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.


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