Thursday, December 22, 2011

writing a statement of purpose for graduate school

It's the most wonderful time of the year...when I write about 3,000 letters of recommendation. Most are for students applying for graduate school. I ask students to give me a copy of their CV and their statement of purpose, to help me focus the letter on their strengths and interests. Over the last few years, I've learned that many students - even very good students! - are horrible at writing a statement of purpose. So, I'd like to present a short guide to writing graduate school statements for anthropology/archaeology students (but applicable to many other fields).*

Your statement of purpose should fulfill three main goals:
1) convince the graduate admissions committee you can write coherently, concisely, and well.
2) give the committee some indication of your personality.
3) tell the committee what topics or approaches you're most interested in pursuing in graduate school, including information about what you've already done in the field.

Most students understand goal #1, and write as well as they can. My students tend to focus their efforts on goal #2, because most of them are traditional students (meaning young and relatively inexperienced), and therefore feel a discussion of their personal background and character traits is easier/safer than a more professional discourse. Although your statement of purpose should indicate that you are collegial and hard-working, a focus on goal #2 is a mistake. Goal #3 is by far the most important, and should be the focus of your statement.

So how do you write about your professional background and interests, when you feel muddled, insecure, or uncertain about your future? Even if you're not sure exactly what you want to study in graduate school, your statement of purpose should be as specific as you can make it. Do not tell the committee you're interested in archaeology (or anthropology, or museumology, or Egyptology, etc.). They already know that. That's why you're applying to the archaeology program. Instead, focus on your particular interests. If you've wanted to be an archaeologist since childhood (as far too many statements of purpose claim), what was it that held your interest all these years? Can you name one region (or even two or three) that you find most interesting? When you say you'd like to study the Maya, what aspects in particular most appeal to you? Tombs and the elite? The hoi polloi? Inscriptions? Pottery and artifacts? Human remains? Do you consider yourself to have more of a scientific or humanistic approach to the subject? When brainstorming your statement of purpose, create a short list of regions, time periods, and methods/approaches that you find most compelling.

Now for the next, critical step: keep in mind that your statement of purpose is being evaluated, not for the excellence of the research topic/project discussed per se, but for how well your interests fit those of the faculty in the department to which you are applying. (I highly recommend you read this post about the graduate admissions process from the perspective of a faculty member.) Usually, a student is admitted because they expresses an interest in a particular geographic region and/or method (say, Paleolithic Europe, or ground-stone analysis), and the faculty member in the department who best fits that research interest agrees to take on that student. Depending on the program, agreeing to take on a graduate student is a big step for a faculty member. It means agreeing to work with that student in the field, or creating research opportunities for that student, or funding them through grants. Therefore, your statement of purpose should be tailored to a relatively specific faculty member, or subset of faculty members.

Once you've narrowed down your interests, talk to your undergraduate mentors, or do some looking on-line, and figure out what programs and faculty members fit those interests. Look at the research the graduate faculty list on their webpages. Read some of their publications. Then tailor your statement to make it clear how your interests intersect with theirs. This requires research, not a vague discussion of your interests. If you come from a big university, you may have had the opportunity to take in-depth classes in the methods or regions of your interest, but my students, who are limited to our small number of archaeology courses, don't have the background from classwork alone to write a truly excellent statement of purpose. It is necessary to research the topic (not exhaustively - that's for grad school!) to the point where you can write two or three knowledgeable paragraphs.

Many of my students reject this advice because they don't know exactly what they want to study in graduate school, and they don't want to commit themselves to only one topic. I have two comments on this: 1) if you can't come up with any specific research topics that hold your interests through a one-page statement of purpose, you shouldn't go to graduate school. That is the sign of someone who is just continuing their education because they don't know what else to do with their lives; and 2) Writing the statement of purpose does not stick you with a particular adviser or topic forever. Many students enter graduate school with an expressed interest in studying, say, faunal analysis of the Great Plains, but they take an inspiring class their first year, or are offered an unexpected research opportunity, and end up writing their master's thesis on the lithic analysis of a Neolithic site in the Middle East. Your statement of purpose is a statement of your current interests. It shows you are capable of articulating a research interest and that you have the background to do so well. But it's not a legally binding document. You can always find another faculty mentor and change to a different topic. If you are very undecided about your interests, I personally recommend that you pick one and focus on that for your statement of purpose. Writing about all of them, or too generally, will hamper your admission to graduate school. However, when choosing which program you want to attend, give consideration to the largest program with the greatest diversity of faculty interests, since that will give you more options for changing your mind.

Some common problems in statements of purpose:

Mentioning your childhood. Students love to start statements of purpose with "Since I was a child, I've wanted to be an archaeologist." This is followed by descriptions of formative trips to a museum, or excavations of the backyard sandbox. Imagine a committee member reading a hundred statements of purpose, all of which begin "Since I was a child...". Personally, I think you should leave your childhood out of it. Many of my students, being relatively young and inexperienced, think their childhood is all they can talk about. But your childhood stories do not make you sound older or more experienced. In fact, the opposite is true. If you want to share personal anecdotes to liven up your narrative, share something from your lab or field experience, even if that is quite minimal. This blog has some good advice about adding personality to your statement of purpose, without sounding stupid or cliched. The advice is meant for English majors, but the general guidelines are useful.

Fear of repetition. Some students fear to repeat information from their CV or other application materials in their statement of purpose. Don't be. If you have done anything pertinent (a research project, a graduate class, a publication), make sure to mention it in the statement, and not assume the committee will pull it out of your CV and transcript. Faculty members read a lot of paper every day. We read scholarly articles, memos, job applications, class assignments, etc.. Nobody is going to comb over your application and note, with horror, that you've repeated pieces of information. Instead, faculty members will be happy to see the most pertinent parts of your CV and transcript repeated, for their convenience, in narrative form.

Modesty. Don't sell yourself too hard - you'll come across as unfoundedly arrogant - but don't sell yourself short, either. Most of my students err on the side of modesty. As I said in the last paragraph, don't be afraid to repeat your accomplishments. At the same time, don't feel a need to apologize for any minor or common problems. If there is something glaringly unusual in your record, you should address it (for example, if you failed all of your Freshmen classes, or you had to take medical leave from school and there are two missing years on your transcript). Even better, ask one of your letter writers to address the topic for you, since they can do so from an outsider's perspective, and their words are likely to have more weight with the committee. Do not feel a need to apologize for every B, or your lack of research experience, however. You're only calling attention to the problems, and you're not alone in being inexperienced or having the occasional imperfect grade.

Don't sell yourself short on your research experience and classroom work. Especially if you're a traditional student (relatively young and inexperienced), you should fill in the details of your background, not leave them bare. I'm not suggesting you pad your CV, or exaggerate your research experience. I'm saying, don't leave your one and only field experience as a single line on your CV: "Student, Archaeological Fieldschool. July 2010". Instead, expand and explain: "Student, Archaeological Fieldschool (Anthro 330), Dr. I. Jones, July 2010. Excavation of medieval church site in St. Kildeen, Ireland, and pedestrian survey of medieval landscape in surrounding countryside." Don't be afraid to discuss exactly what you learned, and its impact on your academic development, in your statement of purpose. You're not going to sound arrogant or inexperienced (any more than you are!), and you're providing the kind of information the committee wants to know. Similarly, you can include more information about the specific classes you took that were relevant to your field, including foreign language courses or courses in other fields that the committee would not necessarily think relevant, but were.

Writing a statement of purpose is nerve-wracking, and many students find it hard to write the best possible statement because they are uncertain of protocols, the role of the statement in graduate admissions, and what they're allowed or expected to say. I hope this guide will help. Good luck with your applications!

*Warning: I've never served on a graduate admissions committee, and every department/faculty member has different ideas about what constitutes an "ideal" statement of purpose, so take this advice with a grain of salt.

cave lion diet breadth

This article summarizes a Quaternary International publication about cave lion diets in the European Paleolithic. (Once again, I can't get access to the original publication, only this summary.) The authors analyzed collagen to look, not only at the diet of the cave lions themselves, but at the diet of the diet. That is to say, they were able to tell not just that the cave lions ate meat (no big shock, since felines are obligate carnivores), but that the animals they ate primarily subsisted on lichen. Therefore, the researchers suggest that the cave lions fed mostly on reindeer.

The stable-isotope analysis sounds fantastic. I'll look forward to reading more about a technique this detailed. But, the lines that really struck me from the article are these:

The cave lion diet, Bocherens says, appears to have been much more finicky than that of today’s lions, which eat just about anything they can catch.

The results may provide new insights into why cave lions died out. When Europe’s climate began to warm about 19,000 years ago, the landscape gradually changed from chilly, open steppes to denser forests. That would have made an inhospitable habitat for reindeer and for the cave lions that depended on them for food.
We often underestimate the behavioral plasticity of non-human animals. Yes, humans are particularly known for their ability to change their social organization or diet in order to fit their environment. But lots of other animals do this, too. Fallow deer can follow a herd- or harem-type social organization, depending on the population density in their region. A similar density-dependent effect on social organization has been identified in barn cats.

Why should we assume, then, that cave lions had a biologically-determined more narrow diet than modern savanna lions (a narrow dietary adaptation that led to their extinction), when instead we could argue that cave lions had a narrower diet breadth for the same reason that Pleistocene humans appear to have had a narrower diet breadth than later human groups in the same region: the abundance of highly-ranked prey. There were lots of reindeer, and reindeer, due to their size, herd instincts, etc., were the top-ranked prey species for cave lions. Therefore, cave lions mostly ate reindeer.

We don't know if cave lions had the behavioral plasticity of modern savanna lions and could have diversified their diet, under favorable circumstances. When the reindeer went extinct, so did most of the other major prey species, and/or the species that remained, like elk or deer, were far less abundant and did not travel in large herds. Perhaps, if climate change had taken a different form (one in which some open habitat survived, and large groups of antelope had roamed the plains of Europe), cave lions could have also survived by diversifying their diet. The stable isotopes show that cave lions were reindeer "specialists", but that does not mean that they were biologically adapted to reindeer hunting, and therefore went extinct along with Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen.

Monday, December 12, 2011

academic career suicide: the third child

Am I crazy, or just happy?

Dr. Mr. Palimpsest and I are expecting our third child in May. This is neither wholly unexpected (we'd discussed the possibility), nor fully planned (I didn't expect to get pregnant when I did), but the timing works well. I'm due the first day of finals week.

My graduate adviser once told me that "everybody" understands if an academic woman wants to have one child, and two children is "normal", since that's culturally-defined as a "standard" family size. But more than that, she told me, would make it very hard to pursue an academic career. Indeed, I know only a small number of women who have managed it. (Men, particularly those with non-academic stay-at-home spouses, are another story.)

I believe the idea that "three is too many" comes partly from cultural values, particularly among middle- and upper-class white Americans, who make up the majority of academia, and who sometimes equate small family size with high moral standing. That said, I'll admit there are true challenges we face with three. Travel (to the field, to conferences, to museums, etc.) will be difficult and (possibly) prohibitively expensive. Most critically, my publication productivity takes a hit for at least one year, even two, after each baby. This is my own choice, since I spend as much time at home with a new baby as I can, but it means my ability to get tenure at a research-focused university takes a hit. I'll get tenure here, but if I moved to an R1, I would have to increase my productivity just at the time when I'm most invested in family. So, I've decided not to apply for new jobs this year. I'll stay where I am, at least for a couple years, and raise a baby.

The long and short of it: the third baby is not academic career suicide (I hope!), but probably is the death of my plans to leave the liberal arts and move toward a research position, at least for the foreseeable future. It's a trade-off I'm willing to make, especially since Dr. Mr. Palimpsest's job opportunities here are looking up, but it doesn't make me blind to the fact that it's a trade-off many academics (cough, cough - most men - cough, cough) don't need to make.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

job interview stories

Check out this post by Michael Smith on "War stories from academic job interviews." Interesting stuff, and may give some hope to those of you on the market!

He categorizes his job interviews as "successful", "in good faith", and "in bad faith". The "bad faith" interviews are those where someone else was chosen for the job before you arrived.

I've had six on-campus interviews (seven if you count a short-list interview that was conducted via Skype). Only one was "successful", and I don't believe any were "in bad faith", although I knew within the first couple of hours at the last interview that I wouldn't get the job. I don't think they had someone else already lined up, per se, but it was clear they weren't interested in me. Still, they were polite and I enjoyed the experience.

As for war stories: Two of the interviews went poorly. My first interview was at a large research institution, and the department put me up in the home of the search committee chair. Exhausting! I never had a break, until she got stomach flu and ended up in the bathroom for the last 12 hours of my visit. Still, I enjoyed meeting the faculty, and overall it was a good first experience.

The other regrettable interview was at a small, poorly-ranked undergraduate school. The committee created all kinds of problems, everything from keeping me up until 1am the day I arrived (I had left my home at 5am the morning to make it to the airport on time), to changing the venue of my research talk only hours before I gave it ("Hey, why don't you give your talk to our Into to Archaeology class? I'm sure they'd love it! Can you pitch it to first-year, under-prepared undergrads?"), to forgetting to schedule lunch. When you add in the horrors of the location itself (although I was assured by the faculty that their town wasn't the meth capital of the state, that was a town down the road), I left that interview fully intending to turn down the job if offered. In fact, none of the candidates on the short list were offered/took the job, and the department hired someone much more suitable to their needs by bringing in someone who had worked in CRM in the region for decades.

I'm not on the job market this year. For reasons I'll discuss more in a later post, I just can't face the prospect of moving this summer. Plus, things are looking up for Dr. Mr. Palimpsest's employment prospects here at Tiny U. Hopefully, more on this soon!