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How to mention research interests in SOP


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I know I should tailor my interests to those of faculty. But to what extent is appropriate?

I'm applying MA in general experimental psychology and not ensure as my interests. Is selecting research interests faculty listed in the website and writing them in my SOP suitable?   Would it be regarded as artificial?

And whether mentioning interests not holded by any of the faculty would be regarded as not fit?

 

Thanks in advance for your help!

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For Ph.D. programs, it is vital to tailor your interest to those of faculty. Ideally, you want your interest to extend an aspect of their research program or propose an interesting direction that they may have not considered.

For MA, programs, I think it is less critical, but you should still try to tailor your interest to a particular faculty.

-It goes without saying, that your interst should sound genuine. If they're genuine, even better. If you can't find a faculty that do not have overlapping interest with you, then you probably shouldnt apply there. For example, I would have loved to apply to UC San Diego because I like the city, but there was no one there I wanted to work with. I tried to make it fit, but the difference between my interest and that of the faculty is just too large a gap to overcome with scenery and location.

-I don't know about mentioning interest that is "completely" unrelated to any of the faculty. It should be really connected to one of the faculty. If you can't see the connection, then they won't either. Every interest you have, in my opinion, should be traced back to one of the potential advisors in the department.

I'd really like to stress that if you can't see yourself working with anyoone in the department then you shouldn't apply there. You do not want to be that graduate student that is advisorless or is in their second year and still can't find someone who would sponsor their master's thesis. For example, I worked with someone who wanted to enter the program to the really study the psychology of religion, but since she had psycholinguistics background, she emphasized that as her interest. No one in the department studies the psychology of religion, so she was advisorless for awhile and is now forced to do a master's thesis on something she is minimally interested in.

In short, don't apply to programs where there is no one you can see yourself working with. It will be unenjoyable for you and for the department and most likely a waste of your time.

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In my experience, I found that research interests listed on faculty websites to be somewhat vague and if you just repeat them verbatim, it might not have a very strong effect. In addition, not only are these websites sometimes out of date, the list of topics might be quite large and you aren't always sure what their main / most recent focuses are. So it's better to read their recent papers and see if there is a theme to what they have been working on. If you notice they have several students, make sure to separate out the papers co-authored with each student since they might be working on different paths with different students. You can also email them a note saying that you are interested in X and ask whether or not they will be interested in working in that topic next year. You can frame the question as wanting to confirm that the website is up to date.

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For Ph.D. programs, it is vital to tailor your interest to those of faculty. Ideally, you want your interest to extend an aspect of their research program or propose an interesting direction that they may have not considered.

For MA, programs, I think it is less critical, but you should still try to tailor your interest to a particular faculty.

-It goes without saying, that your interst should sound genuine. If they're genuine, even better. If you can't find a faculty that do not have overlapping interest with you, then you probably shouldnt apply there. For example, I would have loved to apply to UC San Diego because I like the city, but there was no one there I wanted to work with. I tried to make it fit, but the difference between my interest and that of the faculty is just too large a gap to overcome with scenery and location.

-I don't know about mentioning interest that is "completely" unrelated to any of the faculty. It should be really connected to one of the faculty. If you can't see the connection, then they won't either. Every interest you have, in my opinion, should be traced back to one of the potential advisors in the department.

I'd really like to stress that if you can't see yourself working with anyoone in the department then you shouldn't apply there. You do not want to be that graduate student that is advisorless or is in their second year and still can't find someone who would sponsor their master's thesis. For example, I worked with someone who wanted to enter the program to the really study the psychology of religion, but since she had psycholinguistics background, she emphasized that as her interest. No one in the department studies the psychology of religion, so she was advisorless for awhile and is now forced to do a master's thesis on something she is minimally interested in.

In short, don't apply to programs where there is no one you can see yourself working with. It will be unenjoyable for you and for the department and most likely a waste of your time.

Thanks for your advice. I do apply to programs in which some faculty's research directions attract me and I'll only mention directions really fascinating me. What I feel confusing is the way to mention them. I do not hold certain interests, if I do, then I can seek connections with the faculty. But the fact is I can only read the website and some articles of the faculty and select from THEIR interests which I feel fascinating. And I dont know whether it is appropriate to do so...

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In my experience, I found that research interests listed on faculty websites to be somewhat vague and if you just repeat them verbatim, it might not have a very strong effect. In addition, not only are these websites sometimes out of date, the list of topics might be quite large and you aren't always sure what their main / most recent focuses are. So it's better to read their recent papers and see if there is a theme to what they have been working on. If you notice they have several students, make sure to separate out the papers co-authored with each student since they might be working on different paths with different students. You can also email them a note saying that you are interested in X and ask whether or not they will be interested in working in that topic next year. You can frame the question as wanting to confirm that the website is up to date.

Thanks for your advice. But I still have some puzzles.

I read some articles of the faculty but I could not summarize exact themes of their work. Usually I found the themes they summarized are more applicable.

If I have sent e-mail to one of the faculty asking whether he would recruite new candidates and got a affirmative reply, then is it impolite to send e-mails to others in the department? I want to mention 2 or 3 other persons since their research directions all interest me, but I'm not sure whether they will continue these directions and whether asking their future directions is suitable.

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-There are often 6-10 faculty in a particulary program. You do not need to send every single one an email. It is not considered impolite.

-The reason you mention 2-3 faculty is because you aren't sure what the future directions are. Get more information. If you can't assume their latest publication as a representation of their current research and research within the next two years.

-Usually it is best to look at the future directions of the empriical articles or review articles they have written. Researchers often summarize what they think will be an interesting line of research in the future for them.

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-There are often 6-10 faculty in a particulary program. You do not need to send every single one an email. It is not considered impolite.

-The reason you mention 2-3 faculty is because you aren't sure what the future directions are. Get more information. If you can't assume their latest publication as a representation of their current research and research within the next two years.

-Usually it is best to look at the future directions of the empriical articles or review articles they have written. Researchers often summarize what they think will be an interesting line of research in the future for them.

I'll send emails for more information :)

Describing how my research interests fit with those of the faculty is so difficult for me. When trying to mention their research in limited words, I often found their own summaries on the website is more useful, although they are usually fairly uncompleted...

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I also agree that it's okay to ask more than one faculty member per department about working with them. After all, you are just asking if they are taking students, you are not asking to join their group. Similarly, if they answer positively, that just means that they do have spots for students, it's not a commitment for them to take you if you get into their school. So, it's actually better to have multiple options at every school you apply to -- that is, you probably shouldn't apply to a school if there is only one person you could really work with. 

 

But this depends on the field too of course. In some fields/departments, you are admitted directly to a specific group. In other places, you do rotations at many groups in the first year. 

 

As for research interests matching up -- you are not expected to know exactly what you want to do. However, personally, I think it's important for a graduate student to know what they want to do, instead of being interested in everything. If you know what you want, then it's just a matter of looking at all the faculty members and deciding whether or not their interests matches yours. I'm not sure what you mean by "trying to mention their research in limited words" -- why can't you just say what you're interested in and mention that this matches up with Profs X, Y, Z. etc. There's no point summarizing their interests and then yours and then stating the obvious that they match up. Just talk about your interests -- the profs know what their own interests are!

 

Finally, my post was written in the mindset of the sciences, where grad students generally work on a project assigned to them by their supervisor. Sometimes, it's a project that is conceived together and guided by both student and professor input. Thus, the majority of our funding comes from our supervisor paying us to do this work. However, I understand that some social sciences (but not sure about Psychology), grad students come up with their own project completely so that the prof is more of an advisor than a direct supervisor. 

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I also agree that it's okay to ask more than one faculty member per department about working with them. After all, you are just asking if they are taking students, you are not asking to join their group. Similarly, if they answer positively, that just means that they do have spots for students, it's not a commitment for them to take you if you get into their school. So, it's actually better to have multiple options at every school you apply to -- that is, you probably shouldn't apply to a school if there is only one person you could really work with. 

 

But this depends on the field too of course. In some fields/departments, you are admitted directly to a specific group. In other places, you do rotations at many groups in the first year. 

 

As for research interests matching up -- you are not expected to know exactly what you want to do. However, personally, I think it's important for a graduate student to know what they want to do, instead of being interested in everything. If you know what you want, then it's just a matter of looking at all the faculty members and deciding whether or not their interests matches yours. I'm not sure what you mean by "trying to mention their research in limited words" -- why can't you just say what you're interested in and mention that this matches up with Profs X, Y, Z. etc. There's no point summarizing their interests and then yours and then stating the obvious that they match up. Just talk about your interests -- the profs know what their own interests are!

 

Finally, my post was written in the mindset of the sciences, where grad students generally work on a project assigned to them by their supervisor. Sometimes, it's a project that is conceived together and guided by both student and professor input. Thus, the majority of our funding comes from our supervisor paying us to do this work. However, I understand that some social sciences (but not sure about Psychology), grad students come up with their own project completely so that the prof is more of an advisor than a direct supervisor. 

Thanks, your suggestions are really helpful! Most programs I apply adopt mentorship model, while I prefer to working with various faculty members to shape my interests... I guess I have understood how to mention research interests with the help of you guys!

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I know when I contacted more than one POI I always told the second person that I already contacted someone else.

 

That's a good point -- you can write the email as saying something like "I am interested in School X because of your and Profs. A, B, C's work on Subject Y." etc. if you are worried that the reader will think you are exclusively contacting them. However, I think it's generally expected that these initial contact emails are commitment-free on both sides. In addition, sometimes if you email one prof, they might even forward your email to their colleagues and/or suggest you get in touch with them. 

 

So, it's also important to keep in mind that anyone could end up reading your initial emails. That is, don't email one prof saying that "Topic X is my #1 choice" and then email someone else saying "Topic Y is my #1 choice", etc. When considering two different topics at the same school (or even at different schools), I'd temper the statements by removing the superlatives (e.g. just say that you are really interested in topics X and Y).

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