The dreaded SOP


From talking to other people, I know that one rarely produces a work of art as a grad school admissions essay--oh, sorry, Statement of Purpose. Such a grandiose name creates a heavy burden of pressure and expectation, and is probably the most stressful part of the whole application process. You're supposed to somehow transmit who you are, what you want, and why you think that you and Institution X will have a happy and mutually satisfactory marriage, even though you're basically on a blind date (usually without even the benefit of having been set up by a mutual friend). I have never actually been on a blind date myself, but I can pretty much guarantee I would not be at my shiny best, just out of sheer nervousness.

Not to be outdone, I contributed two pages of what may possibly the dullest, most pretentious and self-indulgent crap ever to flow from my fingertips. (And if you've been reading for any length of time, you know that's really saying something.) Like everyone else who's been through this baptism by fire, I have realized that I was admitted despite my statement of purpose, not because of it, and am now in a position to be amused both by my anxious applicant fretting and the essay itself.

So I'm going to go ahead and post it, because maybe in a few years it will amuse me even more, and in the meantime it may serve as a reassuring example to others going through the admissions process. After all, if I got in with an essay like this, it means no one should never give up hope. (Well, okay, I had the not inconsiderable advantage of not really being on a blind date, since someone on the admissions committee for my department had already had the, er, pleasure of working with me on a couple of projects. So maybe the real lesson is this: you can only get in with an essay like this if you have someone on the inside. No guarantees, here.)


If I were writing my autobiography, I would point out with some amusement that communication has always been my central focus. According to family lore and my own memory, I started speaking in complete sentences before I turned one, taught myself to read when I was two, and wrote my first book on my very own typewriter at the age of six. Clearly, the written and spoken word have been important to me from the very beginning. It therefore comes as no surprise that my academic and professional career has also focused on communication, although the path I have followed to the present point has been decidedly nonlinear.

I was initially drawn to foreign languages by the prospect of learning new ways of thinking about the world through language, accessing new realms of literature and media, and interacting with people of cultural backgrounds very different from my own. This is the impulse that led me to be an international exchange student in high school, and to major in Italian language and literature at Vassar. When I came to Bologna to study and then to live, it seemed natural to apply my studies and skills to commercial translating work, first as an employee of a large multinational corporation and later as a freelancer.

Working as a translator gave me a unique opportunity to learn about businesses in a wide variety of industries, and how they communicate both internally and externally. In an effort to improve my knowledge and skills I eventually began monitoring public relations newsgroups on the Internet, joined and immediately took an active role in the local professional association, and collaborated with a local agency in addition to continuing to work with my own clients. No matter how valuable the hands-on experience and interaction with other professionals proved to be, though, I soon felt the need to explore more systematically the new work I was doing, and learn about other areas of the communication field that I could not experience directly.

It may sound dramatic to say that graduate school was a life-altering experience, but in my case it is no exaggeration. I expected to learn techniques I could apply immediately to my work, gain a better understanding of certain areas of the role of the communicator, develop a more professional perspective. What I did not expect was that my exposure to, and fascination with, communication theory would lead me to undertake an interdisciplinary odyssey culminating in a rather unconventional new view of the communication process.

While I was attending graduate school via the online program offered by the University of Memphis, I had gradually focused my professional interest and attention on two main areas: organizational and crisis communication. As is still typical in Italy, the agency I collaborated with did not offer either of these functions, so I was essentially forced to hit the ground running, becoming the firm’s de facto “expert” in both fields. My first projects included a massive combined program of internal communication and crisis planning for a multinational industrial manufacturer, a crisis plan for a chemical plant, and an internal communication project for a machine builder that had recently been acquired by a foreign multinational.

This real-world crash course also compelled me to question some of the basic tenets I came across in my coursework reading. For such a complex and dynamic field, the generally advocated process for managing crises felt reductive and mechanistic, and did not seem to fit organically within overarching theories of organizational communication. I grew increasingly certain that something was lacking in the standard formula, and for my master’s thesis I set out to explore what that missing link might be.

My foray into the worlds of complexity, knowledge theory, and naturalistic decision making, among others, and my attempts to apply the concepts of these fields to communication theory and practice, have strengthened my belief in the central role of communication in organizational processes. One of the most appealing facets of complexity as a theoretical framework for the study of communication is its focus on relationships and boundaries (or the lack thereof), which makes it especially suitable for studying organizations. It offers new ways of viewing the nature of communication within, without, and between organizations that offer rich fodder for the development of theory and practice. I also find it intriguing because it allows one to acknowledge the messy reality and multiple layers inherent in all forms of human communication, rather than attempting to artificially simplify the nature of social relations.

My first forays into these topics have been quite gratifying. (Blah blah list of dubious accomplishments. Omitted because I am merciful.) I have been encouraged by the positive responses my work has met with so far, which seem to indicate that others also see the potential for development in my areas of interest.

These initial heartening results have deepened my conviction that this line of inquiry is worth pursuing, and that the best avenue for doing so is through doctoral level study. (Blah blah why Program X is so very sexy and we are certain live happily together forever and ever. Or at least for the next four years.)

Although my research thus far has focused primarily on crisis communication, the potential implications of complexity theories applied to communication are far-reaching, and I wish to probe a number of these fields of application. I am interested not only in continuing to examine how organizations address crisis situations, but also in investigating the role of knowledge and learning from a communication perspective, furthering my knowledge of complexity and other nonlinear theories to better understand various communication processes, and exploring concepts and techniques such as narrative that embrace this complexity. I believe that the best means of pursuing these aims is by producing scholarship and teaching in a university setting, to benefit from the resources of an academic institution as well as the stimulating exchange of ideas both in and out of the classroom.

As a result of my own journey and the theories that have captured my imagination, I have come to agree with what Robert Venturi wrote in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966):

I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning; for the implicit function as well as the explicit function. I prefer “both- and” to “either-or,” black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once. But an architecture of complexity and contradiction has a special obligation toward the whole: its truth must be in its totality or its implications of totality. It must embody the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion. More is not less.
(“A Gentle Manifesto,” p. 16)

The communication within and surrounding an organization is a kind of architecture, that must be readable and workable on multiple levels, by multiple stakeholders, all at once. At the same time it must have a sense of totality that defines the organization’s identity, while remaining flexible and continuing to change and adapt to an evolving world. Seeking to fathom the full intricacy of these structures is, I believe, a fruitful endeavor for someone wishing to both understand and help build a valid architecture of communication. This, in a nutshell, is my central professional and personal objective.


See, I really was not joking.