions is key to defining an engaging and provocative research project.

2. Academic Trajectory and Related Experience: 

The academic trajectory connects your past training to your future as a graduate student. It shows how what you have already learned and experienced prepares you for researching in your discipline and for dealing with the pressures of graduate school more broadly. The key with the academic trajectory is to not simply list all the classes you have taken. Instead, you should give the committee a sense of the general areas your courses have covered and should communicate a few relevant things one or two of them have taught you. This section could include the following lines, for example:

“During my undergraduate studies at X University, I studied historiography, archival methods, and the philosophy of history. Collectively, these classes have equipped me with the theoretical and practical skills necessary for pursuing graduate study in History. Moreover, for Professor B’s course on the “Modern South Asian Religions,” I completed a long essay on the history of Pakistan’s Parsi community. Having already examined in detail Parsi migration and adjustment to life after Partition, I have a clear grasp of contemporary research on this topic.”

What is essential in the above example is that the writer actively connects past experience to specific skills gained and lessons learned. No amount of information they provide is left unqualified, but rather each experience is developed to show exactly how it has made the applicant a better researcher and potential graduate student. This is precisely why simply listing experiences is of little use on the statement of purpose: it is not the sheer number of experiences that matters but rather how you can make an strong case for your intellectual development by using a few critical examples. Doing so communicates your ability to reason, to think critically, and to argue in terms of specifics instead of generalities. All this speaks well to your case for being a potential graduate student.

Besides the classes you have taken, the academic trajectory may also include other related academic and non-academic experiences. Relevant conference and poster presentations should certainly be mentioned, though not without the kind of development described above. Besides these obvious cases, however, there are also a host of other experiences that could potentially warrant their place on a brief document as brief as the statement of purpose. Should you mention your theatre experience? Your stint with the university debate team? What about your work with a local NGO?

The above-mentioned questions can only be answered on a case-by-case basis and always with reference to the specific department to which you are applying. If you intend to pursue performance studies within an English program, for example, you can certainly mention how your training as an actor undergirds and informs your research. Similarly, if you want to examine the inefficiencies of large NGOs within an Economics or Sociology department, your first-hand experience can be crucial. Overall, what is key for the trajectory is that you not simply write a list of experiences and include things for their own sake. Instead, the statement asks that you form sensible organic connections between what you have already learned and what you intend to work on.

3. Research Fit: 

The idea of fit refers to how well a prospective institution can support your particular research interests. A university can be excellent overall and yet still not be the ideal place for your work. Conversely, a school may not be well-known but may have dedicated resources and faculty for your narrow field of interest. The research fit is important because it is a key deciding factor for admissions. Your application may well be among the best received but your chances of admission fall sharply if it does not reflect meaningful overlaps with faculty interests and university resources.

The key to establishing a good fit is to do detailed research on your prospective institution. Scan the department’s faculty pages and shortlist professors whose work aligns with yours. This alignment does not have to be perfect: each professor does not need to work with your exact area, time period, theme, and approach, though it is important their research interests intersect in at least one meaningful way with the work you want to pursue.

Having meaningful overlaps with two-to-three professors is usually the sign of good fit. Once you have this shortlist, look into each professor’s work a bit more. What has their previous research focused on? What are they working on now? What is one element of their work that speaks to your interests? Having answers to these questions is important because you do not simply want to list professor’s names. Rather, when mentioning each professor in your statement, you should also briefly state within the same sentence how the connection between their work and yours may be productive. Doing this means your research fit is immediately clear to the admissions committee. It shows the committee you have looked carefully at their program, and thought deeply about how professors’ research complements your own.

Apart from overlaps with professors’ interests, the research fit also deals with other university resources such as its libraries, certificate programs, and research centres. It is crucial to be aware of how resources outside your prospective department can complement your work. Once again, the connection must be specific and meaningful. Saying a university has an excellent library or a good certificate program for your subfield does little to establish your fit. You should mention what specific element of each makes it significant for your work, and how you could potentially utilize it in the future. Demonstrating such an awareness of the full resources available makes a good impression on the committee. It also allows you to clarify whether the institution in question is a good fit for you overall, and how your research could potentially take shape there.

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General Advice:

While the above sections deal with the content of the statement of purpose, it is also good to think about the form of this document. For such a statement to read well, paragraphing is absolutely crucial. The information you present should not be muddled and mixed together when presented, but each paragraph should have a clear purpose, one you should be aware of when writing. If you are defining your research project in one-to-two paragraphs, for example, do not talk about your academic trajectory or fit in the same place. Leave these tasks for the following paragraphs. Overall, it is incredibly important for the sake of clarity that each paragraph be allowed to fulfil its purpose without interference from other ideas. After this is done, you can use linking sentences to then connect these internally coherent paragraphs in an organic way. Proceeding this way means your information will be organized and easy for the reader to absorb.

Finally, remember that a well-executed statement of purpose is a very time-intensive affair. Ensuring that all the above information is presented within the word limit in an engaging and intelligible manner requires putting the statement through several rounds of revision. This is a key element of the graduate school application and so even 3-5 rounds of revision are time well spent. Be sure to start writing the initial drafts early. Show them to peers and professors. Revise accordingly.

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