Applying to Graduate School: On Writing the Statement of Purpose

Since it’s nearing the end of November, and application deadlines for our intrepid readers applying to graduate programs are fast approaching, I thought circulating an outline of my thoughts on writing a successful statement of purpose might prove a helpful addition to the blog. Any academic with even a modicum of compassion for the aspiring graduate student recognizes that the process of generating a statement of purpose is a tremendously stressful and anxiety-producing challenge. How does one even begin to go about imagining and persuasively describing one’s past, present, and future academic selves in what frequently amounts to fewer than two pages of text? However, what I hope this post accomplishes is to make concrete and believable the idea that the act of crafting the statement of purpose is, actually, a tremendous opportunity–and even something to be enjoyed. You get the chance to envision who you want to become in grad school (the greatest process of self-actualization I’ve ever experienced), the intellectual communities in which you wish to take part, and what your ideas might conceptually offer to others asking similar questions and working in disparate fields and areas.

The following should be helpful for anyone applying to any humanities M.A. or Ph.D. program. I begin with some general points, followed by a paragraph by paragraph breakdown of one way of structuring the statement. However, it is also important to realize there is no set formula or template for such a document. These are merely the strategies that worked for me. Accordingly, I invite further comment, conversation, and advice from others on how they’ve gone—or are currently going through—the process.

General Points: As I was made aware when I applied to Ph.D. programs in the fall of 2011, the statement of purpose represents far and away the most crucial aspect of any graduate school application portfolio. In general, those that are successful accomplish three aims: (1) it clearly and precisely frames how you envision your work, (2) compellingly articulates what constitutes your intervention in the discipline, and (3) does so in a way that can both read very quickly for admissions committees working through hundreds of applications, and reward additional readings, in turn revealing the potential depth of your scholarship.

The most important point to stress, though, about writing a statement of purpose is that one must keep in mind that the majority of professors (if not all) who sit on your admissions committee will not be in your field. Consequently, you need to think broadly. The statement of purpose comprises a great space to consider how your work might contribute to moving other scholars to think differently about their research and methods across a larger spectrum of major fields, areas of specialization, and interests.

Introductory Paragraph: Contains Everything Your Admissions Committee Needs to Know About You—at a high level of generality. It should read well, even if skimmed.

– Initial sentence should declare the nature of your work as concisely as possible (i.e. “I work at the interstices of Art History and English Literature”).

– Will declare your major area which, for the purpose of this document, should correspond to a field recognized by the MLA, CAA, etc. (i.e. eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art, British literature of the long nineteenth-century, European Romanticism, etc.).

– Describe 3-4 concepts that are salient to your research, but connect with trends driving the discipline beyond the period you study (in my case, for instance, these were interdisciplinarity, critical theory, image and text, and ecocriticism).

– Needs a sentence formally declaring your intention to apply for the M.A./Ph.D.

– Another sentence announces the program to which you are applying, the department in which it is housed, and the institution you wish to join—and why they all both complement you, specifically, as an applicant, and how you might, in turn, benefit and enrich those communities.

Paragraph Explaining Your Area of Specialization [Including a Gesture Towards a Dissertation Idea]

– Topic sentences frames your project: ex. “I would like to concentrate my efforts on the English Romantic visual artist and poet William Blake.

– Discuss the theoretical framework you wish to develop—this gives the admissions committee a good idea of how you position yourself.

– Demonstrate why your specialized research is of general relevance to the discipline (as opposed to just scholars in your field/area).

Paragraph Pointing to Tertiary Areas of Interest

– Not necessarily required, but I think it’s helpful to show that you have other interests you’d like to develop and explore, given the strengths of the program, department, and university to which you’re applying.

Paragraph Addressing the Faculty With Whom You’re Interested in Working

– Declare who you would like your adviser to be. You should be familiar with their publications, and these should be connected with your project in either subject or theoretical approach (ideally, both).

– Discuss other professors in the department whose work interests you, particularly as they might help you to build on your areas of tertiary interest.

– I believe it is also beneficial to be aware of one professor outside your intended program/department whose publications are related to your own work, and highlight their potential role in the projects you want to develop. With the increased emphasis on interdisciplinarity across the humanities, this move should help to make your application stand out.

Paragraph on How Your Background Has Prepared You [Essentially gives a narrative to your CV]

– Brief discussion (2-3 sentences at most) about how you came into the discipline, described in the most professional–as opposed to sentimentally autobiographical–terms possible (for example, “reading ‘x’ texts in ‘y’ course in my first semester of college led me to begin asking ‘z’ questions. Consequently, my work now orbits around a consideration of how the phenomenon of culture operates through its texts/art/etc.”). In this way, you’re not merely saying “I am interested in…” but are actively demonstrating that you have a strong sense of how intellectual projects are catalyzed and develop.

– Address the research you have completed under the direction of your most current adviser (i.e. the B.A. or M.A. thesis, or other substantive project). Again, this should be related to topics of interest in the discipline, more broadly.

– Describe your past academic service engagements. This will communicate to the admissions committee that you do not merely aim to benefit, individually, during your years as an M.A. or Ph.D. student, but are committed to contributing to the intellectual community in the department and institution, generally.

Paragraph Addressing the Relation of the University’s Resources and its Geographic Location to Your Plan of Development in the Program

– With Northwestern, for me, it was the graduate interdisciplinary cluster initiative that offered me a group of graduate students and faculty both from and outside my department working on critical theory from varying vantage points. Yet, almost all universities offer fabulous and unique opportunities to develop your work and ideas in myriad ways. Seek them out and incorporate this knowledge into the logic of your statement of purpose.

– Think also about the institutional holdings at the university that relate to, and might drive, your research there. Some questions to ask of yourself, for example. Work on visual culture? What specifically is in the collection at not only the university art museum, but also in the library’s special collections, as well? What else is in close geographic proximity to the university? Work on the history of the book and are applying to any program in the greater Chicago area? What might the Newberry Library have for you, etc.? Keep it brief, but naming specifics in these regards is helpful and shows the admissions committee that your process of professionalization is well underway, and will yield immediate benefits for the institution and the broader surrounding community.

(Short) Concluding Paragraph

– In 3-4 sentences, briefly re-articulate what you feel should be emphasized about your specific interests, why the program is a good fit for you, and what you will bring to the academic culture in the department and institution.

And you’re there! As a final note, it is also important to keep in mind that the statement of purpose is just that–an imagining of what you might do and become, and not a document that defines a set trajectory you’ll follow once you matriculate. All professors realize that your goals and ambitions will change, and that this is—in the majority of cases—a very good thing.

In any event, good luck to all the NASSRgrads on the graduate school market this year! In bocca al lupo!


2 thoughts on “Applying to Graduate School: On Writing the Statement of Purpose”

  1. This is a great post, Jacob! I have had to write many statements of purpose but have NEVER written one that I’ve been happy with! I’d say it’s one of the most difficult pieces of writing to do well. I know lots of people working on applications right now who will be very grateful to read you great advice!

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