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Applying for a PhD: Personal Statement vs. Statement of Purpose

When applying for a PhD, you may be requested to submit either a personal statement or a statement of purpose (SoP), or possibly both. Together with the other components of the application package (which might include, for instance, a research proposal, references, transcripts and a CV), the personal statement or the SoP is a unique window of opportunity enabling you to add a personal element, something that ‘sells’ you to the institution you are applying to.

Personal statement and Statement of purpose: Objectives

The personal statement may have requirements specific to the institution you apply to. However, irrespective of whether or not your institution mandates this section, incorporating it in your application offers you the chance to highlight your strengths – as an academic, as a leader and as a motivated individual.

The SoP is your chance to explain your inner motivation and drive behind your choice of research topic, how you found this topic and why the institution you are applying to is particularly suited to you and how you are suited to them.

Personal statement and Statement of purpose: Similarities

The two documents allow you to explain or expand on other elements from the overall application package. For example…

You could highlight elements from your CV, explaining how you have stood out academically, as well as the academic and possibly professional skills you have gained from your career.

These documents also allow you to explain possible shortcomings in terms of lower-than-expected grades or significant shifts in career path.

Tip: Always explain possible drawbacks from a positive perspective, in terms of what you have learnt from the experience, or how it has made you stronger.

Personal statement and Statement of purpose: Differences

The personal statement is usually made up of paragraphs, each focusing on a specific strength.

You might choose to focus one paragraph on your research skills, how these were attained and how they are relevant to your course of study.

You might have another on how you are a motivated individual and active in university life.

You may have another on courses taken and their relevance.

You need to choose the focus of these paragraphs, and arrange them in a logical sequence which best sells you as an individual.

The SoP will probably follow a logical career progression which highlights your motivation for studying your chosen projected research topic.

So, starting with the origin of your interest, it may trace through your Bachelor’s, Master’s course, Master’s thesis, how this interest has evolved logically to this point of application, and indeed how it goes beyond the PhD.

Ultimately, the SoP is more an argument to persuade the institution that you are indeed sufficiently motivated to sustain a project that will last a minimum of three years and almost certainly quite a lot longer.

Pointers for writing the personal statement and the statement of purpose

  • Try to avoid just repeating information.
  • Try to build on, add to and complement the other elements.
  • Think about what you have gained from what you have done, as opposed to just what you have done.


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


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