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Any advice on how/if I should address some issues on my personal statement?

  • #1

Main Question or Discussion Point

So I've got a very strong GPA/CV, I've had quite a few professors tell me they'll write me good letters of recommendation, and I've got a solid 2 years of research experience with one (maybe two) publications. I'm doing my best to prepare for the GRE, all I have left to do is write my personal statement.

There are two issues with my background that I don't if or how I should address them in my personal statement. The first is that my research experience is in experimental optics, and I want to research theoretical high energy physics in graduate school. I have an abundance of electives in math and physics to support this choice on my transcript, but I feel like saying that I want to go to X University for Y high energy theory research group will be seen as a red flag. I've always known I wanted to do high energy theory, and while I did enjoy my research experience it only made me more sure I want to do theory in graduate school. I'm not sure how to convey that I really do know what I want to do without sounding childish, and without highlighting that I did not get into a theory REU program?

The second issue is that I am coming from a no-name (in terms of physics) California State University. For this one I'm not sure there's anything I can say on my statement. I did win a fellowship and a scholarship while at the university, but they were from sources inside the university. I suppose I'll have to score well on the GRE to overcome this.

Anyways, any help would be greatly appreciated, thank you.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
bcrowell
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Welcome to PF!

There's a very simple solution to issue #1. Simply don't tell them you want to do high-energy theory. Applying to grad school and saying you really want to do high-energy theory is a terrible thing to do to yourself. They get hundreds of applicants saying this, and they probably produce one PhD per year in high-energy theory. You've got experience in experimental optics. Write about that in your application. Connect it to their program. If they've got a good theoretical optics program, connect it to that. If they've got a good experimental nuclear physics program, connect it to that. Once you're there, you can be the star student in field theory, and that's how they'll get the message that you're cut out to be a high-energy theorist. There is nothing dishonest about this. Nobody is saying that a first-year grad student has to go into whatever field s/he listed on his/her application. In fact, you may find that, once you get there, you're no longer a big fish in a small pool, you suck compared to the other theory grad students, and you want to do experimental optics. Or you may simply try theory and find that you don't like it as much as you expected. That's not a crime, and it's not dishonest.

Re issue #2, it is reasonable to briefly mention any reasons, other than low high school grades or low SAT's, why you went to Cal State Monterey Bay rather than UC Berkeley. Paint a picture. If you earned a paycheck during the academic year or over the summer, briefly mention this; this helps them to imagine that UC may have been too much of a financial stretch. If you're the first person in your family to go to college, briefly mention this; this helps them to imagine your family that runs a hardware store in Salinas and needs you to close on Thursday nights because that's when Uncle Fred plays bingo. Also, they probably know zero about CSUMB's physics program, so you get a chance to convince them that it's actually of very high quality. You did an upper-division lab with cosmic-ray muons -- mention that, and it puts you a leg up on a grad student from Beijing who has never touched an oscilloscope.
 
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  • #3
Vanadium 50
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I agree with Ben on #2 but only partly agree with him on #1.

If you are 100% sure that you want to do HEP Theory, you should say so. If the university has no slots for HEP Theory students, and they admit you anyway, thinking you want to do something else, you will be royally screwed in two years time when your classes are over and you're ready to join a research group.

That said, I think you are doing yourself a disservice by deciding you are 100% sure you want to do HEP Theory without looking around at alternatives. Why make up your mind now, before you've been exposed to both a closer look at HEP Theory and a closer look at the alternatives?
 

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