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How "Personal" should the SOP be?


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Hi Ya'll, 

 

I'm just curious what type of personal information you're including in your personal statements. I've heard that saying something like the following is a bad idea: "I've been passionate about reading ever since I was a little kid. I used to hide under the covers with a flashlight and read  through the night." Obviously this is too cutesy and not necessary because, of course, if you're applying for a PhD in English you better love to read. 

 

 

So what should we say about our "journeys" then? I guess I'm just curious about including a discussion of race or not. I think it fits with what I'm studying and it is personal to me. Basically, I am studying constructions of masculinity in the Victorian period and I'm interested in constructions that are marginalized. In the past, I've taken classes on topics of nationality, eugenics, race, and gender and how all of these categories have ideal constructions within them (i.e one race is better than another, one nationality reigns supreme, etc). (this is obviously a very general description of my interests, so I hope this makes sense). 

 

So, basically, I was thinking about one of the reasons I got interested in this topic and it's because of my background. At least once a month someone (strangers usually) ask me if I'm black. I'm not. This question always bothered me because it made me feel like they were trying to "figure me out" or trying to put me into a box. It didn't matter what my answer was as long as I satisfied their anxieties about my race. It's a really weird experience--to live your life thinking you look white, but to constantly be asked if you're black. Basically, this made me what to research other constructions that are marginalized or are made to fit into a box--or more generally, to research what the "boundaries" are and how they've shifted depending on the time period and the location. Make sense?

 

Do you guys think this story is relevant? Or is it going to look like I'm playing some race card that isn't really necessary to include? 

 

Also, what about including information about your parents. Say, if you're studying feminism and your mother was a major influence because of her feminist ideals--include this? or does it look too childish? 

 

I think I'm leaning towards just focusing on my research interests, my previous (academic) experiences, and my fit with the program instead of getting too personal. But, then I change my mind whenever I see on the application instructions to provide a "personal journey." I just can't figure out what they want and don't want...help?

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There may be varying views on this, but If it is a SOP I would try to minimize using personal experiences as motivation for your research interests. It may be true, but unless very well articulated and contextualized, can easily come across as being trivial or artificial. On the other hand, if it is a Personal Statement required in addition to the SOP (e.g. I think UC Berkeley requires something like that) and your experiences tie in with the objectives of the personal statement, then yes maybe you could include it.

 

As far as "personal journey" goes - I would interpret this as your journey as it relates to academic and professional interests, something that elaborates on your thought process wrt the research interest, something that is unique about your research interests other than saying, for example  "I am interested in Victoria Literature because it is, ..err.. interesting". You get my drift. I do not think you should interpret this as an invitation to talk about your personal experiences, other than your experiences studying or researching that topic. Does this make sense ?

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Yes, I would keep it professional.  There was nothing personal on my SOP last fall, and it seems to have worked out well.  The only time I got personal was on the California apps, and that was only because they require that extra statement of hardship or diversity or whatever they call it.  (And, honestly, I sort of felt like such a requirement was inappropriate.)

 

My rationale for why you shouldn't include personal stuff is that I really strongly believe that you must prove that you can conceptualize what the profession is and therefore that you know what you're getting yourself into.  I think that my first round of apps was not as fruitful as the second because I went the personal route and my SOP of purpose was (I think) awkward and touchy-feely instead of professional and driven.  Furthermore, I felt that it was awkward when I wrote it because I was not comfortable hawking my childhood experiences as some sort of exhibition of academic prowess, but my supervisor had recommended the personal route, so I did it.  But my childhood and my professional ambitions don't really seem related, and they certainly aren't related in any meaningfully compact or direct way.  I think that the connection you're talking about making is tenuous to the point that your statement will be a bit stilted and you'll be taking precious space for something that's potentially not of any interest to the adcoms reading your app.

 

Because, frankly, I don't think the adcoms care if you spend every night sitting in the hall and reading Shakespeare comics like I did when I was 7 or if you did whatever it is you did.  They care about what you're going to do in the future, how you're going to distinguish yourself in the profession, and whether you will be a good investment because you're professionally driven and successful.

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Both comments are helpful. I think I'll definitely be going the more professional route this time. But, as mentioned earlier, it does get confusing when they ask for a personal statement in addition to a statement of purpose. Here's an example from a school I'm interested in in the Midwest:

 

 

  • Clearly labeled academic & intellectual Statement of Purpose: up to two pages, double spaced, statement about your academic and research background, your career goals, and how this school's graduate program will help you meet your career and educational objectives. 
  • Clearly labeled biographical Personal Statement: up to two pages, double spaced, statement about how your personal background and life experiences, including social, cultural, familial, educational, or other opportunities or challenges, motivated your decision to pursue a graduate degree 

See--the second one says "biographical" and to talk about personal background and life experiences (including familial).... ugh. I dunno what to include there that doesn't sound stupid. 

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I think that if they're asking for both, and describe the content of the personal statement in that way, it's perfectly legitimate to express the personal sources of your research interests. Everyone's right that there's a fine line between being "touchy-feely" and not. One thing that might help is to try to express your background and life experience in positive terms, and not like you're airing grievances or trying to be emotionally manipulative (not saying that's what you were doing in the OP). 

 

If they're asking for both, I take it to mean they're asking two separate questions: The first is: what will you be like as a researcher? Are you, to put it bluntly, intellectually competent? Do you know (something about) what you want to study and how to study it? Do you have the background knowledge or experience? etc.

 

The second is really asking what you're like as a person and your motivations, your drive, etc. This is important not only to the culture of the program but to their assessment of how well you'll do in grad school, as I'm sure you know, getting through grad school is about a lot more than just how smart you are. 95% of it is persistence, the ability to learn from failure, working hard, especially with not much short-term gain, etc. All of that is really about you as a person. Someone can have a sterling academic record but be a total "flake" who'll collapse at the first sign of adversity.

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I would tend to put down examples of instances that I have seen and observed first hand, deliberated over, translated into concepts and hence pursued such ideas - rather than examples that are first person - in my opinion examples including the self can easily be interpreted the wrong way, given that there is onyl a limited amount of space to describe these.

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I've actually served on graduate admissions (although I won't this fall or next). The important thing to remember is that this statement is not (repeat, not) a college admissions essay. It's a totally different genre, a totally different beast.

 

You do not help yourself by telling the committee about your "journey." That is an undergrad-admissions thing. The committee doesnt want to know why you love literature.

 

The SOP is basically there to demonstrate that you will be able to come up with a workable dissertation topic some day. That's what it's for.

 

It's not a personal statement. It's a Statement of Purpose. It's not about where you come from. It's about where you're going.

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I've actually served on graduate admissions (although I won't this fall or next). The important thing to remember is that this statement is not (repeat, not) a college admissions essay. It's a totally different genre, a totally different beast.

 

You do not help yourself by telling the committee about your "journey." That is an undergrad-admissions thing. The committee doesnt want to know why you love literature.

 

The SOP is basically there to demonstrate that you will be able to come up with a workable dissertation topic some day. That's what it's for.

 

It's not a personal statement. It's a Statement of Purpose. It's not about where you come from. It's about where you're going.

 

Thanks for the advice--but what about the thing I posted above where one school requires a statement of purpose and a personal statement. It says for the personal statement to describe your personal life experiences that have made you want to pursue graduate school. So how does one answer that question without sounding like it's a college admissions essay?

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I think that if they're asking for both, and describe the content of the personal statement in that way, it's perfectly legitimate to express the personal sources of your research interests. Everyone's right that there's a fine line between being "touchy-feely" and not. One thing that might help is to try to express your background and life experience in positive terms, and not like you're airing grievances or trying to be emotionally manipulative (not saying that's what you were doing in the OP). 

 

If they're asking for both, I take it to mean they're asking two separate questions: The first is: what will you be like as a researcher? Are you, to put it bluntly, intellectually competent? Do you know (something about) what you want to study and how to study it? Do you have the background knowledge or experience? etc.

 Thanks, this helps. For the statement of purpose, I'm thinking about just talking about how I fit the program and what my research interests are and career goals etc. And then maybe for the personal statement I can get more into what coursework/other experiences I've had and how that shaped me? 

 

So, it sounds like most of you are in agreement that talking about family or talking about race is not relevant even if it has shaped the reasons you want to go to school and what you want to study in particular...?

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