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SoP for older applicants - addressing gaps


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(Apologies if this has been addressed before: I've scoured Old Bill's posting history, and while I found tons of gold, I didn't find this specific question addressed.)

tl;dr: Should older applicants briefly address why they've been away?

Long version: The situation is I'm going to be applying for my Ph.D in my thirties, and will receive it, best case scenario, when I'm 39. Long story short, I'm also a fiction/essay writer, and although I was deeply invested in academics as an undergrad, I (correctly) didn't think I could juggle creative and critical work. I knew I'd have to spend a number of years getting some solid life experiences and working out my artistic approach.

Years later, I got an MFA, and am now taking a couple of gap years to pay off stray expenses from that, travel, and finish a novel draft before I have to hit the academics hard. (I will mention, my undergrad record is spotty, landing at about 3.6 cumulative and 3.7 in major, for this exact reason. It was a long time ago, though; my MFA GPA is 4.0, the lit classes suited me wonderfully, and my recommendations will be as good as they get. I'm not concerned about undergrad, but I would like to address it if there's an elegant way to do so, if that makes sense.) 

At this point, there's no doubt in my (or my recommenders') mind I can and should do this, and I'm thinking maybe the creative angle will even make me a more interesting applicant, but I'm not sure what the expectations are. Bear in mind I'm not at all suggesting to talk about this at the expense of discussing my research interests, but I'm wondering to what extent it can/should be weaved into the greater story of the SoP. 

Thanks in advance--

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My advice is to touch on it but not spend too much time. I've been out of school for a while working in an unrelated field, and my advisor has suggested I just mention how I used that time  to research and narrow my interests, not mention much about what I was doing. In your case, I would weave it together with your MFA, and say you took time to write creatively and determine what theoretical approaches you were most interested in pursuing, etc. I would steer clear of mentioning the finances or that you wanted to write your novel first (unless the PhD is in creative writing)- focus on how your experiences make you more prepared to pursue a PhD.

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I honestly don't think you have anything to address here. Lots of PhD students don't begin until their thirties. You don't have to justify having had a life and a job and outside interests. I did not get accepted to a PhD program until I was 30, having spent time outside academia in TFA and working other jobs. As far as I know, this did not hurt or help me as an applicant. (I had hoped it would make me "more interesting" to adcoms--apparently it didn't even do that.)

I also don't think your undergrad GPA is of any concern. Lots of people don't even get near a 3.6. But if your gaps are a matter of concern, you might have your recommenders address it and sell it as a strength. 

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  • 3 weeks later...

Tuning in late, but I want to recommend that you apply to CU Boulder! We have been admitting a lot of PhD applicants with your profile (background in creative writing w/ an MFA, often several gaps in between their education/teaching/professional experience). 

Regardless, I don't think you have anything to be too concerned about. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I had similar worries- I'm thirty and I just graduated with my BA last spring, although I started college fifteen years ago.  I took a lot of time off to work full time, as well as to pursue creative projects.  I decided not to address this in my SoP, and only to do so for programs that asked specifically for a separate statement of personal achievements/diversity statement, etc.  My professors all thought this was the way to go, especially since I don't really feel I have anything to explain for living life outside of academia, and I thought any such explanation would take away from much more interesting information I could include in my SoP that would be far more indicative of my interests and potential in grad school.

I know I'm late in replying but I hope hearing from someone with a similar experience makes you feel better.

Good luck!

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