Lab Meeting Activity - The Statement of Purpose

I’ve previously written about my efforts to lead a lab meeting with our undergraduate RAs. I had another opportunity to lead this week and thought we could spend some time thinking and talking about a key part of applications for a range of academic opportunities - the statement of purpose.

In the past, I have had people individually ask me for advice on writing the statement of purpose. There’s the obvious stuff, like have a lot of people read it, make sure you tailor it to the place it is going, and that you show interest, passion, and capability in the text of the thing. However, there are a few other things I usually tell people which come from my own experience. Are these extra things true more generally? I’m really not sure. Maybe I’ve been giving bad advice to all these poor advice-seekers.

In advance of the lab meeting, I asked some of my friends and colleagues if they would be willing to share statements they had written in the past. I was fortunate to have a final tally of 8 statements, including two I contributed myself (one from my first, unsuccessful attempt at PhD applications, and the other from my second round of applications). After collecting these, I removed as much identifying information as possible (i.e. all references to names and places of previous academic and professional positions and desired future positions or mentors), and brought multiple printouts of each to lab meeting.

The Activity

In the meeting, I spent a few minutes talking about the statement of purpose and what it was, and then gave them the next steps:

  1. Everyone gets into groups of 3.
  2. Each group gets 4 statements to read.
  3. After reading, the group decides on ratings for the essays (1-10 scale).
  4. Once all groups have decided on ratings, I collect these.
  5. Essay-by-essay, we go through and have the groups comment on their ratings. What worked in a given essay and what did not work.

The Outcome

I should say off the bat that this was really successful. The RAs got really into it and had plenty to say about what they liked and didn’t like. The next day, several of them independently told me that they thought it was a great meeting, so this is one I’ll definitely use again, and I encourage you to try it yourself if you have an opportunity. It’s extra great because the planning is pretty minimal. The most time consuming piece is reaching out to friends to collect the statements and de-identifying them. I spent maybe 10 minutes thinking about what to say about statements in general. I think it helps that I have some strong thoughts on statements of purpose, graduate school admissions, etc.

On the more challenging end was making sure that everyone got something out of it. Which statements did they like best? Not surprisingly, they tended to favor statements penned by individuals who had clearly engaged in an extensive amount of research before they applied. They also tended to like statement where the research interests matched those of our lab. I would like to find some way to pare this information aside and focus just on structure and writing, as these are things that someone can change about their statements immediately. Beefing up the research credentials takes a long time, and one isn’t really going to change their research interests for the sake of getting into grad school - it kind of defeats the point, no?

Larger Concerns

I’ve since thought a lot about what it means to look favorably on the person who has the most research experience. I like to fantasize that my research has the potential to do some social good - specifically, reducing inequality between groups of people. For that reason, it’s probably pretty important that I select the candidate who is the best fit for the job, right?

Unfortunately, this is, in some ways, directly at cross-odds with the goals of reducing inequality. Who are the people who tend to have lots of research experience? They’re the ones who are fortunate to have the time and resources and support to do it, and are in places where it is talked about and encouraged. These tend to cluster within certain groups of people (white, male, affluent). By selecting the person who, on paper, has the most experience and therefore can best advance the work, am I not then part of the problem as well?

It’s a difficult problem, and I’m not sure exactly what to do about it. I’m not yet in the position to admit graduate students, or hire prospective employees, but I hope that I soon will be. It would be great to have a strategy to deal with this before that time.

Written on February 20, 2015
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