Tips To Write A PhD Statement Of Purpose That Actually Work

Tips To Write A PhD Statement Of Purpose That Actually Work

Advice on how to write a statement of purpose for a PhD program is rather bountiful. There are many things to think about when you write a PhD statement of purpose, and you will find many good resources on the internet to craft a basic statement of purpose. However, sometimes I feel as if most of the people who have written these resources have not had to struggle with writing their statement of purpose. Personally, I really struggled at writing my statement of purpose. I am certainly not very bright, and I am not a good writer. However, I was able to able to write a statement of purpose that resonates with what I am about, and was able to get into graduate school at a pretty good university. Looking back at my statement of purpose when I applied and got into my doctoral program, I am not proud of it. While it was good enough, I I think it could have been much better. What I failed to do is think about how the statement of purpose signaled about who I was and what I was about. But, coming to this realization was a journey. Before you go further you probably are wondering about me. I am David Maslach, an Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Strategy, and I was able to get my PhD a few years ago. I did not come from an academic family and grew up in a small Northern Ontario (Canada) town, and had to learn all about this kind of stuff through vicarious learning. I also learnt a lot through making many mistakes myself. This is part of my project, where I am giving back to help other people that are interested in graduate school and research. I created a sharing economy proofreading platform (which I think is way cool but the community of users is far to small at this moment), so that you can get feedback on your writing, and creating a rather large library of YouTube videos. I hope with this resource, I will be able to speed up this journey for yourself. Here are some tips that you can do use to improve your chances with your statement of purpose to get into graduate school. Here is a summary of what you need in a Statement Of Purpose in case you don’t have time:
  1. Communicate that your read the potential graduate advisor’s research.
  2. Focus on ways that you can make faculty more productive.
  3. Focus on or build relationships.
Before you get too far into the doctorate journey, you should really watch a bunch of my YouTube videos (just Google r3ciprocity) and read these resources on either the pros and cons of an executive doctorate or the advantages / disadvantages of a PhD. I also wrote a great resource on the tips for applying for PhD programs. If you want to get a more in-depth take on how to write a Statement Of Purpose, I would highly recommend that you watch this YouTube video which goes into way more detail and tips.

Communicate That You Actually Read Your Potential Advisor’s Research.

When you craft your statement of purpose, I would be well aware of the research that is going on at the place you are applying to. You do not have to read all of the faculty’s research, but you should read some of their research. Perhaps, you just read their last few articles to see what they are about. You also don’t have to read everyone’s articles, just the researchers that seem to appeal to you. In the statement of purpose, you should cite or discuss these researcher articles. What is it that you found interesting with these research articles? Why does that research resonate with you. An astute doctoral student might even point out how they can build on these papers. Read some of the limitations in the research article, and see if you could design a potential study to alleviate this limitation that might extend their work. Why do you want to focus on the research of others in your statement of purpose? Three reasons:
  1. This is how science is done. Almost all science is telling a story about what others have done before you.
  2. You will quickly find out if their research is interesting, and if you like what they are doing.
  3. Talking about others is far more endearing than talking about yourself. Flattery does work.

Focus On The Skills and Capabilities That You Possess That Can Help Improve Their Research Productivity.

Your goal is to position yourself as an asset for the faculty members, and as someone that can work independently on their own. I would first focus on your skills and capabilities that you possess that will help improve the faculty’s research productivity. For example, if you are good at databases, then point out how you can assemble databases for them. If you are good at writing (i.e., an English major), that show how you excel at writing and crafting research literature reviews. You should take an inventory of your skills and craft them on the Statement of Purpose to show how you can help the researcher you are interested in working with as a potential PhD student. Another key thing that you need to highlight is that you will be able to work independently on your own in the future. Do you have original ideas? Are your original ideas sound science? If you can show that you will be the next research superstar, and that you have some moxy to do this, then you will appear attractive to the potential grad program. Research moxy is hard to describe, but you will know when someone has it, or can write about what they are capable of doing. If you need help with how to think about science, you should watch the following video: One more point – you should put emphasis on the things that you have done, and on the things you want to do. Anybody that relies on behavioral research is going to emphasize what you have been proven to do in the past. However, a statement of purpose really needs to communicate that you have an underlying mission, vision, and values.

Point Out Any Existing Relationships That You Have.

Applying to PhD positions, like jobs, is very relational. Everything during the PhD process is all about the relationships that you have formed or the ones you will form in the future. What do I mean by relational? Science is about the people you know, and the people that know you. Why is science so relational? People are just uncertain of others that they do not know, so they tend to prefer the ones they have an existing relationship with. They also like to work with people that they had positive experiences with in the past. How do you emphasize relationships on your Statement Of Purpose? On your Statement of Purpose, point out the people that you know at that institution. You need to point out these relationships within the first 3 lines on your Statement of Purpose. Why the first 3 lines? People that are looking at your Statement Of Purpose are resource-constrained, and will only pay a few minutes to each application. What if you do not have relationships with anyone at the school? If you do not have direct relationships at the school, then specify indirect relationships. Write that Professor So-And-So told you to apply to that institution (it should be true, but people will fact check this statement). Try to ask Professor So-And-So if they know anyone at your dream university, and if they do, simply ask if you can use their name on your Statement. What If you do not have any indirect relationships? This is where you have to do a Judo Chop. You need to establish an ongoing relationship with somebody at the university you want to attend. What?! Yes, you do. Virtually every person that I know who got into a top research university had some internal relationships with people at that university. And, the people that did not have a relationship had to be absolutely exceptional compared to those that had an established relationship, and surely that is not most of us. How do you do this Judo Chop? You have to work on these relationships for a year or two (If you are serious about the career, you should not be concerned with this length of time. I wrote a blog post detailing why and how long it takes to get a PhD, and it will surprise you). One way is to do another Undergrad or Masters at that PhD. This means that it will be easier for you to get into a PhD at the university where you did your Undergrad or Masters programs. But, this is not my favorite approach because it is costly. There are two sneaky ways that people end up doing their PhD at a stellar school.
  1. Get an administration or lab job at the university you are looking to attend. Many people who end up getting their PhD at prestigious universities actually worked at those universities in some minor role beforehand. It will also be much easier if you worked at the university in an administrative role prior to becoming a PhD student. Generally, it is far easier to also land an administrative role at those universities than a research-track roll. You can work in admissions, for the universities’ boosters, or become an administrative assistant just to get your foot in the door. You simply need to just be around the university, and then you will see opportunities open up when they become available.
  2. Try to find ways to freelance for the potential researcher in minor roles. I would love it if some potential PhD candidate offered to build a personal website for me for free. Or, maybe you offer to write blog posts for them about their research papers (a la Harvard Business Review style). Focus on activities that make others look better or make their life easier. Focus on being as helpful as you possibly can and try to remove your ego from the equation. Things like this are relatively minor, but they go along way to establish a relationship with a potential PhD supervisor, or an ally in the application process. Now, it does not guarantee that you will get admitted to a graduate program, but you can eventually use it as a possible connection that you have on your Statement of Purpose. Moreover, it also gives you information about what this person is like on a daily basis. What a better way to see if you want to work with someone than to work with someone on a low-stakes job.


Many people write Statement Of Purposes that rarely communicate much to anyone that is reading it. You need to show that you really care about your PhD, and you care about the people that you will work with during your PhD. This means that you actually have to read their work, or at least some of their work. You have to demonstrate that you have skills and capabilities to make the faculty look good. Your end goal is to make others look better, or to improve their performance as a researcher. Finally, you need to build relationships with people. Its tough, and takes a lot of work, but these relationships, and communicating these relationships on your Statement matter a lot.

Pro-Tip On Research Statements.

I wanted to give you one last pro-tip on your Statement Of Purpose. Don’t be afraid to be sincere. You can point out some of your weaknesses, and how you might actually either improve these weaknesses. Nobody is perfect, and being an academic is all about identifying your shortcomings and working on these shortcomings. For example, if you do not know about regression, will point that out, but then talk about what courses or actions you would take to get good at this technique. The goal is to show that you are both real, and that you know what it takes to improve your current skills that you possess.

Tips For Applying To PhD Programs (In Business Administration)

This post provides tips for applying to PhD programs, particularly in any of the disciplines in Business Administration (i.e. Strategy, Finance, Marketing, etc.). Applying to PhD Programs is always a stressful affair. I remember when I applied to mine, nearly 15 years ago. It took several months of preparation, from writing the GMAT (I did my PhD in Business Administration), to crafting the statement of purpose, to actually sending in the material. All I can say is, boy, did I get a lot of things wrong. Obviously, some things worked out for me, but looking back, I feel that I was pretty lost with the process. Why do you want to get a PhD? The biggest reason is that it allows you to get into research careers, like becoming a research associate, or becoming a professor (Read more about my ideas about how to become a business professor or advantages and disadvantages of getting your PhD in Business). Before I go further, I should share with you about why I am doing this project. The main reason is that I like to solve problems, but more specifically, I wanted to create a system that I can have a real world impact. I thought wouldn’t it be cool to solve a problem that I experience every day, but making this solution scaleable to a larger audience. Anyway, I created a sharing economy proofreading software that is based on reciprocity. After I created the software, I realized that I did not have an audience (a sort of chicken and egg problem – you need software to get an audience, but you need an audience to make the software work). Anyway, I choose to help PhD students and other academics, particularly those in the social sciences, because they could really use such a software. (I can’t be the only one that is terrible at writing.) I also thought that it would be cool that when this made money to give back with scholarships for grad students (Yes, it’s a pipe-dream, but a kid’s gotta dream, right). You can watch the following video of me talking about some of these tips for applying to PhD programs.

Tips For Applying To PhD Programs (in Business Administration)

Remember that this video does not just apply for those interested in Business Administration, but because it based on my own experiences, it is most relevant for Business PhDs, especially PhD programs in strategic management. (Want to learn more about how long it takes to get a PhD or a DBA? Check out my blog post). When you write a PhD application, you should think about the following:

1. PhDs Like To Talk About Their Love of Research.

Generally, most potential PhD supervisors and PhD acceptance committees do not career too much about what your industry accomplishments, unless it relates to research. Many (not all) academics find industry experiences rather tedious. They are more interested in ‘the idea.’ If you can share a curious finding that you observed during your time in industry, academics are going to be interested in that finding. For example, you observed that venture capitalists ‘herd’ in their investment decisions (see Isin Guler’s work) However, if you tell academics that you were so-and-so of so-and-so company, many academics will disregard this experience. Thus, if I were you, I would discuss and talk about your love of ideas and curious findings. There is nothing so exciting as a deep discussion about some strange thing in the world. You can, however, talk about some weird fact about yourself. For example, if you were an Olympian or wrestled bears, it sometimes helps your application. Why? Academics are humans, and we use heuristics to remember people. It is easier to remember the ‘space-girl’ or ‘bear-guy,’ than it is to remember Joe or Jane Maffraw.

2. Read At Least A Few Of The Faculty’s Papers.

Potential supervisors do not expect you to read everything that they have ever written, but you likely should read 1-2 of their articles before you talk to them. Do not be afraid that we are going to quiz you on all of the details of the article. Heck, I can’t even remember what I wrote yesterday, … seriously. But, you should have a general sense about the article to carry on a light conversation, like “that was a great article about the lightning industry you did. It was very insightful” or, “how did you think of the idea for your paper on the start-up businesses in the Canadian Rockies.” You are really just looking for a way to carry on the conversation with your own future research.

3. Demonstrate Your Ability To Do Research.

You should come up with some proof of your ability to do research. This is extremely important if you want to do research for the rest of your life. You have to some one or two analytical articles that you wrote during your undergrad or grad school. (This post helps with crafting a research paper for a PhD). The best possible thing is a paper that you wrote that is very ‘academicy.’ You should have a theoretical overview, hypotheses (if required), data collection, and some analysis of this data. It is also a good idea to show how talented you are with you analysis or crafting of an idea. If you can program, I would write a short piece of code for the school of choice. If you can analyze data, I would ask to analyze some data for a professor. Pretty much every business professor has some data that they need to get cleaned – this would be a good chore for you to do. Cleaning data is an important part of research that very few people like to do. You can impress a potential advisor by doing this work for them. For the first several years of your PhD program, you will likely do a lot of reading and ‘work.’ You could summarize a set of articles for a professor for a literature review. In general, there are many ways to demonstrate your ability to do research, but what you should focus on is trying to be of service to potential supervisors.

4. Work On Your GMAT / GRE Scores.

Ok, so many people will tell you that the GMAT / GRE scores do not matter for research. This is true – it is likely not a strong predictor of research abilities. Why is that? There are so many other things that go into doing research over the long run. For example, you need to be able to do something over the course of 5-10 years, so many times basic life things will get in the way of your research success. You know – those simple things, like divorce, marriage, babies, deaths, depression, big moves, and all that easy stuff. However, GMAT / GRE scores are generally used as a way to screen out potential applicants. Why? Its standardized across countries and regions. It also might be a mild predictor of either ‘grit’ or IQ (I think standardized tests confounds the two). It might also be a strong predictor of privilege as only those with sufficient resources will take courses or spend enough time to study on the test to do well. Even if it is arbitrary, these standardized scores are just an easy way to screen out candidates, right or wrong. You should invest some time, effort, and resources to do well on the GMAT / GRE. I have learnt that it will pay off considerable returns if you do well over the long-run.  You have to think about it as the returns you will get over the course of 30-40 years. Even if you make an extra $1000 / year because of a slightly higher GMAT score (ie. because you get into a better university for a PhD), investing the small amount in studying for the GMAT / GRE will be well worth it.

5. Look For PhD Programs Outside Of Your Field.

I would highly recommend that you search broadly when you look for a PhD program. We often get fixated on a specific program or field of study, but you should be aware that people get PhDs in many areas and study very similar things. You can also get considerably different returns by simply changing the course of study. For example, in my field, there are people that study geography and geographic methods (to look at things like firm or venture capital location), yet, they do not have a PhD in geography. If you want to investigate PhD programs, there are many institutions and programs around the world that do the same thing as a PhD in your area, but are called something different. For example, some engineering programs have a good management department (UCL, Waterloo, Stanford, UC Barbara, etc) in which you could get a PhD. The ‘feel’ of the department will be quite a bit different than a business school, but you can study and move around to business schools. The key thing is that you are doing good research, and that you find great mentors that will help you do good research.

6. Go To An Academic Conference To See What ‘Academia’ Is All About.

I think it is odd with many professions, including academics, that we train people to do something, but then we never really show them what it is like until they are in the profession. For example, many programs will teach people about a particular subject, but then when people actually ‘do’ that subject they either do not know ‘how’ to do that subject, or they discover that they dislike that subject. For this reason, I very much like apprentice-type programs or coop programs (my undergrad university ‘U. Waterloo’ has a great program). One way that you can observe what academia is like for little commitment is to attend several academic conferences. If you are thinking of a PhD in Strategic Management or Innovation, you should consider attending either the Strategic Management Society conference (more specialized and better food, but more expensive), the Academy of Management conference (giant and diverse, but reasonably priced and you can find free food), or the Informs conferences (very ‘academicy,’ but somewhat removed from strategy and leans toward social science). (Learn about how to get a PhD in Strategy). At these conference, you will learn about what academic presentations are, what it takes to write a paper, and the questions people ask in academia. You will be surprised how much you learn by watching people at these conferences. Academics, like any other career, has a lot of ceremony and protocol. You might meet a few people there that might be of interest, but do not expect too much as a junior potential PhD student. If you are outgoing, you are going to of course meet more people. When you attend your first conference, make sure you dress ‘business causal’ and just be a fly on the wall. Try not to make a scene, as this could potentially harm you in the future.

Want to learn more about academic conferences, watch this video:

7. Build Relationships With Faculty Members.

Last, I think an important thing that you might want to consider is to build strong relationships with faculty members. If you are currently an MBA or undergraduate business major, get to know your faculty. This is one of the advantages of starting your journey to a PhD at a younger again (Read my post about doing your PhD in your 30s). Ask them to do simple tasks for them. For example, when I was in undergrad (Chemical Engineering), I did several years of an undergraduate research assistantship. While I probably did not create much in terms of usable research and I might have slowed down my Professor, he was nice enough to work with me and I truly learnt a lot from the experience. From that I will always be grateful. What I did was build a small piece of simulation software, but there are many things that you could do, like do some data cleaning, collect some information, or interview different people. You want to reach out to faculty on a regular basis. Try to find time to stop by their office and ask them if they need a hand with something. I am sure there is something that they would be willing to let you do. Why do you want to work with faculty? You will greatly improve your chances of getting into a PhD program. Not only because you might get a letter of reference, but this demonstrates that you are interested in doing research long before you actually start your PhD.

Building A Research Story For A PhD

If you have not figured it out yet, getting into a PhD program in Business Administration (or any other program) is a lot about crafting a long-running story in what and who you are about. It is not just about getting the PhD (See my post about the difference between a PhD and a DBA), and that is the end of your story. No PhD program wants to bring you on board to realize that you do not like doing research. Doing research means that you like reading, writing, and arithmetic; and you are going to do this for a long-time. You have to demonstrate and provide a story that this is what you want to do. Doing a PhD, and then the subsequent career as a Professor or Research Associate after that is challenging. Going forward, try to build your program around this story and your desire to do research.