I believe mentorship is an essential part of academic life, and I informally offer advice to past students and junior colleagues, mostly about how to successfully apply to graduate programs. I also work with Project EduAccess as a mentor. Going forward, I wish to offer my skills and time to individuals who self-identify as a person of colour, Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, queer and/or trans*, are first generation students, or who are from displaced populations. If this description fits you, please email me, or get in touch on Twitter.
Here are some suggestions for how to write a stellar statement of purpose:
Statements of purpose or intent (SoPs) are essentially documents that can make or break your PhD application. They are often the first thing committees read & it’s hard to bounce back from a bad SoP, even if the rest of your application is exemplary.
SoPs should primarily answer the following questions:
1. what is your PhD project?
2. what are your motivations to undertake this project? &/or how is this project in line with your academic & life trajectory?
3. what are your imaginations of life after the PhD?
4. why choose this university & department for your PhD?
When discussing your PhD project, give details — what is the gap in literature you are looking to fill? Why is the research relevant, to you & to the discipline? What methodologies will you hope to employ & why? When we read for these cues as a committee, we are often hoping to assess how informed you are about your field of expertise, & your capacity to formulate a research project that is do-able within the PhD timeline.
When discussing your motivations, discuss what gaps in literature motivated your research question. Discuss what personally motivated you to engage with those gaps. In other words, tell us why you want to do THIS PhD, why you want to do a PhD at all. When we read for your motivations, we are often operating from a space of knowing that a PhD is largely an unstructured & difficult experience. It is fraught with challenges, even more so now in neoliberal university settings. We want to know if you will survive the PhD experience.
When discussing life after the PhD, & your future goals, it tells us what your relationship to academia is. It tells us that you have thought about your career & you are not arriving at the PhD because you don’t know what else to do. These are good cues to assess whether grad students will remain motivated to graduate, & not spend years within the program.
Tailor your application for that department & discipline. Tell us why you chose this university, what specific resources it offers you. This could be specific professors you want to work with (in which case, tell us if you’ve already been in touch with them). Write about which centres or labs you want to participate in. Tell us why you chose a specific department to do your specific PhD project, what that dept. offers you that other depts don’t.
Finally, use the SoP to fill in gaps in your application — did you have bad grades? Tell us why & what you learned from that experience. Did you switch academic disciplines? Tell us why & use it to explain how you arrived at your PhD project & what skills it gave you that make you uniquely positioned to do your PhD project. Did you have experience in community activism? Tell us why that makes your PhD project stronger. Did you take a break from education? Tell us how that gave you perspective that you will mobilize during your PhD.
If you have gaps in your application — bad scores, for e.g. — or are telling us in your CV about shifting disciplines, doing community activism, etc. — use the SoP to explain how it makes you a uniquely strong candidate. It’s simple, really — your committee is seeing your grades. If they’re bad, they’re wondering why. Address that in your SoP so that the committee is not left wondering why when they finish going through your application. One of the surest ways to be rejected is for the committee to not have answers to the questions above. PhD spots are competitive, & there will be applications that don’t leave us wondering. More often than not, those will be chosen for admission.
There are some other things to pay attention to — stick to the word limit for the SoP, format the file cleanly, correct spelling errors. Here’s some final stuff to pay attention to — think long & hard about who you choose as your referees. It is astonishing how many applications I have seen get rejected because a referee hasn’t bothered to write a letter, or written a bad one.
In the end, know that there are chances that, despite being a perfect candidate, you may not get in — because the university doesn’t have funding for you, because your research interests don’t align with the dept., because you are an international student (in which case the competition is much higher). Rejections are not necessarily a comment on your skill — they are a combination of many things beyond your control. I hope this helps you if you are looking to still do a PhD in these dastardly times — I can’t wait for you to be my colleagues & commiserate over drinks/food someday!
My email, along with my CV, can be found below.