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Ph.D. SOP and Writing Sample


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Hey all,

Haven't found much on Ph.D. SOPs, and I keep changing the ending of my paper so I am in need of advice. Do you have to state an actual dissertation topic? How specific should it be? How long should the dissertation topic discussion in the SOP?

Also, for the Writing sample, I am submitting a research paper- how closely is it read? Do they read the whole paper or do they just want to get a sense of the quality of your research?


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Well, your statement of purpose is where you're laying out your proposed research focus for your PhD trajectory. They're not looking for a thesis statement, but rather some research goals. What sorts of questions are you going to be asking? I think how specific it is depends on your sub-field. For example, I'd expect someone who's looking to work on, say, French modernism to have a more defined outlook than someone who's working on early feudal Japan. Even with the knowledge that things can (and will!) change, you need to tell them what sort of topic you're envisioning yourself diving into.

At the very least, your SOP and writing sample should communicate your intellectual agenda. When the committee reads the two, do they get an idea of what professors you'd work with, both because of field and methodologically? I mention the last one because I think too often people overlook that when it comes to the writing sample. I'm someone who got into a PhD program with a writing sample not in my proposed field. Instead, it clearly demonstrated my methodology and how I "do" art history.

As for how closely is it read, it is read. It's pretty much the icebreaker used at accepted students' days (profs wanting to talk about your sample), and I know of multiple people who had pieces of their writing sample/SOP brought up during interviews last year.

I hope that made sense. Good Luck!

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I think that its important to show that you have put thought into how you are going to proceed in your sub-field and that you have a general direction towards a topic, rather than needing to lay out specifics. For my field, it's very important to know your geographic emphasis, as often people who work on the Aztec and the Maya really cannot direct a dissertation on the Inka or the Aymara. I came into grad school interested in looking at transitions between purely indigenous and early colonial culture, which I am still interested in, but with a completely different indigenous group (still within my general geographic preference) than I specified in my SOP. Advisers know that you will probably change the specifics of your interests many times, but want you to have a definite bent in some direction.

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I think things have changed a little since I went to grad school years ago, but you definitely do NOT need to know an actual dissertation topic. You DO need to state a field of interest that relates to some of the current faculty. It can be as simple as, "I'd like to research 16th-century Italian painting, particularly in the Veneto. I would look forward to working with Professor X, whose book on Veronese has provided a model and a major resource for some of my previous research." Something like that.

I actually got in without doing that, but that was another era. Even more confusing, I changed periods from my MA thesis as I entered the PhD program.

You're not locked into anything once you're admitted, however.

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