Write a statement of purpose about yourself

August 30, 2021

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they tell me to take you up to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.” -Marvin the Paranoid Android

Articulating what you do, and what you want to do, is hard. Consider the following exchange:

Person at social gathering: “So, what do you do?”

You: “I am a software engineer at XYZ Corp.”

It certainly answers the question! Or maybe:

You: “I work in cardiology”

Kinda vague, but they’ll ask follow-up questions if they’re interested. Or maybe you’re one of these people at parties:

You: “I touch computers. Haha”

You’re probably not going to respond with something long, thoughtful, and vulnerable like this:

You: “I spend most of my time managing working relationships that make me feel vaguely put-upon, burying my frustration that my childhood dreams have come to this.”

No one is looking for this kind of answer (at most parties). But I feel like this becomes so ingrained for many people that they don’t really try to answer what they really want to be doing. Then the question rears its ugly head when you’re looking for a job. So we come up with answers for interviewers, and we come up with answers for our family, but answering it fully and completely for ourselves may feel hard, or impossible.

I went through this last winter as I was considering if I wanted to keep freelancing, or start interviewing for full-time jobs. I ended up writing a 5-page document that helped me clarify a lot, and below is some of what worked for me.

Some advice

This is for you. Yes, you might use pieces of it elsewhere. Be both fair and clear-eyed. Since this is only for yourself, there is no need to make yourself more important or impressive than you believe you are. My goal was for mine to be specific enough to be actionable, but observant enough to feel true to myself reading it 5 years later.

Use examples from your life to illustrate things. Put your feelings about past experiences into words, and articulate those as well as you can.

Suggested sections

Intention of this document. It was important for me to be able to communicate what I’m good at succinctly and accurately, without reaching for generalities or being flippant. This is something you can refer back to in the future.

How I define myself currently. How you talk about yourself, what you do, and what you want to do currently. You can improve this with this document, but first write out the unimproved version. It helped me to tell a bit of my history and the decisions I’d made so far.

My ideal job / client / career position. Okay, now speculate a little. Try to synthesize your best or favorite jobs you’ve had so far, who you’ve enjoyed working with, what you’ve enjoyed doing, towards what end.

The problems I solve. Feel free to let this section feel a little more egotistical. This should be your greatest hits section, the things you’re most proud of, and the kinds of problems people could give you that you would most enjoy working on.

How I will / hope to define myself in the future. Try to synthesize this all into something short. This is sometimes called positioning if you know a little about marketing. Just think of it as a way of effectively communicating all of the above in a sentence or two. One effective format you could start with is an A4B: “I do for “.

Follow-up assignments. You shouldn’t try to answer every question in a document like this. Self knowledge can never be complete, and we’re always changing anyway. There were parts of my statement of purpose that were still pretty vague, so I decided I wanted to interview people who might make interesting case studies working in areas I was interested in.

Everyone deserves to work on something that they care about. And articulating that can be very helpful in making it so.

If you found this helpful, my inbox is open: hi@rowan.earth

a blog by Rowan Copley about fantasy data systems, unhelpful simulations, echoes from the future, and the strange ways that the digital world manifests in the real