Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

On writing a Statement of Purpose

From Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a graduate school Statement of Purpose is singularly the most difficult piece that you will ever write.

Is it the toughest of the writing prompts? Hardly! It is about your work and your aspirations, something that you could talk about for hours given a chance, much to the consternation of your friends who love you enough to refrain from saying —Will you just shut up for once!

No, the difficulty arises because of the stakes involved. It is a single body of work that could define your future. You want it to be perfect! You want it to reflect your soul, so the admissions committee knows that you would be just as perfect for them as they would be for you.

I’m not here to give you expository advice on how to write a statement of purpose. True, through factors outside my control, I became a veteran of the graduate admissions process, having applied four times (twice for masters and twice for Ph.D.) and was successful all four times. However, it is presumptuous to attribute that success to a single piece of document. I sure had a lot of help. I had the nicest people in academia write me letters of recommendation, a diverse research portfolio, and a mediocre albeit not-so-bad set of transcripts. So, I don’t know how much of a role my statement played in the process and hence won’t presume expertise in this matter. Instead, I will tell you my side of the story —what went through my mind when I wrote my statement. You can make your inferences from that.

Beginnings

I struggled a lot with my opening lines. Every single piece of advice I read on the internet about writing a statement emphasized the importance of opening and closing remarks. The more I read about it, the more pressure mounted on the introduction to be perfect. It made sense though. The admissions committee is composed of humans, after all, and reading thousands of applications which are, frankly, a bit repetitive, tends to get boring. I need an opening that jerks them out of their post-lunch stupor and makes them give my essay their fullest attention. To use a fishing metaphor: use a hook to reel them in.

My idea was to start with a story that conveyed how important the research topic is to me, personally. A human-interest element is always a great way to start an essay, but I also took extreme caution to avoid sappiness that is eye roll-worthy.

I finally settled on the following opening remarks for my graduate applications to cognitive science.

My first musings on cognition began at home, with my sibling proving to be an interesting subject. Equipped with an exceptional working memory, he rarely needed a pen and a paper to solve a problem. However, his enhanced cognition is somewhat tempered by his lack of motivation, with him often seeking instant gratification in the world of online gaming.

It intrigued me to observe such traits in people that set them apart in temperament and personality. It also raised a whole host of questions— how can we account for such a wide spectrum of behaviors? For instance, how are some people impulsive while others are deliberative? What causes someone to retain self-control while another succumbs to distractions easily? Furthermore, what changes in addiction, ADHD, and other cognitive disorders where a sense of control breaks down? To be well-equipped to answer such questions, I realized we need a complete mechanistic understanding of the cognitive processes governing our decision-making and behavior. Certainly a tall order, but my experiences in psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence have convinced me that it is well within our reach.

Here’s another opening for my applications to neuroeconomics:

I noticed a curious trait emerge out of my shopping practices. More often than not, I would realize that my mind was made up in the first few minutes of entering the store, and any additional time I spent deliberating would not change the outcome too drastically. After observing this trend for a while, I dropped all pretense and just went for the first thing that caught my eye. While it did not always lead to the most economical choice, it saved a lot of my time.

It intrigued me to note such idiosyncrasies that manifest in our preferences, ranging from minor choices to life-altering decisions. These predilections are often riddled with biases and influenced by a whole host of factors like context, emotions, prior experiences, making it ever so difficult to predict how an individual would react in a given situation. Owing to this inherent subjectivity and unpredictability in human behavior, I witnessed how we, as a society, have been bewildered at times, from political polls going awry to stock markets crashing unexpectedly.

Although my introductions tend to be larger than average, I want to show them how much the research topic means to me and that the implications of such research motivate me enough to overcome any challenges that are thrown my way.

Just for fun, I am also including the introduction for my application to computer science master's programs about three years ago.

An avid reader of science fiction and an amateur astronomer with existential musings about the significance of human life in the grander scale of cosmos, I find myself drawn towards the question of intelligence. What do we mean by intelligence and how did it evolve to take such a center stage on this planet? While this question is of a philosophical nature, another practical question captured my attention. Can we replicate intelligence in machines? I believe both these questions are two faces of the same coin. By exploring the evolution of human intelligence, we come closer to replicating it in machines, and similarly, the path to perfecting machine intelligence will result in a better understanding of our own intelligence.

Alan Turing, in his 1950 landmark paper in Mind, expressed his opinion that the problem of building learning machines is mainly one of programming and envisioned frameworks for such programs. It thrilled me to note how most of his visions have come to fruition in six decades of Artificial Intelligence research. With the development of machine learning techniques, accompanied by advancements in engineering and technology paving the way for economical data storage and faster computers, we are currently in one of the waves of AI research. These advancements have also made the analysis of data pouring in from biological research feasible, making it possible to study the brain in terms of connectivity and function. In the light of these developments, I believe a graduate program in Computer science with an emphasis on Artificial Intelligence will bring me closer to my desire to understand and replicate human intelligence.

Not many people like such lengthy openings. In fact, a lot of my friends suggested cutting them short. I considered their advice, but I went with it anyway. Because it felt right.

About your projects

This is the meat of the essay. This is where you can show them that you are not all talk. Again, the most common advice I received about this part was: show, don’t tell. Of course, I have had to summarize a year-long project into a single paragraph — a difficult task. I wanted to tell them about every technique I used and every result that I got because it felt really unfair to leave anything out. But I fought against all those impulses and instead, focused on narrating the role each project played in motivating me to pursue graduate study. I also did not refrain from giving technical details of the project, after all, this essay would be read by scientists who would love to know details about the methods and conclusions of my research.

Here’s a sample description of my project.

I began my training in psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a graduate course in cognitive psychology with Prof. David Huber. Intrigued by the course’s introduction of cognitive biases, I took up additional readings — notable among them being Thinking Fast and Slow— which transformed my outlook and added a new lens through which I began to perceive my decision-making process. I continued my collaboration with Prof. Huber with an independent study in cognitive modeling. Together, we investigated the theories behind the encoding of paired-object associations in memory through computational modeling of behavioral data. Challenging the narrative present in the literature that paired-object associations in the brain are symmetric in nature, we provided evidence for asymmetry in encoding through simulations with auto-associative memory models. I presented this research at the Arthur Sackler Colloquium on Brain Produces Mind by Modeling in May 2019, and I am currently in the process of writing a paper elucidating our findings. This experience served to introduce me to the nuances of behavior research and underscore the relevance of computational frameworks in studying human cognition.

Here’s another one.

Coming from a background in artificial intelligence, I instantly took to the field of reinforcement learning and the promise it offers to the study of decision-making. I was inspired by the field’s roots in psychology and neuroscience and more so by how it continues to influence the study of human and machine cognition. For my master’s project, I proposed to formulate theories on how representations for goal-directed behavior are learned in networks of spiking neurons. Under the supervision of Prof. Philip Thomas and Prof. Robert Kozma, I developed a hedonistic framework of learning where each neuron is an autonomous learning agent acting/firing to maximize its own reward. In developing this framework, I faced the challenge of mitigating the high variance in learning. My novel design choices solely targeting structural elements of the network paid off, resulting in a framework that could efficiently solve reinforcement learning tasks. I presented this work at the Society For Neuroscience and the NeurIPS workshop on Real Neurons and Hidden Units, receiving positive reviews and critical feedback from my peers in the field.

I took care to narrate how working on those projects made me feel and what insights I gained from them. I hoped it would bring out the human in me.

It didn’t feel enough. Nothing will ever be enough.

I wanted to tell them how much I enjoyed working on these projects and how much fun I had with independent research. Starting fresh in the field, most of my rookie ideas were already taken, validated by a quick google search. Albeit a little frustrating, it was thrilling to know that my ideas were publish-worthy and that a scientist that I admired and wished to emulate thought just like me. I felt convinced that, with a bit of training, I could do this, and I could do this really well.

I attempted to describe that rush I felt, but words couldn’t do it enough justice. Nevertheless, I ended up adding the following non-effusive, mellowed-down version of that sentiment to my essay.

Amidst all my experiences, I realized that research is inherently a creative endeavor, and therein lies its biggest appeal for me. I had the most fun trying to come up with novel ideas by building on past papers and discussing their merits and demerits with my peers. Once in a while, I would discover that some of the low-hanging ideas that I identified materialized as papers, which validated me. Emboldened by this, I persevered at independent research, sometimes failing, but occasionally stumbling onto something exciting. Although I perceive that I have a long way to go, I realized I explicitly enjoy these exercises.

University-specific paragraph

This is the place to demonstrate my fit with the university and connect my past work, my future aspirations to the research specializations of that institution. I identified at most three professors from each university whose research interests are a good fit for me (a number that I felt was reasonable enough to suggest that I remain flexible and not hyper-specific, but also not so directionless as to indulge in casual name-dropping). I felt I needed the margin, in case my favorite professor was not interested in recruiting that year.

I don’t have anything specific to say about closing remarks. Mine were pretty generic which went something like this — As a graduate student, I intend to make the best use of these resources and build a skill set that will facilitate me to conduct meaningful research towards promoting our understanding of the human mind.

Writing style

I know I said I’ll refrain from giving any specific advice, but I couldn’t resist giving this lesser-known tip.

When you decide to start working on your Statement of Purpose, start reading autobiographies of people who are eloquent for pointers on literary flair and the narrative style of memoirs.

This was a game-changer for me. On November 17th — a rush hour period of the application season — Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, hit the shelves. Being a huge fan of Obama, I got started on my pre-ordered copy the moment I received it. And boy, was I hooked!

Obama is terrific with words despite his claims that he’s overly verbose. His writing — so soulful, self-critical, and introspective — served as a window into his very core. My essay, on the other hand, felt like complete garbage in comparison. It lacked the one thing that’s crucial for a personal statement: a soul!

On November 25th, I ditched all the versions I had so far and started afresh, undeterred that my deadline was on December 1st. This time I focused on telling my story, straight from the heart. Gradually, all those parts that sounded robotic seemed to come alive. I’m not claiming that it was my best work, but at least it was leagues ahead of the versions I had before. Thanks, Barack!

Memoirs and autobiographies have a specific literary style that I believe would work perfectly for personal statements. So yes, I think it would help to read them while you are writing your essay.

Brevity, Brevity, Brevity

We will never be quite content with our writing. There is always something to edit, something to restructure. Nevertheless, I am proud of one thing about my statement: its brevity.

Most schools have a hard limit on the number of words in the essay. Usually, it is around 1000 words, with a few generous ones giving around 1200 to1500. But some like to challenge you and give you just 500 words.

I usually have a lot to say and hate word limits, but this time I vowed to be brief. I am proud to tell you that my final version came to roughly about 850–900 words for a 1000 word-limit essay. Less is more, I heard people say, but I never fully internalized it until this application cycle.

Here’s where I’ll venture to give another bit of advice. With a minimum of 500 words, go as low as you possibly can. I can understand the impulse to straddle the word limit but go lower. You will quickly lose the committee if your essay is too long.

One university that I applied to was very considerate and had a limit of 2500 words, but I still ended up sending my 900-word essay to them. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go through the extra effort of writing a new essay, but I felt 900 words made a pretty good teaser. I could always show the full movie during the interviews. And yes, I got called for an interview and received an admit from that school.

People in academia appreciate the quality of being brief, concise, and to the point. I imagine they would be grateful that you released them from the ordeal of reading an extra-long essay. I mean, honestly, it’s not Harry Potter.

There, my two cents on writing a statement of purpose! These personal musings might or might not apply to you. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Again, there is no single recipe for telling your story. But I can tell you this: no formula could ever hold a torch to you being the authentic you.

All the very best,

Sneha

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