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Preparing Your Statement of Purpose

November 25, 2014
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A blog post from SOLES Ambassador and PhD in Leadership Studies, Elizabeth Castillo:

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photo credit: CC (Creative Commons) by Calsidyrose

Pursuing a graduate degree requires a major intellectual, financial, and emotional commitment. To get the most out of your investment, it’s essential to become very clear about what you hope to accomplish.

Your Statement of Purpose is the opportunity to develop this clarity and assess your readiness to make the commitment. R.W. Hamming’s “You and Your Research” is a resource that helped me clarify my research goals. Hamming was a researcher at Bell Labs, where he saw many bright co-workers come and go over his 30-year career. He noticed that only a few of his colleagues found lasting success. He began to wonder why most scientists fail to make genuine contributions in their fields. In a 1986 speech Hamming offered some tips for becoming a success story as a researcher:

  • Work on the right problem, at the right time, in the right way. Not every problem is ripe for solving. Time travel, for example, is probably an overly ambitious problem. Instead, Hamming suggests you’ll have more impact by finding a viable entry point for your research. Start by outlining what is known and what questions remain unanswered. Talk about the puzzling aspects to as many people as possible, especially people who differ from you—the more different, the better. This will help you gain a broader understanding of the issue. Connect those perspectives to what you know already. Your thinking will evolve and generate new insights.
  • Articulate a vision about who you are, who you want to become, and where you want to go. In my case, I was a fundraiser who came to see that philanthropy could never have sufficient resources to solve the world’s social problems. Through my doctoral studies I set out to develop a new way of thinking about philanthropy, focusing on resource creation instead of efficiency. By building on past experiences and connecting those experiences to your motivations for graduate study, you will likely discover critical research questions that need answers.
  • Work on problems for which you have an emotional commitment. My friend and fellow doctoral student, Kenyon Whitman, calls this “me-search.” Hamming believed that internal motivation, fueled by personal passion for the problem, is the key to research success. As you seek to solve difficult research puzzles you will invariably experience frustration and setbacks. Having passion and a profound commitment to discovering the solution will get you through those bumpy spots.
  • Develop a tolerance for ambiguity. This was one of the hardest shifts for me to make. Previously I had thought of graduate study as an effort to learn all the answers, an aspiration that seemed impossible. Now I see that graduate school is also about unlearning, creating, and becoming willing to see the world with new eyes. At its core, the essence of research is delving into the unknown. Much like an explorer, you are venturing into the intellectual wilderness. While it feels unsettling at first, it becomes quite thrilling.
  • Create your work in ways that others can build on it. We all want to carve out a research niche and make a name for ourselves so we can get a job after we graduate. Yet there is great risk in becoming too proprietary. By sharing and communicating our research we contribute to building knowledge. It’s up to us to forge connections with other researchers and the public. Who else is working on this problem? Who will be the end user of the solution? Start building a network with these kindred spirits and nurturing relationships with them.

As you prepare for graduate study, Hamming’s insights are a good starting point for developing a compelling Statement of Purpose. You will also find that a clear sense of purpose becomes your guiding compass, helping you navigate a path to academic and career success.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Toni permalink
    January 5, 2015 10:10 PM

    This was extraordinarily helpful, especially the note about possessing a “personal passion for the problem.” My thoughts were all over the place but now I have a more clear and concise idea for my own personal statement. Cheers!

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