A prospective grad student (PGS) reader asked me to post this query, which is timely for many applicants. I will also share some of the brief comments I responded with, but I’d like to invite the academic blogosphere to chime in with their wisdom. When you comment, please state what field you’re in (broad is fine), because a lot of advice is field-specific.
Dear Prof. Phlox,
If you don’t mind, I have a blog request. I wanted to hear your opinion, if possible your advice, on how to write a Statement of Purpose (SoP) for grad school applications in STEM (particularly physics). This in the larger interest of the academic community of students writing the statement and faculty having to read them.
There is a lot of contradicting advice out there and it has been quite an unnerving task to separate the actual information from the noise. While it is clear that it is expected of us to discuss our future career/research goals in the light of work we have done so far, some aspects like the right amount of details remain very vague.
I am given to understand that with no test scores in the application package, the importance of this single piece of document could go up exponentially in the application package. What do the faculty expect from an average student sans any major achievements? By an average student I mean, someone with good grades(A/A-) in required courses, a couple of REU stints to know how the academic research works and may be an undergrad thesis. In my case, being from small private college I have only had 2-3 months at a time while working on summer internships, this meant I couldn’t get to publish any of the work I did. Would I still be considered a competitive applicant?
Prospective Grad Student
In my opinion, the SOP is supposed to convey something about your personality that the letters of recommendation presumably cannot. What you find interesting and why, how you like to work. Basically, this is an opportunity to talk about what you liked in school and why, what drew you to certain topics, what made you decide to pursue graduate school, what you enjoyed when you worked on research. Anything that makes you stand out as an individual with respect to others with a similar background is also beneficial. The SOP is a professional document but it is one that should help convince members of the graduate recruitment committee/prospective advisor “This kid sounds like they would fit right here / in my group.”
Best of luck!
A few follow-up questions:
PGS: In general, is it important to convey why one is attracted to science?
X: Yes, if you can articulate it succinctly and without resorting to cliches.
PGS: For example, I want to work in [theoretical physics subfield]. I have a couple of reasons: (1) I like working with calculations, both analytical and numerical as they are my strengths. (2) This could sound naive but I like to do theory over experiment as it gives an opportunity to explore research ideas on my own, to a reasonable extent in my academic career. The bottom line I just see myself in academia because of my curious nature and willingness to dedicate a significant part of my life to the science that matters to me.
X: The way you conveyed it above is fine. It’s clear and to the point. That’s always ideal. Don’t be too colloquial or rude, but being informal is not bad in the US, and it’s also OK to be confident. This is a personal statement, so your personality should come across.
PGS: Do faculty like to hear an account of previous research even if it is not directly related to my intended direction of research?
X: Absolutely. Especially the nontechnical parts. Did you like working alone/with others? How you were advised (hands on/off; lots or few meetings; lots of freedom or frequent checkins?) especially if you liked the style. What was something you didn’t expect/that surprised you? What was something cool you learned?
PGS: What are some of the things faculty hate to see in these statements?(Apart from cliched childhood science fantasies)
X: I hate cliched openings (e.g., childhood fantasies); anything that is obviously meant to pull at heartstrings or showcase the applicant as some sort of otherworldly creature with no thoughts, feelings, or experiences beyond science. Anything that smells of pretense or manipulation. Anything that reads like it was written by a 50-y.o. professional editor (because it was). Honesty and clarity go a long way.
PGS: Should students discuss some of the ongoing research in the labs that they’d like to work?
X: Absolutely, but not too specifically because published papers are generally 2-3 years behind what is currently being done. Focus on finding 2-3 professors whose general area of research interests you and mention them by name in the SOP (very important!). You should also email them and in those emails you can indeed mention some specific papers from their group (ideally you’ve tried to read them). But in the SOP their general area of research should naturally flow out of your described interests; for example, you want to work in [theory subfield], spent the whole SOP talking about it and maybe specifically mentioned some subtopics, then obviously people working on those topics should be listed in the SOP.
Academic blogosphere, do your thing! Let’s help new applicants craft their best SOPs this admission cycle! When you comment, please state what field you’re in (broad is fine), because a lot of advice is field-specific.