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colorful slinky opened up like a fan

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Imagine, for a moment, a slinky: coiled, compact, stationary, full of potential. It is much longer in reality than in appearance, with plenty to unravel. If perched atop a set of stairs, it does not take much to tip forward, extending that coiled energy until it folds back in upon itself to regather its energy, coil and spring forward with momentum to the next step and the next.

The metaphor of the slinky has come to govern much of how I think through advising on the most difficult component of Ph.D. applications: the statement of purpose. Students often come in with trepidation at the distance between the top of the stairs and the bottom, though some have started the process and made it a few steps before getting frustrated and losing momentum. My job in these advising situations is to provide a framework for students to transform intellectual and emotional energy into words that convey their genuine interests, questions and abilities, so that they can spring forward toward their next steps (the next stair, as it were). I do this, in part, through a conceit I’ve started calling the “hermeneutic slinky.”

Some readers will recognize my borrowing from a foundational philosophical and interpretive concept called the hermeneutic circle. The idea is an ancient one, but “hermeneutic circle” became a term of art with the formalization of Hermeneutics—the science of interpretation—in the 19th and 20th centuries. In short, the hermeneutic circle describes the relationship between part and whole in interpretation: every time someone studies something, their understanding of this part also gives them a revised understanding of the whole. With a new understanding of that whole, the part—even the same part newly understood—now looks different and can be reinterpreted. Texts, for instance, can be studied again and again because the whole and parts vary in ever expanding and contracting formulations and interactions. Even the same part in relation to the same whole will constantly change and evolve for the same interpreter through the process of interpretation.

This concept informs how I encourage students to think about two primary part-whole relationships that often stymie the statement of purpose: first, the relationship between writer as a whole applicant and the parts they can present in a Ph.D. application, and, second, the relationship between the parts of their statement of purpose and the document as a whole. Fittingly, these two relationships also feed into and shape each other.

When I advise on Ph.D. statements of purpose, I coach applicants to recognize three main goals. First, they need to demonstrate that they can ask interesting research questions or identify interesting problems. (We’ll come back to “interesting” later.) Second, readers need the applicant to show that they have the potential to make progress on those problems and argue for answers to those questions. Third, admissions committees need to understand why the department where the student is applying and the institution of which it is a part will be excellent places to gain the kind of training necessary to carry out a lifelong pursuit of asking and answering interesting research questions.

Applicants do not, however, need to share their entire life story nor everything they have learned on a topic. They do not need to know—let alone describe—an entire field or everything written on their proposed research. The statement of purpose does not present the applicant’s full self, but a few stacked, spiraling disks that compose a small portion of a slinky.

The trick is to align each of these goals as parts that add up to a holistic statement of the applicant’s questions and interests—a whole of which individual projects, papers and explorations are iterative parts. One sounding leads to the next to the next to the next, like the spiraling coils of a slinky, with each project and exploration (re)turning the scholar in training to a new, expanding and increasingly articulable understanding of their long-term interests.

Part and whole relate in a circular manner, but this recursiveness is also progressive. The temporal aspect of describing how research interests have developed turns the circle into a coil of interpretation and growth—a hermeneutic slinky. The statement of purpose requires stretching out and zooming in on a section in the middle of the coil where the applicant is now. It is connected to the parts of the slinky still on the higher step—past experiences, projects, questions, answers—that culminate in an image of the researcher stretching forward and propelling the entire slinky onto the next step in a Ph.D. program and beyond.

The figure of a progressive, stretched-out coil brings us back to the first goal: to prove one can ask interesting research questions. Because in academe, “interesting” can be both an insult and a compliment—hermeneutics are required—some explication will helpful.

In the context of a statement of purpose, the adjective “interesting” entails three primary features. First, the question is at least potentially answerable with the methods and data of the particular field or discipline; for example, my own field of religious studies could not convincingly answer whether there is cheese on the moon. Second, the question is contestable by someone trained in similar methods to analyze similar data; two NASA scientists would likely not reinvestigate whether the moon is made of cheese without surprising new evidence, but they might disagree on aspects of and continue to study precisely how the moon was formed. And third, an interesting question needs to be contextualized, both within the field, identifying an opening into something unknown and, in the case of the statement of purpose, one’s own intellectual trajectory. (Describing the questions, methods, materials and interventions of that old research project on artistic imaginings of the moon in 13th-century China is a great place to start.)

Conveniently, by asking answerable, contestable and contextualized questions in a statement of purpose or research proposal, Ph.D. applicants demonstrate that they can ask interesting questions and that they have the potential to work on them because they have demonstrated their instincts for framing and prior experience carrying out projects which lead to new questions, new projects, new answers, next steps. They are not an ill-informed observer.

The act of articulating and describing such questions likewise enables applicants to show how training in a particular department and institution will equip them to continue asking and answering questions. Methods that professors there employ, geographical and chronological foci, collaborations and resources, all inform the questions a student will ask and answer during their Ph.D. and beyond.

By aligning the parts of their statement of purpose into a progressive yet recursive whole, applicants create a self-contained and self-referential world of the text that guides readers to an understanding of the applicant’s questions and abilities and thereby mediates between author and reader. The problem of putting one’s whole self on the page melts away as applicants discover they are crafting a text that stands on its own precisely because it presents only the part of the applicant that pertains to research and learning. Trying to present much more than that in a statement of purpose relies too much on authorial intent, which exercises little or no control over an admissions committee’s interpretation. Accordingly, the effective statement brings about, in the words of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, a “fusion of horizons” between applicant and admissions reader where genuine—if always partial—understanding can occur.

At the end of the day, understanding is the most powerful outcome the statement of purpose can enable. When applicants home in on what they genuinely want to know and articulate the relationship between past projects and future questions—rather than overstating potential impact or listing all the reading and research they have already done, relevant to the statement of purpose of not—they can come to a new self-understanding. Practically, they can let one part (the statement of purpose) illuminate the whole (the student’s intellectual potential) rather than get stuck trying to describe every curve of an uncoiled slinky with the word count of only a small slice.

Moreover, students understand themselves (the whole) differently in light of the document(s) they’ve produced (the part[s]). They will recognize themselves (the part) differently in light of what they’ve seen in the field and the academy (the whole). And they will grow, springing forward with that coiled intellectual and emotional energy into whatever comes next.

Nathan J. Hardy is assistant director of graduate career development at UChicagoGRAD, University of Chicago.

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