Truth Substitute (TM)

In my last post I noted that you should not use your statement of purpose to highlight that you are interested in the basics of the field. If you are applying to med school don’t take up valuable page space to say that you have always been interested in human anatomy. This is 100% assumed. As a side note, can you imagine having a doctor who is ‘not all that interested in how the body works’? … or having a lawyer who, ‘isn’t interested in debate’ or ‘the legal system?’

This is not to say that you shouldn’t connect your experiences to the basics of the field, however. In fact, I think this is the best way to link your experiences to why you are applying to a specific program or to a specific faculty member’s work. A lot of students struggle with making this link. Let’s say you are interested in facial expressions of emotion as a means of detecting lies.

It seems like you almost have to say that, “in second grade I began to notice that people would not always be truthful with me … I remember one time on the playground not getting picked to play kickball. Holly said to me, ‘I really wanted to pick you on my team but I didn’t see you because you standing behind Paul.’ I noticed a slight change in her facial expression then … what I know now to be facial action unit 26 … All I knew then was that something just didn’t feel right. From then on I was determined to understand how to know when someone was not telling the truth … and that’s why I am applying to work with Dr. Stevens at the University of X. While other kids were outside playing, I was working on understanding the subtle ‘tells’ of facial expressions of lying…”

OK – that would be weird. But I think it would be understandable to feel like you almost have to say you were born to do this type of research or applied work. For most of us, what if you are ‘just interested’ in facial expressions of emotion and how this might be subtly conveying non-conscious information? How do you convey that in an interesting way?

Enter: ‘Truth Substitute’


Truth Substitute is a term made up by one of my former grad students, meaning that you need to look over your past life and work experiences to come up with a theme – then give yourself some creative rights to your theme. What she meant was, the clearest description of your past may not be the most compelling for a statement of purpose. It is OK to tell your story in the way that works the best for you. Of course, do not lie or falsify any information, but it is OK to pick and choose from your past and your experiences to highlight why you want to attend a program or work with a professor.

For a research/science based application it might look something like this: let’s say you are applying to an astronomy Ph.D. program and you want to work with Professor Smith. Let’s also say that she works from a theoretical approach that you are interested in, but one that you haven’t worked with before – your experience is with an alternative approach. Explain your experience, but reflect back on those experiences through the lens of Dr. Smith’s theory. This will indicate both your knowledge of these different approaches and your ability to apply that knowledge to your experience.

Here’s another example – I currently do research in schizophrenia and motivation – specifically I research the underlying mechanisms for motivation problems with people with schizophrenia. When I applied to doctoral programs I faced a dilemma – I knew I was interested in psychopathology research, but could see myself doing a lot of different things. One professor I was interested in working with researched emotion and schizophrenia. I had worked in practice settings with people with schizophrenia, but, did I sit around wondering about the mechanisms of emotion and motivation impairment while working with these individuals? Not really.

So how did I write my statement? I looked back over my experiences with people with schizophrenia and wrote about my interest in understanding why people struggled with certain problems and symptoms (which was true) … and then I connected this to my academic interest in emotional impairments as well. Thus linking the two – truth substitute!

Of course linking your experience with the topic is not enough. You also need to show that you have critical thinking abilities. Specifically, what are the studies that you would want to do in this research area, and why? Tying these studies to your experience, and to the professor‘s work is even more impressive.

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