Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

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InquilineKea
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Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby InquilineKea » Thu Jan 27, 2011 1:36 am

Is this a good thing to show or not? I'm a very heavy self-studier and I have all sorts of ideas/hypotheses for various problems in astronomy/planetary sciences/applied math. This might help when it comes to thesis research - I might be able to generate a wide number of ideas - and the professor might select which one of them is the most interesting to him. And self-studying is an extremely important skill (that many people still haven't fully developed by grad school) because you're really mostly on your own when it comes to learning the things that you need to learn for your thesis (and this applies for future research of any other type too).

But at the same time, your advisor wants you to work on their project and to stick to their project, even if it may not be the project that's most ideally suited to you. Of course, most people recognize that students generally do better jobs when they're researching something that they're genuinely interested in. But if you give people the impression that you're way too independent, then they might fear that you might not want to work on any of their projects.

==

- Also, how would *extreme* curiosity and massive interdisciplinary knowledge come off as? I'm curious to an *extreme* - in fact - there probably isn't anyone in the nation who is more curious than I am (anyone who knows me actually sees that this isn't far from the truth, although some people are probably *a lot* better at keeping it to themselves) - although this curiosity could be sometimes counterproductive to research since curious people want to maximize d(knowledge)/dt, and many aspects of research aren't exactly ideal for maximizing d(knowledge)/dt, so a hypercurious person could end up as a risk since he may be perceived as being more likely to defect to another field (or more likely to waste endless hours of time reading Wikipedia articles and journal articles of completely unrelated fields). At the same time, though, I can channel much of this curiosity into domain-specific curiosity (aka astrophysics)

And with interdisciplinary knowledge, well, I'm going for a highly specific field - astrophysics. Now, some people certainly tout the benefits of how familarity with another intellectual framework can bring new (unexpected) insights to their field (for one thing, there are many statistical+mathematical techniques used heavily in other fields that aren't used as much as they could be for astrophysics - and people from other fields are often more likely to modify their assumptions/boundary value conditions - often in ways that people within the field wouldn't anticipate). And there is actually evidence from psychologists of science (Greg Feist's "Psychology of Science" and Dean Simonton's "Scientific Genius" and "Origins of Genius" - and Simonton's numerous research papers) showing that highly creative scientists are more likely than others to be familiar with many other different disciplines (I'm actually tempted to cite that in my SOP, but I'm pretty sure it will end up rubbing the wrong way)

But of course, not everyone thinks that way. Furthermore, this, again, makes people question whether or not I would be committed to stay in graduate school for 6-7 years (I very much am, although I probably do waste significantly more time [articles and textbooks of different fields] than the average student). I would have to convince them that I wouldn't carry on this habit in grad school as well (this is quite possible, since I'm content once I've convinced myself that I've gotten a well-rounded education in all the sciences, and I'm getting close to that point). I actually self-studied enough molecular biology and neurobiology to be able to take a graduate level neuro/biophysics course without any prior biology courses (although I did get 5 on AP Biology, which won't go on the transcript) - and now I have enough knowledge to regularly read psychopharmacology journals for fun (or in other words, I've reached the point where learning more would simply be stamp-collecting, which is basically enough to satisfy me in that field). And I've also self-studied huge portions of atmospheric science (enough to get through at least 2 textbooks). And even if people might not think of the knowledge as useful, some may still regard massive self-studying as a desirable "signal" of other more desirable characteristics.

Now, of course, the real question is - does anyone care? I, of course, realize, that in order to get ahead in academia, that I must pursue questions that are interesting to *other* people. That, of course, is something I'm willing to do. Having massive breadth makes it *a lot* easier to talk to people who aren't working in the same branch of astrophysics as you (you ask questions that are better-targeted, some of which may give them some unexpected insights). And in talking to them, I can get a good list of all the questions that people find interesting, and choose which of these questions I'm most willing to work on (this is more relevant after grad school than during grad school, of course).

==

The main problem here, though, is that there is actually substantial evidence that hypercuriosity has hurt my transcript. (I do view it as more of a thing in the past, since I have medications for my ADD now, but others may not be convinced). At the same time, curiosity is often seen as the ideal *defining* virtue of scientists (you will rarely see unrestrained curiosity respected as much in any other discipline). But academia is much more than just a playground, and many people have their own different priorities/criteria.

==

Of course, it could come out in the LORs. But I don't think many people mention curiosity in their LORs.

bfollinprm
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby bfollinprm » Thu Jan 27, 2011 12:27 pm

Talk about the ADD in your SoP, the rest seems non-quantifiable and besides the point. Stick to things you can back up with results (pubs,grades,etc). Your letter writers should be the ones speaking subjectively about your ability to succeed in research.

If you do want to bring up yur curiosity, talk about it indiectly by speaking about research ideas you have. Just make sure they are (a) pertinent to research at the university, an (b) well-thought out (demonstrates connections to existing research (citations), includes a method of hypothesis testing, etx). If you can't to that then your curiosity isn't the kind you should brag about to the admissions committee.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby zhuo90 » Thu Jan 27, 2011 1:23 pm

In your posts, you repeatedly come off as quite insecure, constantly needing validation. If you are as insecure of yourself in real life, then you may have a hard time finding an advisor who will tolerate you. Also, it is not as difficult to produce nice research problems as it is to solve them. Solving a nice, open problem requires discipline. If you do not learn to discipline yourself, if all you do in graduate school is come up with new problems, you'll never finish your thesis.

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HappyQuark
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby HappyQuark » Thu Jan 27, 2011 1:45 pm

I don't see where you get this notion that you are an independent worker. You ask more unnecessary and, for lack of a better term, silly questions than almost anyone else on the forum. Yes, you should emphasize that you are capable of being an effective worker that doesn't need his/her hand held for every piece of daily minutiae but, at the same time, you are comfortable and skilled at working in large groups. Did anybody really need to tell you that? Are you even remotely surprised that answer was, in essence, "I am an independent worker when it is beneficial and a collaborative worker when that is beneficial".

As to your extreme curiosity 'issue', it's more or less irrelevant to your application. You could, if you really felt the need, wax poetic about the deep spiritual bonds you feel to the universe every time you see a pendulum swing or a prism refract but at best it will waste valuable space on the page and, at worst, it will hurt you by allowing others to view you as a pop-sci junkie with a naive perception of how professional research is done. For what it's worth, I doubt that anyone on the forum is legitimately less curious about anything than you are, I'd be willing to be that we all just keep it to ourselves because the wide-eyed kid in a candy store routine stopped being cute past the age of 8.

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InquilineKea
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby InquilineKea » Thu Jan 27, 2011 1:51 pm

Okay good points.

If you do want to bring up yur curiosity, talk about it indiectly by speaking about research ideas you have. Just make sure they are (a) pertinent to research at the university, an (b) well-thought out (demonstrates connections to existing research (citations), includes a method of hypothesis testing, etx). If you can't to that then your curiosity isn't the kind you should brag about to the admissions committee.


Good points. I should do those. Although someone else told me not to put citations in the SOP, maybe it's okay to put in a few of them.

In your posts, you repeatedly come off as quite insecure, constantly needing validation. If you are as insecure of yourself in real life, then you may have a hard time finding an advisor who will tolerate you. Also, it is not as difficult to produce nice research problems as it is to solve them. Solving a nice, open problem requires discipline. If you do not learn to discipline yourself, if all you do in graduate school is come up with new problems, you'll never finish your thesis.


Yes, I do have some issues with insecurity, but I'm controlling them (IRL) a lot better than I used to. Sometimes I act a bit too extreme in my forum posts since it's actually easier to provoke critical responses (to correct me) that way.

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby WhoaNonstop » Thu Jan 27, 2011 2:03 pm

HappyQuark wrote:I don't see where you get this notion that you are an independent worker. You ask more unnecessary and, for lack of a better term, silly questions than almost anyone else on the forum. Yes, you should emphasize that you are capable of being an effective worker that doesn't need his/her hand held for every piece of daily minutiae but, at the same time, you are comfortable and skilled at working in large groups. Did anybody really need to tell you that? Are you even remotely surprised that answer was, in essence, "I am an independent worker when it is beneficial and a collaborative worker when that is beneficial".

As to your extreme curiosity 'issue', it's more or less irrelevant to your application. You could, if you really felt the need, wax poetic about the deep spiritual bonds you feel to the universe every time you see a pendulum swing or a prism refract but at best it will waste valuable space on the page and, at worst, it will hurt you by allowing others to view you as a pop-sci junkie with a naive perception of how professional research is done. For what it's worth, I doubt that anyone on the forum is legitimately less curious about anything than you are, I'd be willing to be that we all just keep it to ourselves because the wide-eyed kid in a candy store routine stopped being cute past the age of 8.


HappyQuark pretty much said everything I wanted to say about this post. As much as this seems like criticism, I think it should be read twice by anyone. There are plenty of questions that go around here that have been "obvious" questions. I'm sure I even asked some when I first began on here. Also, as mentioned, everyone in physics has to be curious to some extent. I really don't think mentioning curiosity in a statement is really the route to go. Stick to the basics: what you want from the field, how you've shown you can attain that goal, and how you will benefit the program you are applying to. That is all that seems to be important in my eyes.

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InquilineKea
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby InquilineKea » Thu Jan 27, 2011 2:09 pm

Okay, those are all good points as well.

Stick to the basics: what you want from the field, how you've shown you can attain that goal, and how you will benefit the program you are applying to


Okay, that is probably grounds for a much better prompt. In terms of "benefiting the program I'm applying to" though, should it be more than just benefiting the advisor? (I mean, how else would I benefit the program?). And does projecting characteristics of potential success as an future independent researcher help? (even if it doesn't come during my stint in the program, programs still like to show that their graduates have successful outcomes in terms of getting tenure - however - this is probably unquantifiable so it may be best left alone). I would still like to mention that I have a concrete plan of asking questions to many people to get a sense of what problems they would find most interesting (maybe everyone else does that though - I don't know - but the important part of getting citations/tenure is to do things other people are interested in).

In other words, programs want to see that you are willing to work on someone else's project and to stick to it for 6-7 years (and that you can do a better job at doing it than others - this means that analytical ability and ability to learn things quickly both count). That's what counts, most of all. Some departments want to see that you'd make a good TA, but most of the time, this is unquantifiable in the personal statement (the verbal GRE is actually often used as a proxy for that).

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InquilineKea
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby InquilineKea » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:01 pm

Okay, so curiosity isn't a trait to emphasize. That's for sure.

But what about my resourcefulness when I'm stuck? Some undergrads pretty much bail out on the professor when they get stuck - they just wait for the professor to explain things to them - meanwhile - I collect huge amounts of resources [including research papers that might have attacked the problem from another angle] so that I can try to solve the problem on my own before asking for help (professors don't have infinite time, so they can't bail out people all the time - although some people do bail out on postdocs/grad students they also work with). I'm not sure how big of a problem this is in grad school (certainly people will get stuck from time to time).

And I actually talked with a stanford undergrad about this - she said that professors at state universities were more patient and more willing to mentor undergrads than professors at private universities (she said that it was harder to get research at privates since professors weren't as willing to mentor undergrads who got stuck). I gave her the example that Caltech/MIT students have very high participation rates in research, but she said that it was because Caltech/MIT students all self-study so much over the summer.
Last edited by InquilineKea on Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby vttd » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:25 pm

That's more of a trait your letter writers should address. I don't think it is a very strong point coming from the student because everyone can say that, but how can schools discern if this is true from your SOP? From your posts it sounds like you obsess over every detail and this is not the tone you should convey in your SOP. There is a word limit on most applications for a reason. If you can't convey important information succinctly then you may have trouble writing papers in the future.

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InquilineKea
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby InquilineKea » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:37 pm

Okay, that's also true. Yes, I know that I can't be as detail-obsessed when it comes to my SOP or research.

Hm though, I really do wonder what Sean Carroll means when he says this though: (at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmi ... te-school/)

Even my personal essay?
Well, okay. I wouldn’t sweat the personal essay; in my experience it doesn’t have too much impact. Let’s put it this way: an incredibly good essay could help you, but a bad essay won’t do too much harm (unless it’s really bad). To a good approximation, all these essays sound alike after a while; it’s quite difficult to be original and inspiring in that format.


Has anyone managed to write an incredibly good personal essay? (one that doesn't cover things that are in the LORs?) I mean, okay, it *is* rare. But I can still imagine that it's possible. An essay that sounds too similar to others is one that's essentially a useless part of the application (which is why a bad essay won't do too much harm). I mean, okay, I could show a sense of humor in some sections, but in the end, that can't be that consequential.

I'd imagine that an "ideal" essay would involve discussion with the professor in a way such that the professor mentions some parts of you, and you mention other parts that he'd support.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby HappyQuark » Thu Jan 27, 2011 6:13 pm

I'm seeing a theme both in the type of question you are asking and the responses we are giving so let me consolidate this conversation into a single rule.

"If the trait that you think you have is not quantifiable, don't mention it in your SOP"

There are no units to describe how intuitive/curious/independent/goal oriented/hard working/industrious you are so your only option is a comparison to other students and nobody cares what your opinion of yourself and your abilities are because it's biased, and inflated. Your only choice is to leave the comparisons to your recommendation writers.

Your letter should include:
- specific detail about the type of physics/astro you are interested in (e.g. Cond Mat (exp))
- what research experience you have (e.g. 2 years in a bio-physics lab doing experiment X,Y and Z)
- what publications you've made (Published in Journal X as a first/second/nth author)
- what teaching experience you have (e.g. I was a TA for a course in Unicorn Dynamics for 2 semesters)
- Software/hardware familiarity (e.g. 1 semester undergrad research modeling top quark/happy quark interactions using C/ruby/perl/python/two rocks tied together by a bungee chord)

Your letter should not include:
- How awesome you think you are (e.g. "Hi, I'm awesome but my friends call me Steve")
- how smart you think you are (e.g. "I bombed the subject gre just so my application would give all the other 'top 10' dreamers some glimmer of hope")
- how much more "into" physics you are than other people (e.g. "When I was a kid I thought to myself, 'Hmmmm, why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?' Which is how I discovered aviary magnetoception before any of the other lame scientists who just wish they were me")
- how your curiosity, which so far as I can tell is the word you are using as a substitute for 'Attention Deficit Disorder', is the most extreme case in the world (i.e. see your question)
Last edited by HappyQuark on Thu Jan 27, 2011 6:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby grae313 » Thu Jan 27, 2011 6:21 pm

I and some of my friends have all had professors specifically mention their SOPs, but I think this stems from having an unusual background and then writing well about it.

InquilineKea wrote:And does projecting characteristics of potential success as an future independent researcher help?
C'mon dude, stop asking retarded questions like this. This is almost the entire point of an SOP.

Listen, as I and others here have said before, you can't just go off and ramble about all the qualities you have that you think will help you be a good scientist. You need to write about concrete examples that actually demonstrate these traits. Use your experiences in research to highlight your abilities.

For your particular background, I think you also need some concrete examples to show that, despite your "hypercuriosity" and varied interests, you can buckle down and focus yourself for a long enough time to excel at a specific task and complete it, whether that task be a class or a research project.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby bfollinprm » Thu Jan 27, 2011 7:44 pm

Look, a statement of purpose should show one thing. It should show how your life has been ideal training and preparation to do and love the research you're expected to do in grad school. The easiest way to do this is to focus on your research, but you CAN do it with other things (and have to if you don't have a lot of research to talk about). That does include your personal characteristics, but, as with any essay YOU WILL EVER WRITE, any statement that can't be supported with specific data points (quantifiable data, examples, respected opinions) should just be left out.

For instance, in my Statement of Purpose for some non top-tier schools I spent space to talk about my dedication to Physics outreach, but I have lots of tangible data to back that up (I didn't just say "I'm passionate about Physics and have conversations all the time with my hall-mates about string theory and quantum entanglement"). Unless you have a specific example of how your independent work-ethic has led to some success related to Physics research (and I have a hard time seeing how you could outside of actually DOING research), it's not worth talking about it either. You'll just have to hope your LoR writers talk about it (which, by the way, it's totally ok to ask them to do--It's important to let someone know why your asking them for a LoR, what they're supposed to know about you).

Regarding other posters on this thread: I don't think its very productive to pass value judgments on whether the poster is giving an honest opinion of him/herself. Just reading someone's online posts doesn't give you a very big window into someone's character and self-assessment ability. What we CAN do is let him know how an admissions committee member will view any statements he makes. And the answer to that question is simply "Talk about whatever you think is relevant, as long as you can back it up with quantifiable support."

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby bfollinprm » Thu Jan 27, 2011 7:47 pm

grae313 wrote:
InquilineKea wrote:And does projecting characteristics of potential success as an future independent researcher help?
C'mon dude, stop asking retarded questions like this. This is almost the entire point of an SOP.



I disagree, unless you remove the word "projecting". You need to show that you already have the characteristics.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby grae313 » Thu Jan 27, 2011 8:31 pm

bfollinprm wrote:
grae313 wrote:
InquilineKea wrote:And does projecting characteristics of potential success as an future independent researcher help?
C'mon dude, stop asking retarded questions like this. This is almost the entire point of an SOP.



I disagree, unless you remove the word "projecting". You need to show that you already have the characteristics.


What I meant to say (and I agree with you that I didn't really say it), is that the point of an SOP is to show that you will have "success as a future independent researcher" and so projecting any "characteristics of potential success as an future independent researcher" is a good thing.

Is it good to show that I have the traits that will lead to success in research? Duh--that's the point.

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InquilineKea
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby InquilineKea » Thu Jan 27, 2011 8:55 pm

What I meant to say (and I agree with you that I didn't really say it), is that the point of an SOP is to show that you will have "success as a future independent researcher" and so projecting any "characteristics of potential success as an future independent researcher" is a good thing.

Is it good to show that I have the traits that will lead to success in research? Duh--that's the point.


Okay, sorry if my question wasn't clear enough. I actually tried to establish a distinction (this question was actually on my mind after PMs I had with another poster).

And that's the distinction between "future independent researcher" and "future obedient uncreative lab grunt".

I'll give a quote someone gave me some time ago:

So find a department that is heavy in scientific computing, and try to convince the admissions committee that you have the basic knowledge to work as a serf there.


And another quote someone gave me from a PM:

I'm not sure that showing them I'm competent (in terms of working on something they're not interested in) is useful. What they want is people to work on their work. And it's not that they don't have curiosity, it's that they're very busy and don't have any spare time. To advance, they have to work on stuff that will get them tenure, etc.


Now, of course, it's possible that a future independent researcher is fully compatible with a future obedient lab serf. Some people can be both. *But*, there are some concrete examples that *show* that one has high potential for becoming a future independent researcher - even though these are the same examples that wouldn't help one with being a lab serf (in fact, these examples might even predict that one may be impatient with staying as a lab serf) - these examples are often things like independent work (this question actually applies more for some posters than it does for me) - which one might put in arxiv or something, and maintaining an independent physics blog (that one could give a URL to in a personal statement). The question is - should people with those examples mention them?

Also, there's another difference between "future researcher" and future grad student. A future grad student has to pass his coursework too - but in terms of research, there really is no difference in outcomes between getting a 3.8 rather than a 3.5 (in fact, focusing too much on coursework isn't a good thing). But still, maybe a grad school might care about whether a potential applicant would get a 3.8 rather than a 3.5.

===

Many people have highlighted *concrete* examples of past success with "indicators of successful scientists". So I have a question: What if I highlighted that I self-studied enough science to succeed in grad-level coursework? (I would mention independent books that I've self-studied - books like Lodish's "Molecular Cell Biology" and "Atmospheric Science" (Wallace and Hobbs) - and I would say that self-studying these books in a short amount of time has enabled me to get decent grades [these grades are in the transcript that they'll read] in several graduate level courses even though I didn't have the background that other students had). I know that research examples are always best, but the research I did was pretty much research that any other undergrad could have done. Of course, I'll still highlight it (to show that I can *stick* with something). But it's not something that is going to distinguish me from other people in the way that self-studying entire subjects from scratch would do. Obviously, I have to convince them that I will stick with astrophysics, but that can come in a separate paragraph. Many people who apply to grad school in field X have really done their best work in field Y - they just have to convince professors that they'll stick to field X once they're in grad school.

For example, this is an example that a professor would find useful (in a LOR, of course, but the personal statement also does many of the same things):

If you do a research project (e.g. REU) at a non-academic institution (e.g. govt. lab)
make sure the person writing your recommendation letters can make a useful
comparison of your performance with those of other students. General statements such
as “I was amazed how quickly Amanda learned how to analyze the data” are nice but
useless for admission committees. We are looking for “I was impressed that within a
month Amanda taught herself IDL, learned how to extract and calibrate data from the
BLAH database and re-plot them in the new co-ordinate system she developed with my
assistance. I have worked with 10 students over the past 3 summers and the only student
of her caliber is now finishing a PhD at Top Notch U.”


And apparently, at least one professor is quite impressed when a potential student can self-teach herself material quickly.

==

Also, I'm sorry for being too insecure. I was actually a complete wreck 2 years ago (before I was able to get meds), and I'm still recovering from it (of course, I know that I will have to improve more, and show that I have improved more).

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grae313
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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby grae313 » Thu Jan 27, 2011 10:19 pm

All of the information you need to answer your questions is already here. Self-studying material and learning it well enough to get an A in advanced coursework in that material is something that you *did* that *shows* an admissions committee that you have traits such as independence, diligence, and self-motivation. Those are good traits and you can say what you did rather than just say that you have these traits. That's a good thing, so mention it, but don't take up half of your essay on it.

Also I think your worries about trying to distinguish between "independent researcher" and a "serf" in your SOP are somewhat unfounded. You can pick an adviser that looks for serfs, but most advisers give their students projects because it's not easy to come up with one's own at that stage. Find an adviser that you can tell your ideas to, and they will use their experience and expertise to help guide you in fruitful directions and offer you suggestions when you are stuck. But even at that point, you are not a completely independent researcher and no one expects or even necessarily wants you to be. A PhD is an apprenticeship to a professor. You can find one whose research area fascinates you and who will be open to your ideas, but you'll always be working for them in their lab until you get your degree.

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Re: Showing independence+hypercuriosity as a character trait?

Postby zxcv » Tue Feb 01, 2011 5:19 am

There are many types of PIs. Most do not want their students to act like "serfs." Mindlessly following instructions just isn't a very effective way to do research. If you are hired as an RA, you will need to work on a specific project, but there are plenty of ways to independently make a contribution even within those bounds.

You may notice a trend: successful professors are successful because they hire the best and brightest students and postdocs. They may set high expectations, but they don't have the time or inclination to micromanage everything you do.




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