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Statement of Purpose for physics grad application

  1. Oct 20, 2008 #1

    I'm sorry if this has been discussed at great length before here (I did do a search before hand for Statement of Purpose but didn't find too much, forgive me if I've missed a thread).

    I'm from the UK and about to start putting my applications to US gradschools, from what I've gleaned so far it seems that the Personal statement required for US apps is of much more importance than in the UK. I'm just wondering if someone could give me an overview of what it would typically contain, and what I should be avoiding.

    I have already written one for my UK apps, the structure of which was a basically:
    [How I became interested in Physics and why I'm passionate about it]
    [The areas of Physics I've studied]
    [My research Experience]
    [What are I specifically want to research]
    [Why I want to research it at that University]

    The whole thing is about a page.

    Does the US one have to be much more personal? I've read things on the net about putting jokes in it??? or quotations ....much more like a biography of sorts than a personal statement. Also I have no extra curriculars really, I play the guitar can I write about that or would that be considered just irrelevant?

    Last of all is there any particular style I must adhere to, font, size, paragraphs spacings etc?

    Thanks alot
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 20, 2008 #2
    From my own personal experience applying to grad school, and from talking to my research advisor, I would suggest that your statement of purpose not be personal. The admissions committee cares about why you're interested in physics, what you've done in terms of research and academic preparation, and why you'd succeed at earning your PhD. They don't really care about extracurricular activities, altruistic qualities, jokes, etc. This required quite the paradigm shift or me, because up through my junior year I was planning to go to medical school, and those guys most certainly do care about extracurriculars, being a good person, etc. But physicists basically just want to make sure that the people they admit will make it through the rigorous coursework and excel in research. You only have a couple of pages of opportunity to speak to these people, so you want every sentence to bear directly on why you would make a successful graduate student. Every sentence you waste on speaking about your childhood or your hobbies is one less sentence you could spend convincing them that you'll put their money to good use.

    As for style, this depends on the application. But on average, most are looking for one to two pages, double spaced, twelve point font. Anyway, I hope your grad school search goes well!
  4. Oct 20, 2008 #3
    Thats some good advice arumna. I will add though that the schools I applied to for grad school only allowed one page for your SoP. However many of them wanted a personal statement as well. Be sure to have as many peers as possible read your SoP. It really helps to have other people tell you what they think, I know it really helped me.
  5. Oct 20, 2008 #4
    Thanks for the advice. I am glad about that, I hate writing all the wishy washy crap, sounds like my UK personal statement could also do with a bit of tweaking.

    What do guys write for why you want to study somewhere, the only thing I can think is, reserch compliments my interests, school is well renowed, faculty well respected....but I kind of ask myself what's the point of writing that, they aready know that theyre prestigious/ranked in that field and that you are desperate to get in
  6. Oct 20, 2008 #5


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    Your outline sounds like just the things to put into a personal statement. Afterall, that's what those reading it are trying to find out about you. I don't know who would suggest putting in jokes or quotations; that would look really unprofessional. The admissions committee isn't interested in whether you would be good as a stand-up comedian, they want to know if you have a passion for research and enough knowledge about the field you're about to enter to be certain you're not just randomly applying anyplace that will take you with no goal in mind other than avoiding getting a job.

    The only personal things that are relevant to such an application, beyond what your personal passions are about science, are things that you think need explanation. For example, if you had a bad year with low grades on your transcript, but that was also the year you experienced a horrible tragedy in your family, that sort of explanation to mitigate bad grades would be useful. Talking about things that explain your character are good too; for example, some story of an experience you had that relays a strong sense of ethics might help them decide that you are more trustworthy when it will come to research ethics. Also, anything that might talk about skills that wouldn't otherwise show up in your application. Some of this can be talk of extracurricular activities, if you use it to demonstrate that you have good time management skills to balance all of the demands of a graduate program (research, classes, teaching). If you are just bragging about your ability to play an instrument, that's not as helpful.

    As for your specific question about what to write about why you want to study somewhere, that's where doing your homework helps. What field are you specifically interested in? Highlight that you have read about the research of thus and so person in the program, and am especially interested in that field and their work, so want to join that department. You wouldn't believe how many applications grad programs receive from people who have interests completely incompatible with the faculty in that program. Just to make up a fictitious example, if someone's application states they are interested in superconductors and are applying to the prestigious institution to obtain the best education they can in their field, the admissions committee is going to do a double take if their departmental strength is in optics and only one lab is doing poorly funded work on superconductors as a little side project.
  7. Oct 21, 2008 #6
    As a former member of a selections committee in the US, I can verify that we don't want jokes, quotes, etc. It looks/feels like filler to take up space where there should be research experience. Your personal statement needs to show you have the experience and mindset appropriate to successful completion of graduate level-work. I'd even say keep the "how you became interested in physics" part to a minimum. (I didn't even mention it on my personal statements at all.) Case example: After reading a first paragraph about a students becoming interested in physics one morning tying his/her shoe by pondering the superposition of on/off states, I immediately discarded the rest. When we were in committee, we wanted the statement to show that you could contribute to the production of a research group (maybe we were particularly pragmatic). Your letters of recommendation should also focus on research experience.... i.e. back up your statement with details of your research aptitude. Pick advisers that can do this. If you did a research experience outside your home institution, be sure to include a letter from that adviser.
  8. Oct 21, 2008 #7


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    Agreed. When you talk about your research experience in your personal statement, explain what the project was about, how it fit into the lab's overall goals, and what your role was on the project. Admissions committees want to see that you were really thinking about the research and understood why you were doing it, and not just very good at following detailed instructions without comprehension about why you were following them (that will only qualify you to be an entry-level technician, not a grad student). Again, a lot of students don't understand the difference between research experience and lab experience. There are a lot of applications from students with lab experience, but when you read their personal statements or their letters of reference, you find out they really didn't do much other than grunt work and never really questioned why they were doing it or how what they did fit into the bigger project that the lab was doing. Research experience should provide you with that bigger picture.
  9. Oct 21, 2008 #8
    First all of all, thanks, some great pieces of advice here from everyone.

    This is the bit I'm struggling with, UCSB has a whole seperate section to the SOP just for extracurriculars, and your character etc! I can't think of any amazing experiences I've had or hardships I've overcome outside of physics. I took part in this teamwork skills thing in my final undergrad year, that was working in a group of ten people researching a contemporary (non physics) topics over the course of a semester, then presenting it to a lecture hall full of people, but it was a compulsary course, so it wasn't like I volunteered or anything. I've not overcome any particular hardships I can recall hmmph..

    I'm applying for HEP Theory, although I don't wether to be too specific in saying exactly what I want to do incase it decreases my chances of being accepted (e.g if I say string theory they may say oh well such and such a prof has already taken 2 students so no room for this guy vs being more broad and just saying Theory may at least get my foot in the door to change later). I'm already worried that HEP theory is going to be so competitive that even if my app is strong I could be declined.

    I have about two paragraphs at the moment basically explaining how my interest in science started (uncle is a biologist) and how that progressed to physics. I've written about when I was young him explaining to me biological mechanisms and how I begin to ponder the universe and our place after learning Darwins theory, then how these questions moved closer and closer to physics questions as I grew older. too much? too cheesy?

    heheh, that is hilarious.

    Should I go into great detail about the project and my role in it? is this the most important bit? I've got about a paragraph overview at the moment just saying what the title was, how I worked in the HEP group, roughly what the aim was and how a paper resulted.

    Also since I did a 4 year undergrad Masters in the UK (instead of the just the normal 3 year bachelors), I have done a few of the grad courses already, should I talk about these in the personal statement or is this not the place?
  10. Oct 21, 2008 #9
    Keep in mind that you probably SHOULD still say what you are interested in if that really matters to you. It does you absolutely no good if you get accepted and there are later no slots in the field you really want. I saw MANY people leave my graduate program after their core courses were completed because the slots in the field they wanted in research were full... talk about a waste of time (1.5 years or more of core courses). You'd rather get some of that competition for slots done early.... via the acceptance process if need be.

    Quite possibly... two paragraphs about you as a kid?!?! and about your uncle? The committee wants to know more about who you are NOW.

    Absolutely. This type of character is what the graduate program wants you to be when you're enrolled. Here's where you could sound excited a bit (but not too much.. maintain professionalism)...

    I never had to write a character statement or evaluate them, so good luck there. It might be an area to mention teaching or education outreach if you've ever done any of that... being pragmatic again, because graduate programs often like to know you could be a decent teaching assistant in a pinch. :biggrin:
  11. Oct 21, 2008 #10
    Yes, it's quite correct that having peers review the statement of purpose is an excellent idea. It bears mentioning that it's also a good idea to have professors read the statement. I gave my statement of purpose to all the professors who were writing my letters, as well as to one other professor.

    This has also happened at my school. There were a couple students one year ahead of me who wanted to do research in fields that we didn't do in my department. One wanted to do cosmology, and the other string theory (is this one even science???). Both of them finished their core courses and then left. In at least one case, the student's new school accepted her coursework for transfer credit, but this often doesn't happen. If you end up switching schools you may have to retake all the core courses, which is very annoying. And both of these students, who had passed the written qualifying exam at my school, now had to take the qualifiers at the new schools. Quals are usually the bottleneck at most institutions (i.e. deadly poison), so you really don't want to go through that twice. It's a very good idea to make sure that all the schools you apply to are schools that have the research you're interested in.

    Unless you're like me, and don't really care what research you do...
  12. Oct 21, 2008 #11


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    Yes, talk about the teamwork thing. How about jobs you had while in school? Any tutoring that you did? Perhaps you really enjoy blowing off steam with a pick-up game of football (soccer to those of us in the US)? Usually, when schools are specifically asking about extra curriculars, it means they want to know you can manage your time juggling more than just coursework, or that you're a good team player who will get along with a research group. You may be at a disadvantage coming from the UK on this. In the US, students have it drilled into their minds rather early that they need to participate in extracurricular activities or hold a job or volunteer or do something in addition to their coursework. These things help both with further education applications as well as getting jobs here to show that the person doesn't just spend 120 hours a week studying to get the grades they have to the exclusion of everything else. If nothing else, someone doing that is likely to burn out sooner than later. You need something to relieve stress.

    If you're completely at a loss, perhaps you can talk about how British culture is different from US culture and your unfulfilled desire to experience a different culture.

    I'll just echo what Physics Girl said on this. Yes, be specific. If you're wishy-washy, they won't be convinced you're really ready for grad school. If it's really the case that what you really want to do isn't practical there because the labs doing it aren't taking new students, they'd be doing you a favor not to accept you. You really wouldn't want to be there anyway if you can't do what you want. It IS okay to list two areas that interest you if you have a secondary interest, or haven't completely decided between two or three choices. You don't want to be overly vague, but you can be a *little* undecided.

    Something like that, I'd limit to no more than 2 sentences. Back when I was applying to med schools and still thought I wanted to attend one, I think my application started out something like, "I still have a photo from when I was about 7 years old, bandaging my grandfather from head-to-toe. I still have that passion for medicine..." That was it. It was an interesting opening sentence that pointed out I wasn't just acting on a whim, but a long-standing interest. Too bad it only lasted until I got the letter of acceptance. :rolleyes: :rofl: Anyway, anything more than that and you risk losing the reader.Should I go into great detail about the project and my role in it? is this the most important bit? I've got about a paragraph overview at the moment just saying what the title was, how I worked in the HEP group, roughly what the aim was and how a paper resulted.

    Yes! This is the place. Keep in mind that not everyone in the US is familiar with the UK educational system. You might want to use a little bit of your space to explain what this means and how it's different from a regular undergrad degree, etc. They might not even realize that a 4 year degree in the UK is not typical. A bachelor's degree in the US is usually 4 years.
  13. Oct 22, 2008 #12
    Once again, really great advice.

    I'm gonna go away and actually try to write one now, I'll probably be back with some more specifics at some point! haha

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