Sunday, July 24, 2005

An Ideal Statement of Purpose (SOP)

Here I Come..

Can a masters degree in bio-nanotechnology at a reputed college in London University help you pursue a career at the UNICEF as a research scientist ? Does a masters in economics from the London School of Economics allow you to better tackle the problem of `solid waste management’ in urban India, a subject you say you are passionate about ?

As panelist for the prestigious and rather generous HSBC Scholarships last week, these were some of the issues we wrestled with in debating our final choice of candidates. Looking back, the tougher it got to sift between the candidates (these were indeed the brightest), the more merciless the process got. For, that is the way it must be, in any selection of the best. These scholarships, incidentally, are for for students who have typically secured admissions to Oxford, Cambridge & The London School of Economics.

While the direction of the final interview cannot be predicted, facing as you are a considerably diverse panel, ranging from journalists and writers to college principals and bankers, the structure and wording of your purpose (SOP) can be well thought through.

How you put it across in words to your interviewers is more critical. But as a starting point, what and how you state in written words is indeed the blueprint, for your success.

Idealism Or..Not ?

In my time, you pursued science instead of arts or commerce mostly because you wanted to become an engineer or a doctor. Not because it was a subject close to divinity, as a student stated in her SOP. Most panelists would skip or not notice this little reference to the divine. But, what if a well-known author, student of sociology and of course panelist was challenged by it and asked you how, because in his mind, science represented doubt and religion faith.

The answer was: “I believe the creator was a perfect mathematician. The mind of the creator and a scientist are similar.” Did it end there ? Unfortunately, no. The student in question delved deeper and deeper into weighty matters of science and religion and then, to our collective minds, began drifting away. Keep in mind that a scholarship for a masters in bio-nanotechnology, not philosophy or theosophy, lay at the end.

“My future plans include a PhD in bio-nanotechnology. In the long run, I would like to work with the UNICEF as a research scientist in this realm.” Several panelists saw an inconsistency. “What’s the connect between UNICEF and developing nanobots that destroy cancer cells, viruses and repair cellular damage ?,” I wondered aloud. A senior panelist thundered: “What if I were to put to you that the UNICEF is an overpaid bureaucracy ?”

“Is our attitude towards waste something to do with our caste system ?” That was the author once again, pursuing a line of thought that touched the sociological. Couldn’t blame him, it was not crystal clear why a LSE student would want to pursue a future in solid waste management. And that is the sort of clarity you would demand in a highly competitive race like this.

Rewind a little bit. The same student says the LSE Master’s Course would serve as a foundation for further doctoral studies and a career in research and policy making, even leading up, as he hinted during the interview, a stint in politics. So, where and how does solid waste management come in ? Well, no direct connect could be seen or explained. And that served to blemish an otherwise smooth interview.

What was this young lady’s objective ? Was it to use her Oxford degree in Women’s Studies to further her interest in fiction and thus embark on a larger, social activist, mission or were we talking to a young writer of fiction from Kolkata wanting to use an Oxford degree in Women’s Studies to the same end ?

“Oxford will provide the creative space to experiment with a multiplicity of narrative strategies and poly-angular perspectives,” went the SOP. “Will it, indeed ?” The author was back, this time referring to Vikram Seth, “A creative writer does not usually engage with society. Arundhati Roy was a writer and then turned into, arguably, a social activist.” “How can you do or claim to do both ?” he asked. Not an easy one to respond, comprehensively.

Can a Master’s at the School of Oriental & Africal Studies (SOAS) in England help you engage with developmental issues in your small, insurgency prone, home state ? Can an introduction to the Theory & Practice of Development assist you in your ideological objective of riding the shift in development activity from government-based to community-based work. Given my own ( Marxist) leanings as a college student, this sounded like a revolutionary in work-in-progress ! But on a serious note, this is indeed a big challenge for aspiring students, of marrying educational ambitions to idealistic fervour.

Definitive Ideals

Should you be idealistic in your SOPs or for that matter in the subsequent discussions and debates with an interview panel. It’s a tough one and will vary depending on background, choice of career, achievements so far and so on (the last paragraph in this piece will attempt to elaborate on this point). Broadly, the answer is yes, a healthy dose of idealism is welcome and shows you in good light. For a highly competitive scholarship where one parameter for selection is contribution to community and society, lack of idealism or an idealistic, larger goal could actually be a hurdle.

The important thing is to define idealism in your, personal context . In saying I pursued science because of its nexus with divinity or a masters degree in sociology at Oxford because it will also help me “develop a theory of `ethical fiction’, within a predominantly post-modernist framework” is frankly, opening oneself for attack. Was the reference to divinity or the pursuit of fiction necessary ? You may feel strongly about it, but the majority of this panel found it tangential.

Idealism should, in this writer’s view, be definitive, describable and in arm’s length. By all means have an idealistic goal but be prepared to defend it. If you cannot, then don’t put it down. Another candidate, wanting to pursue a MSc in neuroscience said she wished to set up a training institute back home for “discovering newer biotechnological frontiers.” On being asked how, she listed the known funding options that existed. Would she get any of the funds, who knows. Did she know how to reach her idealistic goal. Yes, reasonably.

Writing It !

Here is a suggestion. Write your SOP. Separate the course-driven targets from the general ones. The course driven targets would follow a logical pattern, BSc, MSc, PhD and perhaps further research and academia. Now the general target. Do you want to stay in academia or do a job somewhere ? For instance, the student who wanted to start an institute for neuroscience might end up becoming research scientist at Pfizer or Glaxo Smithkline. That’s okay, but the primary objective of an institute was defined clearly and appeared to have, at least in thought, a Plan A and B.

Research your general targets or goals thoroughly. Better still, as I have said in the past, brainstorm them with experts, people from the profession. Ask an expert in solid waste management whether your LSE degree will help in contributing to that field. Better still, what does solid waste management lack most in India, LSE economists or committed civic workers ? Or a author/novelist whether you can balance, successfully, your pursuit of Women’s Studies and the art of writing fiction.

A SOAS degree can, possibly, lead you to many finite, immediate goals, including academia - how about becoming a spy ! But throw in an ideological target of aiding or being part of a power-shift in your home-state (without the state’s assistance) and you’ve set alarm bells ringing ! So, maybe you ought to be discussing this with a professor at the institute you’ve been admitted to. Or alumni, who’ve possibly found the right application or recourse for their acquired knowledge and wisdom.

Idealism & The Real World

As a student, it is tempting to be ideologically driven. There is nothing wrong with it. But that temptation can lead to ruin when sitting with a roomful of people who have worked their way up in life, regardless of profession. The author on the panel was arguably the most ideological person in the room, even more than the journalists. But it was ideology tempered and balanced by decades of practice and commerce, since books too have to sell ! Unfortunately for you, he will look to a similar or close to similar understanding of the real world.

To conclude this part, don’t reign in your longer term objectives or ideologies. But in a scholarship application SOP, make sure they don’t figure unless you are absolutely sure they link up. If you believe so strongly in something, mention it in passing. Two candidates, both unsuccessful, said they would join politics. They didn’t mention this in their SOPs. The panel was actually happy to hear that, coming from such smart and young individuals. And the nation ought to benefit. Now, that’s the writer being idealistic !.

Yes, the inclusion of a career in politics in the SOP may have triggered a sterner line of questioning. Actually it did in one case; the answer to a question on which political party in a particular state the candidate would chose was backed by the explanation, “It’s the lesser evil !” All agreed with that one. So, politics is real and realistic. To reiterate, ensure you ‘ve discussed your ideological strains or thoughts with a practitioner of some sort and have arrived at a realistic finding. Then incorporate that into your SOP.

Influencers & Role Models

Remarkably, at least two students were amazingly clear about why they chose a certain course. Both quoted famous scientists, their work and in the case of one, her presence in the college the candidate had applied for. The same candidate pointed out how a certain professor was working on cutting-edge research on cognitive and behavioral models in this college as also how a former, renowned, professor had done discovery research on the structure of the DNA in the same institution.

The candidate who chose bio-nanotechnology said she was influenced by an
eminent scientist who spoke on the subject at a seminar in the Indian Institute of Science. Her take on the subject itself was impressive and despite sounding almost fantastic on one hand (nanobots repairing cells, decoding and repairing damaged DNA) seemed well grounded on theory – she got tripped by her UNICEF ambitions though !

This part worked for these and other candidates because the role models and influencers were real and present though the objectives and scientific targets were somewhat distant. Moral of the story: find a strong, convincing role model. Its possible you already have and are hence following your present course. But if you have not, a role model will often help bring clarity in your own, secondary objectives. More so if you have chosen a scientific discipline.

Community Work & Leadership Skills

Scholarships like this one demand a high degree of commitment to the community. Unfortunately, you cannot wing this one. Further, there is sought a connect between the kind of community work you do, the leadership qualities you display in doing that and the academic course you have chosen. Seems like a tough call but most candidates actually do well on this score.

A candidate from last year chose a degree in law at the LSE because he was struck by the sheer antipathy of the legal system to the Gujarat’s riot-victims. He experienced this as a NGO volunteer trying to collect petitions and found that many of the affected could have actually fought and perhaps got some justice if their approach been stronger, legally. He expressed a desire to return and work with the community specifically on legal issues. Hopefully, he will.

Another, architecture, student connected her work in rehabilitating 2,000 families in Andaman to her understanding of the role of urban design in creating livelihood and communities. She was also involved in an interesting study of the streets of Bombay in general and three in particular. The study, from what I could gather, involved streets like Colaba Causeway and looked at the `various layers of the street’, the shopkeepers, the hawkers and their street-corner monopolies and attempted to “understand both the symbiotic interplay between these and the combined dynamic which resulted in the the buzz on the street.”

Two students from Bangalore and Bombay had done specific work in and with slums. One said in his SOP that Slum Sludies had given him an insight into the ground realities of various social issues. Most candidates had worked on-ground. Typically, this influenced their world-view at the moment. As they move away from the heat and dust, their views might change. For the present, it was not a bad thing at all, to see academically brilliant youngsters with such a strong focus on their environment.

The lesson here is that you need to involve yourself with your longer term objectives, now. This can be done through NGOs, individually or through the institution you are studying. Almost all the candidates here had done commendable work in this regard.

Keep It Simple

Easy to preach, tough to practice. For one, recognize that the combined intellectual firepower of your interviewers can far exceed what you have ever been exposed to in your college and school days. One key reason for this is their diversity, unlikely to be aggregated in normal course. Second, remember to talk about things you are absolutely sure you can engage in a debate in. This is tough to implement in a free-flowing interview. Be on guard anyway.

If your SOP has opened doors you don’t want others to walk into, then make sure you don’t labour on, wading your way through a series of explanations. `White space’ is dangerous. Be careful of a panel that is listening rather than firing questions. Silence causes you to speak on. You make bigger mistakes, as I have seen happening. Even the brightest slip up here. Use silences to make quick points and then wait. After all, you are the interviewee.

Prepare For The UnExpected !

You may not expect an author and or an `intellectual’ to be sitting on a panel interviewing candidates for a scholarship but it helps to be be prepared for the unexpected. What if someone with an intimate knowledge of your idealistic objectives was on the panel ? Or what is someone from your chosen field came was present? Could you handle them ?

As a science student, you may not have paid much attention to the metaphyiscal, but made some seemingly casual and even careless statements in your SOP. In which case, watch out!

From The Heart

The candidate who won our hearts and one of the scholarship had most of the above, though not all of it. He scored high on simplicity of mind and clarity of purpose. His father was a farmer with an acre and half of land somewhere in the north. He had survived so far on scholarships, including one from the Indian Government. Despite his lack of resources, he secured an international scholarship to do his International Baccalaureate in England.

His SOP was simple. He spoke of the need to create effective policies to tackle the needs of rural India, especially small-scale farmers who suffer from consistent poverty, illiteracy and lack of resources. He was clear that every individual could contribute towards a nation’s development with a good education in economics and statistics, even quoting Amartya Sen’s treatise on droughts and poverty for good measure !

In the interview, he went on to say that farmers should be equipped to compete in a globally competitive world. He identified post harvest management as a problem area and advocated the need for farmers’ supermarkets. He lamented the fact that farmers lacked a strong information network and stressed the need for a strong processing industry. At a industry body seminar on agriculture, these statements might sound like platitudes and homilies but coming from this young boy, every word struck home.

Yes, there were doses of idealism but the understanding of them stemmed from his real world, where his father toiled as a farmer. The solutions were distant but not out of sight. The panel collectively felt here was someone who could convert some of that idealism into practice, following a good education. Incidentally, the boy, not yet 20, had applied for an undergraduate course.

The views recorded here form the writer’s impression of the interview proceedings and the candidates as he saw them. They may not necessarily concur with the other panelists who were senior and far more accomplished, to say the very least.


Rahul said...

Dear Govindraj, this is one of the best piece I have read in the recent past. Congratulations!!

Jaggernaut on 11:12 am said...


Your post on rediff about Bombay's non-existent sustained anger is brilliant. It warrants a post on your blog too. Good stuff!

I wanted to write something like that. But I was too disgusted. Two attempts ended in the trash with reams full of expletives for the CM, the BMC and their kin.


Anonymous said...

very good article

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shraddha said...

hello mr govindraj,
i accidently came across your post while writing my own scholarship sop. it helped me a lot . thanks a lot for ur views. not being a "words" person , writing does not come easy to me. my sop in " my original style" looks a lot like my science journals, where everything is too the point. i didnot want to write too idealistic reports as most suggested " bahut fekna padta hain " as that is just not me ! thanks to ur post i will write it in my own way..........not what is expected !! jeez.....while reading do u ppl on the panel dont beleive all thats written right .....i mean if u r on that panel , u r sure too hav enough sense that some things r too much !!!!!! i would like to hav some advise from you related to funding overseas education........can i trouble you on this matter ?????
[my email :]
without wax
shraddha lad

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Pope on 7:55 pm said...

Dear Mr.Govindraj,

I was half expecting a step by step manual when I came across this post on Google. Thanks for making it otherwise. I am currently writing my SOP for admission into the LSE and I am sure I picked up useful stuff from your post. It's always nice to get an insight into the viewpoint of the interviewers.

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