Every year, a good number of Bangladeshi students aspire to pursue higher studies abroad. Typically, the desired destinations for Bangladeshi students are North America, US, Australia or UK. While the application process to both master's/MBA and a doctoral degree is tedious, the most daunting task is writing the statement of purpose (SOP) or research proposal.
While the writer herself struggled writing her SOP and research proposal seven years back before applying for a doctoral degree in the UK, with time and by being an academic, she received several SOPs and research proposals from her students to edit and check. Most of those SOPs were structured similarly, and often were copy-pasted and edited statement of purpose from their seniors or friends. Therefore, those sound generic or irrelevant to their applications. That is why the universities put a lot of weightage on the SOP these days. If applicants want their SOP to stand out from hundreds of applications, they need to put an extra effort and draft a stellar story.
A SOP for a master’s or MBA is different from a SOP or research proposal for a doctoral degree. While for a master's or an MBA, most universities look for a potential student with high grades, GRE or GMAT score and extracurricular activities, the SOP for a research or doctoral degree must reflect the interest, commitment and the potential of the candidate to pursue a high demanding rigorous degree.
While the transcripts might demonstrate one's past academic performance and success with the letters of recommendation speaking volumes, especially if written by noteworthy academics in related fields, no piece of application package can make more of an impact than one's own statement. It is the applicants' opportunity to clearly and succinctly discuss their past and future research goals in a captivating way.
The beginning of a SOP should be given a lot of importance. It should capture the attention and engage the readers. Admission seekers must remember that the purpose is admission to a university, not landing a job. So, as important as it is to be professional and persuasive, demonstration of academic credentials in a convincing way is also needed. The admission committee might be interested in knowing what an applicant's goals and research interests are, more than what he or she is.
The following sections of the SOP should focus on the broad research issue to be addressed and then elaborate the details of one's planned research project. While in many cases, the research eventually modifies or changes direction during the study period, however, one needs to project a compelling story to start with.
Next, applicants must focus on what skills they have to achieve what they want. The contribution that they claim to accomplish through their projects might require several specialised skills. Thus, the applicants must highlight how their analytical and intellectual ability, technical and technological skills acquired throughout their academic and professional years aligns with the required skill set for the intended research work.
Eventually one has to demonstrate oneself as a highly motivated person to enter into this exhilarating and challenging path of a long term rigorous academic programme in a foreign country. This basically must highlight why the university should be giving the opportunity and chose the particular candidate over the other candidates. While the CV, transcripts, and recommendations should speak the details, candidates need to very subtly mention how their credentials, efforts and motivation make them fit for the programme.
One needs to highlight the cause of choosing the particular programme or project to study. This part might include the presence of the academic scholars in the chosen area, technology, research training and other resources available at the university, and how they would facilitate the successful completion of the applicant's study.
Though different universities might have their formats and word limit to write a SOP, these are some of the points that should be included in an outstanding all-star SOP or research proposal. Once the skeleton and framework is constructed, the applicants should be able to modify according to the specific requirements of the preferred universities.
It can happen sometime that a very well written SOP or research proposal does not secure an admission at the preferred university resulting in frustration and lack of confidence for the potential applicant. From her own experience and after discussing with a few colleagues abroad, this writer found it very important that the applicants' achievements and aspirations are well aligned with the universities' interests and resources. One might write an outstanding statement with research interests, but if the university does not have resources or research experts in that area, the chances of getting admitted might be slim.
One of this writer's former PhD colleagues, Dr Charika Bo Channuntapipat, a tenured faculty at the University of Birmingham, UK commented, "I think when we look at the research proposal for PhD applications, we are looking at the topics whether they are relevant to our research interests and broader issues. Also, research methodology needs to be aligned with our expertise. So, before applying, please check the research expertise of the schools or departments that you apply for. Quality proposals need to demonstrate a good level of understanding of the topics, to include relevant literature and to have a sound methodology in relations to the research questions."
Universities in the US and UK have research output targets for faculty members. In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) driven culture encourages academics to conduct research continuously for their performance and growth. Now, this also implies while admitting doctoral or research students. The universities tend to accept applications of students whose research interests are aligned with the key research agendas of the universities. Thus, while applying, applicants must conduct their research in identifying the agendas and priority areas of their preferred universities. This not only enhances the chance of getting admitted, but also motivates the potential supervisors and faculties to facilitate a publishable research work eventually.
"We tend to accept applications of someone who has a research proposal that is interesting and is potentially publishable in a high impact journal. Also, the proposal has to indicate the applicants' familiarity regarding different methodological approaches as well as potential theoretical framings," said Dr Javed Siddiqui, associate professor at the University of Manchester, UK.
There are overwhelming samples of SOPs and research proposals available in the web which are typically used by potential applicants to get ideas. However, one must consider that they are available for everyone to copy or modify. Therefore, it is imperative to remember that SOP is one's own story and no one can narrate it better than the candidates themselves.
Dr Melita Mehjabeen is associate professor at IBA, University of Dhaka. She can be reached at [email protected]