Friday, February 9, 2007

Tips for Graduate Students writing Statements of Purpose

As a professor who reviews graduate applications, I have discovered that the weakest part of the application is usually the statement of purpose because students don't seem to know what to include or how to write this genre. So, for what it is worth, here are my suggestions for writing more successful personal statements.

The statement of purpose is NOT
  • an autobiography about how you became interested in religious studies or biblical studies
  • a lengthy rehearsal of everything you have done in college (or: everything you have done out of college)
  • a vague discussion about what you think you are interested in studying further
The statement of purpose should
  • begin with a strong paragraph of specifics introducing yourself and your professional goals (i.e. to become a professor, minister, editor, so on)
  • move on to state what program you are applying to and why you want to be admitted to that particular program (i.e. program's resources, specific professors you'd like to study with, areas of study available in the program, and so on)
  • go on to explain specifically what you intend to study and what research area(s) you wish to pursue for your thesis work (do not be vague; you can always shift topics later if you change your mind)
  • include a short paragraph about the qualifications you bring to the program (i.e., languages, fellowships, publications, previous study) and why you should be admitted
  • this should all be accomplished in under two organized pages


Nick Kiger said...

Professor Deconick,

I'm glad you posted this. If you don't mind, I'd like to ask for some additional advice while the topic is still here. I'm an MTS student who is planning on going on to PhD work. Is there any additional advice you would give me, someone who doesn't have an MA in applying for PhD work? I'd like to add here that I have been treating my MTS like a traditional MA. I'm doing a thesis and so on. Thanks again for your advice!

April DeConick said...

It depends what you want to do in PhD work. But if you are going into ancient studies, what you want to emphasize is your language work. If you have Hebrew, Greek and your research languages French and German, that is always good. Coptic (or Syriac) is one of those extra bonuses that committees love. Funding for PhD work is limited, so departments want their graduate students to enter with most if not all of their languages already underway. This way you don't have to spend years training in them.

If you are after a PhD, then I would be very clear about your approach to texts. PhD programs are NOT looking for apologists. They are looking for students who have some sophistication in historical method and modern/post-modern theory.

Critical writing skills are a must too. So work on your writing sample so that it reflects academic approaches to the material.

The GREs are important, especially the verbal score. It must be above 70%. This isn't so much an issue for admission to a program, but it is an issue for the funding of the institution. So it matters, not so much to the professors on the committee, but definitely to the university.

Finally, personally contact the professors in the programs you are interested in. If at all possible, interview with them so that you get to know each other and see if there will be a good fit. Let them know your desire to work with them in their program.

Nick Kiger said...

They won't have to worry about me being an apologist, that's for sure! Does presenting papers at conferences like SBL help? I'm presenting at the international SBL in July and I have proposed a paper for the annual meeting in San Diego.

BCLandau said...

Hi Nicholas,
As a grad student who's wrapping up the dissertation, I just wanted to weigh in on this. Professor DeConick's advice for getting your PhD application in order is all very spot-on, and there's nothing contrary I'd suggest there. My advice is more "big picture."

Anyone who's contemplating applying for a PhD in the humanities should be aware that it is an *extremely* competitive job market right now. Tenure-track positions are not easy to obtain, and it may take several years beyond the doctorate to secure one. If you want to do a PhD in Ancient Judaism or Christianity and you have your heart absolutely set on teaching in higher education, then it is very important to go to one of the top doctoral programs (Yale, Harvard, Brown, Princeton, Duke, Chicago, Michigan, Claremont, and a few others)...straying too far from the top can really impede your chances.

And, also realize that if you're not into apologetics, this will winnow the list of jobs for which you'd be suited even further, since a good number of seminaries and religiously affiliated colleges require faculty to sign a statement of faith.

There are certainly things you can do as a doctoral student to help your cause. Giving conference papers at SBL, International SBL, North American Patristics Society, etc, is definitely helpful, especially if you can give papers on a few different topics to show that you have multiple areas of interest. Also, the sooner you can publish something, the better. After general exams, you've usually got enough familiarity with the field to tackle a book review or two. And, there's no harm in sending out an article for publication (but get a faculty member to look at it first) has to go through an anonymous peer review process anyway, so it's not going to hurt your reputation if they reject it.

All of this is to say that being an academic in religious studies can be quite a tough row to hoe in terms of employment, so you'll want to go down that path with your eyes open. That said, there's nothing I'd rather be doing than teaching, thinking, and writing about this material for a living. This is all much further in the future than you are right now, but I think it's worth considering.

Nick Kiger said...

Thanks a lot for that advice as well. I'm actually lookiing at a few different programs, one being a comparative studies program that encompasses literature, folklore, and religion. Within that program at Ohio State there is now an ancient mediterranean religions concentration. Ohio State has a huge folklore and mythology library, and the program looks very good. Thanks again for all the advice!

April DeConick said...

What is important for getting a job is another question altogether. The choice of a school for graduate studies should depend on your area of specialization and the scholars you wish to study with. Just because you might graduate from a particular school, does not guarantee employment. Yes it is competitive. It usually takes between 3 to 5 years after graduation before landing a tenure track job.

What do we look for when hiring? Superb letters of recommentation from scholars we know, training with scholars who are internationally known, area fit (that your specialization is what we are looking for - this is a VERY big factor), collegiality, teaching experience, and that you have published/participated in conferences/or have a strong potential and interest to do so. I can not emphasize how important it is for you to get your dissertation rewritten as a book and published within the first couple of years out. If you can write the disseration with this in mind, it will make the process easier. Ask your mentor to send the manuscript to her or his publisher with a letter on your behalf. What you have to do to have a successful career is get your name attached to a subject. So publishing and conference going is the key. Period.