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Applying for a PhD: How to write a Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose (SoP) is the only personal document in most Master’s or PhD application packages. It is personal in that it aims to explain your motivation for opting to pursue a study of a specific research topic at a specific institution. This article offers essential guidelines for writing an effective SoP.

Objectives of statement of purpose

The SoP is more about you, personally, and how you are an appropriate candidate for a potential course of study at a particular institution. Demonstrating your motivation is especially important for a PhD application because a PhD involves considerable commitment from you and from the potential organisation you apply to.

The SoP enables you to join the bullet points of your CV, allowing you to possibly explain unusual course or career changes, or minor setbacks in your transcript so far and how you overcame them. Ultimately, the SoP contextualises your proposed research within your career and it explains why the institution you are applying to is most suitable.

Length of statement of purpose

The SOP is usually around 500 words long. However, the specifications from the organisation you are applying to might have something to say about this. So, check them carefully. 

Contents of statement of purpose

To break it down, your SoP should mention the research you plan to carry out during your PhD programme, as elaborated in your research proposal. However, it should go also behind this to explain:

  • Where the interest originated
  • How it developed
  • Where you intend for it to take you

Pointers to writing a statement of purpose

  • Look beyond the SoP: The SoP is perhaps written before you have even submitted a Master’s thesis/dissertation proposal, but you need to begin thinking and looking beyond this point.
  • Demonstrate progression to your PhD topic: Plan how your CV is a logical progression to your PhD topic.
  • Research your target institution(s): You need to research the institution you are applying to and target the SoP at that individual institution. It will be clear to review and admissions panels if you have just used the same document for all applications, and have simply cut and pasted in names of various universities.

Writing a statement of purpose

Like all elements of the application package, the SoP is an academic document and reflects your linguistic and academic skills. It needs to be well planned and well written. There is no set structure, but we offer some guidelines.

a. Beginning the statement of purpose

Begin with an engaging hook. This could be an apt quote, an outstanding fact or statistic or a personal real-life event that inspired your interest in a certain field/discipline/topic. You also need to be able to state logically exactly what you are applying for at the end of the paragraph.

b. Writing the body of the statement of purpose

The body should follow your relevant life path to the proposed topic of your research. 

  • Go from graduation to post-graduation: Start from your Bachelor’s, leading through the reasons for your choice of course at the Master’s level. This should not be a repetition of details from your CV. Instead, expand on what you intellectually gained from the experiences that you were exposed to at each step of your learning journey, and how those intellectual inputs helped to eventually cultivate your interest in the subject matter that you hope to research into as part of your PhD.
  • Connect your Master’s with your PhD: Although you have probably not written a Master’s thesis yet, you will need to give some details of the proposed research. Your Master’s thesis should be connected to your PhD proposal so that the motivation to go further is clear. 
  • Explain the connection: Briefly explain the connection. If there is a change in topic, justify that change as this will be a concern for your audience, which will be the department you apply to, their PhD committee, and maybe others if further funding is sought.

c. Ending the statement of purpose

The last part should identify why the institution you are writing to is suitable and what career path you plan to (possibly) take. Be careful to consider a number of factors here:

  • Make it specific: Do not cut and paste names of professors and send the same SoP to different universities. Identify the relevance of particular professors to your planned research and mention those links. This is subtler than just naming (unless asked to do so) and shows you have done your research on the department.
  • Demonstrate the relevance of the institution: Do not just flatter the institution, but identify its relevant strengths and how these are relevant to the research and academic goals you intend to pursue.
  • Identify your path: End by identifying a suitable future career path which the institution may look favourably on!

All the best for writing your SoP – and then, for the PhD life!


Read previous (second) in series: Applying for a PhD: How to write a Personal Statement


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