I am currently filling out a few PhD applications for computer science, and I have noticed a strong pattern in Statement of Purpose (SOP) guidelines that try to incentivise you to discuss your economic background, and how that shaped your life. To be clear, I am not against this, I understand how overcoming poverty can be a huge part of someone's identity.

I grew up in a third world country, where my family was below the poverty line for a few years during the recession. My family's financial situation has since improved tremendously after my father immigrated to another country for work.

However, I can't help but be overwhelmed with extreme sadness when I think of that period of my life. I go to a therapist every week and I haven'd even had the ability to talk about that period without having an emotional breakdown. There was simply too many stressful and pitiful memories during that period.

So I am left in a dilemma, should I discuss this in my SOP? I've really only discussed this with my long term girlfriend, and no one else knows about it. I feel it can provide a better "context" about my achievements, but to be frank, I believe my application is already competitive given my research and publication background without that context.

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    What about integrating those experiences into your motivation for choosing a research area? AIUI, the root of the experience was that your parents couldn't find decently-paid work in your home country; the mention of "recession" suggests this was because the supply of capital to create good employment opportunities dried up. Some innovations in CS, when applied in industry, introduce ways to do productive (remunerative) work without needing much capital; others introduce ways for investors to make returns without needing many workers. Presumably, you'll prefer to work on the former type. Nov 9, 2020 at 12:38
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    Who are the authors of these guidelines? If they come from "The Graduate School", or other administrators, then do pay attention to them, but take them with a grain of salt. It will be CS faculty whom you're trying to impress.
    – academic
    Nov 9, 2020 at 13:14
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    It has been covered in the answers, but this would be more appropriate for a personal statement, not a statement of purpose. So make sure you have the right one Nov 9, 2020 at 15:00

4 Answers 4


To begin with, I think it is silly that application processes even ask about these things, but that seems to be the way of the world now. If the guidelines recommend that you discuss your economic background (in the case where it is seen as a desirable "diversity" requirement) you could do this in a fairly short and sweet manner, which communicates the basic situation, without becoming too emotive. I think this is likely to be the best way to do it, and it also jibes nicely with your desire to avoid dredging up issues that are upsetting to you.

I would think it would be sufficient to give a one or two sentence explanation similar to what you have already given in this post; i.e., that you lived in country X and lived below the poverty line during years Y-Z, but your family has since become better off. This will give the desired context you want, without having to delve into deeply personal territory. If it were me, I would even preface this by noting that the guidelines ask for this information, and then giving the basic information you have given here. You could then follow this up with some simple aspirational statement --- e.g., that you would like to build a successful career to ensure that your own children do not have to endure the financial hardships you experienced growing up.

I don't think you need to worry too much about this, since your own desire dovetails nicely with what will work well anyway. Most academics are interested in objective qualities of students more than background issues. Even those academics who are particularly interested in diversity requirements, and positively predisposed to "under-represented" candidates, will tend to expect a light touch here. They are usually going to be more impressed by getting all the relevant information in a way that lets them know there was some hardship/obstacle to overcome, but not laid on too thick. Your goal should be to show that you are strong enough to have achieved high quality outcomes under circumstances where you faced hardship (while being careful not to sound like you are bragging).


First, only you can decide what you are comfortable with. While you are required to divulge some information (e.g., your academic record), there is no requirement to be so open with your private personal and health information. That said, I suspect including this information might help your application. As you say, it is helpful context for your achievements as well as your struggles. The challenge will be writing it up well.

In general the SOP should be a professional document that discusses your academic interests and plans (i.e., the reason you are applying to this program...hence the name). From our wiki:

Having reviewed certain applications, I would also like to mention one major flaw that shows up in the majority of the SOPs that get rejected. The SOP is not the document where you should get too personal. Don’t waste too many words discussing your childhood, or random thoughts you've had, or your theory of life. It's fine to state interests and hobbies and unrelated accomplishments, but make every word as objective (and verifiable) as you can. This is generally true, but especially so for STEM programs. Academics are impressed by crisp, concise writing.

This does not mean that you cannot or should not mention your economic background in your SOP. It does mean that you should be very concise and factual. This is not the time to delve into the "stressful and pitiful memories" you mention; rather, you should just briefly characterize the issue with a few "facts" or examples. Actually, the description you gave above is pretty good -- something along those lines would be fine.

By the way, some schools (in the US, at least) request a diversity statement in addition to the SOP. In this case, you might consider moving this discussion from the SOP to the diversity statement.


Considering that admissions committees are interested in anticipating/predicting your (professional) future, the more data points the better. Whether or not one believes that "overcoming adversity" is a good thing in itself, achieving this-or-that from a position of relative privilege and security is quite different from achieving the same thing in less convivial circumstances.

One simple example is about maintaining a good GPA while not working (due to economic good fortune), versus working full time due to economic need. There is no dishonor in good fortune, but good fortune of early life circumstances is not quite the same as a prediction of future professional success. (Unless, perhaps, we take an aggressive classist viewpoint that attempts to predict one's future success by the success of one's parents, etc.)

So, yes, without going on toooo long, give a small description of your circumstances. This will help admissions committees understand your future potential better.


As the other answers here suggest, this is a subtle issue so I won't give a firm recommendation. However, there are some things you might consider in making a decision.

First is that the SoP should be forward, not backward, looking. People evaluating your application will be looking for predictors of success in the future. This mostly involves your academic record including courses and also research. The fact that you overcame difficulties to succeed up to now is less important than that you have succeeded and can be expected to in future. The purpose of the SoP is to give a view of your future plans and goals and how you expect to achieve them. It isn't a general autobiography.

Second, is that an SoP might be limited in length or not. If it is, then make sure that what you are able to say in limited space supports future success, not past accomplishments. Of course, and this is where it is subtle, if your trajectory has been better than might be expected in the past, because you overcame obstacles of whatever nature, then you can probably be expected to continue that success.

But third, is that even if you don't mention it in the SoP there are other places in your application where you might be able to bring it up naturally. This includes any interviews that might be part of the process. So, think about the entire application process and make sure that all of the important points get covered and, in limited space, don't waste space in things that are covered already.

And, different institutions have different requirements on what can and should be included. If they ask, specifically, for such information, then give it, of course. But also consider that you may need to tailor the various elements differently for application to different institutions. Make sure that you show up as a good match.

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