Graduate school is a long-term investment on the part of the student that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources for the program in terms of stipend money and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is for you to finish and get a good job. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
- That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
- That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
- That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
- That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).
There is no one way to structure your statement, but a strong statement usually includes the following:
An attention-getting opening paragraph—this paragraph should describe in vivid terms your motivation for applying to this program. You might describe an experience or event that caused you to become interested in your current field or identify a problem or important question in your field that you plan to address through the research you will do in graduate school. The first lines should be carefully chosen and should avoid clichés that would apply to anyone in the applicant pool: e.g. “The field of economics is fascinating to me.” Or, “I am extremely hardworking and motivated.”
A description of the most impressive or important work you have done so far—this will most likely be whatever thesis project you completed at the Bachelor’s or Master’s level. You should describe this work concisely and without jargon, keeping in mind that while your reader may be a member of your general field, they are most likely not an expert in your specific sub-field.
Your future plans for contributing knowledge to the field—once again, you need a concise, jargon-free description of the kind of work you wish to pursue in graduate school and even beyond. This description should be forward-looking, pointing toward your future work as a scholar. But keep in mind that no one expects that your interests will stay precisely the same throughout your career. The purpose of this section or paragraph is simply to demonstrate that you have goals and that you understand what the shape of a career in your field would look like.
Your reasons for pursuing this particular program—you need to do better than, “Stanford is one of the top 5 schools in the country.” The overall prestige of the school actually says little about the strength of a particular program within the scope of your specific field. For example, some of the best departments in Rhetoric and Composition in the United States are at state schools. Using specifics that you have gathered by researching the department (visiting their website, reaching out to potential advisors, etc.), explain how their strengths suit your interests and future goals. This is very often the second to last paragraph, coming right before you thank the admissions committee for their time and restate your interest.
The process of producing your statement of purpose will take a lot of time and should not be done during the last days before the application is due. If possible, give yourself a couple of months. A schedule that looks something like the following would be ideal.
Two months out (or more)—speak with a faculty member in your field about your interest in graduate school. Get their opinion on your ability to pursue research at an advanced level. If you do not like their answer, get a second opinion, but take discouragements seriously. Graduate school is extremely difficult, and pursuing an academic career afterward can be even harder. Not everyone should do it.
If you are determined to go to graduate school, get your trusted advisor to help you contextualize your interests within the broader scope of your field. They may also give you advice on how to make your interests “marketable” and should be able to tell you the best graduate programs for those interests. Research these schools. Figure out who you might want as an advisor. Find special research initiatives in your subject (if they exist). Look at publication and placement records (a program’s success at getting jobs for their students should be very important to you). And most important, figure out what kind of funding is available, as many schools fully fund their graduate students. Also remember that the schools with the best programs and the best stipends are not always the “name brand” schools.
Six weeks to one month out—produce a draft of your statement and show it to a few people you trust. This first draft should be a general statement of purpose that you will later go on to tailor to individual schools. Make sure your faculty advisor looks closely at the paragraphs that describe your research interests, as these need to be honed for concision and to ensure that they are intelligible for people who don’t know your particular area well.
After receiving advice, produce another draft. And then another draft. Six or seven drafts would not be unthinkable here. Visit the writing center. Join a group of your peers working on similar documents so that you can give feedback on each other’s work. The point is, get lots of feedback.
Three weeks out—begin tailoring your statement to each school. Once you are satisfied with your statement for an individual school, edit it carefully (with help, if necessary), covert it to a .pdf file, and set it aside. Resist the urge to make changes last minute, as you are likely to introduce errors. This is also why you need to give yourself lots of time.
Before the deadline but not the night before—submit your application. Doing so under pressure, late at night is sure to invite technology failures and formatting disasters. Don’t tempt fate.