Request for Statement of Purpose Review

tomado
Posts: 12
Joined: Fri Nov 04, 2016 11:45 pm

Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby tomado » Tue Oct 10, 2017 6:38 pm

Hey all,
Would you have a look at this as time/convenience allows? It seems long, but comfortably fits on two pages (no longer with modified margins). Thank you in advance. I sincerely appreciate it. Obviously, the names have been changed... :D

Also, one thing to look for: should I include more about team work skills I developed in the military and the big company mentioned?

EDIT: Final draft minus any tweaks brought up here.

SOP:

TEMPORARILY REDACTED
Last edited by tomado on Tue Oct 17, 2017 3:36 pm, edited 2 times in total.

TakeruK
Posts: 907
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby TakeruK » Tue Oct 10, 2017 10:54 pm

In general, I think this SOP is fine. No major problems. I will offer some general advice/feedback (sorry, not enough time to carefully copyedit) should you wish to improve this.

1. You write this like a cover letter, but SOPs are really more like essays. When I read this, I feel like I am reading a job application. Maybe this is fine for the intended audience, and maybe this will make you stand out in a good way. But it could also backfire: it could send the message that you don't "get" what academia is about. I'm sure you have already gotten mixed advice on this point but here's my take. I think your military and corporate experience already makes you stand out and demonstrates your professionalism. There's no need to make the application all corporate-y as well. Instead, because the "culture" of academia is often very different than the military and a Fortune 500 company, I think if you can demonstrate that you can fit into the academic culture, it might ease concerns about whether or not you would be a good personality fit with the department.

(Note: At later levels, e.g. postdocs and faculty positions, applications do come with cover letters because they are actually job applications. A graduate admission process is not the same as a job application, though there are similarities.)

Additional note: As I write this point, I realised that I am making the assumption you are applying to Physics PhD programs in the United States. If you are applying to different countries (e.g. European schools do consider PhD appointments as job applications) or not-Physics programs, then the above may not apply.

2. You do a lot more "telling" than "showing" in your SOP. For example, you say, "experience in project management from both the military and Fortune 500 company have honed time management and leadership skills", however, you don't expand upon this, neither in your 2nd paragraph nor later on when you write about these experiences directly. To me, this is "telling" your audience your skills. It would be better to "show" them these skills by providing examples of what you did that exemplifies good time management and leadership skills. This is just one example, I found many places in your essay where I wanted to know actual details.

One example of where you provided appropriate detail was your description of your Senior Research Project work. I like how you described briefly what your work was (i.e. a model, initially in Python, of a specific scenario), what it accomplished ("recognized by professors") and what you have learned from it (C++, object-oriented programming, parallel programming).

However, the following paragraph about your military work adds very little other than to say you were in the military. I don't think you need to explain why you delayed applying to grad school, noting that you accepted a commission into the military is enough. If you want to use your military experience as a selling point in your application, this paragraph is where you should be "showing" the reader what you learned, remembering to keep it relevant to physics research.

The paragraph on your Fortune 500 company experience has a little bit of the "show" I am looking for but I think it could be firmed up a bit better. Saying that you "identify questions, formulate hypotheses and develop experiments" is way too vague/general. You could describe basically any scientific inquiry process in this way. I think mentioning your promotion here was good, however, some examples to illustrate your competence and leadership ability would be nice.

For these two paragraphs, one way you can approach the ideas is to describe a challenge you faced and how you found the solution and what you accomplished.

3. I feel some items here are out of place, and would either need further refinement to fit it in or you should simply remove. When I read your SOP, it "feels" a little long to me. You say that it fits on 2 pages with "Modified margins". I highly suggest you shorten your SOP so that you do not need to modify the margins. First of all, when everyone else has the standard margins, your SOP will stick out. Secondly, I was able to detect that your SOP was long just from reading it and I don't have a ton of experience evaluating SOPs. Professors who read 100s of these each year will notice your writing goes long. Being concise is an important communication skill in science.

My recommendation on things to consider for removal to make your SOP shorter:
- Date and address block and closing/signature block. This should save you a TON of space.
- You are a little repetitive in the beginning and the end. e.g in the 2nd paragraph, you state you have lots of useful skills and in the last paragraph, you basically say the same things again with different words. This is just a 2 page essay, not a long paper, so you don't have to make your conclusion repeat your introduction. Also, in honesty, this is an example of "telling" not "showing" so it's not just that you're repeating the words, it's that you're repeating words without much substance.
- Your sentences on your theological studies feel out of place. You frame this as taking initiative to do research while you are gone (good!) but then you only discuss the coursework and do not mention your research at all. I would advise you to either remove these sentences (in favour of the other additional details suggested above) or reframe this to showing your commitment to academic studies even while deployed.
- This sentence, "Meanwhile, I made contacts amongst grad students in the Physics department, and eventually the professor who introduced me to the professor I am currently working with." and other references to your network/contacts. Not sure what that would accomplish. I mean, networking ability and such are very valuable skills, but for someone with as much experience as you and limited space to tell your story, you need to be judicious in deciding what to highlight. I think you're better off spending space to describe your work than to talk about how you got the position.
- Extraneous words/phrases that make your essay read longer than it needs to be. Some examples: Your 2nd and 3rd sentences of the first paragraph say the same thing. The first three sentences of your paragraph on your post-PhD interests can be said in one.

Hope this was helpful.

tomado
Posts: 12
Joined: Fri Nov 04, 2016 11:45 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby tomado » Tue Oct 10, 2017 11:46 pm

Awesome advice - very helpful. Your assumption is correct: all of this applies to the US. I definitely see what you're saying with adding more detail. I was trying to balance brevity (adding detail other places where I felt the detail was appropriate) with appropriate verbosity/support. Obviously, I side on too much vs too little. You can blame my seminary time for that :lol: . I have additional detail on how I did these things in my resume, but perhaps a quick reference to the specific actions on the resume vs the general "identify questions, blah blah..." would be a good change. I guess my task is to elucidate the project management while trimming the fat elsewhere. I'll spend some time on it.

I have a few questions for you regarding a few suggestions:
- Your point 1: Before I posted here, I could tell it reads like a cover letter (I'm used to writing them). It's good to hear the same from someone else. However, what I'm unsure of is how to implement your advice to "fit into the academic culture". How would I go about making this more like an essay? I felt like this was almost like a job interview - that I had to prove myself, so to speak. How should I think of it differently? What should the style look like? More personal reflection? A little more detail would be awesome.
- Maybe on that note (style): Are my paragraphs an appropriate length generally? Or would you consolidate them into bigger ones?
- End bullet list: Do you recommend I bring seminary up at all? I have it on my resume and feel it merits a short explanation so the committee doesn't think: "This guy doesn't know what he wants to do with his life." I want to frame it as an intentional pursuit. Maybe you recommend I take it out entirely? I'm thinking, I like your second option about framing it to show my commitment to pursue academic endeavors even in austere environments.
- Are you left wanting more detail about my current research? Would it be beneficial to explain more of the science here? I have to be careful with that one - 6 months does not make one an expert, and they would spot an error in a heartbeat as they are plasma scientists.

And one more:
- Do you feel like I was specific enough about what I wanted to study? Is it a problem that I am open to theory/computation and experiment, or do I definitely need to pick one (even if I'm open to persuasion later)?

Thanks again for all the help. No rush on the response, and I welcome others' feedback as well.

TakeruK
Posts: 907
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby TakeruK » Wed Oct 11, 2017 12:02 pm

tomado wrote:I have a few questions for you regarding a few suggestions:
- Your point 1: Before I posted here, I could tell it reads like a cover letter (I'm used to writing them). It's good to hear the same from someone else. However, what I'm unsure of is how to implement your advice to "fit into the academic culture". How would I go about making this more like an essay? I felt like this was almost like a job interview - that I had to prove myself, so to speak. How should I think of it differently? What should the style look like? More personal reflection? A little more detail would be awesome.


I think just remove the formatting that screams "letter" would go a long way. It will save you space too, as I said above. There are a lot of similarities between a SOP and a cover letter, so it's not like a huge overhaul is needed. The other thing I noticed was more style-related. In a cover letter, we are supposed to match all of our previous skills and experiences with the job description / list of qualifications, which was what felt like "cover letter" to me. However, for these US graduate positions, there isn't really a "job description" or list of qualifications so to speak. So, you have to guess. My concern/warning was that not every school will be looking for the same thing so this might not work very well. In particular, it seems like you decided that the skills you want to highlight are leadership and project management, which are certainly good skills, but who knows if that's even what they really want out of a graduate student?

The other thing is that I felt like I was attending a really long elevator pitch where you list everything, point by point. This part is more personal preference, so it's up to you how you want to change it because each audience will be different. Typically though, I would look for more of a narrative and more science-driven writing in a SOP compared to a cover letter. You don't need to do personal reflection.

I don't think a lot of changes are necessary. I'd say to: remove the letter formatting, add more scientific details (as written above) and do more "showing" than "telling" (as written above) would make this feel a lot more like an academic document.

- Maybe on that note (style): Are my paragraphs an appropriate length generally? Or would you consolidate them into bigger ones?


Yes, I like these paragraph lengths. The way I try to write is to only include one main idea per paragraph because it's very likely that a reader's initial pass will be skimming your essay and they'll be able to pick out one point per paragraph. For most programs you're applying to, the committee will have to read hundreds of these, and often they aren't going to read them in much detail until you've made it past several cuts.

- End bullet list: Do you recommend I bring seminary up at all? I have it on my resume and feel it merits a short explanation so the committee doesn't think: "This guy doesn't know what he wants to do with his life." I want to frame it as an intentional pursuit. Maybe you recommend I take it out entirely? I'm thinking, I like your second option about framing it to show my commitment to pursue academic endeavors even in austere environments.

You don't have to mention every thing in a SOP. As I said to the last point, your SOP may only be skimmed at first and I think some of your paragraphs/points are more important than others. So, the more you put in, the more likely the reader will miss the main points. Being concise is important.

I think you have plenty of research experience so I don't think you need to discuss your seminary research in the SOP. You could leave it out entirely and it wouldn't be weird. You could even leave it out of your CV unless the application requires you to list every academic program you've attended. But if you do find space to include it, I think framing as an intentional decision to pursue academic endeavors while deployed would read well.

- Are you left wanting more detail about my current research? Would it be beneficial to explain more of the science here? I have to be careful with that one - 6 months does not make one an expert, and they would spot an error in a heartbeat as they are plasma scientists.


Yes, but I would say to avoid just explaining more of the basic science. Instead, explain more about what you did, your contributions/impact on the project and what you learned. Usually you will have other experts read over your SOP so if you are worried about errors, can you ask one of your letter writers to give it a read-over? You could just send them the relevant paragraph(s) instead of the entire thing (although many letter writers want to see your whole application package anyways). Also, note that the admissions committee often spans the entire department, so you're not just writing to Plasma scientists. Some of your readers will be completely outside of your subfield. So you need to find that fine balance where you say enough so that a scientist in a related field will get the main idea but also provide some deep detail so that an expert will still get something useful out of it.

An example of a sentence like this would be, "I used the MERCURY numerical integrator to analyse the orbital evolution of main belt asteroids." To someone who does numerical simulations or to study asteroids, this would provide a little bit more detail. But to someone who doesn't know what MERCURY is, they can still get the message that this is a numerical simulation code.

And one more:
- Do you feel like I was specific enough about what I wanted to study? Is it a problem that I am open to theory/computation and experiment, or do I definitely need to pick one (even if I'm open to persuasion later)?

This really does depend on the school. Most US PhD programs don't require you to pick a specific project at this stage, I think, so I would not do that. However, if you find that the application instructions tell you to propose specific projects then definitely do that! Otherwise, I think your paragraph on what you want to do has the right content. My edits would be to:
- Remove the phrase where you say negative things about your online course (that whole sentence doesn't add anything anyways)
- You say that certain topics are interesting/compelling/etc. but you don't say why. Again, this is a "show, don't tell" advice....show them that you are interested and passionate, don't just say it!
- I think it's a little weird that you say you are interested in X and Y and then immediately backtrack and say that "you're open to other possibilities". I know you are trying to show that you have an open mind but it does sound a little indecisive to be specific and then immediately backtrack. Instead, maybe flip the order of this paragraph.
So, to address this: First, you could start by saying WHY you find plasma flow and MHD (to me, this means Magnetohydrodynamics, hopefully that's what you meant. You should really define this acronym the first time you use it because your audience is the general Physics department faculty, not just the people that study your field). Remember this is a scientific/academic document, so it would be good to have a scientific motivation for this interest too. Then, you could provide the work of DR COOL CPU and DR COOL EXPERIMENT as two **examples** of things you would be interested in doing. This shows that you are generally interested in the overall field for graduate studies and that you've thought about it enough to identify specific interests but it wouldn't commit you to anything. This avoids the flip-flopping of saying general interests, then specific then back to general.

tomado
Posts: 12
Joined: Fri Nov 04, 2016 11:45 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby tomado » Thu Oct 12, 2017 1:53 pm

Alright. I've posted my final draft for anyone's review that wants to. TakeruK, thank you for your feedback. Of course, don't feel obligated to read it another time :). I implemented most of your advice along with the advice of one of my letter writers (DR NICK RIVIERA in the letter) and added a few sentences that I had left out on a few topics (teamwork with cross-cultural teams overseas, for example).

Anyone else have thoughts?

If not, I'll probably submit it by the end of the week to the first program at least. At that point, I will bring it down until admissions are complete then post it back for the community benefit, if it's beneficial.

TakeruK
Posts: 907
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby TakeruK » Thu Oct 12, 2017 3:14 pm

You're welcome! It looks good! Just FYI: unless there are rolling admissions, there's no need to submit an application until close to the deadline. I would personally just upload it but not actually hit the submit button until a few days before the deadline since some changes might come up between now and the deadline (which are normally in Dec/Jan, right?). For example, news about a professor leaving or joining a department might become public etc.

Good luck!

tomado
Posts: 12
Joined: Fri Nov 04, 2016 11:45 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby tomado » Thu Oct 12, 2017 3:17 pm

Really? It won't reflect poorly to submit it that late? Or at least, will it reflect positively to submit early? One of my concerns is giving my letter writers enough time to write. Top choice's system I don't believe will send the email until the application is submitted...If I submit at the end, I would give them little time to respond. On the other hand, my second choice lets you send the notification early...so, I can do that whenever, and submit the application at the end. Thoughts?

Thanks for your help.

Tom

TakeruK
Posts: 907
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Request for Statement of Purpose Review

Postby TakeruK » Thu Oct 12, 2017 5:43 pm

tomado wrote:Really? It won't reflect poorly to submit it that late? Or at least, will it reflect positively to submit early? One of my concerns is giving my letter writers enough time to write. Top choice's system I don't believe will send the email until the application is submitted...If I submit at the end, I would give them little time to respond. On the other hand, my second choice lets you send the notification early...so, I can do that whenever, and submit the application at the end. Thoughts?

Thanks for your help.

Tom


For most US Physics PhD programs, the time of your submission is irrelevant. What generally happens is that the system accepts/collects submissions until the deadline, then they are compiled into a collection, sometimes by a human, sometimes a computer, sometimes both. Packages are made up for the admissions committee to review. Depending on the school's policies and number of submissions, there may be automatic cuts that reduce the number of applications reviewed by committee. These automatic cuts might include things like hard cutoffs on GPA, incomplete applications, etc.

The committee doesn't usually meet to discuss the applications until much after the deadline. I would guess that for most deadlines in December, meetings begin in January (packages may be made up and sent to committee members prior to the winter break though). This is also good news in case a letter comes late or a GRE scores arrives late, it can be easily added to your package and will likely be included in the evaluation as long as it arrives prior to the first committee meeting.

The more time you spend in academia, you may notice that academics are very deadline-driven, by which I mean if there is a deadline, that's likely when the task will be completed. You can find plots of # of submitted abstracts to a conference (or proposals etc.) as a function of time and almost all submissions will happen on the due date, often within hours of the deadline. Similarly, when you ask an academic to do something (for example, like write a letter for you), don't be surprised/alarmed/worried if it is not completed until the due date!

Therefore, I would say that for a grad school application, there is almost no advantage to submitting more than 2-3 days in advance of the deadline** since you would only be limiting your ability to adapt to changes. Since applications are very critical, waiting until the last day is just asking for Murphy's law to mess you up (also everyone is submitting at this time, so higher chances of computer systems failing). **Note: Check all the deadlines, some places have different deadlines depending on whether you are American or international and whether if you want to be considered for financial aid.

But there are some exceptions:

1. Most schools collect the fee only when you actually submit, and these fees can add up if you're applying to a lot of schools. So to spread out the fees across 2 or more credit card statements, you might want to stagger your submissions (note: some schools will allow you to pay the fee without submitting and/or allow you to update documents after submission but before the deadline, so these can mitigate the fees pileup).

2. Schools that have rolling admissions will evaluate and decide on admissions as applications roll in. So, applying early if you are ready would be a good idea!

3. Schools that don't let you send letter requests until you have finalized your submissions. These tend to be rare, but it sounds like one of your schools is like this, so certainly submit that one early. Talk to your letter writers to find out how much time they would want. Note that some schools have a later deadline for letters than for you to submit your docs.




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