The Graduate School Statement of Purpose: A Faculty Perspective

Summary: I talk about writing an effective graduate school Statement of Purpose (SoP) from the perspective of how I (a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering) read it, along with common mistakes I see applicants make. I offer a few tips for students looking to make sure their SoP gets into the right hands and communicates the necessary details so that you'll have the best shot of getting accepted.

Applying to graduate school, particularly for Ph.D. positions, can be a nerve-racking experience for many students. Part of the stress comes from the all-important Statement of Purpose, where you have the opportunity to represent yourself and your interests beyond what your purely numerical scores (e.g., GPA, GRE, TOFEL, etc.) or recommendation letters might say about you. There are many guides all over the Internet about how to write your Statement of Purpose (SoP) (See Berkeley, Purdue, UCLA, UNI, etc.). I won't replicate their advice here.

However, to write well you need to know your audience. So rather than talk about how to write a SoP, I want to describe what it is like to read one. By going in the reverse direction and giving you the faculty perspective, I'm hoping you'll better understand how and why faculty members read a SoP so that you'll have an easier time writing something that communicates effectively to them. (With the important caveat that this is all my own opinion, and that other faculty may read a SoP slightly differently.)

Why the type of Graduate School program you're applying to matters

Before we dive into specific details, we need to differentiate between at least three types of "Graduate School" programs (in Science and Engineering):

  1. Ph.D. Program: long-term commitment usually at least four years in length where the primary responsibility of the student is to conduct research with a faculty advisor. This includes M.S./Ph.D. programs where a student receives an M.S. degree during the course of pursuing their Ph.D. degree.
  2. M.S. w/ Thesis: shorter-term commitment, typically two years in length, where the student splits their time between taking graduate courses and conducting a two year research project with a faculty advisor.
  3. M.S. w/ Coursework: like the M.S. w/ Thesis, except without the research aspects; you just take courses of your own choosing and then graduate with the degree. Depending on the student, there might be no primary faculty advisor that you communicate with on a regular basis. This also includes M.Eng. degrees or "Professional Masters" programs.

Why differentiate? Because faculty will expect your SoP to be fundamentally different depending on what your eventual goals are.

Advice for Particular Types of Graduate Programs

For each of the three main programs, I'll mention: 1. what I'm looking for in the SoP, 2. common mistakes I see applicants make, and 3. suggestions for improving your SoP so it has a better chance of success.

Ph.D. Program

From the faculty perspective, Ph.D. students are a big, but important, commitment. You will develop a long-term professional relationship with your faculty advisor and they will act as a mentor (officially or unofficially) to you for the rest of their life, even after you graduate. Beyond mentoring, faculty provide most of the financial support for their Ph.D. students, for things like tuition, a stipend, any experimental resources they need to complete their research, not to mention hours of one-on-one training. In exchange for these years of training, the Ph.D. student and the advisor will eventually carve out new areas of knowledge that will push forward the cutting edge of science and technology. In short: big commitment and big pay-off, for both the student and advisor, over the course of about 4-6 years.

What runs through my head when I open the SoP

This student is looking primarily for a faculty mentor that will guide their research throughout the course of the Ph.D. I should be looking to see if I'm the right person to guide them. This means I'm paying attention to:

  1. Are they interested in research that is relevant to my area?
  2. Who else in the department could act as good additional mentors to them?
  3. Do their interests align with projects I have going on right now (or wish to start)?
  4. What are their career goals once they get their Ph.D.?
  5. Do they appear to have enough preparation and credentials that it is worth my time to contact them and set up a remote interview?
  6. If they are the right fit, can I find the appropriate financial support for them over the duration of the Ph.D.?

Ideally, the SoP would help me answer the above questions as easily as possible.

Common Mistakes and Suggestions for Improvement

In line with my above points, here are common mistakes applicants make:

  1. The applicant doesn't say what their research interests are.

    If a student is fantastic (good grades, research experience, great letters of recommendations, etc.), but doesn't tell me what kind of research they want to do, there is no way for me to determine if I'd be the right advisor for them.

    Suggestion: Be upfront about the kind of research you want to do, preferably in the first paragraph. Say something to the effect of "My research interests include insert broad MechE topic area here, specifically in insert specific sub-fields here." This way, in the first paragraph of your statement I know whether you are appropriate for my lab or possibly another faculty member's lab.

    It's important to strike a balance here. If you say "I'm interested in Mechanical Engineering", I would say "this student doesn't yet know what kind of research they want to do, so how do I know if I'll be a good advisor for them?" On the other hand, if you are super-specific and say something like "I want to work on agent-based architectures for swarm-based, unmanned underwater vehicles" then I might say "hmm, I don't really have any funded projects specifically on that topic right now, so maybe the student wouldn't ultimately be happy with my available projects; maybe another faculty member might have something closer to that." Look over faculty web pages and try to find a happy medium that is specific enough to pique some faculty interests, but broad enough appeal to the projects they have going on.

  2. The applicant doesn't make it clear which faculty might be appropriate mentors for them.

    If you want to work with particular people but don't mention them, you are missing a golden opportunity.

    Suggestion: name dropping particular faculty in your SoP is one of the best ways to get those particular people to look over your application. Look over faculty webpages and specifically highlight one or more faculty that you might possibly want to work with. For example, if you really like the work of Dr. X, but could also see yourself working with Dr. Y or Z, then say something like "I am particularly interested in Dr. X's work on super cool research topic by Dr. X, but would also be interested in related work by Dr. Y and Dr. Z in the areas of research topics of Drs. Y and Z that you like."

    That strategy is powerful for multiple reasons. First, it shows you did your homework on what people are working on. Second, it demonstrates that you have specific research interests, but also are flexible regarding projects in related areas. Third, it is eye-catching: if I see my name explicitly listed in a SoP, I spend much more time reading it through, since I already know that the student is possibly interested in my specific line of research.

  3. The applicant doesn't mention what they want to do after they complete their Ph.D.

    If you don't mention what you want to do once you have your Ph.D., then I can't determine if I'll be able to provide the appropriate contacts or support when you graduate.

    Suggestion: mention why you want to get a Ph.D. and what your goals are once you graduate. Do you want to do research at a research University? Teach at a teaching university? Work in an Industry lab? Start-up company? Open your own bakery/circus/boutique coffee shop? Let us know.

    This is important since this helps us determine two things: 1) why do you want to go through the long and arduous Ph.D. process, and 2) are we the best people to provide you with that kind of path once you graduate? If you're interested in working as a research scientist for Fancy Company or National Lab, and I have many connections or joint-projects with those or similar labs, then I'll likely be able to give you what you need to succeed.

  4. Not listing skills or experience that match the research field you are trying to go into.

    Your experience and skills should match the job you want. If you've spent years doing experimental work, but list heavy computational or theoretical research interests, we may think "This person is really interested in my area, but do they really know what they are getting themselves into? How much extra training will they need to get up-to-speed on the work in my area?"

    Suggestion: make it crystal clear how your past experience translates directly into applicable skills that will be useful when you start. For example, what if you want to join a lab that does computational work? Did you do a project where you had to learn and master C++ programming? Go ahead and mention it! What about your time doing biological research in a wet-lab? Think about how that experience translates to the new lab you want to join and tailor it to them: maybe your exceptional pipetting ability is not worth mentioning, but your data-analysis abilities would be perfect!

  5. It is unclear what options exist to financially support the student.

    Typically students are funded by the advisor out of an active research grant they have at that time. If you express interest in a project related to that grant, and we have money available, it's your lucky day! However, sometimes things aren't that lucky: maybe we're waiting to hear back about a pending grant, or there is a student graduating in one year who is already on that grant, so money won't be available for a new student on that project until he or she graduates. This could mean that I can't admit a fantastic student that I normally would because the right funding didn't line up.

    Suggestion: if you're open to receiving other forms of funding, say so. For example, Teaching Assistantships might be possible for several semesters while waiting for dedicated research grant funding. Or if your country has some kind of fellowship program (NSF GRFP or NDSEG are examples in the U.S.) that you have already applied for (or anticipate applying for), then you should mention this. If you're open to different funding options, then that increases the possibility that we can provide continuous financial support throughout your entire time as a Ph.D. student.

M.S. w/ Thesis

For a research-focused M.S. degree, where you are expected to work with a faculty advisor, the same advice from Ph.D. applications above applies. In addition to that advice, you should be specific about your goals for the M.S. degree.

Students apply to a research-focused M.S. program for a variety of reasons: 1) they like research, but are unsure about whether they want to go all the way with a Ph.D., so they test the water with the M.S. + research first and then maybe apply for the Ph.D. later; 2) They just want the M.S. degree, and intend to go into industry upon completing it, but like research and are hoping to cover some of the M.S. costs through a research assistantship; or 3) they want to get into a Ph.D. program, but believe that having an M.S. first before applying for Ph.D. programs will benefit them more than the direct Ph.D. program (this is less useful if you intend to stay at one institution for both degrees).

Whatever your goals, be specific about them, since that will help faculty determine the appropriate level of support, expectations for your application, and how you might fit into the research group.

M.S. w/ Coursework

This type of degree program doesn't directly typically involve a faculty advisor, and so faculty have less say in these applications and the advice above is less relevant to you. Since these are often reviewed by a department's graduate office, I don't have much input here other than to be specific in your degree goals and state concrete ways in which the programs at that particular university will benefit you.

General Tips for Improving Readability

Given the above considerations, there are some general ways that you can make your SoP easier to read:

  1. Organization and Formatting are your Friends.

    SoPs that are well organized, either by using topic paragraphs/sentences or section headings make it really easy to scan through the SoP and make a judgement. For example, bolding the names of research interests or particular professors make it less likely that person will miss that detail in a quick read. You can even use special headings to organize the SoP, such as "Faculty who are closely related to my research interest:" or "Prior Research Experience:" or "Degree Goals:"

  2. Quality Over Quantity

    The longer the SoP is, the more likely the reader is to skip around looking for the information they want, rather than reading the whole thing. Just like a resume, assume that a first-pass read of your SoP will only be ~10 seconds, so you want to get your point across quickly. This means 1) highlight important points in the first paragraph, 2) keep it shorter, if possible, and 3) use organization to make things easy to scan. Feel free to use all the space provided to tell your story, but make sure that if they only read the first paragraph you'd be able to pique the interest of the appropriate faculty member. I've seen a SoP with only a couple of to-the-point paragraphs that led me to interview someone, as well as a multi-page, well organized SoP, labeled with clear section headings that allowed me to identify whether the candidate was appropriate within seconds. Length doesn't matter as much as quality and clarity.

  3. Print It Out and Give it to Someone to Quickly Read:

    Get a friend of yours to look at your SoP quickly and give you their gut reaction. You have been working so hard on it that you'll know it inside and out, but a fresh set of eyes can be really useful. Is the page too crammed with text that it looks cluttered, busy, and unapproachable? Is it easy for them to find the above mentioned information? Are there spelling or other errors you didn't catch? Spending one minute with a third party will drastically help you improve your chances on the real deal.

Best of luck!