How to write a statement of purpose for computing-as-an-approach PhD programs

26 Nov 2021 – Annabel

This guide comes with a few important caveats:

  • I have never sat on a hiring / admissions committee. I read a lot of graduate statements as a part of formal and informal outreach programs, but I am not a decision-maker myself; my idea of what a “good” statement looks like is based on whether their authors ended up joining a program that they were happy to be joining rather than my own judgment of what a “good” program looks like.
  • This is specific to PhD applications in interdisciplinary fields that use computing as a means to an end, i.e. computing for the sake of computing is NOT the goal. While there’s a lot of excellent advice on there about applications for roles in which the technology is the focus, there’s less on technology-as-a-tool minded folks, which is the population I intend to speak to. Examples of people for whom this guide might be useful: those interested in iSchool programs (which tend to prioritize implications of information exchange rather than the exchange system design details), contemporary human-computer interaction (HCI) questions, computer science education (CS-ed, CS-E), HCI meets programming languages, etc. An example of one good guide for more tools-as-a-focus folks is that of Mor Harchol-Balter.
  • This advice applies to the United States where my experience is centered. Some of it may apply to other educational systems, some may not.
  1. Make sure you’re writing the right statement. Language between programs (even at the same school) vary a great deal. You should always confirm that the statement they’re asking for is the one you’re writing. In my impression (but this is not a perfect delineation, so double check) a “statement of purpose” explains who you are and why you’re applying to the program you’re applying. If it’s paired with a “personal statement”, the former should emphasize research and your personal background as it related DIRECTLY to your research. If it’s a “personal statement” paired with a “research statement”, the research statement should be exclusively about what research topic you’re interested and why; the personal statement can explain your motivations for applying for a PhD in the first place. Throughout this guide I’m referring to all of the above with “statement”, but pay attention to balance the kind of content with the kind of statement.
  2. Use your CV properly. Your essays need not reiterate the specific details of any past internships, jobs, or publications (if you have them – a gentle reminder that the expectation PhD applications already have publications is elitist, and you should not worry if you don’t have them). Instead, focus on what you learned in those experiences, and why you sought them out (if relevant). For example, you need not include a references section in your personal statement that includes full citations for your works; rather you can refer to your “Cool Conference ’21 publication” or “personal project A” in which you had the chance to study underwater basket weaving in detail, how it informed your desire to study the way in which fibers can be combined while immersed, which explains why you want to get your PhD in underwater basket weaving. Readers can then flip to the publication area of your CV if they want more details on the venue or the publication or nature of the project.
  3. The Rules of 3. Now is not the time for complex, flowery language. I started my undergraduate career as an English major – I promise you, I love a good metaphor as much as the rest of them – but you should avoid including any figurative language. Your readers (potential advisors, other faculty members) will scan your statement for the first time in a few minutes, often three or less. You want to use simple, precise language that is easy to follow. Further, avoid run-on sentences at all cost. A general rule is (assuming a Times New Roman 11 font or similar) no sentence should go longer than 2 lines, three at the absolute most. If this is a familiar binary to you, keep reading, otherwise don’t worry about it: in my mind, statements of purpose should be written in German-esque language, not French. The former emphasizes direct language, the latter tends to speak broadly and indirectly (e.g., to say it’s raining outside, German says just that, while the structure of French dictates something closer to “there is some rain which is outside”). There’s a place for both in the real world, but on a space-limited statement one is sometimes better suited.
  4. Time to brag factually. For many of us, bragging may be uncomfortable and/or an anti-social practice (hello from your Scandinavian-descended author), but you should be factual about your accomplishments. Check that your language is active and emphasizes your contribution. For example, you didn’t “work on the larger team” that explored basket weaving, you “explored basket weaving” as a member of “the Basket-Weaving Lab”. The latter centers you, the former diminishes your role. This is a great time to have a friend or family members who knows you well read your essay. They don’t need to have any domain knowledge (besides language familiarity with the language your statement is written in) or experience with an application statement or graduate education; the goal is that they’ve heard you talk about the things you’ve worked on, your challenges and successes, and can help you gut-check that you’re speaking to those fully and giving yourself enough credit. If you don’t have someone who fits those qualifications, you should reach out to me and I would be happy to fill in. Finally, I found it useful to keep in mind that a potential advisor was hiring me, not the team I worked with; therefore, while it’s important to convey that it was not an individual project, you can focus on your role on the project.
  5. Make smart use of space. When you’re transitioning experiences or ideas, make sure to start a new paragraph and use clear transition sentences between each; this will help readers visually recognize there’s a shift occurring which should reflect the change (or evolution) you’re trying to demonstrate. Following United States-English grammar rules, your paragraphs should subsist of at least 3-4 sentences, so be careful they’re not too short.
  6. The “Why I’m Not Going to Drop Out” thesis. Let’s be clear here, there should be no shame in dropping out of a PhD program; the program might not be the right fit, you might have found something better to do with your time, etc. The goal of this rule is to help you structure your work in a way that conveys your interests clearly to your advisor. At the end of the day, your potential future advisor will be sinking a big chunk of their research budget into you, so they likely want a clear picture on how interested you are in the thing you’re studying. This is where the computing-as-a-tool-but-not-the-focus requires special attention –- what is the domain you’re interested in studying and why? The most compelling statements I’ve read often open with some personal passion followed by some experience with computing in which computing became a tool to address that passion. The key here (IMO) is to be truthful: what is your connection to the domain area and why is it that thing that “keeps you up at night” (i.e., is always on the back of your mind). For me, that thing was data literacy –- when I watch the news, I tend to subject those around me to a tirade on why many of our domestic problems in the United States come back to a lack of critical data literacy and a social environment that doesn’t support active questioning of authority. You don’t have to indicate that this topic takes over your life –- please take time for both yourself and your hobbies! –- but you should explain how it shapes your perspective / provides a frame of reference.
  7. Run it past someone else. This section is also depressing, because it reinforces a lot of privileges those with family / friends / peers who meet certain criteria already have; e.g., connections with proficient English-speakers, adjacency to those with higher education (namely, PhD-level), etc. There is a plus-side however: many programs have pre-read assistance programs for applicants who don’t have those advantages to get preliminary (i.e., non-official) feedback from current students. You can inquire with specific programs; most have a deadline well in advance of the actual application deadline (so you have time to incorporate feedback), so start looking in late September and early October. We have one at the Georgia Tech College of Computing that I’m happy to answer questions about, or direct you to someone with more information. With that being said, you should go through (IMO) somewhere between two and four rounds of feedback. Getting more than that may dilute your voice and purpose.
    • First read: someone who has familiarity with a PhD application (doesn’t have to be specific to your research area; experience in US higher education is preferable). This is the person who should tell you “nice first try” and hand you back a copy marked in lots of red pen. Their job is to tell how well your statement aligns to the goals of a statement in PhD applications generally. My first reader was a friend who is studying for their PhD in Biology –- I promise, there was literally no content overlap in our fields –- but she could tell me that my opening was trite and that I talked too much about my motivation and too little about my concrete research experience.
    • Second read: someone who has familiarity in your area (educational background doesn’t matter). They can help you make sure you’re using the right language to talk about the things you discuss. They might know specific terms that will help your reader connect immediately with what you’re trying to say. In absence of such a reader, check your terms on a resource like Wikipedia that will show you related terms. Use it to double check your definitions and take a few minutes to explore adjacent areas briefly to make sure there’s not a better term. As a general idea, it’s always good to default to spelling out a term you’re using and then introducing the abbreviation (e.g., information retrieval as “IR”) in case there’s any confusion or ambiguity for your reader (they might have a background in international relations, for example, and the abbreviation could be confusing).
    • Third read: shortly before you submit it, have someone who knows you well and has English-language proficiency double check your grammar and that you defaulted to active language and fully expounded on your contribution and role in group projects (see #4).
  8. After you submit. Find inner peace with that one grammar mistake you made. You’re going to find at least one. Good news: your readers probably won’t catch it and, if they do, they probably won’t care. As people who have submitted many a statement in their own lives, they can probably tell you some of their favorite post-submissions errors they found in their own statements. Mine is that I spelled “the” as “teh” and somehow didn’t catch it between manual proof reading and an automatic spell-checker. If a potential advisor cares enough to disregard your application entirely, I promise you, you don’t want to be working with them.
  9. Roughly one year afterwards. Share your experience and knowledge for the next round of students! Make yourself available to communities around you (as you are able to) to help other perspective PhD students adjust to the “hidden curriculum” that is statements. You could join the staff of a pre-read program, for example.







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