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Structure of SOP (science PhD programs)

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The present structure of my SOP, described at a general level, is presented in order below. The numbered parts do not necessarily represent breaks in paragraphs - instead, they simply represent topics covered.

I have not seen any other SOPs structured in this way, so I am hoping to hear others' thoughts on this particular structure, and on SOP structure in general.


My current structure:


1st: Describe ultimate/overarching research goals (my 'big question', followed by a somewhat narrower sub-question). This brief section of the SOP resembles the sorts of 'research statements' that graduate students and faculty members might present on their webpages, before discussing the highly specific problems they've been working on.


2nd: Briefly describe research philosophy and general research approaches (used to tackle the sub-question presented in part 1) that interest me the most... leading in to the 3rd part, which describes how I have begun 'acting on' what I've described in this part.


3rd: Describe research experience, connecting this research to the 1st and 2nd parts whenever possible. Explain how this experience has helped me to develop/focus my research interests.


4th: Explain why I am interested in the particular department to which I am applying, with reference to the 1st and 2nd parts. Mention research topics I am interested in pursuing, and faculty members at this department who are working on these research topics.




I should note that I am in a field with many options and approaches available, so parts 1 and 2 in the above structure should communicate research fit with the department in general and with a number of the faculty within the department, while not appearing too narrow.

Edited by MynahK
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Science PhD programs actually encompasses a large number of different fields. Can you be more specific? Are you biology, cell bio, microbiology, biomedical sciences, chemistry, biochem, physics or something else? We might be able to give you a more general idea for your field because applications will vary.

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I was attempting to make the thread as broadly applicable as possible. That's where the unusual title comes from. :)

...Perhaps the level of generality I was originally aiming for with this thread is unrealistic.


I am applying to computationally-oriented programs in cognitive neuroscience and psychology.

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I agree that it may be very difficult for many of us to be so general.


I didn't apply to any computational or psychology-based programs, so I have no idea how those types of programs look. Mostly biomedical science, interdisciplinary programs, and cell biology.


I would personally avoid applying out so broadly and narrow myself in a little bit more. I know psychology programs are going to have very different types of applications than neuroscience at a medical school, and those are going to be different from programs that are computationally based. I would probably pick something like computational biology through a medical school-based program or a programs that are interdisciplinary.


Knowing your background (previous degrees, experience, etc.) would help to figure out where you may best be able to apply, and then maybe we can help figure out the types of SOPs you will need based on the others' experiences.

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I am interested by the structure of this SOP. I didn't write mine in this way though, but I honestly do not think there is only "one correct way" to format a SOP. In fact, I really think that in many science programs, especially in the physical sciences, the format and style does not directly matter. Admissions committees read the SOP for content, not writing style and it's not likely that a committee will say "This student wrote entirely in the passive voice, we're not going to accept him/her", for example. I know people with a wide variety of SOP styles that are all in top tier graduate programs in my field.


I should qualify my above statement though and say that SOP style can indirectly affect your admission prospects because the style can affect how effective your SOP message will be conveyed. So, if you have tons of typos and poor sentence structure, it might make it hard for the committee to understand your message! But if you have clear and concise writing that addresses all the issues important to the admissions committee, then you should be fine. 


Your SOP structure intrigues me because it is kind of the way research grants are laid out and I like that. I guess the main difference in your structure and something I wrote is the order that the material is presented and thus a slight shift in emphasis. In my SOP, I wrote in chronological order, starting from my research experience as an undergrad and explaining my contributions to each project and what I got out of it and explaining the shift from one project to another and why I chose the field. Basically, I treated my SOP as if I was in an interview with a prof and they asked me "So, why are you interested in our department?".  In analogy to your SOP, I began with sections 2 and 3. 


I didn't really specify what I wanted to do in graduate school at the level of a research proposal or research statement though. I felt that grad school is supposed to be the place to figure it out and from talking to profs before applying, they seemed to also indicate that they just wanted to accept strong candidates with interests that are aligned with the department, but not actually accepting people to work on specific projects. However, I think that outlining your research ideas/interests might be a good way of demonstrating that your interests are well aligned, as long as you don't indicate too much close-mindedness I think.


Overall, I'd say that my SOP was more like 80% of what I've already done and 20% briefly outlining what I would like to do in graduate school. I just touch on the "big question" (e.g. "How do planets form?") or general terms describing methodology (e.g. "observe [with a telescope]", or "numerical simulations" etc.). I wouldn't go as specific as something like "Use [specific telescope X] to look for signs of planet formation around stars like [category Y]". In contrast, I think your SOP would be more research oriented, more like a funding proposal instead of a SOP, in my opinion. But like I said, the style doesn't matter too much, as long as you convey the same type of info, it should be fine!

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