Popular Post danieleWrites Posted December 21, 2013 Popular Post Share Posted December 21, 2013 (edited) First, my credentials. Well. I can spell my own name, though I don't usually know exactly how old I am. I'm within a year or two, but I'm usually wrong until I've done some subtraction. I teach composition and like to write calculus equations on the board when I take classes in poetry writing. But, here's my real credentials: consider what is written herein in conjunction with what the various instructions on SOPs that you've read have said, with the requirements the program you are applying to has put forth, and with your own experience as a writer. Do you think I know what I'm talking about? Should you pay any attention to it? Is any of it useful? Second, I'm not going to give you a formula for what the standard SOP is like, or a list of things the various thousands of admissions committees will be looking for. There are plenty of prescriptions on the internet, many of them written by professors who have presumably gotten sick of badly written SOPs. Third, I'm not promising that SOP writing be easier after this. It'll be harder, actually. I'm not promising that you'll get in to any place you desire, or that there is any one best thing to put in the SOP to get noticed. That would be totally impossible. Each discipline has its own needs and values, as does each university, each department, and each faculty member on the admissions committee (adcomm). There is no one size and it doesn't fit most, let alone all. There are conventions (use Standard English, for one), but other than include your research interests, I won't advocate that any one thing is strictly necessary. I leave that up to the more knowledgeable. The advice: First thing is to deeply understand that you should write an SOP for each program. Most people take this to mean write one master SOP and then tweak as necessary to make the one SOP applicable to each university (U of A becomes U of B, Professor X becomes Professor Y). You can do that. You can be very successful doing that. You most likely, really shouldn't do it. The next thing to understand is the SOP's purpose. Why do the adcomms want to see SOPs? Shouldn't transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a writing sample do it? After all, transcripts and samples show the actual scholarship and the letters verify it. The SOP isn't for showing scholarship off, or to act like a resume, or anything. So why do the adcomms want an SOP? Why are the SOPs one of those make-it-or-fail things? What is the SOP's purpose? In job hunting terms, the SOP is like a cover letter. The cover letter is to make clear connections between the resume and the job ad. For you, its primary purpose is to make the adcomm offer you admission with full funding. For the adcomm, its primary purpose is to help them see how you would fit into their program (make connections between their program and you). By fit, I mean do they have faculty (or enough faculty) in your area of research interest that can advise, mentor, supervise, and/or committee you through the program to get your degree? Do you have the kind of understanding of the discipline, your research interests, and their program that would make you successful? Do they have something to teach you? Offer you? What can you offer them? They want to brag on you as much as you want to brag about them. If they offer you admission, will you be a good scholar? A good student? Here is the most basic question the SOP should answer: What is it about you that makes you a better prospect than everyone else who's applying? Understanding the SOP's purpose, in practical terms, means that you will know what to put into it and what to leave out of it. And how to phrase it. So, with the purpose in mind, there comes the question: what should you put into it and leave out of it? What format should you use? (MLA? APA? Is footnoting okay?! What about citation?!) Should I stick in a personal story that everyone seems to recommend, except for the half that don't? My research interests? The story about why I got on F in that one, very important class? I'm not going to answer those questions because I can't. Every discipline and department is different. I will give you an answer you won't like: research. Find out the requirements each program you're interested in has for the SOP, think of the SOP's purpose: and now research. Research is one of the basic keys to writing an SOP. It's no different than the writing sample you'll be including in your application packet. For each program you apply to, do some research. How much research you need to do depends on a lot of things, the least of which is your personality. More research does not automatically mean a better SOP. Less research doesn't automatically mean a better one, either. What makes the right amount of research? The ability to craft an SOP that is specific for the program that you're getting into. Here's some ideas (not an exhaustive, inclusive list of what to do) on what to research: The program itself. Look at the recent graduates and, if possible, read their theses and/or dissertations, at least in part. The acknowledgements can give you an idea about the program's culture. The introduction can give you an idea about what kind of scholarship the program produces and expects. It will also, and this is very important, give you an idea as to how the program uses language. If you speak to them in their own language, that helps your case. You've likely done this, if not, seriously, you should have done this. Look at the program's website and read it all. What kind of classes are offered for both undergrad and grad. Who are the faculty, the tenured, the assistant, the visiting, the emeritus, and the graduate students. What kind of ties to the community (both academic and their local town) do they like to talk about? Do they talk about how their graduate students are working with community partners? Do they host conferences? What happened at the last one? This gives you a taste of the program's culture. The faculty. All of them that might be on the adcomm and the ones that are relevant or somewhat relevant to your interests. Crack open JSTOR etc. and search for recent faculty publications. If you're basing your interest on a faculty member on the interests they've got listed on the site and a reference to them in an article from a decade ago, or worse, only their reputation, you don't have a strong basis to establish clear reasons why they have anything to offer you. Read their recent publications, see who they name drop in terms of theory, other faculty, and so on. Make a list of what each faculty member can offer you in terms of research, not just the ones that are directly related to it. If you're into studying apples, but Dr. V works with oranges, think about how Dr. V's work might help you out. Take notes when you research. Each program has a bunch of people, and you're likely applying to multiple programs. It's easier to refer to notes than to go back and look it up all over again. What's happening in the field with your current research interests, if necessary. This is so you can situate your research interests in the discipline, and then situation your research interests in the program. You can just tell them what you're research interests are and leave the situating to them, but you can lose that chance to sell yourself as the best amongst the rest. Research you. Yup. You. Scribble out some lists or paragraphs or whatever that inventories you. Who are your influences? Who are the theorists you keep coming back to? Who are the theorists you loathe, mock, and/or ridicule? What are your research interests in general and specifically and anywhere in between? Some SOPs will need to be more general, some will need to be more specific. Length restrictions, what you found out about the program, the faculty, the state of the discipline, and so on, can alter this for you. What kind of scholar are you? Student? What's the difference? How do you manage your time? Stress? Health? Do you expect to bring your dog? Do you have health issues? Do you have any academic things that are a negative? If you do, how negative are they? It's easy to see that as an either it's entirely bad, or it's somewhere in the huge good category, but some things are negatives that need to be addressed for certain programs, while other negatives can be ignored, or you should discuss with the one relevant letter writer so they can address it. While Sam ultimately received a C in the Research Methods course, the grade doesn't reflect the actual scholarship as Sam fell ill during the mid-term and consequently failed it; my course policies do not permit re-taking the test. What are the good things about you? Not just the grades, awards, publications, and presentations, but also the character traits. What are you weaknesses? Don't do the job interview baloney, my greatest weakness is my perfectionism. Of course, the important, probably ought to be on the SOP questions: why grad school? What will you do with the degree you want? Why are into the research you're into? Why that particular school? Why are you worth admission and funding? Research the assistanceships. Some SOPs will want you to write a bit about teaching or research with assistanceships in mind. So, do a bit of research on what these entail in the programs you're looking at. What do they do and how do they get it? Have you done assistanceships in the past? If so, what were they like? Do you have a teaching philosophy? If not, make one. Have you done anything that can be discussed in terms of the assistanceship? I taught kung-fu to white belt children, so I have teaching experience. I was part of the state herpetological society and went out to help them with their field counts twice a year. I learned that licking petrie dishes is always a bad idea, no matter how much they resemble pistachio ice cream. Research SOPs. You're doing that, right? Go on to forums (like this one) and read the SOPs people have posted and then read the responses. Look particularly at SOPs in your discipline or related disciplines. Psychology might look at other social sciences. Physics might tell the joke about the Higgs Boson and Sunday mass. Bear in mind that the people responding to and/or criticizing the posted SOPs are likely not on an adcomm. Some have been or will be, but it's not likely they'll be on the adcomm you're hoping will like you best. However, you can start to get a sense of what SOPs are like. What format is it in? Does yours look like everyone else's? Do you have the exact same opening sentence as half of the people hoping to get into a program in your discipline? I've always wanted to be a librarian since those wonderful, summer days I spent in my (relative of choice)'s home library. So, to take stock. First, understand the purpose. Second, research. A lot. Let the purpose of the SOP guide your research efforts. Next, get the specific requirements for the SOP from each program. Make a list of similarities. If they all ask for a statement of your research interest, score! One sentence fits most! Most of them will be of different lengths and will have different ideas of what specific information they want. Most won't tell you enough, aside from length and one or two "should have" things. They mostly won't tell you if you should use APA or if you should footnote, or how to format it. Single space? Double space? They will tell you whether it should be on paper or what kind of file format to use. I have only one suggestion: consistency. Okay, two suggestions: unless otherwise specified, don't include anything other than the SOP. No bibliography or footnotes. If you quote or paraphrase someone, cite them in the text the way they do it in the average newspaper article. As Scooby says, "Ruh-roh!" Now, start writing. Create something of a master SOP, or a set of master sentences for the SOPs. Some things should be in every one of them, like what your research interests are. Because length requirements are different for each program, you should work out more than one sentence or set of sentences for each thing you plan to put into more than one SOP. Have a more detailed explanation of your research interests and a more concise one. Even though this might be central and, perhaps, most important to the SOP, you don't want most of a short SOP taken up by one thing. Make these sentences do extra duties. If they can explain not only why you're into what you're into, but also why it's significant to the discipline/program, and how the program factors into it, bonus! The more functions one sentence can serve, with clear, readable logic, the more room you have in the length requirements to bring in other things. Think of this master SOP as more of a set of sentences you can hang on the individual SOP's unique structure. A flesh and skeleton metaphor can work here. You can order all SOPs at this point, you'll probably want to put research interests in the middle or toward the end, rather than in the first sentence, but the key here is that the skeleton of the individual SOP and most of its flesh will come from the needs of the program you're writing it for, not from some predetermined formula. No generically applicable, master SOP that has a few tweaks here and there. Here's the thing. The SOP is one of the most important documents you'll write in your life. It's not something that should be done in a few hours, after looking at the program website and spending some time on the net searching for a how-to-write-an-SOP-guide. It takes work backed by research. The readers can tell quite easily how much research you've done on them by the way you structure and write your SOP. They can tell if you're sending out a generic SOP to several programs because it will be too general. You can't change faculty names in and out, along with a detail or two that makes it seem tailored to the program. The individual SOP should be tailored from the beginning. Some sentences won't change much, so you can pre-write them. But how they fit into each SOP, the reasoning you'll use to try to convince the adcomm that you're the best applicant, and the perspective you'll take all the way to the words you use should be done with the program in mind. It shouldn't be generic. Even if it doesn't seem noticeably generic to you, that doesn't mean that the adcomm won't notice it. They read many, many SOPs every year. People who read SOPs develop a sense about the generic, the cut and paste work. How to name drop gracefully, or bring up the theory and histories and whatnot you're working with when there's only a teeny amount of space for everything? That's a bit easier than it might seem. It's not in the explanation; it's in the usage. If you can use the relevant theories and people and methodologies correctly in a sentence, you don't have to show the adcomm that you know how to use them, or how they're related, by explaining it. Trust them to have enough education to make a few connections for themselves when it comes to the discipline. Example: Novels such as Twilight exemplify how Marxist alienation can be applied to childbirth. My research interest lies in the alienation of women from the product of delivery in Modernist American fiction, such as Faulkner's Sound and the Fury. (Huh, I wonder if that would really work?) Two sentences and I've referenced theory, period, history, relevance for today, and some methodology (it's literature, not science). Use it, don't explain it. If possible, have a professor you know read the SOP to your preferred school and give you some advice. They know more than most other groups of people. If not possible, your current university's writing center can help, or other people who are familiar with the field, or with writing. Your high school English teacher or your English major buddy can probably say something about your grammar, but might not be as helpful as expected. Example, in English, the convention is to speak of historical people in present tense. Shakespeare writes, "To be or not to be," because he thinks it is the question. History has kittens. Shakespeare has been dead for centuries, he can't write! Past tense! Shakespeare wrote, "To be or not to be," because thought it was the question. Someone in the field is preferable! Finally, a word about my real credentials. The adcomm is going to do to your application what you've just done with this post. They are going to judge your credentials (your ethos, trustworthiness, veracity, credibility, knowledge, and so on) based on the impressions they get of you from what you've written. So, be knowledgeable about you, your field, and the program, and use that knowledge well. Edited December 21, 2013 by danieleWrites dftbkatie, BuddingScholar, Jhank and 81 others 15 69 Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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