6. Tips for writing the statement of purpose

1. Personal statement vs. statement of purpose. I have often thought of “personal statement” and “statement of purpose” as being synonymous. However, I think “statement of purpose” is a more face valid name for this very important piece of your application materials. I’ll explain. To my mind, a “personal statement” implies that the writer is going to tell the reader something about the writer as a person. That might include things like the writer’s passions, hobbies, values, and important life experiences. While I do very much want to get to know my students as people, your passions, hobbies, values, and important life experiences will have little impact on how I review your application. What will impact how I review your application is the skills and research experiences you’ve acquired that make you prepared for a research-intensive degree.

But because we often refer to the “statement of purpose” document as a “personal statement,” sometimes applicants end up making this document too heavy on the personal elements (note, this is all my personal opinion and other reasonable people may feel differently). Sometimes applicants devote the majority of their statement of purpose to describing why they’re passionate about clinical psychology. Sometimes that includes talking about their own personal or family experiences with mental health problems. With my clinical hat on, I certainly find these personal details intriguing and am regularly impressed by how resilient, adaptive, and strong people can be. But with my PhD advisor hat on–which is the hat I have on when I’m reviewing applications–these personal details are less compelling because these details don’t communicate the applicant’s readiness for a research degree within a research-intensive environment.

I want to be clear that having one’s own and/or family experience with mental health problems is NOT something that I perceive negatively. (Though see the bottom of this document for a relevant historical/contextual caveat.) In fact, it’s totally normal for applicants to have had their lives touched by mental health problems in some way and for that to motivate them to pursue a clinical pyschology PhD–that’s literally why I’m in this field! In my opinion, talking about one’s own or loved one’s experiences with mental health problems within a statement of purpose can be effective if that information helps communicate how someone got to where they are now (e.g., in a few-ish sentences). However, if the lived experience details/observations are prioritized over information that communicates the applicant’s research-related experiences that prepare them for a research-intensive environment, I think those details (and/or the length of those details) could weaken the statement of purpose.

My advice is to keep in mind that almost everything you write in your statement of purpose needs to help the reader evaluate your readiness for research in that lab specifically. If that includes briefly describing some personal/lived experiences, great. If that doesn’t include personal/lived experiences, also great. Being an effective scholar/scientist is not dependent on lived experience, but it is dependent on research skills and experiences. Taken together, I think “statement of purpose” is a better name for this document in this context because I think it does a better job of implying the type of info that will be the most compelling and effective.

2. What should I highlight in my statement of purpose? I think the most effective statements of purpose show rather than tell. For instance, I noted in my “Who is a good fit” document (#3 in this series) that people who have relevant experience are a good fit for me. In your statement of purpose, just saying “I did a senior thesis” or “I know how to follow a protocol” won’t help me understand where you’re coming from, what skills you have, how you think, or what you know. Instead, show me that you did that stuff. Walk me through what you did, why you did it, what you learned, how you stumbled and recovered, etc.

3. Pro tip for personalizing a statement of purpose to a professor. Effectively personalizing your statement of purpose to a professor is hard. Here are some quick thoughts on sentiments that are less vs. more effective.

Less effective:

  • “I’m applying to X professor because our research interests align.”
  • “I’m applying to X lab because I’m passionate about Y topic.”

The examples above are less effective because they’re essentially pre-requisites for someone applying to a given lab. I would expect that anyone who is applying to work with me is interested in and/or passionate about the topics I study. Therefore, answers like those above won’t distinguish you from other applicants applying to the lab. These examples also don’t show PIs how you (specifically) think. I would love for your statement of purpose to give me a preview of how you think, because I love chatting with, learning from, and working with people who think about things in unique ways, who think critically, who think systematically, who see things from angles I haven’t considered, etc.

More effective: Ask yourself some or all of the following questions. Your answers are things you may want to use to communicate a clear and distinguishing explanation for why you’re applying to a specific lab.

  • What types of specific questions or topics might you want to ask or study in this lab specifically? Why are these questions interesting? How are they innovative? What excites you about them?
  • What types of skills might you want to learn in this lab specifically? Why do you want to learn them? How might these skills prepare you for your next steps post-PhD?
  • Is there training in a particular type of intervention that you’d get? If so, why do you care about that and why is it interesting to you specifically? (although I’m not currently doing intervention work [though plan to in the future], this Q might be good to ask yourself for labs that are doing intervention work)
  • How does this lab align with and/or expand on what you’ve done before? How might your previous experiences bring a new perspective to the lab and expand the lab’s research?

*Caveat: Historically, some people in the field of clinical psychology believed that people who had lived experience with psychopathology should/could not be effective clinicians or researchers. There was also an attitude that if you had personal experience, you definitely COULD NOT talk about it. These attitudes are stigmatizing and not aligned with data. Lived experience is not only understandable and statistically normal, but it can also motivate major advances in the field (e.g., the development of DBT). If the topic of psychologists with lived experience is of interest, check out Sarah Victor’s groundbreaking work.

Lauren Forrest, PhD
Lauren Forrest, PhD
Assistant Professor