Some belated advice about your SOP

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geekusprimus
Posts: 104
Joined: Sat Jun 08, 2019 1:10 pm

Some belated advice about your SOP

Post by geekusprimus » Mon Feb 01, 2021 12:49 pm

This might be coming in a bit late, but after seeing some stuff happen to my classmates with their research, I thought it would be good to give you guys a crucial piece of advice concerning your statements of purpose: don't lie about your interests on your SOP.

A lot of you are interested in HEP-theory, quantum gravity, or another competitive field. A lot of people will tell you to write down that you're interested in condensed matter experiment when you're applying because they've got more funding, thus improving your odds of admission. Let me tell you why that's a bad idea: funding doesn't magically appear just because you want it to. Part of the admission committee's decision is based on whether or not there's funding in your field or a professor who might be interested in working with you.

Suppose there are thirty spots in the graduate program, and approximately fifteen of those are given assuming they'll go into CME and two of them are for students expressing interest in string theory. At a lot of schools, that roughly agrees with the available funding in both fields. But if two or three of those students who expressed interests in CME are suddenly trying to get into string theory, at least a couple people are going to be unhappy when they can't find a PI. Sometimes decisions are made based on the predicted situation, but grant proposals get rejected, professors move schools, or a current student has to spend another year to finish a dissertation. So, sometimes there's not even spots for the students accepted who actually expressed an interest in the field.

My example sounds contrived, but I've already seen it happen to some of my classmates. If you aren't sure what your interests are, or if you have multiple interests, that's fine. Write that down. But if you're committed to one field, and only that field, and you write down something different to game the system, you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.

HubbleBubble
Posts: 32
Joined: Tue Jul 07, 2020 7:06 am

Re: Some belated advice about your SOP

Post by HubbleBubble » Thu Feb 04, 2021 5:49 am

Definitely agreed that you should not misrepresent your interests. If anything, funding is not always as clear as it may seem - maybe the professor in a generally competitive field hires three people for himself one year, and you would have been better off applying directly. It happens.

That said, there is nothing wrong with not committing to one subfield/professor. I know plenty of people who changed fields/advisors after starting out certain. It is not like they lied on their SOP, which is pretty rare. They just took more classes and met more people. Picking a professor/subfield ahead of time is a successful application strategy to show specific interest and take extra steps like reaching out in advance. But it is not the only successful strategy, and there are plenty of other ways to demonstrate interest. One friend arranged department visits, for instance. I think if people were being truly honest, a lot less applications would commit to any subfield - even most professional scientists are at least interested in the other subfields.

geekusprimus
Posts: 104
Joined: Sat Jun 08, 2019 1:10 pm

Re: Some belated advice about your SOP

Post by geekusprimus » Thu Feb 04, 2021 11:05 am

That said, there is nothing wrong with not committing to one subfield/professor. I know plenty of people who changed fields/advisors after starting out certain.
No, there's nothing wrong with switching advisors or fields if your interests change. They're not trying to game the admissions committee. The school does expect that a certain number of students will see their interests change, and some schools actually require you to complete special projects or "pre-theses" before actually committing to an advisor for that reason. I think that's actually an excellent practice that more schools should pursue.

That being said, I think prospective students need to understand that for all but a handful of faculty, funding is close to a zero-sum game, and that does bubble over into the admissions decisions. Intentionally misrepresenting your interests doesn't help anyone.



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