Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Admissions Statement of Purpose for grad school

  1. Dec 10, 2017 #1
    A bit of background:

    I have a somewhat unusual academic history, having taken 2 years of math and physics at a nearby university while in high school (intro mechanics / EM / quantum sequence + GR in physics, analysis + ODEs + differential geometry + abstract algebra in math)--all this with a 4.0 GPA. I was aggressive about continuing on the same path when I went to college, but encountered some personal difficulties that made school a secondary concern for me, creating some really ugly patches on my undergraduate transcript. I took 2 years off in the middle of my degree, and my cumulative GPA worked out to be 3.2 (a bit higher for my just-physics GPA).

    I took the PGRE in October and got a 970, which is not the 990 I'd been hoping for (lol) but still seems pretty strong. I think I can count on one pretty solid letter of recommendation, one good one from a math professor, and one "meh" one along the lines of "he took my class and did well."

    Given all this, how would you rate my statement of purpose? I want to use it as an opportunity to explain the aspects of my application that are unusual, but at the same time don't want to spend too much time dwelling on my weaknesses. Thoughts?

    Statement of Purpose

    My professional and academic purpose is to conduct research in theoretical physics, with a focus on cosmology and particle physics. I am especially interested in ways that particle physics can account for apparent large-scale anomalies in the observed universe. Accordingly, I intend to focus on big bang baryogenesis and the problem of matter-antimatter asymmetry, and am also interested in pursuing research into the developing theory of entropic gravity.

    Although these goals are the culmination of a lifetime of intense interest in the sciences, my specific commitment to physics as a career arose by way of an earlier, enduring passion for mathematics. In fact, early in my academic career, I assumed I would eventually find my way into a Ph.D. program in math, and did everything I could to prepare myself for this goal. As a high school student, I took full advantage of [my state's] PSEO program, taking analysis, ODEs, and an honors introductory physics sequence covering mechanics and EM through the [local state university]. Although I enjoyed the math, I found the physics arbitrary and frustrating--one cannot provide a proof of Newton's Laws, after all, and the professor seemed impatient with my endless questioning of mathematical nuances. I remember asking him once how he knew a certain series converged (I forget what the problem was). His exasperated response was "when I do the experiment, my lab doesn't blow up!" (In hindsight, he has my sympathy.)

    The turning point came during my senior year of high school, when I decided to take GR and differential geometry simultaneously--one through the physics department, the other through the math department. For the first time, I found myself relying on the context provided by the physics to understand the math. Furthermore, I noticed a subtle change in the way I thought about both subjects. One "aha!" moment followed another, and I began to understand connections between topics I had learned about in EM and mechanics that defied my previous frustration. I was addicted: For me, watching the professor derive the full Kerr metric on the board (it took two lectures) was the ultimate pleasure, fulfilling both my need to understand how things work and my love of mathematical precision.

    At [college I went to], I continued to challenge myself academically, taking upper-level physics and math courses as a freshman and following up with electives in quantum mechanics, particle physics, and advanced topics in gravitation. After my sophomore year, I participated in a summer program at [college], researching relativistic diskoseismology under the guidance of [Professor so-and-so] and presenting a poster summarizing my work at the end of the summer.

    My undergraduate career was interrupted by a series of life events that left me uncertain of my goals and my ability to attain them. I was briefly hospitalized due to mental illness, and have spent a great deal of time since then learning to cope with the effects of this experience. My passion for learning and understanding is driven by questions—but confronting the need to question the validity of my own emotional and perceptive experience of the world led, unfortunately, to an increasing detachment from school which eventually culminated in my taking several years off.

    Nevertheless, I believe that the time I spent away from school was productive, both as a means for me to broaden my perspective and as an opportunity to develop my skills as a teacher. At [college], I had discovered that teaching is a natural extension of learning: Besides offering a chance to communicate my passion and love of science and mathematics, it serves as a way of refining my own understanding. I worked as a tutor in the math department at [college], and have continued to support myself with tutoring and teaching work since then. I hope to continue pursuing opportunities to share my knowledge through graduate school and beyond.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 10, 2017 #2
    In my opinion, your personal statement should be more concrete, and more research-focused.

    Anyone can say they enjoyed their professor deriving the Kerr metric. You have only one sentence in there about your summer research project. Do you have any other undergraduate research experiences? In that project (and others, if applicable), what did you do? Did you design a program to analyze data more efficiently? Did you model things computationally?

    Also, if you aren't already, be sure to get a letter of recommendation from your research advisor there. That will speak to a committee much more than from a professor.
  4. Dec 10, 2017 #3
    "In that project (and others, if applicable), what did you do? Did you design a program to analyze data more efficiently? Did you model things computationally?"

    Good question. This is the problem: Because I was working with a theorist, the project basically consisted of directed reading, which is not all that impressive. I really don't know what else to say about it than "this happened, and it was interesting." I could mention specific texts / papers that I read, but that sounds like I'm clutching at straws.

    I also don't have any other research experience to speak of as an undergraduate (yeah, I know, I missed some opportunities), so it doesn't seem like I should just leave it out...
  5. Dec 11, 2017 #4
    I know it sucks to hear (I wanted to do the same!), but they really don't care about you life story, and why you're interested in physics. Mostly everyone who goes to grad school in physics is passionate about physics, otherwise they'd go to industry. Your statement of purpose should be what you intend to complete at graduate school. Do you have any projects in mind? Talk about those. Talk about what you intend to get done, how you plan to go about it, and why you think the school is the best fit for you.

    To me, you SOP comes off like an admission essay, but SOP's are not admission essays. You really should be telling them why they should give you money to do research.
  6. Dec 11, 2017 #5
    Also, be sure to tailor your SoP to each university you're applying to. Explain why you chose that particular university, and include names of professors you'd like to work with and why.
  7. Dec 11, 2017 #6
    Thanks romsofia and Dishsoap.

    I agree, the essay comes off as a bit too biographical. I guess I just wanted to sneak in a few words of explanation for the time taken off as an undergrad (and the weaker portions of my transcript), but probably don't need all that set-up.

    As far as research is concerned:

    1. Again, my one research experience as an undergrad was pretty limited, and basically consisted of directed reading under a theorist. Any thoughts on how I should talk about this in my SOP?

    2. I tried to strike a balance between being specific and leaving some "wiggle room" in terms of my stated research interests. I understand I'll need to elaborate on these a bit more, but given that I haven't actually conducted research in these areas yet (that's why I'm applying to grad school!), how specific do you think I actually need to get?

    Thanks again guys--any advice is helpful (the harsher the better :) )
  8. Dec 11, 2017 #7

    Dr Transport

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    The gap in your transcript can be explained by the following answer..."I had medical issues I was dealing with"....they cannot ask anything further under HIPA laws in the US....
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted