Would you like to know how to write a statement of purpose (SOP) for a Ph.D. program? First piece of advice–forget everything you know about writing SOPs. That’s because SOPs for graduate research programs are fundamentally different than SOPs for undergraduate programs or for professional schools (like law or medicine). For that reason, most of the general advice you find online or even from mentors about writing SOPs will be useless, or even harmful, when you apply to a Ph.D. program.
In undergraduate program SOPs, students are typically encouraged to paint a vivid picture of what they were like growing up, and how that made them the person they are today. That is exactly what you want to avoid in a Ph.D. SOP. Nobody in a Ph.D. program wants to read sentence after sentence about your love of learning as a child and how it grew.
People who are reading a SOP for Ph.D. programs care about two things: (1) Do you have the potential to be an outstanding scholar? And (2) are your research interests a good match for the Ph.D. program and its faculty? Anything beyond these two things is superflous. Your SOP should thus be directed to getting these two things across. Here are essential elements, though they need not be in this order:
1. Your research interests. What are you interested in researching? What makes that interesting and important? How are you interested in looking at it? You don’t need to have a precise research question for your dissertation, but neither should you be too broad and general, i.e., “I’m interested in investigating social psychology”. You can mention a couple of different possible areas that are of interest if you wish.
2. Your research and academic background. What about your prior experience has prepared you to be a successful Ph.D. student and scholar? You can briefly mention your personal background here, especially if it suggests you will contribute to diversity in graduate studies and research, but the main focus should be on the knowledge, skills, and expertise you have developed through course work, previous research projects, professional work, etc.
3. Why this program is a good match for you. You can make reference to any of its faculty, their research programs, labs and research centers in the department, the specializations or structure of the program, etc. Basically, given your background, research interests, and career goal, what is it about this program that will help you achieve your goal?
4. Your career goal. This can be brief, but it should be research oriented if you want to be taken seriously for a Ph.D. program.
Again, these things can be mixed or combined in different ways and in different order. I’m not suggesting that they need to be enumerated as above. Just trying to give a sense of what is important to include.
Good luck in your Ph.D. applications!