Leave Dr. Seuss Out of It

Brian Taylor

January 30, 2011

At this time of year, many professors at universities with graduate programs are poring over applications. Those applications usually include at least one narrative statement in which candidates describe their academic experiences and explain why they want to pursue graduate study.

In those statements, applicants have a chance to show their interests, motivations, and goals. Unfortunately, some applicants to graduate programs in the sciences simply don't know what to write. Some students seem to view the statements as a creative-writing exercise and spend more time sharing how they feel about science than describing their scholarly experiences and interests.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old science professor, I will state emphatically that when I read an application to our graduate program, I do not want to hear about your second-grade teacher (with all due respect to excellent second-grade teachers). Neither do I want to read about a star-gazing experience at age 8 (even on a cold, windswept hill), a childhood chemistry set (no matter how beloved), a fantastic documentary that someone happened to find when a televised golf match was canceled (serendipity!), or anything that is supposed to convince the graduate faculty that you have really, truly, profoundly loved science for a long time.

It's fine if an applicant mentions an early inspiration. I can deal with that, but it should not be the centerpiece of the statement, presented as a compelling explanation for your motivation to pursue graduate research. Presumably you have had other experiences later in life that can also explain a sustained interest in the chosen field. I don't believe that the depth of your love for science, or any pursuit, correlates with how early you discovered that love, so I find such descriptions of childhood inspiration unconvincing in an application for graduate study in the sciences.

Some applicants start their narrative with a quotation from a song, a poem, or a beloved book, including children's books. Whether that's because the applicant wants to convey that we can find profound wisdom in Dr. Seuss even after we grow up, or because the applicant has not read any other books, I do not want to know. The quotation is typically mentioned early in the statement, and then, following some rule of creative writing, is mentioned again at the end, wrapping up the text in a neat and annoying bundle.

A few years ago on my FemaleScienceProfessor blog, I organized a "Statement of Purpose (SOP) Contest" in which readers competed to write the worst such statements. It was akin to "The Bad Hemingway Contest," only my version was for graduate-application essays.

Many of the entries, including my own, were somewhat unkind in their parodies, but they all contained one or more classic elements of the genre, such as:

  • A quotation that is supposed to be deep or cute.
  • An expression of the applicant's great respect for the university and its faculty (adjectives like "prestigious" and "world class" are particular favorites).
  • Mention of childhood (that inspiring second-grade teacher; the chemist uncle; a memorable science fair).
  • Name-dropping a famous scientist. Einstein is too obvious, but some applicants think Feynman is not a cliché and Marie Curie is useful to make a point about diversity.

Another element of some statements: The inadvertent mention of a university that is not the recipient of this particular application ("And that's why my greatest dream is to pursue graduate work at Other University"). Yes, we know that students apply to more than one graduate program, but it would be best to avoid that error in your narrative statement.

I include here, for illustrative purposes, one of my own attempts at a fake Statement of Purpose:

How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man?

Bob Dylan wants to know the answer to this question and so do I. I have always loved quantifying impossible things, and I want to continue to do so in graduate school. I would not stop at counting roads, though, because counting roads means looking down. I also want to look at the sky.

How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky?

That's another thing that Bob wants to know, but in this case we disagree about the important question. I want to know how many times must a man look up before he can really know the sky and what is in it. The sky has always been a mystery to me ever since I was a child. What is the sky? We must know this before we can count things in it. I do not like science fiction though. I love science.

In the classes I have taken as an undergraduate, my professors have attempted to teach me many things, but the things I want to know are not in books.

I have always collected things: shells, pebbles, cats. I even tried collecting staplers for a while to try to get over my fear of them, but although that didn't work well, it shows that I am not afraid to face obstacles and at least try to overcome them. Now my passion will be collecting data.

I think that the graduate program at the University of X is the best one for me because you have a lot of faculty who count the atoms in our universe and our planet. Some of these atoms even make up Bob Dylan, his roads, and the sky we both want to look at and know.

There are many reasons why that fake essay is awful, but the most important one is that it doesn't say anything.

There is no information about the applicant's academic record, research experiences, or specific interests for graduate study. Although mine is an extreme example, I have read countless statements from applicants who spend paragraphs trying to convey their love of science and their unique personalities rather than describing their qualifications for graduate study.

An applicant who writes a creative but uninformative statement is at a disadvantage relative to a student with a professional statement that clearly explains the applicant's academic record (including research experiences), motivation for graduate study (in a particular field or program), and career goals.

It's not necessarily fatal for an otherwise strong application to include a Dr. Seuss-quoting statement of purpose. Most of us reading the applications know that students are not always well advised about the application process. Even so, I can't help sighing when I read yet another "cute" statement of purpose. In fact, I just read one that started with a little rhyme. I am sure that my own graduate application would make me cringe if I saw it again, but I am also certain that I did not include a rhyme.

A statement of purpose need not be a dry document that consists of lists of names and dates. I can appreciate a well-written narrative about someone's life and goals, even if it mentions some personal details. Just leave Dr. Seuss out of it, please.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is