Mentioning professors when you don't yet understand what they do

Post Reply
lukewarm brainstorm
Posts: 3
Joined: Sun Nov 22, 2020 5:04 am

Mentioning professors when you don't yet understand what they do

Post by lukewarm brainstorm » Sun Dec 06, 2020 3:14 am

For the statement of purpose, I've always heard that it's important to discuss professors whose research you find interesting. But how should this be done if their research is too advanced for me to understand at this point? I'm applying for high energy theory, and all I know now is that I like QFT, GR and areas of math like topology, so I'm guessing I will likely go down the string theory and quantum gravity route in the future. I could just list the names of professors in those areas, but it seems almost pointless because of course they already know who researches what. On the other hand, I can't say I've read up on N=8 superconformal twistor-something-something so it's hard to say anything substantive. I'd appreciate any advice!

Posts: 36
Joined: Tue Jul 07, 2020 7:06 am

Re: Mentioning professors when you don't yet understand what they do

Post by HubbleBubble » Sun Dec 06, 2020 9:26 am

A lot of people here suggest mentioning professors and ideally reaching out to them in the fall before you apply. I myself did this, and I think the reason it is popular advice is because you can identify it as solid admission strategy that may put you over the line. That said, plenty of people state more general interests and still wind up at great schools. It definitely helps in an essay or interview to be able to articulate why you want to attend a specific program, but that doesn’t have to be because of a specific professor.

Mentioning a professor can help - or hurt (e.g. they are retiring). In the interviews I did the professor I was interested in was sometimes on the call. So you should have some idea of their work such that you don’t slip up and demonstrate fundamental misunderstanding in harmless interview questions. Clearly, you do not need to be an expert on quantum gravity before grad school. But I don’t see how there isn’t time in the next month before interviews to gather a correct understanding of the basics. It is a popular field and there will be others you are competing with who are competent or even published. So my first suggestion would be: try to understand what they do.

But you are probably looking for better advice than that so here’s mine:

If you already reached out to the professor, I would go ahead and still mention them in the essay. That shows you are interested in them at least, and do your best to get a better idea of their work before interviews.

If you haven’t already reached out to anyone, consider essay/interview strategies to state more broad research interests but still show you have specific reasons for wanting to go to a specific program.

Post Reply