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07/28/2020

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help

I have been struck by the drafts of statements of purpose that I read from students I have tried to help. It seems that the students think the objective is to find a clever catch. I suspect it might be related to the way college applications in the the USA are done (for a BA). It reminds me of a movie (I think "The Bells of St. Mary's") where Bing Crosby helps a young girl write an essay on the senses, and she writes about common sense, the sixth sense. Even to my young ears, when I first saw the movie, this struck me as so contrived.

Evan

The “statement of purpose”, as the phrase suggests, is primarily a teleological description of the applicant’s goals for graduate school and becoming a professional philosopher.

Of course, (as we all should wisely know) just because we *aim* at some something, does not necessarily mean we’ll reach or achieve it. Whether or not we achieve the goals we aim at depends greatly on context e.g. the intellectual and wise tools we (will) have.

In this case, different departments have different strengths and weaknesses. As such, they will have different and varied intellectual and wise tools at their disposal for (future) students to use.

Your (subjective) purpose for graduate school should not be devoid of the *instrumental* aspect of those programs you’re considering applying to because neglecting them can come at a great cost to you.

For example, some programs have professors who are mostly competent in A, B, and C. But if your goal is to work and hone the skills in X, Y, or Z, then choosing the former program can greatly hinder your intellectual development as a philosopher.

This is not to say that *some* professors may have some rudimentary knowledge or skill in your chosen area, but it can be a gridlock to your *expected* intellectual development. Thus, applying requires you to assess your own competence in that area to determine whether or not you can afford to work with less competent professors in terms of your chosen field within that desired program.

The statement of purpose should explain *at least* three things: 1) your aim for graduate school and as a (future) philosopher, 2) why that program (not necessarily individual professors) would be useful for you reaching-your-goal, and 3) what personal skills you have to usefully help you achieve those goals and be successful in their program.

As the OP mentioned, be direct and professional in terms of your writing. In other words, just cut to the chase and don’t beat around the bush. Good luck! ;)

anonymous admissions committee member

I don't agree with Evan's (3). I don't think that the personal statement is a place to talk about one's skills or abilities or what one has accomplished, or at least, one should only do that briefly at best and only if it seamlessly fits in with something else that is being said.

I am one of the anonymous committee members who commented on the other thread. I would suggest using the SOP mainly to simply lay out one's specific philosophical interests thus far, and to talk about which ones of those interests are things one wants to pursue in graduate school.

Like others I think it can be okay to talk about particular professors or reasons a program is a good fit, but only if it is true/natural to do so. (For example, if you are applying to a program where X teaches, and you have done work that partly responds to X, or something, that's definitely a good reason. Or if you genuinely are torn between two quite far apart subfields of philosophy, like critical race theory and metaphysics, and you are applying to a program with strengths in both, it is definitely worth talking about how these are your two primary interests and thus the program is the best fit there is fr you, etc.

A little autobiography can sometimes be okay (especially if there is genuinely something unusual or interesting about your background that is directly connected to your philosophical interests), and explanations of weird things in one's file are also okay (though often it is better, if possible, to get a letter writer to address those instead). But I agree that there is a lot of erring on too much "I'm supposed to tell an interesting story" or "I'm supposed to make myself sound compelling as a person", etc.--just be straightforward about what your interests are, why you want to pursue graduate education, what you think you might focus on primarily, and what interests you about the particular program etc.

Evan

Hi anonymous admissions committee

I used the qualifier “usefully” for a reason because it implies that the applicant may have *relevant* (philosophical) skills that can convey that they may be sufficiently competent enough to succeed in that particular program or course of study.

Obviously, knowing how to do calculus is a good achievement and good skill to have, but it’s not necessarily and/or sufficiently useful and hence relevant if you’re going to do ethics. Having some background in moral psychology would be useful though. Being good at conceptual analysis and having a “higher order” thinking would be useful and hence relevant skills too e.g. doing semantics work.

Chivers Butler

I'm struck by the fact that 2 of the 3 comments so far recommend that a student explain why they are pursuing graduate school. Why is this? How do facts about why a student is pursuing graduate school figure into decisions about who to admit, and why? Is it as simple as weeding out candidates who are not committed?

other anon admissions committee member

I'm the one who wrote the OP, which has a lot of what not to do, so maybe I'll focus my comments here on how to do it well. Others have hit the nail on the head—it seems a lot of students write as if they have been given the advice "tell a compelling personal story!" or "make yourself stand out!" which is not good advice. The advice they should be getting could maybe be summed up: "be professional!"

Details about your training that may not be obvious from a quick glance at your other materials are good—do you have relevant language skills, background in science or literature that will be useful in your intended area? Narratives that cover weirdness in the file are also good ("You can see from my transcript that my first year as an undergraduate did not go well. I was coping with a personal loss and the stress of being away from family. However, you will see that my grades and performance following that year are much improved; my cumulative GPA excluding my first year is ...") -- i.e., let us know what happened without getting excessively personal or unnecessarily divulging your own confidential medical information. A brief overview of the strengths of your file is also okay—"I went to X university and earned a 3.9 GPA, 4.0 in philosophy. I won the annual philosophy essay competition ... " etc. So it's not that there should be nothing about the past, but just that it should be professional and brief.

Apart from that, focus on the future: What are your interests? Do you hope to develop AOCs as well as an AOS, and in what? How do your interests complement each other? E.g., if you have complementary historical and contemporary interests, say why being knowledgable about one will enrich your research in the other. Talk also about the fit between your interests and our program, and if there are any professors in the program whose work you find compelling, and with whom you could see yourself working. Try and be somewhat noncommittal about the last thing, you want to appear open to the possibility that you might not work with that particular person. Also, say how you will acquire the necessary skills or training you haven't already had (e.g., in languages or logic). I think this last thing is very important, because it shows some professional maturity to identify the ways in which you need more training, and that you are intent on getting that training, and that you have some kind of plan.

Evan

Hi Chivers Butler,

First, as I mentioned, the phrase “statement of purpose” presupposes those types of questions anyways. From the point of view of common sense, that’s what it *literally* conveys. Hence the term “statement of purpose.” One must state one’s purpose for applying to that program.

[Why are you applying to our program? What is your purpose for applying to our department?

I wanna be a professional philosopher working and specializing in X. You should choose me because my interest and/or competence in X is *compatible* with what your program offers. In addition, I have relevant skills that are useful to help me be successful in your program and the intended course of study. As well, these skills may be valuable assets to your program or university via teaching, tutoring, and/or workshops.]

The above is just a caricature of a statement, but you get idea.

Like others have mentioned, intellectual compatibility is an important factor (purpose) because without it, time, money, well-being, and intellectual development would be wasted and hindered if the program in particular is not sufficiently competent enough to help guide the student towards intellectual maturity and competence in that area.

Second, i emphasized the phrase “at least” for a reason: there could be other things to include in the “statement of purpose.” I am not an admissions committee, but it’s what I would look for if I were one.

Chivers Butler

Hi Evan,

Thanks for following up. I fully understand why an admissions committee would be interested in why an applicant is applying to *the program*. But you and another contributor to this discussion suggested that a good statement of purpose should indicate why the applicant is applying to *graduate school*. You begin by saying: "The 'statement of purpose', as the phrase suggests, is primarily a teleological description of the applicant’s goals for graduate school and becoming a professional philosopher."


This is what I'm puzzled about. Why (and how) is a person's reasons for pursuing graduate education relevant?

Evan

Hi Chivers Butler

It was meant to be a general statement for any graduate applicant since other programs (outside of philosophy) require a statement of purpose as well.

Graduate school can include its specific programs, departments, and course of study. It’s the genus while the programs, departments, course of studies etc. are the species.

There are many reasons for why people pursue a graduate education e.g. become a professor, researcher, gain competence in those knowledge. This can be highly relevant in a “statement of purpose” letter. Getting PhD in chemistry via graduate school may be relevant to getting a good job in an industry as you may not have to take additional courses to gain that knowledge and be certified later on.

For example, my friend has a B.S. in chemistry, but his job or company he works for required him to take additional classes recently to be competent in the job they require of him. Thus, he decided to get a M.A. in chemistry and did coursework in graduate school.

Marcus Arvan

Chivers: Your reasons for wanting to attend graduate school can be relevant in other ways, as well. Some graduate programs see themselves as primarily training top-flight researchers and placing them in R1 jobs, and don't care very much about teaching. Indeed, I've heard through the grapevine that at least one program used to tell their incoming PhD students that they were expected to be the next Kripke or whomever. If you were to apply to a program like this and said something to the effect, "I've always wanted to teach philosophy to the next generation", you'd show that your priorities don't quite fit the program's.

Conversely, I know through friends that there are other programs that primarily envision themselves as training teachers for SLACs, including religious colleges and universities. So again, your reasons for wanting to attend graduate school can very much be relevant to those considering your application.

Chivers Butler

Evan: Thanks for the clarification of your meaning.

Marcus: I figured this might be what some had in mind. However, in this case, shouldn't the advice be either

a) Don't say anything about your overall reasons for deciding to attend graduate school and focus on your fit with the department (thereby avoiding being cut for simply not sharing the department's broader conception of their program's role in the wider world).
b) Tailor your SOP to the department in terms of their conception of their program's wider significance.

Prospective Grad Applicant

This is a super helpful thread - thanks so much for all the insightful answers. I must confess, having read the variety of perspectives on SOPs, especially about the reasons for attending graduate school, I am somewhat confused.

My dilemma is this: I am not quite set on an academic career. I think studying philosophy means a great deal to me and I'd much rather spend the next few years reading and writing about Kant than be trapped in some boring job that I hate. Of course, if after getting my Ph.D., I land a good TT job, that would be amazing. But if not, and if the choice comes down to either adjuncting or finding alternative careers, I would happily choose the latter. Quite simply, then, I am not very fixated on an academic career.

So I suppose my reason to go to grad school is simply to continue studying philosophy for a few more years and satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Now, my question is, is this a good enough reason to go to grad school? If I write this in my SOP, will I come across as an unserious applicant?

Evan

Chivers Butler: You made an interesting point. Formally, a SOP may include what I’ve outlined as that is what it is supposed to do from a purely formalistic perspective.

But prudentially, if an applicant decides not to reveal certain goals and/or tailors their application to meet the expectations of the particular programs (for which they do not agree with), then it could benefit him or her insofar as he or she might get accepted that way.

But this route has its cost as well: If you don’t entirely agree with the ethos of the program and tailor yourself to that ethos, then your experience can be miserable because you might lack support and adequate intellectual and professional development from it.

For example, if an applicant loves teaching while still want to be competent in X field, then applying to a program that does not value teaching and/or is generally unhelpful at preparing their students for teaching-focused schools and jobs could make the graduate school experience worse than expected.

Whatever advice or route the applicant decides to take, he or she must list as many costs, benefits, and unintended negative consequences that can arise from said advice or route. In other words, the applicant must assess whether he or she is willing to pay the (unintended negative) costs of their decision.

Thus, although it may be prudential for applicants to hide things and tailor their application to the expectation of the program (even though they may not agree with them) they should proceed with caution and suggest that it is also prudential to *not* hide or tailor things just to meet the program’s expectations and/or ethos.

Both decisions can have their benefits and (unintended negative) costs and hence we should not be one-sided about this issue, lest we risk them being (more) miserable during graduate school than what they’d expect.

other anon admissions committee member

Prospective grad applicant—I'm not sure I would recommend putting some specific 'end' or career goal in your statement of purpose, despite its title. Most applicants don't know the distinction between 'research jobs' and 'teaching jobs', some might not even know the distinction between 'types' of professors (adjunct, lecturer, TT professor). Even if you are more knowledgable than the average applicant, there's no need to say what kind of job you would or would not be satisfied with. If this is the 'next step' in your education, and you want to become a Kant scholar (even just briefly, although you don't have to say that), I think that's wonderful, and I wouldn't risk coming off as "unserious" to some by saying you aren't going to adjunct for the rest of your life if the TT job doesn't pan out (as reasonable and healthy a statement as that is).

Alex Grzankowski

I agree with much that’s come above (especially ‘be professional’ and ‘avoid over sharing’) but I haven’t seen much on something I always tell students (typically MA going for PhD but sometimes BA applying to various levels of postgrad): give me some tangible evidence that you are ready for the next level. For example, I think it goes a long way in a personal statement to say that you have written a paper on X and one on Y and as a result you are now really interesting in pursuing question Z. Now I know that you have done some research and writing on the things that interest you (even if only at a BA level) and that your goals are grounding in something more than a dream. Even if you mostly did coursework in an area that isn’t the one you plan to pursue, it would be surprising if some of the things you actually did didn’t shape your interest and decisions. Some brief details about a BA or MA dissertation/thesis/capstone project might also be useful - “after spending a year working closely with person A on project B, I have affirmed that I have a passion for research and writing...” or whatever. The general point is that when I am looking at applications (MA and PhD), I want to see some tangible evidence that you are prepared and knowledgeable about the very hard path you are about the embark on. [As an aside: This is one of the advantages of having an MA (to connect to another thread Marcus posted on MAs and debt) - you have more tangible evidence that you are focused and serious and ready.]

I started thinking in these terms when I wrote a very lame teaching statement for my job file and someone at a SLAC gave me the very good advice of dropping all the fluffy stuff and putting in concrete evidence of what I actually do in the classroom. Likewise, I think personal statements are much improved when they don’t just use a professional tone and trim off the very personals origin stories, but also show an evidence-based preparedness (as far as on can for their level of training).

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