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I wrote my SOP very closely to JeffE's answer here: Choosing research ideas to include in a statement of purpose Just a very straightforward, all research no BS statement.

My 3 letter writers liked it quite a bit and said it was very well written and "ambitious". However, I received a comment saying that, while the technical aspect is very solid, I should "say something more about myself as a person". He said I should elaborate on "what drives me and my interests, and what is it about my research that makes it so rewarding." I asked him for clarification but didn't get a very clear answer so I thought I'd ask some academics what they think.

I'm very passionate about my research (as is expected of anyone applying for a PhD, nothing new here), and after 3 years of research experience in multiple areas of physics, and 4 semesters of TA'ing, there's honestly nothing else I imagine myself doing. It's very simple, I really have no other explanation. Research is rewarding because I enjoy discovering and learning new stuff, period. I don't want to make the world a better place (would that I could), and I haven't been passionate about solid state physics since I was in diapers. I'm not one for cliches.

My introduction currently discusses: a) my general research interests in two sentences b) my goal to work in academia.

How should I add a flavor of personality, as my professor suggests?

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    Perhaps it's all in the wording? E.g. rather than "my focus to date has been on.." say "I have a particular interest in..." and rather than "I see my next steps as...", say "I am excited by the possibilies in..." ? – Significance Oct 31 '16 at 3:16
  • @Significance that's precisely my wording to the point that I think my usage of "I" is too excessive. I use "excited" a bit sparingly, however, so I could add that. Thank you. – Ash Oct 31 '16 at 3:21
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    I don't know, then. Maybe your letter writer likes trembling steps narratives? – Significance Oct 31 '16 at 4:13
  • @Significance I would hope not! I'm going to rewrite my interests paragraph to emphasize myself more and show it to him. Thank you for the help. – Ash Oct 31 '16 at 4:21
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I received similar feedback from a professor who doesn’t subscribe to the “trembling steps” narrative, so I felt it was advice worth following. I navigated the problem by adding a “because...” to a few of my sentences. So you could say something like “I did research on X for [number of years] because I feel it is important/worthwhile/interesting etc.” You’ve prepared yourself for grad school and have lots to show for it, so if you start thinking about why you decided to do those things, it’ll make it easier to add a “because” here or there, which should make your statement stronger.

Think about your field and what you want to contribute to it. Why is your field worth studying? What makes it important? How are your unique attributes going to advance your field?

I would avoid directly saying something about yourself as a person. The wording of the statement should be enough to convey your voice, and your accomplishments discussed in the letter speak enough to your personality and passion. Just like in creative writing, show don’t tell. Ask yourself what you want the readers to know about your personality, and rephrase your existing sentences in order to convey that sentiment if you feel it is lacking.

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In addition to the excellent suggestions of KM, I think it is very reasonable in solid state physics to have some economic motivation for the research (even loosely). In addition, the work tends to lend itself to collaboration across fields (again, even loosely) in that work you do can benefit engineers or motivate material scientists and solid state chemists. These are both forms of connection to a broader sphere. And...hint, hint play well when searching for funding.

I'm not saying to go overboard or to be plaintive or salesy. But at the same time you need to give people SOME "so what". Don't overhype BUT also don't "hide your light under a bushel". Give people some translation so they can get the "so what".

Your plasmons and solitons and other funky thingamijugs (I know enough about SSP to know that I see terms I don't know!) have the potential to give us better understanding that can lead to improved solar cells, flat panel displays, etc. I don't know the plasmon, but I could use some better solar cells and a cheaper laptop!

Similarly the implicit connections to other fields of science (or I guess subfields of physics). A metallurgist or device designer may have no clue how to do some of the theoretical calcs or superfancy physical measurements, but your fundamental work can motivate the metallurgist to synthesize new intermetallic compounds or the device designer to consider new configurations. And you are actually filling a gap, because these individuals are good at what they do, but not so good at Ashcroft and Mermin (and you are even way past that).

P.s. While this answer is about solid state, many other fields of science have similar economic/social motivations and tangencies to other research. A little bit of this basic context setting should be included in grant appeals, SOPs, website descriptions of your research to attract students, TALKS, and even a sentence or two in the introduction of each science report.


In terms of "how". I would as an exercise, go through and write a couple versions. Maybe one where you do a lot of "because" and one with a moderate amount (you have the "no" control already). The act of sitting down and writing will cause you to find individual bullet points (content) to support a narrative.

I also think there is nothing wrong with showing why a particular interest has aroused. You can do this objectively or personally. I actually wouldn't be so leery about personalizing things, but either way, some rationale is helpful and connects the reader. For example I (one) first was motivated by the desire to improve output property X and thus researched combinations of Y and Z. Subsequent learnings showed me the importance of W. At this point, my interests have moved from pure catalogueing of the output function versus input variables to a microscopic understanding. [Or WHATEVER. But I'm sure that while you worked in this topic, you have learned some things, changed some things, and have a desire to do new things in a different direction. Note, this is a HUMAN story (the evolution of your research direction) that even a biologist can understand. I don't need to know what the plasmon is to get that.]

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