Writing an essay for graduate school applications in anthropology
Regardless of whether the essay is called a “personal” essay or “statement of interests,” you want to focus primarily on your academic interests. This is not the place to provide an autobiography. In that sense, this is a very different application essay than the one you may have written for undergraduate admissions. The goal of an application essay for graduate school is to get professors to want to support you. You want professors in the department to which you are applying to read the application and be motivated to work with you to make your project even better and your intellectual focus even sharper.
One way to structure the essay is to think of it as having something like an hourglass shape. Begin with the largest, most compelling questions and issues you want to address in your graduate studies, then narrow down towards a preliminary proposal of the kind of ethnographic dissertation project you would want to do. Then expand back out again with statements of how and why your academic background makes you the perfect person to investigate such issues (both the broader issues and the ethnographic ones), and finally why the department you are applying to will be the best place to help train you for tackling those issues.
- The Big Questions: Applying to an anthropology graduate program means you are signing up for, on average, eight years of work from matriculation to completion of the Ph.D. In many cases, people take much longer than that. What kinds of questions and issues will sustain you through that period (often a period when you have little money, no career, and are stuck with the designation of ‘student’ while most of your friends from college and high school are off doing other things)?
- What is so interesting that you would actually want to spend eight years thinking about it?
- How do these questions and issues relate to contemporary problems in anthropology and the world more generally?
- What kind of argument can you make for why these are important issues, ones deserving of a place in a graduate department and, ideally, deserving of full funding from the school?
Thinking from the perspective of professors in the department to which you are applying, you want people to read your essay and say, ‘this is the kind of person/project I want to deal with for eight long years, shepherding them through the many stages of a graduate program, even though that means a lot more work for me.’ [The cynical version of this same sentence: professors are lazy – YOU have to motivate them to want to work with you.]
- Your ethnographic/historical project: As interesting and important as your Big Issues are, you need to also propose how these issues manifest themselves in social life as conflicts, processes, etc that require ethnographic or historical investigation. How does a particular situation or place manifest aspects of the issues you want to examine?
- Why or how does this locale/conflict/process provide a particularly good vantage point for thinking through your Big Issues? To take a somewhat mundane example: Let’s say you are interested in globalization. How are people in your locale engaged in this global process, how do they experience it and understand it, and how does it affect them? Why is this a particularly interesting instance of ‘globalization’?
- You will want to also discuss why your approach is different from other studies that have focused on similar Big Issues. Will you have a different methodology? A different ethnographic locale? A different theoretical orientation? A combination of different approaches that hasn’t been attempted before?
- Be sure to point to how this particular approach gets you back to aspects of your Big Issues that have not been given the attention they deserve in anthropological (or other relevant) literature.
In both this and the previous section, feel free to point to particular authors or approaches that are relevant to your work. Which anthropologists or social theorists are inspiring to you? Or, what don’t you like about the direction of recent anthropological work in your area of interest and how does your approach differ or otherwise correct the flaws in previous work?
- Your background: How has your undergraduate training helped you in thinking through these Big Issues and ethnographic/historical projects? What was your major? (If it wasn’t anthro, how might it still help you in working on your Big Issues?) What courses did you take? But most importantly, what kind of perspective on social life did you develop through this training? How will this help you as you develop your project and interests? At the same time you need to indicate the major gaps and holes in your training, the kind of theoretical and ethnographic learning you still have to do. This will let you segue into...
- Your fit with the department: Now that you have shown how intelligent and interesting you are, and shown how much promise you have for engaging, cutting-edge research, you want to wrap up by talking about how the department is going to make your work even better, and how perfectly you fit into the department’s program. What kind(s) of training does the department to which you are applying provide? Why is this training or this focus of the department especially helpful to you given your Big Issues and your proposed project? Who do you want to work with? (Name names of specific professors.) Are there other departments or on-going venues on campus that will also be important for you (e.g., area studies departments, workshops focusing on certain issues or topics, specific professors in other departments who you might also want to work with)?
Adjust this rubric to your own tastes. For example, it’s always nice to get started by providing some kind of brief ethnographic anecdote, one from which you can bounce into both your Big Issues and your project proposal. Or you may want to re-order the above points in some other form more organic to your writing or presentation style. However, these are the kinds of things that readers will be expecting to find in your essay, so do address them in one way or another.
Unfortunately, this is probably not the last time you will have to write an essay like this. If you do get into grad school and stick with academics, you will find yourself almost constantly writing grant applications (for support during graduate course work, for field work, for the dissertation write-up stage, for post-docs, and then endlessly after that for further research grants) that ask for very similar kinds of essays. This means you need to get comfortable with this very awkward genre of asking for support, a genre where you are showing both that you know what you are talking about, but also that you also need cash/institutional support to help you figure out more about what you are talking about. It is a genre that is nobody’s native language, and it is a struggle for everyone to figure out the right tone to take in these essays. That mostly means you need to start working on your essay early so that you can go through an endless number of drafts. Good luck!