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Admissions How to balance idealism and science?

  1. Oct 11, 2016 #1
    I spoke with a professor I'm working with about my personal statement for graduate school. She took issue with my beginning paragraph:

    "My interest in plant science grew out of my desire to create peace between humanity and their environment. Anxiety over doomsday scares of global warming drove me to look for an answer. These worries matured into a dream to use science for a more sustainable society.
    I am applying for the biology PhD program to combine my love of science with my concern for the environment...."

    She said that it's basically "bullcrap" and that I'm not going to be able to do something like that in graduate school. Although I understand that I won't be changing the world with grad school I'm concerned for the long run of how I can feel like I'm helping people through science.

    My professor said that throughout her thirty years of being a scientist she can't point to anything specific in society and say she helped that happen. The only exception being helping students become other scientists.

    But I don't think I want to be a professor. I want to feel like I'm using science (and engineering) to actually help society. For me I think that means working at a national lab or government lab.

    If that is the case should I just get to a PhD or Masters and stop there? I don't have to go all the way to post-doc or professorship right? Thanks.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 11, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Your professor is right. You should listen to her.
     
  4. Oct 11, 2016 #3

    Simon Bridge

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    ... that would be an argument from personal failure: just because she is unable to find anything in society that she can say she helped happen as a scientist, that does not mean that there is nothing that she helped happen - only that she lacks the ability to discover it. It also does not mean that it is not a worthwhile goal to use science to better society.

    I would argue that anyone who has done original research - especially if it is published, has contributed to helping society - Science is a collaborative enterprise. Everybody contributes, even if only in a small way. There is no way to assess, in every case, how big a particular bit of research will be.

    ... here she admits that there is something she can point to and say she helped that happen. But she dismisses it - as if science education does not count for anything. I would dispute that.

    Basically being a scientist will help you live your life in a constructive way - if that is your goal. You will be more likely to believe true things, and the things you believe whose truth is uncertain, you are more likely to have good reasons for those beliefs. By itself, that improves things for everything in your life and everyone you meet. The science you use is basically a set of tools to help you find things out. Like any tool, what you achieve through it depends on the use you put it to.

    Usually the only reason for going post-doc is to be an academic ... national labs can be like that, and there will be lots of competition. Basically, you should research your options with an eye to your strengths - who is doing the kinds of work you feel good about, and how do you get to join in? Notice how this is an application of scientific method to the issue of where/what to do next?

    It all depends on where you want to end up in 5-10 years, bearing in mind that there is no way to tell what will actually happen.
    I have a friend (no names) who went the post-grad route as a medical doctor because he wanted to be a heart surgeon - did a thesis on a rare disease of the heart (iirc) and was able to demonstrate that it was actually a disease of the lungs - this lead to conferences, and he is now a WHO specialist consultant and researcher on respiratory diseases. He would not have made that position without the post-grad stuff he did, but it is possible to get there without it. The extra academic stuff also meant he probably missed out on some other opportunities. You are at the stage where what you gain in one place you lose someplace else... so it is just a matter of picking a general direction to head in.

    Now that WHO guy ... I don't think he can point to anything in society that he, personally. made better, but there are a lot of people alive today because of work he helped with. He pointed out to me once that the people who mop the floors in hospitals probably prevent more deaths than he ever did though ... that is because (a) they make the hospital a safer environment to do medicine in (that it would otherwise be), and (b) if they were not there, nurses would be doing that job, taking skilled medical professionals away from patient care. Now - can any of the janitors point to anything in society and say they helped that get better (except for the clear floor of course ... as if that doesn't matter)?

    The gripping hand:
    Lets put this in it's proper context - the letter is part of a grad school application ... it is not seriously a life goal to be set in stone and worshipped. Your goals will change as you gain experience - and you will refine and focus those goals you keep. The people reading the letter are only trying to decide if they should let you in to the school. They will probably expect you to be idealistic ......... however...

    What you need to listen to in the profs assessment of the letter is how she thinks the letter will be received by the people who matter: will they look at what you wrote and just decide you are spouting a load of rubbish?
     
  5. Oct 11, 2016 #4
    Right but that's not what my main question was about.
     
  6. Oct 11, 2016 #5
    It's relief to me that some idealism at my stage is acceptable but I can see the point that I also need to sound ready for the haul of graduate school. Right now I would be happy if I end up at one of the twenty or so DOE labs working on clean energy. I'm sure I need a PhD for that but I don't know what else. I will research that right now.
     
  7. Oct 11, 2016 #6

    Simon Bridge

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    It's just that a lot of people will spout the kind of stuff you wrote... it sounds like the sort of thing a politician may say (at least a NZ politician): there's no substance there to make me sit up and pay attention. Can you flesh out what you wrote so I can tell the difference between you, and someone who is just mouthing empty platitudes?

    You want to work on clean energy research? Good - that's specific. Does your college have any related research programs?

    But really - you need advise from people who know the grad school you are applying to. I'm in the wrong country.
    From what I've been told, the letter is not that important unless there's a tie.
     
  8. Oct 11, 2016 #7
    The thing about the first paragraph is that there is nothing concrete. You are applying to University X because of their program that specializes in Y? You want to go to University X because you want to continue research in area Z? Sure. But your personal statement (which should be maybe a page) shouldn't waste time on fluff like your vague life goals, in my opinion.
     
  9. Oct 11, 2016 #8

    Stephen Tashi

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    Maybe all our deepest desires are bullcrap!

    I have this critique:
    If you say "doomsday scares" it implies you are skeptical of the dangers of global warming. However, I think what you want to communicate is that you take global warming seriously. (Also, scientists reading your application may take it seriously). As to "humanity and their environment", it seems to me that "humanity" is singular, but a grammarian may know better. Saying "humanity and the environment" is less awkward.

    That explains an interest in science, but why did you focus on plants in particular? Saying "these worries" leaves open the possibility that the problems were just psychological. Unless you mean that, it would be better to say "these concerns" or use language that refers to some objective phenomena.
     
  10. Oct 12, 2016 #9

    russ_watters

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    The concise and maybe vaguely depressing answer to the title question is simple: by getting older!
     
  11. Oct 12, 2016 #10
    I did write that I want to work in the DOE on biofuels. Maybe I should just focus on that instead of my underlying idealistic motivations...sigh anyway whatever.
     
  12. Oct 12, 2016 #11
    Yea...I will try to make it sound more concrete about research. I'm just used to talking in a grandiose visionary way ( I was a philosophy minor ). I will have to fluff down my personal statement which will just be hard for me personally sigh...
     
  13. Oct 12, 2016 #12
    Ha ha that actually cheers me up a little anyway thanks
     
  14. Oct 12, 2016 #13
    It's just since it's my personal statement I let my own personality shine through which is this idealistic/visionary kind of thing. It's hard for me to just get rid of it. I will have to incorporate how I am also enthused about research....I don't know.
     
  15. Oct 12, 2016 #14

    russ_watters

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    Glad to hear that, because we get variations of your broader question here a lot and people are not typically very receptive to the answer.
     
  16. Oct 12, 2016 #15
    Unfortunately, you simply don't have the space for that. You have a page (unless you're really exceptional, I wouldn't recommend it be more than that). You should use that space to tell about your research accomplishments and give very concrete reasons for why you want to attend University X.
     
  17. Oct 12, 2016 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    Dishsoap is right. This is not the place to be letting your personality shine through. As she says, you need to give very concrete reasons for why you want to attend University X. It is not necessary but it would be helpful to also explain why you believe you will be successful at university X despite your past.
     
  18. Oct 12, 2016 #17

    radium

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    This is not a college admissions essay. It's not supposed to be a narrative, your statement should be clear and to the point and read more like a cover letter (not exactly the same but similar content).
     
  19. Oct 13, 2016 #18
    You're right I need to make it sound like I'm applying for a job and not about what motivates me or something like that blagh....
     
  20. Oct 14, 2016 #19

    f95toli

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    Another thing to keep in mind is that people who are only motivated by the end goal of their research often really struggle when it comes to the day-to-day reality of what research is really like. This is especially true in basic research where a lot of what you work on never really goes anywhere. Just about everyone who works in research will frequently be in situations when something has gone wrong and you suddenly have lost a weeks (or more) or work and you have to be able to just get on with things anyway. It is therefore very important that you actually look forward to going to work most days or you are going to do badly.

    There are plenty of very good and successful physicists who are not even that interested in the problems they are working on and don't really care about the potential applications of what they are working on. but who have for example become experts in -and really enjoy- using and developing some specialized piece of kit.

    Hence, if you only talk about "grand goals" in your statement people will probably question whether or not you would actually function well as a graduate student.
     
  21. Oct 15, 2016 #20
    Thank you everyone for your answers. I am revising my personal statement to make myself sound more like I'm applying for a job as opposed to however I sounded beforehand.
     
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