Scary Collabs

Seems like there’s never any time for a full post, but such is pandemic/academic (pandcademic? with a silent d?) life.

This year started well with respect to research papers; one out, one accepted, two likely to be accepted by the end of the month. This after a slow 2020 where my grad students (and, let’s face it, me, too) moved through molasses.

I am feeling really irritable. I wonder if it’s because I discontinued my murder-prevention walks a month or so ago when it became too cold outside (the treadmill aggravates my joints; you hit the floor the exact same way over and over, so the same muscles and tendons get used, in contrast to walking outside, where the slight imperfections in the terrain force the foot and leg to adjust). All I know is that I am even more irritated than before by people talking sloooooowly, or generally taking forever to utter perfectly predictable, boring opinions.

I have to admit, I love, love, LOVE not having to attend meetings in person. In-person meetings bring me a lot of stress. It goes something like this: Something is being discussed (usually slooooowly and boringly) and I either manage to prevent myself from speaking, which is optimal for everyone involved, or I fail to prevent myself from talking and end up feeling like an impatient, blathering fool and deeply regret having spoken. I always regret having spoken, even when — especially when! — someone comes to tell me they’re happy I spoke. So, these Zoom meetings are great because I can turn off my camera and just do my own thing while others talk, or even when I can’t, I can still check email and otherwise divert my attention so I don’t get in trouble.

It’s amazing how stressful speaking up is in academia. Not just among colleagues in the department, but in the professional community. I find all academic communities to be pretty unnerving and, after nearly two decades of getting stressed out, just plain exhausting. I manage to dissociate before I need to go give a talk, shove my feelings deep down, and put on my dog-and-pony show, but the whole being out in the world with other scientists is really much more unpleasant than it would have to be. And I’m what you’d generally call a socially well-adjusted individual with decent communication skills.

There’s a cool piece of work my group did in loose collaboration (more like consultancy) with an experimentalist. This collaborator is a pretty intimidating individual, so I don’t really like to interact with him more than necessary. He liked the paper and asked if I’d sent it to a third person, whom I find an order of magnitude more scary than the collaborator and thus actively avoid. (I don’t think the scary men miss having me around, as I am pretty sure they think I am stupid.) However, I have had collaborations in the past, with some great people, where I’ve actually felt comfortable and appreciated. A close collaborative relationship (this holds for advising, too) has to be such that the parties are comfortable brainstorming and saying stupid things and being wrong and playing off each other. I can’t work with people who are too invested in projecting the persona of a scary know-it-all, always the smartest person in any room. Maybe that’s why I will always be a Smalltown Grocer and never a Big Dog PI or whatever, but there’s something to be said for thinking in peace and being comfortable and sharing ideas without trepidation, because I am pretty sure I am not actually stupid.

Wow, I guess I did have things to say!

How’s it going, blogosphere? How are your relationships within collaborative endeavors?

Random Bits of Starting a New Semester

♦ Teaching in person this coming semester. Looking forward to interacting with students, feeling bad for them, and let’s face it, myself, too, in the light of incessant saliva-based testing that is now required in order to access any building. In the fall we didn’t have anyone get sick in class, all positive cases were traced back to dorms and frat houses, so while I support free and widely available testing, this seems like overkill and has been causing a lot of stress among students, faculty, and staff because many samples get rejected as discolored, containing bits of food or mucus, people not being able to provide enough saliva, etc. It’s a mess.

♦ There is a special kind of loneliness that comes from widespread long-term stress. Everyone’s reserves of good will, patience, hell, fucks to give, get depleted. People can barely hold themselves together and have nothing to spare for anyone else. If one ever needed an explanation for why so many people in the US were lonely even before the pandemic, this heightened stress should make it clear. You can’t connect when no one around you has anything left to give.

♦ I am facing a busy grant-writing period (well, busier than usual). Oof. But, I suppose this is a good, normal kind of oof.

♦ The university is vaccinating people on campus who are over 65. When you think of it, this is a somewhat nonsensical statement. Students are obviously not in this category, and 65 is retirement age; most staff will have retired by that point. There should be very few people in the over-65 bracket on campus. But  plenty of professors teach well into their 70s and 80s. I thought I’d be one of those people, that I would never retire. I don’t think that anymore.

♦ This is something I noticed even before the pandemic: Very few of my colleagues have anything to say about new books, or movies, or shows. Nobody reads or watches anything. There aren’t talks of museum exhibits or concerts, either. I would even welcome chatter on sports! The young ‘uns work nonstop; I do remember the insanity of tenure, so that’s warranted. But all midcareer colleagues work nonstops, too; it’s unclear why.  Maybe they’re still enjoying it more than anything else in the world? Maybe they’re still chasing something? What is this strange place where everyone (but me) seems compelled to work all the time? How did I get here, and why? Should I flee, and, if yes, where to?

♦ There is a special kind of loneliness that comes from being surrounded by people, some of whom are not supposed to know you, the rest of whom don’t give a shit to know you. At least, with the first kind, you can pretend that, given the chance, they wouldn’t be the second kind.

Linky-Doodle-Do

Elementary, My Dear Xykademiqz

I chatted with DH today about our childhoods. Mine often feels like another life, or like it happened to someone else. Perhaps that’s how everyone feels.

As I wrote here and there on the blog, I had primary school (equivalent of elementary plus middle, 8 years total), the placement into which was solely based on geography. Then high school (4 years), which, during my time, involved light specialization (for example, mine was natural sciences, but there was also a parallel social sciences and humanities track in the same school that my BFF attended; my husband went to another school where his specialization was math and programming). Then, in college, one enrolled in a major right away and was pretty much railroaded to graduation. There were several tracks to choose from as upperclassmen, but, again, no course cherry-picking; you pick a track and the course sequence is fixed.

Because of this specialization, since high school I was surrounded, more or less, with people who were similarly academically minded. Today I thought of some of the people I went to elementary school with.

There were two siblings born under a year apart in my class in elementary and high school. I look them up sometimes, and they have done well, have BS degrees in math and mechanical engineering and work in their fields.

I also remember the kids who used to sit with me in the back row in physics lab (yes, we started having physics in 6th grade; twice a week; chemistry in 7th grade, twice a week; not too much math initially, but I asked Dad to teach me some trigonometry in 6th or 7th grade so I could do physics problems with inclined planes).  Anyway, each row in the lab had two long lab desks that sat three each. I was tall and was always relegated to sit in the back, usually with boys.

In physics, I sat with these two who were supposedly “bad” kids, but I never had issues with them. They were always nice to me and respectful of my intense nerdiness. (The “nice” girls were always way nastier than any “bad” boy.)

Years later, I heard one of the boys had spent time in prison for a robbery, and was at that point out, taking care of his kid, while his wife was still locked up. It seemed surreal. The other boy I always thought was very sweet, but he was a hell raiser who, in hindsight, might have simply had ADHD. I wonder what happened with him. Unfortunately, I only remember his nickname.

And that’s the thing, I don’t really remember most of the kids I went to elementary school with. I might remember the first or the last name, but not both. You might think it’s not a big deal, but we were together, in the same class, for eight years. I feel like I should remember them better.

I was a middle-middle-class kid. A lot of my classmates were from blue-collar families. A few were what even then I’d recognized as somewhat classy, coming from old money, having had highly educated parents and grandparents and probably great-grandparents, too. In contrast, my maternal grandma had four years of schooling; my dad had a BS and got a MS when I was older; my mom had an associate’s degree.

I’m easily googlable, so, on occasion, a very rare occasion, I get a “Hey, what’s up?” A few years ago, one girl from elementary school contacted me and we shared how many kids we each had and who we were in contact with from school (me: no one; her: about half a dozen people via Facebook), and then it fizzled. It always does. I know there have been reunions, from which I’m separated by one ocean and several decades. We’re mostly curiosities to each other now. Still, I hope the kids are all right.

Hobbling, If Not Running

The week started off well, with two papers coming back with minor revisions. Not a moment too soon, as I’ve got major grants expiring and needing to be renewed later this year. My group does theory and simulation, and we’ve done better than experimental groups amid the pandemic, but it hasn’t been completely without a hitch. Over the first several months, students were bewildered and deeply stressed. The political turmoil hasn’t helped, as my students follow current events quite closely and have seemed really worried.

While their access to work hasn’t really been restricted in the same way that experimentalists’ work temporarily has (though people are back in most labs according to socially distanced measures), the fact that many of my students live alone and have not seen anyone familiar in person in months, and that the dark  pandemic clouds overhead have repeatedly clashed with the even darker clouds of political unrest, I would say that it’s no surprise that our output last year has not been what it would normally be.

I’ve focused heavily on everyone’s mental well-being, encouraging students to take breaks, making sure not to push if they seemed overwhelmed.

We’ve managed to get four papers submitted in the last few months, two more are about to go in, and at least two more by end of spring.

What’s most important is that we’ve done some great work despite the pandemic, resolved some head-scratchers, and had some long-standing projects come together quite beautifully. I hope this level of productivity will be enough and the new data exciting enough to propel us into the new funding cycle.

How’s your 2021 been so far, academic blogosphere? 

2021 Delurkpalooza

The first full week of January is traditionally International Blog Delurking Week.

Readers old and new, please delurk (even if you’re not actually lurking) and say hi, tell us something about yourself, how you found the blog, and/or how you’re doing in these strange times.

Don’t be shy!

2020: A Year in Review

Happy 2021, everyone! 2020 has been something, hasn’t it?

On xykademiqz, I’ve had periods of intense blogging and periods of, ahem, no blogging at all. But I’m not going anywhere and plan to blog, as I have in the past, when I have something to say. December has been a bit dry, but I hope to be back with 1-2 posts per week in the new year.

Here’s 2020 in a nutshell, based on WordPress stats.

Total views: 100,987

Visitors: 23,044

Comments: 608

Below is a list of the most read posts (screen shot). The ones with a vertical blue bar on the left were written in 2020.

 

Here are the links to those best beloved born-and-read-in-2020 posts:

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/06/29/reader-question-to-pseud-or-not-to-pseud/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/07/05/on-becoming-a-good-peer-reviewer/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/01/15/ka-ching-2/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/05/29/why-we-plan-or-not/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/11/14/a-thought-provoking-essay-on-teaching-math-in-math-heavy-majors/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/07/20/a-chaos-goblins-guide-to-writing-reader-qa/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/08/26/link-warnings-on-science-assignments/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/12/05/reader-question-where-do-physicists-get-jobs/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/09/01/this-and-that-7/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/09/25/comment-compilation/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/12/02/on-grad-school-applications-musings-from-the-faculty-side/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/04/16/shopping-and-mentoring/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/10/24/updates-and-nablopomo/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/01/07/2020-blog-delurking-week/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/11/21/post-midterm-musings/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/05/15/hugs-and-trips/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/04/01/the-c-word-class/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/08/20/non-sabbatical-and-non-summer-end/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/06/04/the-blmoment/

https://xykademiqz.com/2020/04/19/shit-valley/

 

Reader Question: Where Do Physicists Get Jobs?

omdg asks:Can you discuss at some point what people do with a PhD in Physics, and how much it matters to your job prospects whether you go to Big Name Coast school versus one in flyover country. In my field, for instance, if you trained “in Boston” you get what seems to be unlimited benefit of the doubt and people even treat you differently than if you went someplace “less illustrious.”

The short answer is that, yes, for a faculty position, especially at an R1, good pedigree remains paramount. I see it every year on search-and-screen committees. It affects the subsequent career, as well, in that pedigreed people are more likely to be recognized on 30-under-30 and 40-under-40 lists and receive all sorts of early-career accolades. One can say that’s because they are inherently better than the non-pedigreed, and it is probably often true, but not always. They are certainly more confident, on average, than the non-pedigreed, and feel entitled to good things coming their way, but, based on the experience from their training, why wouldn’t they be? I come non-pedigreed but I have done as well as anyone in my theoretical subfield and better than some pedigreed experimentalists who, owing to doing experiment, could be amassing grants and citations at a much higher rate than me. But I constantly worry; there’s always a cloud of doubt over everything I do (I know, there’s a gendered component here, too), and my expectations of rejections of grant proposals and papers submitted to highfalutin places no doubt transmit to the members of my group. It’s a kind of  pervasive doubt that those with the confidence instilled by their hyper-successful advisors didn’t have to absorb, so they don’t suffer from it as faculty and don’t subconsciously transmit it to their own group members.

Pedigree really matters if someone is dead-set on becoming a professor at R1 and R2, and also matters at many PUIs (the more elite the institution, e.g., a private SLAC, the more important the pedigree). Non-pedigration in grad school can be overcome with a higher pedigree during postdoc. Again, you can get a faculty position, even a very good one without a pedigree, but this isn’t easy and is much more likely to happen in applied fields.

My excellent former postdoc, with a PhD from a non-coastal public R1 and a postdoc with me at my non-coastal public R1, had a splendid publication record. Got some interviews in year three of postdoc, got more interviews and offers and a job in year four. He’s now tenured. Had he come with more of a pedigree he’d have been snapped up sooner on the job market, and perhaps by a higher-ranked place, I have no doubt about that. In fact, had he had a weaker publication record but a better pedigree, he’d have been snapped up sooner, too. Had he had a stronger pedigree, he’d have had an easier time getting early-career grants once he was in his faculty position — I see it all the time, the fawning over pedigree in grant review panels and the outright dismissal of people lower on the pedigree list. I really wish funding agencies would stop asking where a person got their degrees some number of years after the PhD. One should be able to not have the PhD institution be the first thing everyone sees in the biosketch 20 years post PhD.

So yes, the importance of pedigree is pervasive, disheartening, sometimes downright nauseating…

But it’s not everything.

Sometimes we in academia forget we are not the whole world, or even a significant part of the world.

I work in an applied physics area where a lot of physicists, chemists, materials scientists, and all sorts of engineers work. It’s a really fun field with a lot of technological potential. Experimentalists in the same field are readily employed in industry.

I am a theorist, the kind that develops own mathematical models and then writes own computer codes, and  my graduates do really well out in the fabled “real world.” I had several who did postdocs in national labs and then either stayed on as permanent staff or went onto great things afterwards (e.g., permanent staff at an Ivy and household-name companies). Many went right into industry, either R&D or software development for  tech giants. Several got to jobs in data science or scientific computing in adjacent fields. So I do not worry about the job prospects for my people, because they’re all in excellent positions that utilize their talents and expertise. And I feel that the work that we do really helps my group members hone a whole palette of skills, both hard (technical) and soft (writing, presenting), and that, because we don’t specialize in certain tools/techniques as many do, but rather develop our own tools for the problems we are interested in, and because we work on such a smorgasbord of problems (mostly because I get bored fast and take new research directions all the time), my folks have a really solid base and can confidently tackle a wide variety of new problems.

But mine is an applied field. I am not sure what people in more pure physics fields do if they don’t land in academia or national labs. I assume there is always a place for experimentalists in various industry or defense labs, and for theorists in data science, software engineering, and finance.

I know that some of my best students started out thinking they wanted faculty jobs, but, by the end of their PhD, decided that the funding rat race wasn’t for them and they didn’t care about teaching enough to pursue a PUI position. They wanted an intellectually stimulating job that they could leave at the end of the day and they wanted to have a personal life, so they went into industry. Maybe it’s my fault, because I dissuaded them from academia with my own lack of confidence and cynicism about the grant game.

Physics and physics-adjacent academic blogosphere, what do your peeps do after graduation? Thoughts about education pedigree WRT jobs for graduates?  

On Grad School Applications: Musings from the Faculty Side

The comments to my previous post, which addressed the statement of purpose for grad school and miscellaneous admissions criteria in several disciplines, are detailed and very interesting, and I recommend that you go read them all.

Here, I want to answer (in my trademark meandering way; sorry folks!) lyra211’s question from her comment: “Xyk, I’m interested in the part of the question you didn’t answer — namely, would a student like this student (good grades, a couple REUs, and undergrad thesis, but no first-author publications) be a competitive applicant?” (Also note Erica’s response to the same question.)

I advise graduate students from three physical-science STEM departments: one a basic science, two applied. My school is a large public research university, and most physical science STEM departments are ranked in the mid-teens, with some among top 10. So, nothing to sneeze at, but not as fancy a place as Erica’s, for example.

This means we get plenty of good applicants, but often cannot recruit the very obvious cream of the crop, especially from among the domestic pool (which, alas, also means that few of the NSF GRFP and similar fellowships go to us, but that’s a story for another day).

I find it that I can recruit top-notch international applicants, good as anyone in their generation, because they often don’t look as good on paper as similarly able and usually highly pedigreed domestic applicants. International students often don’t have super high GRE General scores (except GRE Quantitative, and once upon a time GRE Analytic before it was replaced with the useless analytic writing) and they don’t have super highly polished statement of purpose.

Here’s an example. I recruited a student a few years ago from a country with a very strong national selection program before college entrance. This student was in a national gifted program, then at the nation’s top university, had great GRE Quant and GRE Subject test scores, and was still going to be rejected because their analytic writing was below some stupid university cutoff. In that sense, it may be good we are dispensing with test scores, because some careless bureaucrat won’t have the ability to auto-reject a great student. This student had research experience and extremely strong, eloquent support from their undergraduate research advisor. I decided to bring them on because of my good past experiences with students from that school and the ringing endorsement from research advisor. This took some doing because the student had already been rejected, but I made some noise, we got them “unrejected,” and I was not disappointed. This student is probably the most talented one I’ve ever had and did some amazing work.

Alas, relying on past experiences with a certain institution can also backfire. Example: My first graduate student was phenomenal, joined my group after their original one didn’t pan out. Happy with their performance, I recruited from the same school a person who looked identical on paper (similar GPA, letter writers, the works). That new student was a dud in multiple ways. No drive, no initiative, completely inactive in the absence of very specific, finely granulated instructions, doing only the bare minimum. I am now very reluctant to recruit from that particular milieu again, because I now know I can’t trust the letter writers and I can’t trust the grades to have predictive value as far as research excellence is concerned.

Overall, I wish we had kept the scores. They are not everything, but they are something. I used to look at GRE Quantitative (I expect maximum score from international applicants, a bit lower is OK for domestic). Very high verbal scores from international applicants seldom indicate actual facility with the language, and I ignore it. I do, however, look at TOEFL scores, which are much better predictors of language skills. Not all departments I recruit from require GRE Physics, but if they do, or if the students provided it anyway, I expect more than a decent score from international applicants and decent from domestic. I have never met a student with a low (I mean really low) GRE Physics score who didn’t have serious gaps in their knowledge. (Ask me how I know. Ugh.)


Now, how have I recruited thus far and what will I do in the future? I recruit A LOT of international applicants because my chances of getting a top international candidate are higher than for a similar domestic applicant. The fraction of domestic applicants who are good enough (in terms of math and physics) for what I need them to do AND who do not get snapped up by fancier places is not high. So I focus my recruiting efforts heavily on great international students. I also keep an eye out for excellent hidden domestic gems, students who show great potential but don’t look like superstars on paper, maybe because their GPA isn’t perfect or they went to a small school or similar. This has been hit or miss, I must admit.

International applicants: There are several countries (and a couple of schools in each of these countries) from which I have recruited in the past and every student has been awesome. I am happy to recruit from these countries and schools again because I feel I now understand the scales/meaning of their grades, I trust the national weed-out process, and I have other students in the group who can help me read between the lines in the application. Basically, I have a few pipelines and plan to keep using them. Strong letters of recommendation and research experience are always a plus. One strong letter from a research advisor who knows a student well and can really attest to their abilities and personality goes a long, LONG way. And, of course, there is a lot you can tell about a person after you’ve videoconferenced with them.

There are other countries from which I recruited in the past and it has been hit or miss. In times of limited funds, plentiful applicants, and no tests, I will give high priority to those coming from the school systems and universities I know and trust.

Domestic applicants: Things are trickier here, at least for me. The best of the best who are also clued into how academia works (so also went to top schools) do not come here. An additional issue is that I apparently cannot charm the domestic applicants who come to open house; they probably run away from my accent if they don’t from my research area, and are more likely to go to American-born advisors; this was such a pronounced effect that for many years I didn’t partake in the open house because I could never recruit anyone from there, so why waste time. The last couple of years I did partake but didn’t make any offers because the students who were domestic and interested in my field were too weak; they came from PUIs but missed some important coursework or their grades in the courses I looked at were not as high as I like them to be, and the GRE Subject scores were way too low.

Among my current and graduated domestic students, some of the great ones came from: a fancy private SLAC (looked great on paper, I got this student by dumb luck of their previous advisor not working out); a public non-elite PUI (didn’t look that great on paper except for phenomenal research letters; also by luck as they moved to my group from another one; student missed lots of coursework from undergrad, but super talented and intelligent, so ramping up very quickly), and a public R2 (looked decent but not flashy on paper, was great at research).

My experience with non-elite PUIs, especially very small campuses, is that students often miss certain fundamental coursework because their faculty are small and the department might not offer a whole roster of courses that someone in a similar major at a larger school might have taken. This is a real phenomenon, I have seen it half a dozen times at least. This also makes the students score less on GRE Subject (because there is material they never covered) and the  students might have issues when starting grad school because they first need to catch up. One of my weakest domestic students was from a small public PUI, and they had pervasive gaps in preparation that never really closed. 

I am not against PUIs by any stretch, and there have been some great applicants with plenty of research experience from various PUIs. However, it is true that not all PUIs are made equal in terms of the curriculum they offer (R1s and R2s tend to be much more uniform in their course offerings, perhaps because they have larger faculty rosters). So I look at students’ transcripts in detail to make sure they had the needed coursework and did well in key courses. 


I have one excellent undergraduate who will have been with me for 2+ years by the time they go to grad school next year. They have a near-perfect GPA and will have a couple of papers and a recommendation letter from me that is stronger than an enraged Bruce Banner. What they will also have is a polished statement of purpose (read and commented on and edited by a group mate and by me) and two hours of me sitting with them, us looking at faculty rosters of several of their top choice schools, deciding on 3-4 names of faculty well aligned with their interests, whom they will list on their statement of purpose and contact individually. You do not get this sort of help after a passing engagement with a research group. But if you are all in, what you put in will pay this type of dividend.

Applicants, I cannot stress this enough: Contact the professors who do what you are interested in via email. Write a brief cover letter (that’s the body of your email) and attach your CV, test scores (if applicable), unofficial transcript, a statement of purpose if you have it ready, and any papers you’ve published (definitely not necessary, but if you’ve got them, flaunt them). Put all of this in one or at most 2-3 PDFs (do not send anything that needs to be unpacked; no one will unpack random zip or rar files from unknown senders) and attach them to your email. I always look at the cover letter (there are clues in the cover letter that the person is carpet-bombing faculty or otherwise isn’t suited for my group), but if that initial pass looks good, I will look at the rest. I look at grades in math and physics courses. I look for indicators that this person can do research, such as info about it in their personal statement. If they’ve completed the application, I will go look at their letters; if the application is not in yet, I will tell the applicant to let me know once the application is complete so I can go look. Applicants, you need to have at least one letter from someone who knows you really well, ideally after substantive research.

Letters aside, a serious research experience before the PhD is paramount because it will show the student whether research is something they would actually enjoy doing for several years. Doing well in coursework is weakly correlated with enjoyment of research. Research requires a very different mindset, a confidence in one’s own logic, an ability to work on loosely framed long-term projects, being self-propelled and able to withstand setbacks without giving up.


Before I forget: In some departments (one of the three I am affiliated with) I don’t get to see any applicants that the grad recruitment committee hasn’t approved; students are all admitted to the department, on department’s nickel, and only join research groups after the first year if they pass the qualifying exam; that’s when PhD advisors pick up the research-assistantship slack, or not, it’s not a big deal, because TA-ships are always abundant. In the other two departments I am affiliated with, students are admitted directly to a research group, the advisor is on the hook for funding from day one until the end of time, and TA-ships exist but using them is frowned upon.


So, as to lyra211’s question, what I think is important, especially without tests:

  • Good grades, and especially good grades in select courses relative to the subspecialty go a long way as far as I am concerned.
  • Research experience, not just pro forma which so many students engage in (perhaps leftover from the whole collecting-random-extracurriculars mindset of applying to college, which is also misguided) but the real kind, where a student pursues a genuine interest and works on something for multiple semesters and/or summers. (Some REU experiences suffice here, others don’t. It depends on the student and their interest and match with the REU.)
  • At least one strong (strong = positive but also very student-specific and detailed) letter of recommendation. (Again, some REU experiences produce great experiences and strong letters, others don’t. Depends on the student and their match with the REU.)
  • A well-articulated interest in a subspecialty (what they want to pursue and why) and targeting places with a number of faculty in that specific subspecialty.
  • Direct contact with prospective advisors via email.

I recently had a videochat with a former undergrad who’d been out of school for a couple of years working, and is thinking of going back to grad school. While on the surface he sounded like he knew what he wanted, was energetic and confident, and he had actually gone to school here, I probed a little bit and he could not really tell me who the people were here who really did what he wanted to do. So I told him to do some research and figure out with whom he’d like to work in an ideal world, and then we would talk again.

Applicants, you have to know what you want, otherwise how will you know what to ask for? Maybe you didn’t know what you wanted to do when you applied to college. Grad school (here I primarily mean getting a research degree like a PhD; professional schools and professional MS degrees are different) is a time of specialization and learning to do research professionally, which means at a high-enough level that someone will pay you to do it. A PhD is not for the undecided. Ask yourself what you are really interested in. It cannot be everything. When I ask prospective students if they are interested in theory or experiment, many say both. I tell them that, if there’s a chance they could be happy in a lab, they should go to a lab and do experiments, because the options after an experimental PhD are more numerous. I need people who are strongly drawn to projects with a lot of math, who get excited by mathematical models of the world.

Prospective students, deep down, you know what you want to do. It doesn’t have to be super specific, but you should have a subarea well defined enough so that you can find 3-5 (or more) faculty well matched to your interests in each of the places you apply to.

And don’t all apply just to big-name coastal schools. They can’t take you all, and there are great universities in Flyover Country where you can have an excellent PhD experience.


Phew, that was a long one!
Blogosphere, what did I forget to talk about? Thoughts, shouts, murmurs? 

 

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.

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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

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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

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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: Yes, cliched openings like childhood science fantasies are definite eyeroll inducers. I also hate 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, clarity, and specificity 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.

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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.