Calls for harsh criticism: my first (of four) graduate school statement of purpose

Note: this is my statement of purpose (SOP) for a graduate program in anthropology at Emory University. I am also going to apply to Stanford, New Mexico, and Chicago. This is only a rough draft. I have given myself plenty of time to make these perfect, so I am posting this here in order to get harsh feedback and also in case anybody ever finds himself in my position (looking online for examples). The application process consists of five parts: grades, GRE score, Letters of Recommendation, SOP, and resume. My big weaknesses are the SOP and Letters of Recommendation. Any help I could get on my SOP would be great! UPDATE (4/14): Dr Khawaja has kindly provided a forum for my other weakness, the Letters of Recommendation, over at Policy of Truth and I have been learning a lot.

I am interested in land contestations, property rights in stateless regimes, and state formation. There are two main reasons for this. First, I spent three months in the Ghanaian village of Wiamoase, a remote outpost in the Ashanti region, with a medical anthropologist who was then doing graduate work on placebo effects and shamanism at Boston University. Ghana was on the threshold of a third consecutive, coup-free presidential and parliamentary election cycle and I was able to observe how these elections were interpreted by rural Ghanaians. Two major factions figured prominently in the electoral calculations of Ghanaians: the aid-lending Global North and rival, ethnic-based domestic factions. These calculations reminded of the work done by the historian Charles Tilly on the slow rise of democracy in France and the role played in this contestation by the landowning aristocracy. I then decided to conduct an informal survey where I asked villagers whether they had more trust in the politicians of Accra or in the land-holding chiefs who leased out farmland. The unanimous response to my unscientific survey was that the trust of the villagers was in the land-holding chiefs.

Second, at Cabrillo College – a community college in central California – I did Honors research on Javanese political strategies and the Dutch colonial practices that those strategies induced. I was particularly intrigued by the narrative of condescension that dominated Western scholarship up until the 1960s, when the Javanese finally began to be depicted by (some) historians as active, willing participants in the new relationships that were formed by the arrival of European settlers. I presented the results of this research at Stanford University in 2011 as part of a Bay Area Honors consortium, where challenging feedback from professors and participants allowed me to show how this research is relevant to understanding today’s examples of both large-scale organized violence and economic development (or lack thereof).

This research was also featured, in modified form, at RealClearHistory in February of 2014. RealClearHistory is part of the RealClear online series that features work from academics, policymakers, and journalists from around the world on issues ranging from science to history to international relations. RCH also featured my articles on the limits of Japanese imperial ambitions during the Shōwa era and on the European Union’s potential for avoiding the nationalisms of the 20th century by providing inclusive outlets for separatist aspirations. The research done for these features, coupled with my electoral experience in Ghana, produced two notions of democracy in my mind: democracy as a colonial project, and democracy as a power-sharing institution; both of these notions feature prominently in Somalia, my main area of interest, today.

Building upon the work of Peter Little, states are generally taken to be a necessity because of the benefits they provide in regards to public goods. In the postcolonial context, however, states are often wielded as a bludgeon and used as an ATM machine by those who attain its levers of power. When a faction – usually ethnic- or geography-based – wins out in a postcolonial state, the other factions lose power (this is in contrast to long-established, more-or-less democratic states, where “losers” still have institutional representation in a number of ways).

Given this situation, I am interested in both the process of state formation in the postcolonial context, and in the idea of taking seriously notions of informal sovereignty – as exemplified by non-state (indigenous) cooperation at the regional and local levels of borderlands – within current internationally-sanctioned boundaries. In the course of writing my article on nationalisms and the EU, for example, I discovered that three distinct cultural cores of the world – South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka), the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti), and the European Union – have similar geographic spaces, ranging in size from 4.31 million km² to 4.482 million km². Yet within these similar geographies, the comparative number of states is stark: both the Horn of Africa and South Asia are comprised of six states each, while the European Union has nearly five times as many (twenty-eight since 2013). The GDP (PPP) per capita – a leading measurement tool used to gauge the economic health of a country – of these regions (based on 2012 IMF estimates) provides another stark insight: the EU’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at $31,018, whereas South Asia’s stands at $3,805 and the Horn of Africa’s is $1,679. These are simple but profound economic and geographic quantitative rifts that have yet to be fully explained, especially in the context of the contestation over defining democracy. Can these macro-level data, in turn, be complemented by looking at informal, cross-border market cooperation, comparative interethnic & intraethnic trading strategies, and power-sharing political institutions? More theoretically: Do these informal economies form the basis of viable states?

The pastoralists in southern Somalia offer an avenue of exploration into these questions, especially the cross-border trade between pastoralists and cattle traders in Somalia and Kenya. I am unaware of research being done on how property rights are agreed upon by the parties involved in this sector of the economy, but the quasi-corporate organizational structure of the actors in the cattle supply chain identified by Dr. Little have ample potential. While much work has been done on the destination of Somali cattle products, and on the traders who act as intermediaries between herders, sellers, and producers, the perspective of Somali herders on the regional informal economy has not been studied in depth. How does both land – as an economic factor of production – and conceptions of property rights affect pastoralists’ economic decisions and political acumen? Ethnographic accounts of herder perspectives on informal economies in general and on the supply chain of their cattle in particular can also build upon the foundations necessary for understanding larger-scale social phenomena such as state formation and neocolonial institutions.

I spent most of my time at UCLA living in an outdoor track-and-field stadium and hauling around a cardboard box with all of my belongings in it, which taught me to be determined and I only mention this because it’s good evidence that I have the perseverance necessary to pursue a doctoral degree from your program. My experience in homelessness is not limited to my time at UCLA. I was born in the cultural center of the Mormon world and, when I left that world at a relatively young age, was exposed to the sometimes harsh realities of poverty in the United States. I mention this experience because it has taught me who to pay attention to depending on what I need and what I want. The work of Peter Little on the formal and informal economies of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa has, in particular, attracted my attention, and I hope to be able to learn directly from him. David Nugent’s work on comparative state formation methods is also an area of research I would learn much from, as is the work of Michael Peletz on Islamic law and its relationship with state formation in Southeast Asia.

14 thoughts on “Calls for harsh criticism: my first (of four) graduate school statement of purpose

  1. A good start, with plenty of good biographical info. However, I don’t see a purpose stated explicitly. I would start with something like “I want to attend graduate school at [name] University so that I can advance toward fulfilment of my goals” followed by a phrase that summarizes your goal, or a bullet list of at most three goals. Then I would say why you think their program would help you achieve your goals. Only then would I get into bio information that shows your qualification.

    Even if the document is short, I would put headings above each section to make life easier for the people that have to read 10,000 of these things.

    • Likewise. As of now I’ve only lazily skimmed over it (which is what an admissions committee would also be doing for the first go) but what I saw was “Hobbesian jungle stuff and details and backgroundandbiographyandIforgotwhatthisguy’stalkingabout.” More substantive feedback soon…

  2. I agree with Warren. I started my SOP with this: “I am applying to your program at school X because I want to pursue a professional career in philosophy.” Chicago’s MAPH let me in at least, so perhaps there is something to it. Think of your SOP like a teenage girl thinks of news media: if the first headline doesn’t hook you, neither will the rest of it. You need to cater to the lowest common denominator, bored and burned out professors.

    I’ll read the rest when I feel sufficiently hooked.

  3. Why are you applying to such a small group of programs? I plan to apply for PhD programs this upcoming cycle as well and have a couple dozen programs on my list. Are you applying to a really niche field that only has a few programs or-?

    As for the SoP, I agree with the others that you should elaborate on what exactly you hope to get out of the program. When I was applying to MA programs I made it clear that my ultimate aim was a PhD and I wanted to spend the MA to correct for deficiencies from my undergrad.

    Also consider moving your last paragraph upward. I’m of the opinion that your SoP should explain why you’re applying to a specific program and you do that in the last section when you start naming off Emory faculty and their contributions. I’m a bit worried a tired admissions committee might stop reading (or half-read) your SoP if you don’t state that clearly in the beginning.

    • Thanks Michelangelo, and great question.

      I am only considering four programs because I want my applications to be perfect. Perfection requires, in my mind, that my SOPs reflect a general familiarity with the work of my potential graduate advisers (I have hand-picked three professors from each program to zero in on). This was the advice of a passionate anthropology adjunct at UCLA (albeit one with a PhD from Northwestern). Because time is limited I picked three long shots and a program that I should get in to.

      My grades are good (for anthropology). I had a 4.0 at Cabrillo (my community college) and a 3.7 at UCLA. My GRE pre-tests at Kaplan have been good. According to the pre-tests and the data shared on each program’s admissions webpage, I qualify for all four programs (I am going to study harder, though, because I want to leave no doubts). That just leaves the SOP and the LoRs, and the thinner I spread myself, the less likely it is that I’ll get into a program I want to get in to.

      There is also the issue of niches. Columbia was the only Ivy institution worth looking at in regards to what I want to specialize in. This was likewise the case with places like UCLA, Northwestern, WUSL, Rice, Vanderbilt, and Duke. There are great programs at flagship public schools like Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Michigan, CUNY Graduate Center, and Wisconsin. Only Seattle sounds nice, however, and I am already living here.

      At the end of the day, I have already accomplished much more than I ever thought I would be able to in regards to education. I never pictured myself with a college degree. I barely graduated from high school. I enjoyed digging ditches and pounding nails. Money is important but it does not make me. While I am a libertarian I am also a hippy.

      If I don’t get in to any of the programs, I can always open up a couple of Togo’s franchises in the PNW, or worse: go to law school!

  4. Disclaimer: Closest thing i ever wrote to an SOP was “i’m here to withdraw.” But here i am to critique yours and if that’s not fair, i’m sure you know how to disregard things.

    Regarding paragraph five, with the geographical comparisons: You’re wide open to rhetorical attack when you compare the number of states in a region, without regard to population density, and also without regard to more extreme, visible examples such as North America or northern Asia where there are far more square kilometers per state than any of the territories you mentioned.

    To say that you “discovered” the fact that Europe, the Horn of Africa, and Southern Asia are similar in total area sounds like bragging of a trivial discovery; i would suggest forming your sentences so that the “discover” verb points to at least the disparity in number of states per region or relative area per state; don’t indicate that you discovered something that seems obvious as soon as you have a map in front of you.

    There’s a further danger in that paragraph, because you have self-defined the regions. “South Asia” suggests far more than the six states you mention, and a reader would be very justified in questioning your (even tentative) conclusions on the basis of the exclusion of so many states, including the cluster in the Southeast and the islands that could (apparently) do a lot to reverse the disparity between Europe and South Asia. If i wanted to refute a conclusion you had drawn from work on this topic, i would say, “You have included India in “South Asia” but excluded Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore…, AND excluded Russia from Europe; do the reverse and see how the numbers look.” It is not a conclusive critique, but it is one obviously available to a critic, and it seems to me that such obvious vulnerability looks bad even to a sympathetic reader.

    i have no idea what an academic likes to see in an SOP, but if i wanted to attack yours or spot a weakness in it, that’s where i’d look.

    Good luck with your applications!

    • Thanks waltherkoch.

      In regards to geographic areas, places like “South Asia” and “Europe” are well-defined in academic departments (“area studies”). So there is a South Asia and a Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Singapore, etc.). When I mention “cultural cores” I am signalling to readers (anthropologists) a subtle difference between Old World and New. In the New World, there is no longer such a thing as a “cultural core,” and hasn’t been since the arrival of the Spanish. There are plenty of cultures, of course, but no cores as they are conceptualized in academic anthropology.

      As you mention, these may not be coherent, but I don’t want to bring that up in a SOP. I’d rather just work off of academia’s assumptions!

  5. I like the conversational tone. You show a lot of thought and interest as well as the capacity to write about your interests… that is, you seem collegial and prepared to become a producer, rather than merely a consumer, of knowledge.

    My big critique is that you aren’t being stingy with my time as the reader. I’m a big fan of the principles laid out by McCloskey ( which I boil down to “your reader is a utility maximizer and their attention is the scarcer part of this transaction… so economize on your use of their attention.” The drawn out conversation would be perfect over a beer, but on paper it’s going to be harder for the committee reading it.

    Try to keep the heart of what you’ve got but get it in half the word count. Open up the possibility of tangents, and make your reader believe you’ve got what it takes to flesh out those tangents. But don’t flesh them out now.

    • Thanks Dr Weber.

      My first few drafts were a lot shorter. I share the views of economists in this regard, but when I sent out those drafts for critiques by anthropologists, they suggested I needed to flesh out my tangents a bit more. So my SOP has invariably gone from less than one page to two pages.

      The criticism of my paper here and elsewhere by economists and business school sociologists has mainly been that it’s too long. I definitely share that concern, but the anthropologists want more. Here is a pdf, for example, of successful SOPs at Duke’s anthropology program. This difference in preferences probably has to do with the fact that the discipline of economics is a bit more streamlined than other disciplines. I also have to take into account the ideologies of various critics. The Leftists want more details. The libertarians: less details but more signaling that I know the basics. Maybe anthropologists are just heavier drinkers than economists?

      As of now, I am trying to cut out 100 words or so.

    • I suppose I should have seen that coming. Maybe you should just integrate into an anthropology department as an outside observer and write an ethnography about them. Send that to the departments you’re interested in applying to.

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