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.