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Statement of Purpose: PhD in Social Policy

skeays 1 / 7  
Aug 23, 2012   #1
Dear readers,

Any assistance that you could give me to improve my Statement of Purpose for the PhD program at the Heller School would be much appreciated!

My ultimate goal in applying for admission to the PhD program in social policy at the Heller School is to become a "scholar practitioner," dedicated to continuously raising the bar in public discourse, designing or strengthening evidence-based policy solutions that improve public health, and sharing my enthusiasm and research about health policy with future leaders.

Like several of Heller's faculty, especially those at the Institute on Healthcare Systems, I am interested in focusing my research on the role that health insurance exchanges will play in creating near universal coverage as well as slowing long-term growth in overall healthcare costs. My interest in this topic began while working on the Massachusetts Health Insurance Exchange and Integrated Eligibility System project, an effort based at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and led by Jay Himmelstein, MD, MPH.

Throughout this project, I have assisted with synthesizing the multiple lessons we have learned in implementing an exchange-such as issues related to funding, tight timelines, breaking down silos between state agencies, and technical complexity-in order to help other states to accelerate their development. Moving forward, I am interested in how the flexibility states have to both create their own exchange distinct operations and objectives (or default to the federally-facilitated exchange) as well as expand their Medicaid program will affect coverage rates and costs.

While working on this project confirmed my suspicion that I would like to pursue an academic career, my main influence for this decision was born out of the realization that while I admired previous professors in their roles as "scholar practitioners," my past career as a lobbyist for the American Lung Association had, on occasion, put me in direct conflict with what they had taught me.

For instance, as a graduate student at Boston University, my health law courses with Profs. George Annas, Leonard Glantz, and Wendy Mariner provided me with a deep understanding as to how to create laws that balance individual rights and the common good. Similarly, Prof. Michael Siegel also instilled in me a belief that good public policy should not be driven by one's affiliations or ideology and that it is never acceptable to stretch the truth or misrepresent science in order to achieve what we might see as a noble cause. Instead, as public health practitioners, we have a responsibility to create good public policy based on sound scientific evidence that "does no harm." Likewise, we also had a duty to hold organizations that used questionable tactics to promote unsound laws or policies publicly accountable for their actions.

Although the majority of the policies I advocated for at the Lung Association met these standards, there were occasions when ideology and morality-rather than facts and evidence-seemed to dictate our advocacy agenda. While I was assured by our Advocacy Director that "we were on the side of the angels" in these instances, I could never comprehend how some of the policies we fought for could ethically or realistically fulfill our mission of "promoting lung health and preventing lung disease." Similarly, I also couldn't understand how our organization's stances and tactics could deviate so much depending on the issue.

For instance, among our organization's policy goals was an advocacy campaign to ban the sale of tobacco in pharmacies. Going into this effort, I knew there was no scientific evidence that banning the sale of tobacco in pharmacies was going to reduce the use of tobacco or the incidence of lung disease. Buyers would simply go to another store. Similarly, I also knew that pharmacies sold a lot of other items (like candy, junk food, and in some states, hard liquor) that did not promote good health. Given these realities, I could not comprehend why preventing someone else's supposed hypocrisy-and not reducing harm-were lawful and moral justifications for government interference into someone's private business.

At a personal level, every hearing I testified at for this and similar policies-such as banning tobacco sales on college campuses as well as banning cigar and hookah bars-brought me closer to becoming Justice Brandeis' definition of the greatest danger to our liberty: men of zeal who, despite trying to create well-intentioned policies, never really understand the consequences of their actions. Regrettably, in my case, I realized that these policies lacked sufficient proof that they would actually protect public health. How could I continue preaching what I was taught not to practice?

Fortunately, my cynicism for the political process was tempered by knowing that for every well intentioned-or not so well intentioned-politician or lobbyist on Beacon Hill, there were also people like Profs. Annas, Glantz, Mariner and Siegel who did "practice what they preached," by dedicating their lives to teaching future generations how to create and evaluate health policies and laws based on scientifically based research.

It is a result of my experiences with professors of this caliber, coupled with their praise for the Heller School, that have led me to apply for admission to the PhD program. Due to my personal and professional interests, Heller also stands out due to the PhD program's interdisciplinary approach focused on impacting public policy through evidence-based implementation and evaluation practices. I am also impressed that the Heller School offers faculty with a spectrum of interests and perspectives, including professors that focus on both applied and theoretical policy research. Viewing public policy in its broadest sense contributes to the Heller School's reputation for finding practical solutions to critical public health problems.

Most importantly, by taking advantage of the teaching and research assistantships available, the Heller school will prepare me for my ultimate goal of someday teaching others the knowledge and skills necessary to thoroughly analyze public health issues from numerous perspectives. I am also encouraged by the array of available fellowship opportunities available and believe that my goals and interests align perfectly with the objectives of the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality (AHRQ) training program.

While I submit this application knowing that "practicing what we preach" is sometimes easier said than done, evaluating my past as a lobbyist has led me to realize the difference between good public policy and rationalizing bad. While I realize I can never fix my past contradictions, this experience taught me to always be constructively critical of what others, regardless of reputation, report as fact and promote as sound policy.

Such insights have led me to realize my ultimate goal is to impact the future of public policy by teaching others how to critically and practically examine our nation's health laws and policies. I firmly believe that the Heller School's PhD program offers the ideal setting for gaining the skills necessary to achieve this goal and I look forward to the opportunity to contribute to your program.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
porkbunsrule - / 7  
Aug 25, 2012   #2
I have some general feedback below. However, I want to address a few things upfront.

I assume you are a masters-level student, as suggested by the graduate-level courses at BU. So, I also assume that the Ph.D. application is the next step for you. I am pointing this out because it may help in structuring the essay.

1. I would state upfront what your goals are for the Ph.D., specifically addressing why the Ph.D. is needed at all and why it is needed at this time. Many masters-level students do not go on to pursue doctoral-level graduate work. You need to make a clear case as to why the Ph.D. is necessary. This can be addressed in the first paragraph.

2. Then, I would follow with your academic and professional background, particularly pointing to courses, areas of study, and experience that specifically relate to social policy or have implications for social policy. This will make a more clear case as to what led you to your interests in pursuing the Ph.D. Again, you are trying to make an argument as to why the Ph.D. is a "natural" course to your professional development.

3. Afterwards, I would follow with specific details from the Heller School itself. You already do some of this, but I would be more specific and clear. What you want to do here is to create a match between you and the program. In point #2 (above) you are making a case for what led you to applying to the Ph.D. program. In point #3 you are making connections between those experience and specific details about the program. More importantly, I would address this question: How will the Heller School prepare you for the goals you mentioned in the first paragraph?

Overall, I think you have a strong start to the essay. Here is some general feedback:
- use active voice whenever possible; avoid passive voice.
- use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
- use shorter sentences; if needed, break-down longer sentences into shorter ones.
- use transitional words and phrases; this will help connect sentences and paragraphs.
- there are too many paragraphs; synthesize and integrate similar topics and ideas.

***Caveat: I already have a doctorate, and I am actually applying for MPH programs, as well, in health policy. No worries, I am not applying to Brandeis. I did not even realize they had a program, but from the way you described it here, it sounds like a strong curriculum. Good luck!***
OP skeays 1 / 7  
Sep 10, 2012   #3
Thank you so much for your helpful critique! I very much appreciate the thoughtful feedback and advise. Also, good luck as you apply to MPH programs. I have my MPH from BU and can't say enough great things about my experience. Most programs in the Boston area are very strong, though, and offer rare insights into everything from groundbreaking public policy to world-class medical centers.
mavata - / 1  
Sep 20, 2012   #4
I'm also applying for PhD programs in the Boston area. I'm looking into programs in health policy and political sciences.
I just recently took the GRE...that's out of the way.
I'm now doing as much research into the programs as possible to see whether they're a good fit for me. I've been told by some PhD students that it's really ideal if you can schedule a meeting with professors in the schools you're applying for. That is, the professors who are aligned with you own research/topic interests. Maybe you can try doing that.

I'm also now putting all my ideas together for my statement of purpose, but it can be so "daunting"!!! I'm interested in working with health care reform and issues around access and the cost of financing healthcare. But there is an infinite number of opportunities in these areas, and so many that I'm very passionate and interested in pursuing.

I've worked for Mass Health in the past (about 7 years) and it was then that I developed such a great desire to work in health policy. There's so much work to be done and so much to be innovated.

Anyways...I'd like to keep in touch if possible. I think that networking is a great way to achieve success. Also, I'll be writing my statements of purpose very soon...and I like your approach of asking for feedback like this...

Good luck!

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