Friday, December 27, 2019

Writing a Statement of Purpose for Linguistics Graduate School

All linguistics graduate schools require prospective students to write a Statement of Purpose (SOP). And faculty members of those schools place great weight on them. From personal experience, I can say that the SOP is the most important document that I read when evaluating a student application.

So what exactly is a SOP and why is it so important?

The SOP conveys the relevant background and interests of the student to the faculty of the linguistics department that the student is applying to. There is usually a page limit (e.g., three pages), so the student has to be brief and to the point. The faculty members read the student applications (including the SOPs) and then decide which students to admit to the program. Competitive programs will admit 10 students out of 130 students (with a yield of around 6). So the competition is fierce.

I always start reading a student application with the statement of purpose. And I probably reject about 60% or more of all applications that I read just on the basis of the statement of purpose alone. In concrete terms, that means that I do not put the applicant on my final list of students that I want to accept.

Despite the importance of the SOP for graduate admissions, there is little information out there on how to write a strong one. Foreign students often ask me to tell them what a SOP is exactly. When I helped organize the African Linguistics School, I created a popular Sunday workshop on writing a SOP. Based on this experience, I have put together some practical advice.

Describe your area of interest.

One of the biggest reasons that I reject an application is because their interests do not match those of the program. For example, if a student applies to NYU and says that they want to specialize in forensic linguistics, then I will simply reject the application since no faculty member at NYU specializes in forensic linguistics. If we admitted a student whose primary interest was forensic linguistics, that student would be unhappy with our course offerings and would possibly transfer to a different program (wasting years of their time and ours). Similarly, we do not have faculty members who specializes in historical linguistics (e.g., an Indo-Europeanist). So if an applicant lists historical linguistics as their main area of interest, I will probably reject the application. As another example, if a student states that they want to work in Functional Grammar, I will probably reject the application. It is not because I have a bias against Functional Grammar, but rather nobody in the department is knowledgeable about it. So once again admitting such a student would not be in their best interests.

The problem with (1) is that students often do not have narrow interests when they are applying to graduate school. That is OK. Faculty members understand that. But you should be as specific as you can be. If you have a range of interests, you can talk about more than one. That will help us decided if you are a good match for our program.

You should also do your homework. Try to find out about the interests of the faculty members of the departments you apply to. Ask your professors, other students and the DUGS (Director of Undergraduate Studies) about it. Go to the departmental web site, and look around. Doing this research into departments will ultimately save you time and energy and money in the long run, since you can avoid applying to places that are clearly not a good fit for you. Such research also might ultimately help you to further articulate your own interests.

Some applicants even mention the names of people they want to work with (e.g, “I would like to work with Prof. Collins because of his interest in the Khoisan languages.”). However, I do not think that such name dropping is necessary to have a strong SOP.

Be restrained about relating personal anecdotes.

One of the mysterious overwhelming desires of students writing a SOP is to explain how they originally got interested in linguistics, usually based on some event that occurred during their childhood. Perhaps they migrated from a different country, and so have been exposed to several different languages. Perhaps their grandmother only spoke X (e.g., Yiddish or Yoruba or Tok Pisin) and because of this, they would now like to explore it. Perhaps they found out about poetry through Mr. Jones 9th grade poetry class, and became enchanted with it, leading to a more general interest in how language works. These anecdotes are entertaining, and make great conversational topics at parties, etc. But they do little to help me decide if you should be admitted to our program.

Show that you are ready for graduate school.

Another common reason that I reject students is that I feel that they are not quite ready for graduate school. Graduate school is extremely difficulty intellectually. You need to absorb a massive amount of material (reading several papers per week in different subjects), and you are expected to produce research frequently. Many classes, even in the first year, require that you write squibs that might be further developed into QPs (Qualifying Papers) in your second and third years. If I feel that a student does not have the proper background to succeed in graduate school, I will reject them. For example, if the student only has a minor in linguistics, has never written a research paper, and has not taken any advanced linguistics courses, the best course of action for them might be to get an MA in a different program before applying to more challenging programs.

One way to show your readiness for graduate school is to briefly talk about your background in linguistics. What kinds of courses did you take (e.g., “I have taken three graduate courses in syntax.”)? For example, you can talk about a particular class that you found stimulating. What kinds of topics captivated you in that class (e.g., “Although challenging, professor Partee’s lectures on the lambda calculus changed my life.”)? Some of this material will also be evident from the transcripts, so you do not have to go into the detail that is already available there.

Another way to show readiness for graduate school is to describe research projects (e.g., UROP) that you have been involved in. You may not want to pursue that research in graduate school, but just the fact that you have been involved in a real life research project shows that you know what you are getting into and also helps convince the reader that you are ready for graduate work.

Say something specific about why you are interested in linguistics.

In (1), you described your area of interest. Here you should elaborate on that. What particular topics are you interested in and why? If you are interested in doing research on a particular language or language family, talk about the constructions you would like to look into (e.g., possessive constructions). Give an example and walk through it (make sure to use standard glossing conventions). If you have done research already, you can discuss it. What were your results? Why are they important? Are you interested in pursuing it further and if so, how would you do it? If there are particular books or papers or people who have influenced you, you can talk about them (e.g., "I am interested in looking into the consequences of Kayne 1994 for theories of extraposition.").

However, it is definitely not required that you be focussed on one narrow topic. Faculty understand that you are at the beginning of your studies, and you have not yet narrowed down. In fact, you should be open to exploring various topics. You never know what might resonate with you. Rather, I am suggesting here that you describe your interests, meaning the kinds of things that you have seen or worked on that you find exciting, and that are pulling you towards linguistics.

A SOP is not a contract.

If are passionate about some topic, and would really like to work on that topic in graduate school, talk about it. Give an example, and say why you want to work on it. The SOP is not a contract. If you change your mind later, that is fine. Nobody will hold you to what you proposed in your SOP. But talking about what you are passionate about is usually a safe bet.

Summarize your writing sample.

If you submit a writing sample, do not automatically assume that the reader has read it. Use the opportunity to briefly summarize the writing sample. Incidentally, if you are applying for a linguistics department, then your writing sample should be about linguistics, not something else (like the history of the Roman empire). I am definitely not going to read a non-linguistic writing sample when faced with 130 applications to evaluate. Similarly, if at all possible, your letter writers should be written by linguists or people from related fields. If you ask your Starbucks shift manager to write a letter of recommendation, that letter will probably not be very helpful in deciding whether you should be admitted to the program.

Don’t be sloppy!

The SOP is important so please take it seriously. Typos and awkward writing are sometimes excusable (especially if minor and infrequent). After all, everybody is human and makes mistakes. But if the whole thing looks sloppy that sends a very bad signal. Have somebody read it and reread it and then reread it again to make sure it is well written. Here is a tip: Do not wait until the evening of the day it is due to starting writing the SOP. If you do, there is no way you will get feedback before you submit. If you put the name of a department in the SOP (e.g., if you mention the NYU Department of Linguistics), be sure that you make the relevant changes if you apply to another university (e.g., Harvard). I usually receive one or two applications a year with this kind of mistake, and it looks very sloppy.

Get feedback.

As a last tip, if you are still uncertain about how to write a SOP, ask somebody. Ask your professors for help. But also ask somebody who has some experience reading SOPs. If you have friends applying to graduate school, you can read each other’s SOPs and discuss them. In some cases, you might also be able to reach out to certain faculty members in the program you are applying to and ask for feedback.

You can see my SOP (Statement of Objectives) when I applied to MIT (1988-1993) here. I have also annotated it with comments about how I would rewrite it if I had the chance.

For a list of examples of SOPs, see the following post:

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