By Mohammed Armani & Emmanuel Oduro Takyi (PhD Student, Yale University, email@example.com)
The SOP/SOM is often one of the most difficult tasks when compiling your application documents for international postgraduate studies. The difficulty in preparing SOP stems from 1) lack of an understanding of how to properly structure the SOP/SOM, 2) low confidence of non-native English speakers to clearly express thoughts and articulate ideas. Below, we share some tips and ideas for writing a potent SOP/SOM (after writing several SOPs/SOMs ourselves and having read over 100s of SOPs/SOMs):
- Writing a good SOP/SOM takes a lot of time! – Crafting a good SOP or SOM takes a lot of time and it is important to realize this from the onset. There are a lot of excellent students who either downplay the importance of a good SOP/SOM or overestimate their writing skills and end up with badly written SOP/SOM. Writing a good SOP/SOM can take anywhere between a few weeks to several months, especially if you have a poor understanding of the structure.
- Highlight your strength, especially non-academic strength: – For instance don’t be shy to highlight the fact that you are:
- a female that is trying to make inroads into a male dominated field (e.g., engineering, GIS, etc.),
- the first person from your family with a degree and looking for further studies.
- that although you struggled financially in school, you still managed to graduate with first- or second-class honors.
- Demonstrate rather than saying: For example, it is better to demonstrate that you are good at something (e.g., programming) rather than just saying “ I am excellent in app programming”. Compare the two statements below, which one do you think sells you better?
- “During my BSc thesis project, I used GIS and allied technologies to examine land use changes in Abuja, Nigeria”.
- “ I am proficient with the use of GIS and allied technologies”.
How should I structure my SOP/SOM?
Well, this depends on the school and program. Some schools and programs have explicit requirements and prescription of the content of the SOM/SOP. However, there is a generality to most schools and programs. Whether there is a specified format or not, you can structure your SOP/SOM as follows:
Paragraph 1: Introduce yourself
- Who are you? (Don’t get so personal-ideally begin with a fundamental experience that fueled your desire to pursue your undergraduate program. It can be an observational experience you constantly witnessed while growing up, or one you personally encountered along the way.
- What do you have (summary of academic/research/work experience). Work experience is likely listed on your CV,so don’t elaborate unless it helps connect the dots and help you sell your story.
- What are you seeking to do (your interest and intentions for the post graduate program)? Here succinctly mention the program and research of interest
Paragraph 2: What makes you suitable for postgraduate studies?
- Summarize your experience.
- Foundation (Depending on the SOP requirements you can choose to ignore this). Your educational foundation is clearly outlined on your CV. However, if you intend to include this (recommended), consider highlighting 2 courses you took during your undergraduate studies that heightened your interest or perhaps enriched your knowledge in your proposed program of interest.
- Research experience (Expand on a relevant research experience-you might have 2 or more research experiences but emphasize more on those that have a connection to your postgraduate program of interests. Did you make some interesting discoveries worth sharing?
- Other relevant experience (software, data analysis and communication skills). Here, a demonstration of those skills matters. What are some instances where you applied these skills in context? PS: Don’t spend too much time on this, a line or two is fine.
Paragraph 3: What do you hope to achieve in life?
- How will this program or university put you on the right pathway to achieving your career goals? Three key things here: (1) Why this university,(2) what about the program excites you-are there resources that will build your expertise and shape your career trajectory? and (3) Which faculty’s research excites you (This is a crucial component for most PhD and some masters programs in the US).
- What are long- and short-term career goals and how will the program help you achieve that?
- How will you use your skills to the benefit of society? Think regional and/or global.
Paragraph 4: conclusion
- Why should they hire you for this program?
- Mention what is unique about you and what you will bring to the lab or research group.
It is important to keep your SOP/SOM concise, we recommend a page and half or at most 2 pages, unless word limit is clearly specified in the writing requirements.
SAMPLE 1: SUCCESSFUL APPLICANT TO WAGENINGEN UNIVERSITY
I was motivated to apply for the MSc. Forest and Nature Conservation programme because the course objectives are consistent with my career and academic goals. I am very passionate about forest and environmental issues and my career aspiration is to become a leading expert in this field, particularly in the field of policy and forest governance. My interest in these areas stem from my active participation in the ongoing discussions and sensitization on the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) between the Government of Ghana (GoG) and the European Union (EU) under the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) initiative. I have also been active in forest certification and recognize that to effectively achieve the aims of certification and VPA, Ghana requires considerable changes to its forest governance structure. This belief is also shared by the GoG and the EU and therefore the VPA has made provisions to address forest governance issues. My goal for embarking on this study is to gain in-depth understanding of policy and governance issues in forest and natural resources management.
In my undergraduate studies I sought to develop a firm foundation in the concepts and theories underlying the management of forest and natural resources. I took courses in ecology, economics, forest management, sociology, policy, GIS, etc. I also managed to combine academic work with field experience by undertaking internships and actively participating in campus-based environmental programmes. Through these activities my working understanding of forest management improved considerably. After my studies in 2006 I had the opportunity of doing my national service as a teaching and research assistant at the Faculty of Renewable Natural Resources. During this period, I explored the possibility of pursuing postgraduate studies, I however opted to have some professional experience before proceeding to postgraduate studies.
In October 2007, I took an offer to manage forest certification for Bibiani Logging and Lumber Limited (BLLC). BLLC at the time was under a lot of pressure from its buyers to initiate processes that would eventually lead to the certification of the company’s forests. BLLC and four other small-medium forest enterprises came together to form a non-profit association, known as the Kumasi Wood Cluster (KWC), to spearhead the implementation of the group forest management certification scheme. At BLLC and KWC I have been largely active in issues of forest management planning (because of my GIS skills), social responsibility agreement (SRA) and community relations, training, and capacity building for forest operators. These activities have been quite interesting and through them I have gained a better appreciation of how the social, economic, and ecological requirements of forest management are implemented in day-to-day operations of timber firms.
My experience in teaching and academic background has been very helpful in my current work. I believe the key lesson I have learnt on the job is the kind of attitude and personality required to succeed in this profession. In Ghana enforcement of forest regulations is quite low. Advocating for change, particularly within timber companies, requires a lot of maturity, patience, passion, and great persistence. I have also managed to combine my full-time work with academic studies. I have so far completed two online courses in GIS (Introduction to GIS and Advanced GIS –GIS401 and GIS501) administered by Lund University (Sweden).
Having experienced the practicalities of forest management, I am looking forward to taking my career to the next level. I am hoping to go into policy development and forest governance. I believe issues of benefit sharing, participatory forest governance, promotion of responsible trade in forest product and management of high conservation values are key to forest management in Ghana and Africa. I also believe competencies in stakeholder engagement, conflict management, policy formulation and implementation will give a big boost to my career. I am convinced that the MSc. Programme in Forest and Nature Conservation at Wageningen provides a suitable platform for achieving these aspirations. Ecology, forest management and policy groups are important factors that informed my choice of this programme, and my desire is to make the maximum use of the expertise within these groups.
SAMPLE 1: SUCCESSFUL APPLICANT TO UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME
Desperate for short-term survival, natives in Damongo, an underprivileged town in northern Ghana where I spent my teenage years, depleted the savannas and wildlife without the luxury of worrying about long-term environmental quality or sustainability. In recent years, most of the land previously occupied by forests and natural grasslands, have been utilized for commercial plantation, and the widespread conversion of natural forest into homogeneous stands has ultimately resulted in the introduction of exotic species and a destruction to biodiversity. My increasing curiosity to understand how the rapid environmental change influences the dynamics of plant populations persisted for a long while. This led me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, and now to apply to the PhD program in Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame to enhance my dream of becoming an excellent researcher in Ecology.
Ultimately, I am interested in how plant communities respond to species climate, anthropogenic disturbances, and other drivers of change, and how we can improve our ability to restore diverse, resilient, high-functioning ecosystems. Early last year, while working as a teaching and research assistant in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Biology at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), I began to explore these questions. As a field researcher, I studied the impacts of an invasive species, Broussonetia papyrifera (native to Japan and Taiwan) on liana species richness, and liana-tree network structure in the Pra Anum and Mirasa Hills forest reserves in Ghana. Using rarefaction/extrapolated curves in the INEXT package in R, I assessed the liana species richness in both invaded and uninvaded sections of these forests. My data suggested a significant decrease in richness and abundance of the lianas in the invaded sites, which was attributed to the dominance of B. papyrifera. I also quantified the liana-tree network patterns using the network level, compute modules and specialization index (H2) functions in the bipartite package in R to analyze and characterize the liana-tree network structure in the invaded and undisturbed sites of both forests. A comparison of my data indicated no significant effect of the invasive species on the liana-tree network patterns; its interpretation attributed to the high host specificity of the lianas irrespective of the invasion status of their environment.
I am fascinated by how we could integrate our knowledge of ecological theories into addressing patterns, community function and structure in plant communities. Complementing my excellent field work techniques, is my proficiency in quantitative analysis, such as in R-Studio and Python, a self-taught skill imperative to long-term ecological research. I strongly believe that if research is truly to affect change, elegant experimental design must be combined with robust and appropriate analyses, ensuring that our interpretations of results are as informative and accurate as possible. My varied research experiences have been fueled by a sense of urgency and the results of prioritizing and implementing appropriate management actions in the face of changing environmental conditions. In 2020, I focused my bachelor’s thesis on the “Prevalence and distribution of ectoparasites on the body of poultry in Amakom-Ghana, after several cases of poultry mortality peaked in the area. Despite the physical demands, it was fulfilling as I successfully identified Lipeurus caponis, the parasitic lice species responsible for the mortality. I also learnt a great deal of poultry management techniques which further instilled in me an investigative mind and a passion to manage endangered populations while assessing potential threats to their existence. My intense, personal experiences with fire and the impacts of worsening insect outbreaks, such as in maize infestations by fall armyworm in agro-ecological zones of Ghana, drive my broader interest in the dynamic pressures that alter our savannas and tropical forests. This includes wildfire and species invasion, which are disturbances that could lead to irreversible ecological disruptions.
Research flexibility and incredible resources such as ND-LEED, key staples within University of Notre Dame’s Biological Sciences PhD program promise exciting prospects for multidisciplinary studies and quality research. The seminars, and the first year of laboratory rotations, an imperative component of this program, is well known for its diversity and interaction across a spectrum of research fields. This will provide me further grounding in the basics of diverse knowledge in Ecology and other related fields, a summative experience which will also develop my higher-level integrative skills, that will advance my intended career in academia. I am particularly interested in the research done by Prof. Swenson and Prof. Medvigy, which focuses broadly on dynamics in forest biodiversity, and how terrestrial ecosystems respond to climate change respectively. I hope to develop my computational skills, especially in mathematical modeling, which is a significant component of the research done by Prof. Medvigy. I would be honored to work with these eminent faculty, whose research strongly resonates with my experiences and interests.
My academic goals are shaped by these personal experiences, and the desire to mentor the next generation of ecological researchers in these times of unprecedented anthropogenic impacts on Earth’s life support systems. I am eager to earn my PhD at the University of Notre Dame not only because of the opportunity to pursue my interests, but because it is the first step towards a successful career as a faculty member at an academic institution. A career path in which I can continue to devote the entirety of my effort to the exploration of the ecological phenomena which have had such a pointed impact on me. I would gladly without a second thought, welcome an opportunity to be a part of the esteemed, resourceful community.