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Is my personal statement sending the wrong message?

Posted: Thu Nov 17, 2016 8:56 pm
by Mustangczap
I feel like my personal statement seems a little too loosy-goosy and I feel like it makes me look non-committal. What do you guys think? Any critiques overall?

Early in my collegiate career I became fascinated with the field of optics and decided to delve deeper by participating in some experimental optics research. This included talking with Thorlab vendors, designing, constructing and testing various optical systems, including Michelson, Fabry-Perot and Dual Wavelength Interferometers. After gaining this experience I was fortunate enough to get a summer internship at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL). This internship provided me the opportunity to design and test experiments that characterized the reflectance of replacement materials used for NIF’s Near Backscatter Imaging (NBI) and Full Aperture Backscatter (FABS), as well as being tasked with assisting in experiments at the Jupiter Laser Facility. Throughout this time, I was immensely impressed and excited with the work and used any spare time to try and receive some meaningful advice from the scientists there about my future career. All the advice suggested that I’d need a PhD and that it would take about ten years until I was qualified enough to work at NIF. To a twenty-year-old kid, who was never able to answer the question “what do you want to do in 5 years?” with anything more than “solve challenging problems”, this was a bombshell. It’s not that I was afraid of the challenge, or the difficulty, but rather the lengthy commitment to a field that I, until recently, had had little experience with. Admittedly, the general notion of a PhD was intimidating, with fears of becoming overqualified, pigeon-holing myself and the general prospect of not making any money for 5 or more years. However, I enjoyed the challenge my research provided and decided a BS in Physics wasn’t enough. I hoped that a MS in Mechanical Engineering would provide me the challenging research I desired without the time commitment of a PhD.
As I finished of my MS, I realized that I loved every minute of my research, even when it was agonizing, and was lucky enough to get a good position as an engineer with a company that was in the forefront of researching and developing rocket engines. Yet it soon dawned on me that as an engineer my “research” focused very little on the actual science involved in rocket engines, leaving me pining for the days when I was researching new science fields rather than new ways to make the same analysis. I eventually realized the time commitment of a PhD was nothing compared to the time commitment of working in a field that was only technically challenging and didn’t fill my need to research novel and interesting science. I ultimately made the decision to fully commit to pursuing my PhD by quitting my job and joining an experimental group hunting for dark matter at the University of California at San Diego. While this work isn’t related to optics, it has provided me the opportunity to again take a proposed experiment from published articles to fruition, as well as supplementing my confidence that pursuing a PhD is the correct choice for me.
This peculiar path has given me a uniquely qualifying background: the ability to flourish in graduate-level classes; the capacity to perform high level research; the capability to take a complicated project from start to finish; the experience of presenting and competing in conference competitions; the skill of designing, constructing and testing my own optical systems; as well as the hindsight that this the right decision for me that can only come from making the wrong one.


Re: Is my personal statement sending the wrong message?

Posted: Fri Nov 18, 2016 12:45 pm
by TakeruK
I agree with your assessment that your essay needs to have a more cohesive message and a stronger focus on why you want to go to this particular graduate program. Here are a few thoughts that I hope will help:

1. Your narrative makes you sound very naive and unsure of yourself. I like your story and I find parts of it that echo with me, but a story like this isn't a good story for your Statement of Purpose. I tell a story like yours when I talk to high school or undergraduates about my path to grad school and a research career. In a Statement of Purpose for graduate admission though, you need to have a different strategy. So, although you may not want to hear it, I think you need to re-write the entire thing to frame it differently. Remove all of the sentences that indicate self-doubt/naivete (also remove things like you were "lucky" etc.). This will help reduce your concerns of sounding "loosy-goosy". Next, I think you can add back in this doubt in one place: when you describe your decision to go for a MS first. If you balance it right, you can express a little bit of doubt and show that you make good professional decisions by considering what you want and then choosing the Masters route first. But now, you are ready to commit to a PhD program!

2. Your essay is currently all about the past. You're already at about 580 words according to a word counter. SOPs in our field tend to run around 750 words, so this leaves very little space for the real content of the SOP, which is "what you want to do, why, and why this school". Your background/history is meant to support the idea that you are qualified to do what you want to do, but it should not be the main focus. With the edits suggested above, it should cut down your text a lot, and I would aim for around 250-300 words on the background.

3. As I said above, you are lacking a strong thesis statement/argument in your essay. When I read it, it sounds like I'm just learning about your past, but I have no idea what you want to do in grad school. I would suggest that you start your essay with something like, "I am applying to the PhD program in X at University of Y to work on ABC". This immediately tells the reader why they are even reading your SOP. Follow this up with one or two sentences that expand on this. Then, the next paragraph could go back to your background. You would want to start your background section with a transition that links your previous experience with what you want to do (something like your current first sentence could work).

4. After your background, you want to go further on your goals in grad school. Generally, the prompt will expect you to write about what kind of topics you want to study, why these ideas interest you, and why this particular program interests you. You could name some people and describe some facilities/labs/etc. You should also talk about what your goals are in grad school (e.g. do you want to learn a particular skill? etc.) and what are your goals beyond grad school (something very general, do you want to do research in academia? in industry? engineering? teaching? something else?). For all of these goals, show why this particular school helps you achieve the goal. This section should be the main chunk of your essay, 300-350 words or so.

(Note: word counts are really more as a way for me to demonstrate how much time/focus to put on each topic, not meant to be taken literally).

Overall, I think your story tells me that you are ready for grad school and you are interested in pursuing a PhD. "Imposter syndrome" is common and many of us will try to downplay our achievements (e.g. by attributing them to luck) or focus on on what we don't know etc. But you are certainly capable of doing grad school, and focus on what you have done well! Good luck!

Re: Is my personal statement sending the wrong message?

Posted: Fri Nov 18, 2016 1:05 pm
by Mustangczap
Thanks for all the advice!! I was hoping not to have to re-write the whole thing but you've definitely have a point so I might as well try it to see what it looks like.

I actually left out most of the last paragraph which goes into detail about School X and Professor Y and why I like there work and I try to suggest areas that the work can develop into but I left that out because it'll be different for each school and for the most part the portion that I put in my post will be the same for the all the schools I apply to. I do really like your notion of putting this at the top though, it definitely indicates why I'm applying to grad school immediately and doesn't run the risk of the reader losing interest by the end of it all. I thinking placing it in the beginning will make it easier to form a more concrete thesis about why I'm going to grad school.

I suppose that I included all the doubt to try and explain why I switched to ME and am now switching back but I think I see your point about over-emphasizing it which makes it sound more naive and unsure of myself.

And I should definitely include a bit about what I want to do with the PhD too, I mean the whole point is to get something and then actually DO something to not just say that I've got one. I really appreciate the help and hopefully this will help my chances of getting into some good schools!

Re: Is my personal statement sending the wrong message?

Posted: Fri Nov 18, 2016 8:42 pm
by TakeruK
No problem. :) For the future, re-writing essays is a common step in good writing practices that you will use a lot more later in grad school. It's an iterative process! When I submit an abstract to a conference, I generally rewrite it at least twice. I think every paragraph in every paper I've submitted have been rewritten at least once. I'm writing statements etc. when applying to postdocs now. One of the big fellowships require a 1 page research proposal and by the time I submitted it, I had rewritten the entire thing 4 times.