Talking about your STEM Research in your Statement of Purpose

Doctoral programs are designed to train future researchers, so it makes sense that one of the most important components of your PhD application is your statement of purpose. Your statement covers more than just your previous research experience (it should also include your future research interests and a paragraph or two on the why the program you are applying is the best fit for you), but the discussion of your past contributions is a significant and important component of a successful statement. Demonstrating that you know how to write intelligently, clearly, and concisely about your research shows the admissions committee that you have what it takes to be a successful researcher in your field of study. Keep in mind the following tips as you draft the research section of your statement of purpose:

  • Know your audience: The admission committee will be comprised of faculty members in the department you are applying to work in as a graduate student. Needless to say, they are experts in their fields. Applicants unfamiliar with the process often assume that the admissions process is like undergraduate admissions where applications are read by a large number of diverse professionals seeking to evaluate applicants holistically. Instead, faculty are choosing the students they want to train to be productive and independent members of the scientific community. Write with this goal and audience in mind. Don’t be afraid to use professional or technical language.
  • Focus on your most relevant contributions: Your research statement does not have to and should not cover everything you have done in the lab (that’s a job for your CV). Instead, it should showcase your most important, significant work. This is often a senior thesis or an independent project in which you contributed to the project design, were responsible for its execution and troubleshooting, and behaved like an independent researcher rather than a helper. Ideally, it is a project relevant to the research you are proposing to conduct as a graduate student. You may cover several or just one research experience.
  • Situate your work in the lab and the field: It is important that you contextualize your individual research in light of the goals of the lab you are working in and the priorities of the field to which the lab contributes. In other words, make sure you include a sentence or two that addresses the overarching goal of your lab, what questions it seeks to answer, and the methods it uses. This shows your engagement in the field. It demonstrates that you understand the field in a sophisticated manner: you know what is important and why it matters.
  • Cover the what and why of your project: Begin with a statement of your research question(s). Then describe why your question matters (what data it seeks to find and why is it important that we collect/interpret this data). Next, outline how you designed your experiment and why you made the choices you did. What problems did you run into when executing your experiment and how did you solve them? What were the results and why are they significant? What are the next steps?

These tips should help you get started and structure the discussion of your research in your statement of purpose. When you have a draft ready, schedule a statement review with an advisor via Handshake.

By Caroline Wilky
Caroline Wilky Associate Director, Graduate School Advising