Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy, Part V: Statement of Purpose

Part I: Should You Apply, and Where?

Part II: Grades, Classes, and Institution of Origin

Part III: Letters of Recommendation

Part IV: Writing Sample

Old Series from 2007

--------------------------------------------------------

Applying to PhD Programs in Philosophy
Part V: Statement of Purpose

Statements of purpose, sometimes also called personal statements, are difficult to write. It's hard to know even what a "Statement of Purpose" is. Your plan is to go to graduate school, get a PhD, and become a professor. Duh! Are you supposed to try to convince the committee that you want to become a professor more than the other applicants do? That philosophy is written in your genes? That you have some profound vision for the transformation of philosophy of philosophy education?

You've had no practice writing this sort of thing. Odds are, you'll do it badly in your first try. There are so many different ways to go wrong! Give yourself plenty of time and seek feedback from at least two of your letter writers. Plan to rewrite from scratch at least once.

Some Things Not to Do

* Don't wax poetic. Don't get corny. Avoid purple prose. "Ever since I was eight, I've pondered the deep questions of life." Nope. "Philosophy is the queen of the disciplines, delving to the heart of it all." Nope. "The Owl of Minerva has sung to me and the sage of Königsberg whispers in my sleep: Not to philosophize is to die." If you are tempted to write sentences like that, please do so in longhand, with golden ink, on expensive stationery which you then burn without telling anyone.

* Don't turn your statement into a sales pitch. Ignore all advice from friends and acquaintances in the business world. Don't sell yourself. You don't want to seem like a BS-ing huckster. You may still (optionally!) mention a few of your accomplishments, in a dry, factual way, but to be overly enthusiastic about accomplishments that are rather small in the overall scheme of academia is somewhat less professional than you ideally want to seem. If you're already thinking like a graduate student at a good PhD program, you won't be too impressed with yourself for having published in the Kansas State Undergraduate Philosophy Journal (even if that is, in context, a notable achievement). Trust your letter writers. If you've armed them with a brag sheet, the important accomplishments will come across in your file. Let your letter writers do the pitch. It comes across so much better when someone else toots your horn than when you yourself do!

* Don't be grandiose. Don't say that you plan to revolutionize philosophy, reinvigorate X, rediscover Y, finally find the answer to timeless question Z, or become a professor at an elite department. Do you already know that you will be a more eminent philosopher than the people on your admissions committee? You're aiming to be their student, not the next Wittgenstein -- or at least that's how you want to come across. You want to seem modest, humble, straightforward. If necessary, consult David Hume or Benjamin Franklin for inspiration on the advantages of false humility.

* If you are applying to a program in which you are expected to do coursework for a couple of years before starting your dissertation -- that is, to U.S.-style programs rather than British-style programs -- then I recommend against taking stands on particular substantive philosophical issues. In the eyes of the admissions committee, you probably aren't far enough in your education to adopt hard philosophical commitments. They want you to come to their program with an open mind. Saying "I would like to defend Davidson's view that genuine belief is limited to language-speaking creatures" comes across a bit too strong. Similarly, "I showed in my honors thesis that Davidson's view...". If only, in philosophy, honors theses ever really showed anything! ("I argued" would be okay.) Better: "My central interests are philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I am particularly interested in the intersection of the two, for example in Davidson's argument that only language-speaking creatures can have beliefs in the full and proper sense of 'belief'."

* Don't tell the story of how you came to be interested in philosophy. It's not really relevant.

* Ignore the administrative boilerplate. The application form might have a prompt like this: "Please upload a one page Statement of Purpose. What are your goals and objectives for pursuing this graduate degree? What are your qualifications and indicators of success in this endeavor? Please include career objectives that obtaining this degree will provide." This was written eighteen years ago by the Associate Dean for Graduate Education in the College of Letters and Sciences, who earned his PhD in Industrial Engineering in 1989. The actual admissions committee that makes the decisions is a bunch of nerdy philosophers who probably roll their eyes at admin-speak at least as much as you do. There's no need to tailor your letter to this sort of prompt.

* Also, don't follow links to well-meaning general advice from academic non-philosophers. I'm sure you didn't click those links! Good! If you had, you'd see that they advise you, among other things, to tell your personal history and to sell yourself as a good fit for the program. Maybe that works for biology PhD admissions, where it could make good sense to summarize your laboratory experience and fieldwork?

What to Write

So how do your fill up that awful, blank page? In 2012, I solicited sample statements of purpose from successful PhD applicants. About a dozen readers shared their statements and from among those I chose three I thought were good and also diverse enough to illustrate the range of possibilities. Follow the links below to view the statements.

  • Statement A was written by Allison Glasscock, who was admitted to Chicago, Cornell, Penn, Stanford, Toronto, and Yale.
  • Statement B was written by a student who prefers to remain anonymous, who was admitted to Berkeley, Missouri, UMass Amherst, Virginia, Wash U. in St. Louis, and Wisconsin.
  • Statement C was written by another student who prefers to remain anonymous, who was admitted to Connecticut and Indiana.

At the core of each statement is a cool, professional description of the student's areas of interest. Notice that all of these descriptions contain enough detail to give a flavor of the student's interests. This helps the admissions committee assess the student's likely fit with the teaching strengths of the department. Each description also displays the student's knowledge of the areas in question by mentioning figures or issues that would probably not be known to the average undergraduate. This helps to convey philosophical maturity and preparedness for graduate school. However, I would recommend against going too far with the technicalities or trying too hard to be cutting edge, lest it become phony desperation or a fog of jargon. These sample statements get the balance about right.

Each of the sample statements also adds something else, in addition to a description of areas of interest, but it's not really necessary to add anything else. Statement B starts with pretty much the perfect philosophy application joke. (Sorry, now it's taken!) Statement C concludes with a paragraph description the applicant's involvement with his school's philosophy club. Statement C is topically structured but salted with information about coursework relevant to the applicant's interests, while Statement B is topically structured and minimalist, and Statement A is autobiographically structured with considerable detail. Any of these approaches is fine, though the topical structure is more common and raises fewer challenges about finding the right tone.

Statement A concludes with a paragraph specifically tailored for Yale. Thus we come to the question of...

Tailoring Statements to Particular Programs

It's not necessary, but you can adjust your statement for individual schools. If there is some particular reason you find a school attractive, there's no harm in mentioning that. Committees think about fit between a student's interests and the strengths of the department and about what faculty could potentially be advisors. You can help the committee on this issue if you like, though normally it will be obvious from your description of your areas of interest.

For example, if you wish, you can mention 2-3 professors whose work especially interests you. But there are risks here, so be careful. Mentioning particular professors can backfire if you mischaracterize the professors, or if they don't match your areas of stated interest, or if you omit the professor in the department whose interests seem to the committee to be the closest match to your own.

Similarly, you can mention general strengths of the school. But, again, if you do this, be sure to get it right! If someone applies to UCR citing our strength in medieval philosophy, we know the person hasn't paid attention to what our department is good at. No one here works on medieval philosophy. But if you want to go to a school that has strengths in both mainstream "analytic" philosophy and 19th-20th century "Continental" philosophy, that's something we at UCR do think of as a strong point of our program.

I'm not sure I'd recommend changing your stated areas of interest to suit the schools, though I see how that might be strategic. There are two risks in changing your stated areas of interest: One is that if you change them too much, there might be some discord between your statement of purpose and what your letter writers say about you. Another is that large changes might raise questions about your choice of letter writers. If you say your central passion is ancient philosophy, and your only ancient philosophy class was with Prof. Platophile, why hasn't Prof. Platophile written one of your letters? That's the type of oddness that might make a committee hesitate about an otherwise strong file.

Some people mention personal reasons for wanting to be in a particular geographical area (near family, etc.). Although this can be good because it can make it seem more likely that you would accept an offer of admission, I'd avoid it since, in order to have a good chance of landing a tenure-track job, graduating PhD recipients typically need to be flexible about location. Also, it might be perceived as indicating that a career in philosophy is not your first priority.

Explaining Weaknesses in Your File

Although hopefully this won't be necessary, a statement of purpose can also be an opportunity to explain weaknesses or oddities in your file -- though letter writers can also do this, often more credibly. For example, if one quarter you did badly because your health was poor, you can mention that fact. If you changed undergraduate institutions (not necessarily a weakness if the second school is the more prestigious), you can briefly explain why. If you don't have a letter from your thesis advisor because they died, you can point that out.

Statements of Personal History

Some schools, like UCR, also allow applicants to submit "statements of personal history", in which applicants can indicate disadvantages or obstacles they have overcome or otherwise attempt to paint an appealing picture of themselves. The higher-level U.C. system administration encourages such statements, I believe, because although state law prohibits the University of California from favoring applicants on the basis of ethnicity or gender, state law does allow admissions committees to take into account any hardships that applicants have overcome -- which can include hardships due to poverty, disability, or other obstacles, including hardships deriving from ethnicity or gender.

Different committee members react rather differently to such statements, I suspect. I find them unhelpful for the most part. And yet I also think that some people do, because of their backgrounds, deserve special consideration. Unless you have a sure hand with tone, though, I would encourage a dry, minimal approach to this part of the application. It's better to skip it entirely than to concoct a story that looks like special pleading from a rather ordinary complement of hardships. This part of the application also seems to beg for the corniness I warned against above: "Ever since I was eight, I've pondered the deep questions of life...". I see how such corniness is tempting if the only alternative seems to be to leave an important part of the application blank. As a committee member, I usually just skim and forget the statements of personal history, unless something was particularly striking, or unless it seems like the applicant might contribute in an important way to the diversity of the entering class.

For further advice on statements of purpose, see this discussion on Leiter Reports – particularly the discussion between the difference between U.S. and U.K. statements of purpose.

[image source]

3 comments:

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yikes, I'm sorry to hear that! It's disappointingly common. Here's one approach. First, find (if you don't already have one) an advisor who is supportive and most of whose students finish. And second, think of your dissertation as your *longest* work rather than thinking of it as your *best* work, as I describe in this post:
https://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2018/07/think-of-your-dissertation-as-your.html

Jim said...

Again, thanks for all your posts on the grad process. They often are very similar or identical to the advice of my undergraduate adviser (also the chair of that very small but excellent dept), which has made me significantly more confident about my prospects. Anyway, I am aware that SOPs should not be too personal and frankly I hate writing about myself. However, in my case, my research interests developed out of a combination of my personal life experiences with particular institutions/practices and my specifically philosophical interests. I felt like I had to include those details in order to make clear that I am an intrinsically motivated scholar, that I can work independently, and that I am truly passionate about my studies. When I philosophize, I am trying to make sense of or come to terms with what truly disturbs me. Do you have any thoughts? I kind of wish I could include more details, but I am applying to UC Riverside!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

It's fine to include personal details in the statement of purpose. I would recommend erring on the side of being brief, factual, and neutral in tone rather than long, dramatic, and overwrought. (Sometimes applicants write inspiring personal stories in the statements, so it's not impossible.)