How To Write A Research Interest Essay

Below is a pdf link to personal statements and application essays representing strong efforts by students applying for both undergraduate and graduate opportunities. These ten essays have one thing in common: They were all written by students under the constraint of the essay being 1-2 pages due to the target program’s explicit instructions. In such circumstances, writers must attend carefully to the essay prompt (sometimes as simple as “Write a one-page summary of your reasons for wanting to pursue graduate study”) and recognize that evaluators tend to judge these essays on the same fundamental principles, as follows:

  • First, you are typically expected to provide a window into your personal motivations, offer a summary of your field, your research, or your background, set some long-term goals, and note specific interest in the program to which you are applying.
  • Second, you are expected to provide some personal detail and to communicate effectively and efficiently. Failure to do so can greatly limit your chances of acceptance.

Good writers accomplish these tasks by immediately establishing each paragraph’s topic and maintaining paragraph unity, by using concrete, personal examples to demonstrate their points, and by not prolonging the ending of the essay needlessly. Also, good writers study the target opportunity as carefully as they can, seeking to become an “insider,” perhaps even communicating with a professor they would like to work with at the target program, and tailoring the material accordingly so that evaluators can gauge the sincerity of their interest

Overview of Short Essay Samples

Geological Sciences Samples

In the pdf link below, the first two one-page statements written by students in the geological sciences are interesting to compare to each other. Despite their different areas of research specialization within the same field, both writers demonstrate a good deal of scientific fluency and kinship with their target programs.

Geography Student Sample

The short essay by a geography student applying to an internship program opens with the writer admitting that she previously had a limited view of geography, then describing how a course changed her way of thinking so that she came to understand geography as a “balance of physical, social, and cultural studies.” Despite her limited experience, she shows that she has aspirations of joining the Peace Corps or obtaining a law degree, and her final paragraph links her interests directly to the internship program to which she is applying.

Materials Sciences Student Sample

For the sample from materials sciences, directed at an internal fellowship, the one-page essay has an especially difficult task: The writer must persuade those who already know him (and thus know both his strengths and limitations) that he is worthy of internal funds to help him continue his graduate education. He attempts this by first citing the specific goal of his research group, followed by a brief summary of the literature related to this topic, then ending with a summary of his own research and lab experience.

Teach for America Student Sample

The student applying for the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged urban and rural public schools, knows that she must convince readers of her suitability to such a demanding commitment, and she has just two short essays with which to do so. She successfully achieves this through examples related to service mission work that she completed in Ecuador before entering college.

Neuroscience Student Sample

The sample essay by a neuroscience student opens with narrative technique, telling an affecting story about working in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Thus we are introduced to one of the motivating forces behind her interest in neuroscience. Later paragraphs cite three undergraduate research experiences and her interest in the linked sciences of disease: immunology, biochemistry, genetics, and pathology.

Medieval Literature Student Sample

This sample essay immerses us in detail about medieval literature throughout, eventually citing several Irish medieval manuscripts. With these examples and others, we are convinced that this student truly does see medieval literature as a “passion,” as she claims in her first sentence. Later, the writer repeatedly cites two professors and “mentors” whom she has already met, noting how they have shaped her highly specific academic goals, and tying her almost headlong approach directly to the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, where she will have flexibility in designing her own program.

Beinecke Scholarship Student Sample

The Beinecke Scholarship essay is written by a junior faced with stiff competition from a program that awards $34,000 towards senior year and graduate school. This student takes an interesting theme-based approach and projects forward toward graduate school with confidence. This writer’s sense of self-definition is particularly strong, and her personal story compelling. Having witnessed repeated instances of injustice in her own life, the writer describes in her final paragraphs how these experiences have led to her proposed senior thesis research and her goal of becoming a policy analyst for the government’s Department of Education.

Online Education Student Sample

Written during a height of US involvement in Iraq, this essay manages the intriguing challenge of how a member of the military can make an effective case for on-line graduate study. The obvious need here, especially for an Air Force pilot of seven years, is to keep the focus on academic interests rather than, say, battle successes and the number of missions flown. An additional challenge is to use military experience and vocabulary in a way that is not obscure nor off-putting to academic selection committee members. To address these challenges, this writer intertwines his literacy in matters both military and academic, keeping focus on applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), his chosen field of graduate study.

Engineer Applying to a Master’s Program Sample

This example shows that even for an engineer with years of experience in the field, the fundamentals of personal essay writing remain the same. This statement opens with the engineer describing a formative experience—visiting a meat packaging plant as a teenager—that influenced the writer to work in the health and safety field.  Now, as the writer prepares to advance his education while remaining a full-time safety engineer, he proves that he is capable by detailing examples that show his record of personal and professional success. Especially noteworthy is his partnering with a government agency to help protect workers from dust exposures, and he ties his extensive work experience directly to his goal of becoming a Certified Industrial Hygienist.

Click here to download a pdf of ten short essay samples.

Before you know it, the day will come when your contract ends, or you just feel like applying for a new and exciting position. You may feel a bit lost in preparing all the documents you need for that new job post. Do not worry, there is advice out there. One thing you will need is a Statement of Purpose or Research Interest Statement if you want to apply, mainly, for academic positions. Remember, a powerful statement reflects the quality of you as an applicant, and that’s why it is important to know some rules on how to write it.

Basically, when applying for a PhD, post-doc, or faculty position, you will need to provide your curriculum vitae (CV), including the contact information of two or more references, sometimes specific certificates (e.g. language certificate), and a Research Interest Statement. A research statement is a document of one to three pages (if it is not clearly stated) that describes your research until now, your interests, and future plans.

Why Do You Need a Research Interest Statement?

This document is helpful for the lab/department that wants to hire you as well as for yourself.
The employer will learn about:

  • interests and experience you have;
  • your passion for research;
  • the match between your interests and the employer’s research;
  • your ability to think logically;
  • your independence from your supervisor;
  • the extent of your writing skills (important for paper and grant writing, thus in earning money for your research!).

You will have the chance to:

  • further think and define your future plans and research interests;
  • gain confidence and visualize yourself further in your career.

There are some differences in the requirements you may need. Sometimes you need to produce a separate file, which is often required for faculty positions.  Other times you can simply include your statement in your CV. Let’s start first by defining what to do when applying for a Ph.D. or post-doc position.

PhD or Post-doc Position

When the research interest statement is part of your CV, aim for one page, or around 400 words. Pay attention, do not rewrite your CV, but define clearly your research interests. Highlight your scientific skills, your passion, and your ideas!

How should you structure it? Think about how you would tell a story or write your thesis. You need an introduction, a main paragraph, future research and conclusion.

Introduction: summarizes the contents and guides the reader through your application.

Main paragraph: this is the core of your statement together with the future research. It contains your recent and current research. If you worked on several projects, make the connection among them. Write how you became interested in what you have done and why it is still interesting for you. Capture your reader by telling a story, not just stating what you have done, and your statement will be easy to remember. In this part, you can briefly describe any important recognition, such as papers, presentations, awards and grants.

A very important tip: your statement will be more powerful if you place your work in a broader context. Let your reader visualize the ‘big picture’.

Future prospective: describe your short-term goals (2-5 years). This can be different if you are applying for a PhD or post-doc position. In the first case, write about additional technical skills you are planning to learn or how you want to broaden your knowledge in a certain field. For the second, try to be a bit more detailed, and also include how you plan to develop yourself as an independent scientist. State how your research goals will align with the employer’s research, which collaborations you could bring into the department, and which ones on campus you could benefit from.

Conclusion: generally, use one sentence which leaves your imprint and practically says why you deserve the job.

Faculty Positions

Applying to faculty positions requires a bit more detail and sometimes the Statement of Purpose has a precise length (2-5 pages). The structure above is still valid, however, you will need to add long-term goals (5+ years). You can think of it as if writing a grant application. Include some preliminary data, if you can, and be more detailed and precise. It is crucial, in this case, to be able to visualize the ‘big picture’ not being too vague! How does your research bring innovation into the field? In this statement also mention potential funding your research could bring to the department and which laboratory equipment and space the department should provide you. You can mention common facilities of the campus you plan to use. Also include potential applications of your research; collaborations with industrial partners can strengthen your application.

Important Reminders

A very common mistake is to use a basic template for each application. Your application will be a winning one if you customize your statement. Describe the match between your experience and interests and the lab/department you are applying for. Sometimes you have to search deep in your mind to find the match, but do not be distressed – it is there! You need just one or two contact points between your and the employer’s research and the match is done. Around those matches develop, create, and articulate.

About the format:  write clearly, and be concise. Use single-spaced or 1.5 spaced text, short bulleted lists, and clear subject headings. The clearer your statement, the more powerful your application!

One last tip: give yourself time to write. Leave the statement in your drawer for some days and come back to it later. This will help you obtain a different perspective on what you wrote. Send it as well to one or more friends and colleagues to get suggestions. Someone who is not from your field can also be very helpful.

For Further Information

Google or visit some websites, such as,
I hope this article will help you in your applications. Remember: stay calm and keep writing!

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