Reader Question: Writing Statement of Purpose for Grad School

A prospective grad student (PGS) reader asked me to post this query, which is timely for many applicants. I will also share some of the brief comments I responded with, but I’d like to invite the academic blogosphere to chime in with their wisdom. When you comment, please state what field you’re in (broad is fine), because a lot of advice is field-specific.

————-
Dear Prof. Phlox,

If you don’t mind, I have a blog request. I wanted to hear your opinion, if possible your advice, on how to write a Statement of Purpose (SoP) for grad school applications in STEM (particularly physics). This in the larger interest of the academic community of students writing the statement and faculty having to read them.

There is a lot of contradicting advice out there and it has been quite an unnerving task to separate the actual information from the noise. While it is clear that it is expected of us to discuss our future career/research goals in the light of work we have done so far, some aspects like the right amount of details remain very vague.

I am given to understand that with no test scores in the application package, the importance of this single piece of document could go up exponentially in the application package. What do the faculty expect from an average student sans any major achievements? By an average student I mean, someone with good grades(A/A-) in required courses, a couple of REU stints to know how the academic research works and may be an undergrad thesis. In my case, being from small private college I have only had 2-3 months at a time while working on summer internships, this meant I couldn’t get to publish any of the work I did. Would I still be considered a competitive applicant?

Best,
Prospective Grad Student

——-

Hi PGS,

In my opinion, the SOP is supposed to convey something about your personality that the letters of recommendation presumably cannot. What you find interesting and why, how you like to work. Basically, this is an opportunity to talk about what you liked in school and why, what drew you to certain topics, what made you decide to pursue graduate school, what you enjoyed when you worked on research. Anything that makes you stand out as an individual with respect to others with a similar background is also beneficial. The SOP is a professional document but it is one that should help convince members of the graduate recruitment committee/prospective advisor “This kid sounds like they would fit right here / in my group.”

Best of luck!

Xykademiqz

————-

A few follow-up questions:

PGS: In general, is it important to convey why one is attracted to science?

X: Yes, if you can articulate it succinctly and without resorting to cliches.

PGS: For example, I want to work in [theoretical physics subfield]. I have a couple of reasons: (1) I like working with calculations, both analytical and numerical as they are my strengths. (2) This could sound naive but I like to do theory over experiment as it gives an opportunity to explore research ideas on my own, to a reasonable extent in my academic career. The bottom line I just see myself in academia because of my curious nature and willingness to dedicate a significant part of my life to the science that matters to me.

X: The way you conveyed it above is fine. It’s clear and to the point. That’s always ideal. Don’t be too colloquial or rude, but being informal is not bad in the US, and it’s also OK to be confident. This is a personal statement, so your personality should come across.

PGS: Do faculty like to hear an account of previous research even if it is not directly related to my intended direction of research?

X: Absolutely. Especially the nontechnical parts. Did you like working alone/with others? How you were advised (hands on/off; lots or few meetings; lots of freedom or frequent checkins?) especially if you liked the style. What was something you didn’t expect/that surprised you? What was something cool you learned?

PGS: What are some of the things faculty hate to see in these statements?(Apart from cliched childhood science fantasies)

X: I hate cliched openings (e.g., childhood fantasies); anything that is obviously meant to pull at heartstrings or showcase the applicant as some sort of otherworldly creature with no thoughts, feelings, or experiences beyond science. Anything that smells of pretense or manipulation. Anything that reads like it was written by a 50-y.o. professional editor (because it was). Honesty and clarity go a long way.

PGS: Should students discuss some of the ongoing research in the labs that they’d like to work?

X: Absolutely, but not too specifically because published papers are generally 2-3 years behind what is currently being done. Focus on finding 2-3 professors whose general area of research interests you and mention them by name in the SOP (very important!). You should also email them and in those emails you can indeed mention some specific papers from their group (ideally you’ve tried to read them). But in the SOP their general area of research should naturally flow out of your described interests; for example, you want to work in [theory subfield], spent the whole SOP talking about it and maybe specifically mentioned some subtopics, then obviously people working on those topics should be listed in the SOP.

—————

Academic blogosphere, do your thing! Let’s help new applicants craft their best SOPs this admission cycle! When you comment, please state what field you’re in (broad is fine), because a lot of advice is field-specific.

This and That and This and That… Repeatedly. Endlessly

I am a big holiday hater, so…yeah. Ready to go back to work.

Why I am a holiday hater? Not sure. I have a few hypotheses, though.

It doesn’t help that holidays are supposed to be scheduled happy time. We all know how much I love scheduled anything.

Kids, being kids, love the holidays (*wipes sweat off brow, relieved she didn’t ruin her kids with her anti-holiday juju*) and husband has great holiday spirit. Like a silent Grinch, I step back and let him take the lead in holiday cheer. He loves shopping for presents and decorating the tree with the kids; I hate all of those activities but I will contribute sweat equity by wrapping everything he bought and ensuring that everyone is fed. Repeatedly. Endlessly.

Seriously. The unholy trinity of food shopping, prep, and cleanup are a domestic scourge. Some students asked me a few years ago what my favorite food was. I said “Anything I don’t have to cook.” Seriously. So sick of cooking. Takeout is expensive and somehow always underwhelming. But everyone needs to eat, multiple times a day. Repeatedly. Endlessly.

How’s your Thanksgiving break going, US blogosphere? Otherwise, how’s your weekend?

Carrying Over the Finish Line

Over the years, as I gained more experience as advisor, I realized that I could successfully advise a much wider range of students than I had initially thought. We faculty start out more-or-less thinking all graduate students are like us, motivated to the same extent and by the same things. Experience quickly disabuses us of this fallacious notion. People do a PhD for many reasons, and some whose reason is “I want to land lucrative corporate employment” do a bang-up job on their PhD, while some with nominally lofty academic aspirations cannot, in fact, do research successfully at all.

But I think experience has also made me too relaxed, because I started believing that, if I sufficiently personalized the mentoring strategy and project to the individual, I could bring almost anyone to a PhD.

Almost.

It turns out, I was mostly lucky, and my luck has run out.

The past 2-3 years have jolted me out of my complacence. People need to have high aptitude and be genuinely motivated and interested in the work. Not just pay lip service to their aspirations, but work hard and keep reading and thinking and struggling and pushing things a bit further every day. Initiative and self-reliance are critical. In my experience, the students who look like they’re limping out of the gate generally keep struggling regardless of the amount of feedback or the personalization of mentoring style and project choice. They generally do not have the capacity to do so independently enough, and the advisor and/or group mates have to carry them over the finish line. There are exceptions to this, of course, but the one exception I encountered cost me far too much time and money sunk into a majority who were not.

I need to be more resolute about putting a timely end to things that aren’t working out. I don’t want to carry another person over the finish line.

Nervous Applicants

Each year, I get a flurry of requests to write recommendation letters for undergrads applying to grad school. Application deadlines are around the corner, with most being sometime in December.

Occasionally, there will be students who are really nervous about it. There is one kid who asked me to write a letter three months ago, to which I said sure. Then I got requests for letters a month or more ago (they must’ve been the first among the applicants at all their prospective schools). Since then, they have been sending me a reminder every week to submit letters. By the way, the earliest deadlines are not till very late November, which we all know is an eternity in faculty time. I think the kid is really worried that I will forget or won’t do it. I understand grad-school applications are their whole life right now, but they cannot be bugging people this much. I said I’d do it, now leave me alone. I’ve got other stuff going on.

Rummaging Through Archives

This was a busy weekend, with student paperwork emergencies, grading the midterm, helping out kids with some schoolwork, and also DH’s birthday, for which I did some extra special cooking (no guests, just us, but it’s nice to mark the occasion).

I’m feeling a bit 😩😩😩😩😩 and there’s still grading to do, so, without further ado…

*fanfare*

I give you some of the most-read posts from 2019!

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/04/13/in-which-i-feel-a-kinship-with-bruce-banner/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/02/21/the-anointed/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/11/22/a-lifelong-hit-eater-develops-intolerance-to-hit/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/10/23/grant-gnash/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/07/20/attitude-and-aptitude-alas/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/05/31/in-which-xyk-is-called-cynical-and-perhaps-rightfully-so/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/05/01/an-open-letter-to-a-kondo-kultist/

https://xykademiqz.com/2019/08/10/reader-question-funding-strategy-for-pre-tenure-faculty/

Sunday, Linky Sunday

Some good reads (two funny, two heartbreaking):

https://podcastle.org/2020/01/28/podcastle-611-yo-rapunzel/ (I recommend listening, it’s hilarious)

https://jmwwblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/18/fiction-good-luck-with-your-dog-by-d-t-robbins/

http://ghostparachute.com/issue/november-2020-issue/if-i-can/

http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/44_Mahler-Relles-Body-of-Longing.php

Post-midterm musings

Today, I gave a midterm to my undergraduate class; I proctored it via a videoconferencing tool. Near the end, a student was red in the face and looked visibly upset. He conveyed that he was frustrated because he’d studied so hard and this was even harder than the previous exams.

I’ve had this kid in office hours; he’s one of the most diligent attendees. His questions reflect some surprising and pretty serious gaps in preparation. I am not sure how to help him except plug a hole once it becomes visible. But his facility with algebra, trigonometry, and calculus is just not high enough for him to be able to do well in this course, plus I don’t think he’s getting the concepts that well either; my guess is that spending too much energy being bogged down in the weeds of highschool math that he doesn’t have enough CPU cycles left to process the higher-level stuff. In this major, and this course in particular, you cannot be getting tripped up on the cosine of an angle plus pi/2, or struggle with performing a vector product. These need to be done lightning fast, so you can actually get to the good stuff.

I do explain what I can. When I identify a bigger gap in understanding, I try to go back and do my best to plug it. But, with many students, it’s like trying to keep water inside a colander: the holes are too numerous and, try as a I may, I cannot close them all.

Mostly I’m sad for students who struggle so much. There have been bimodal distributions of grades in undergrad classes pretty much since I started working here. Older faculty say it wasn’t always like that, that distributions used to resemble the normal one much more. These days we do have two modes, on either side of the mean, and there’s nothing but tumbleweeds where the mean is.

Another issue I try to help with when I can, but often cannot, is “I worked so hard.” There are infinite ways of spending a lot of time on little learning gain. If a kid comes to office hours, and he or she is struggling, we talk about learning strategies and test-taking strategies. Maybe it helps. What doesn’t help is that the students in our major tend to be extremely busy, so I wonder if they have the time to really let the material sink in. Then again, I also felt that time moved very slowly when I was that young. Maybe times have changed, or I’m misremembering, or both.

How’s your weekend going, blogosphere? This weekend, I’m looking forward to catching some well-deserved zzzzz, and then I will grade.

This and That

Today was an insanely busy day. Lots of Zoom meetings, from 9 to 7:30 (yep, after hours because of a personnel issue emergency). My butt and my chair are more intimate than any two living things have every been.

I got three story rejections today (different stories), and one re-rejection of a story that had already been rejected two days ago. No need to rub it in, guys!

The semester is about 3/4 over. That is not a bad thing.

Fixed a major issue a student was having with a project. The result will be super cool, one of those results that seem obvious in hindsight but somehow hadn’t been done. I love love LOVE this type of work, both elegant and likely to be impactful.

Reviewed a paper for a highfalutin journal, written by a hotshot. I’m the tiebreaker referee. It’s funny how even when the work is really incremental, the referees are almost afraid to offend the hotshot by pointing out where the work has already appeared. The timidity and awe oozing out of the reports is something to behold. Us plebes never get that treatment, and generally get out a$$es handed to us even when the stuff is decidedly more novel. But then again we’re not hotshots.

The semester is about 3/4 over. That is not a bad thing. I am mostly looking forward to a pause in department service. The committees are just…ugh.

My fave comfort show, Hart of Dixie, is leaving Netlix. I am inconsolable. (No, not really. But it sucks that it will be temporarily unavailable to stream.)

I was taken aback the other day with how seamlessly videoconferencing has become part of our lives. Before, we would chat on the phone. Now it’s a quick Zoom call. This is probably here to stay.

I listened to a great talk today, by a “visitor” to the university who gave the presentation online. I do not mind not having to travel to most conferences. I do not miss traveling to panels or program reviews. I would be OK with only virtual panels at the NSF. I would be OK with only virtual grant program reviews. Except for a couple of conferences where I like the people, I would be OK with giving talks virtually. I wouldn’t mind far less travel for work and a bit more travel for fun in the future.

Finally, a thread of dogs on mushrooms.

Migraine Stinks, Have Some Links

https://threader.app/thread/1328405825463873536

(Same as above https://twitter.com/chrtucci/status/1328405825463873536?s=20)

Faculty Governance, My A$$

Those of you who’ve been following this blog awhile are familiar with the ups and downs of my attitude toward work, coupled with midlife-crisis musings.

The thing is, when I look at my posts from even two or three years ago, I can’t believe how invested I was in my work. And, on good days, I still think I have the best job in the world. I love teaching and research; the interactions with my students are the best part of the job. The institution shows me a lot of love, I get raises and accolades. I am well respected in my professional community, even if I am not a superstar.

But every so often I get reminded of what caused me to have to emotionally detach from my job. Being too invested in the institution and the colleagues and the work itself was too hurtful too often, and what’s worse is that I felt helpless to do anything about it. This need to drastically compartmentalize, turn off certain parts of myself in regards to work, is not something that came lightly to me. There was a lot of internal struggle, some still ongoing, some documented here on the blog. Three years ago, I started focusing my energy and aspirations and associated emotions elsewhere, on my writing, and while it can be frustrating (mostly because I am an overachieving pain in the ass), it has also been healing and nurturing and so, so good for me. An endeavor where I can start from nothing, and learn, and grow, and achieve, without having to wait for anyone to catch up, without needing anyone’s permission or agreement. I also met some nice people along the way, who are smart and kind and funny and open-minded. My world became kinder, bigger, brighter.

Last academic year, I was on sabbatical and came back, apparently, with rose-colored glasses (pandemic notwithstanding). I was glad to be back teaching and glad to see my colleagues again.

Then came the committees.

Initiatives that are completely unnecessary. Meetings that could have been emails or those that take an hour to hash out completely obvious stuff.

On the other hand, a complete lack of transparency or discussion regarding some important, very non-obvious stuff.

I ask for clarification about why certain decisions were made or which  specific actions were taken, and I am (as before) invariably stonewalled. Colleagues in admin roles cite HR rules, but, in reality, no one is asking for any HR-sensitive details. I am asking for some sliver of information so these decisions and actions look transparent and fair and equitable, as they should be at a public university, and do not smell of shady backroom dealings and secrecy. Instead, I am met with “We are not allowed to discuss this (and shame on you for asking).” I am not asking for anyone’s medical records or private information. But if things were supposed to happen but didn’t, or if certain concessions were made for certain people but aren’t usually made, we should be given some smidgen of information regarding what had transpired. We are not the CIA. This level of secrecy about the operations is not warranted. And asking questions should not be shameful.

The thing is, these people in the know could share more but choose not to, and it’s convenient to hide behind HR. The thing is, that there is an in-crowd, there has always been an in-crowd, they’ve always had all the information, and their mode of holding on to (a little bit of) power is knowing what they know and deciding if and when and with whom to share, and what/what to withhold. Getting tiny power-trip boners from morsels of administrative secrets.

God, I would gladly double my teaching load if it meant I didn’t have to participate in “faculty governance.” It’s faculty governance in name only.  Decisions are made without us anyway, attempts to find out what is actually decided behind closed doors are shut down, yet we are all supposed to keep pretending we’re one happy faculty-governed institution.

F*ck university politics. F*ck having to play these humiliating games where I need to act like I am an idiot buying the bullshit I’m being sold.

Gimme a roomful of (masked) freshmen any day.