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Admissions Help with SOPs and US admissions (Ph.D. math)

  • Thread starter desti
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(This is a long post, so hopefully someone has time to read it)

I am trying to make my SOPs as good as possible for the last applications I have left. I already sent in them for 5 universities, but there's still a few to go... My background is that I am studying in Europe, and I really don't know personally anyone who knows anything about US admissions, because no one really applies to the US from my country (almost everyone continue in our own Ph.D. programs, but my interests aren't really represented here, so I need to go elsewhere). There are basically three things that I need advise with.

First I've had a pretty rough year. I got very sick in August 2007. Thanks to incompetent doctors at my university health services, I got a thorough examination only in November after having lost 15kg of weight in just 4 weeks and was consequently hospitalized for a month where I was discovered to have http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulcerative_colitis" [Broken]. The illness got so bad that during last year I was pretty much a prisoner of my apartment (bathroom to be exact) and had constant agonizing stomach pain.

Last year, I had planned to take the GRE subject test in October and the TOEFL and general GRE in November. Unfortunately, during the last week of September I was diagnosed with a precancerous condition in my colon and got scheduled for complete colon removal surgery in December. This messed me up pretty badly, because I had hoped some new medications would work, and I wasn't able to study at all for the subject test. I managed to get a 700 (66%) percent though. I got my self together for November though and after a week of studying got an 830 (91%) after retaking the math subject test as standby. This left 2 weeks total to study for the general GRE and TOEFL, which I got a 530V/790Q/4.5AW and 114/120 in TOEFL. Another problem was that writing these standardized exams was a real pain, because the only way to be able to sit down for the required time, without having to run for the toilet at least a few times, was to not eat anything the day before the exam and the morning before the exam, so I was pretty exhausted already before the exams.

The question is, should I mention any of these problems on my application and in what extent? Even though I could have done much better, these results are still ok. I wrote a very brief statement on my previous SOPs just telling that this condition had an impact on my preparations, but nothing specific. Should I be more specific or do you think it would be interpreted as whining? The good thing is that the surgery really cured me and I should have taken it a lot sooner.

Now the second problem is the interpretation of "research". After having googled about it, I noticed that e.g. the REU program at Chicago is pretty much nothing but writing an exposition about some "advanced" topic (like a proof of the Mordell-Weil theorem). In my country research is pretty much thought as something that has to produce a publishable result. Thus, I have done a M.Sc. thesis, but really nothing more special except having worked as a research assistant in a lab programming heuristic search algorithms (i.e. trial and error). I have taken a few courses by special arrangements which meant reading the course material and then writing a brief exposition about a related subject. The second question is thus, what size of a course project would you list as "research"?

The third question is how specific should I be about my interests in my SOP? Should I write that I am interested in arithmetic geometry and number theory or should I be more explicit like I would like to learn about the links between questions in arithmetic geometry and questions about L-functions.

Otherwise, my GPA was 4.92/5, which is probably the highest of about 150 students who began as math majors during the same year (though no rankings are calculated by the university). I should have two very strong recommendations and one that I really don't know about, because I haven't had much contact with him. The problem is that there's almost zero interaction between students and faculty and I have really worked with only two professors. Attending lectures is not mandatory and the local way of lecturing is having lots of taught hours going through every little detail which is slow, so I've read everything from books on my own... the end result being that few professors know me personally.

The schools that are on the top of my list are UPenn, Columbia and Brown. I have also applied to Cornell, Chicago, Caltech, Johns Hopkins and Maryland. I have pretty much reasoned that if I go abroad, I want it to be a strong program or else I should just stay where I am.
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First, sorry to hear about your health problems. You mentioned that the surgery really has helped you: for that I am glad, and I hope you enjoy good health for many years to come.

So I basically detected two questions in your post: how much should you write about your health problems, and what should be considered "research." I will give you my best answers with the forewarning that I am only an applicant (to math Ph. D.) myself, so my advice is in no way authoritative.

Personally, I would definitely say a word or two about the health problems. On the other hand, I would not go into details such as the names of the conditions or your specific symptoms. I am not comparing my scenario to yours, because my health has been fine all along, but I had what might be considered a "disadvantage" in that I went to a very lousy high-school where I didn't even take algebra II or geometry, and coming into college I didn't know what a polynomial was or how to factor x^2 - 1. Like you, I still did pretty well. So I faced a similar question: My application seems pretty good, should I bother "whining" about not knowing what a polynomial was four years ago? The way I wrote my personal statement was basically to avoid mentioning my late start until the very end of the application, where I added a brief note. (The intended effect was for them to be impressed by my application, and then read a note about how I was actually a late-beginner and to be especially taken back.) Your situation is certainly more extreme, and I think it would be perfectly justified to say a bit more than I did. Keep in mind math people won't know what ulcerative colitis is, but they will know that being hospitalized and undergoing a surgery can have nontrivial impacts upon your academic performance. So I'd suggest mentioning the specific ways in which your health impacted you, rather than the specifics of your health condition.

As far as research... if you're talking about your personal statement, my strategy was to simply avoid the word research altogether. I described the "projects/stuff" I had done, but didn't say "Here is my research experience."

Hope that was helpful!
Oh I see your third question: how specific should you be about your interests. The answer, I believe, is "as specific as your interests are." If you already know you want to work on Galois representations in arithmetic algebraic geometry, then you should say so. If you know that you want to work in some area of analysis, you should say so. Etc.
Ok, thanks for your answer. It seems like what I wrote in my applications in December was pretty reasonable. If something is interpreted as whining is quite cultural and where I live any explanations is usually seen as whining, so I was very careful.

One more thing. Do you think it's necessary to mention by name professors in applications to Ph.D. programs in math? The breadth of mathematical knowledge of an undergraduate isn't really strong enough to say exactly what you want to work with, so it seems to me that it would be stupid to pick by name a professor from a research group. At a program like Brown, there's quite a bunch of professors working in number theory/arithmetic geometry and really any one of them could work as an adviser.

Singling out a few professors seems superficial and I would think it only lowers your chances of admission in case some of the ones you didn't mention would be interested in working with you (and everyone in the group most likely has the expertise at the level that any undergraduate is likely to describe his/her interests in an application). I've also read that usually you don't end up with the person as adviser that you mentioned in your application. I contacted one professor at Columbia who basically told me that it's impossible to predict who you would be eventually working with, because the interest of the faculty changes and so does the interest of the student after taking the first two years of graduate courses.

Anyone have any opinions on this?
Man.......you have been through the ringer.....I feel bad after having read this post. In any case, you probably don't want to mention specific professors in your SOP...specific research interests is okay though.

Some applications have a little section that asks if you have corresponded with any faculty and if there are any faculty members in which you would like to work with...but you probably already filled out those applications so you probably already know.
I don't know enough to answer your questions, but I just want to say good luck and good job for pulling through such problems outside your control to still have great results! And commendations on your English skills.

By the way, what country are you studying in? Your description sounds a lot like what I've heard about universities in France.

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