I'm applying to math PhD programs in the US. In my statements of purpose, should I include references to the literature? I haven't done so yet, but I keep thinking I probably should.

  • 1
    Do you have a need to cite a paper in your SoP? If so, go for it. I've never heard of such a thing though - a statement of purpose is about YOU, not someone else's work.
    – tonysdg
    Dec 10, 2015 at 18:08
  • Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/q/31567/14716
    – ZYX
    Dec 10, 2015 at 19:24
  • @YuxinZhou: Could very well be - I'm just not sure if fourierwho wants to know if (1) they should include citations for references that they've used in their SoP, or (2) they should include references in the first place.
    – tonysdg
    Dec 10, 2015 at 20:09

2 Answers 2


Most mores in academia are idiosyncratic. I wouldn't put references in my personal statement - it's seen as over-doing it (in my department - Psychology, at least). If you want to include literature in your statement, you should try to discuss the literature more generally and only cite specific authors if those research studies actually contribute significantly to your statement.

If you were to include a specific citation, I wouldn't advise that you include a reference list. Keep in mind that committees read through hundreds of applications every year and likely won't look favorably on you adding more paper content to their already large stack of applications.

Many schools also have page limits for their applications, and they may see your reference page as additional material and disqualify your application.


Everyone has different experiences - most mathematicians only see a handful of departments in their life - but I don't believe references to the research literature are very common in mathematics "statement of purpose" documents.

A mathematics statement of purpose is not the same kind of document as a grant proposal. Typically, students applying to math PhD programs are not expected to be familiar with the research literature. A general statement of the areas you are interested in (e.g. "algebraic geometry" or "graph-theoretic compbinatorics") would be fine.

If you happen to have a significantly above-average background with the literature, so that you can cite it in a meaningful way, then I don't think there would be any harm in doing so.

But you should not try to "stretch" to include references that you do not fully understand, because it is usually clear when someone is stretching in this way, and a reviewer might view it as a factor against accepting you to the program. It's better to be realistic about your background.

You should promote yourself and put yourself in the best light that you can, as long as what you give is an honest picture of your background and experience.

  • Thanks! I could definitely see the stretching being seen in a bad light. I'm excited about certain fields, but I don't want to be viewed as a "crank."
    – user45103
    Dec 11, 2015 at 15:30

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