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Purposing a research problem in an SOP

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This is a variation of a post I made in the Earth Sciences forum, but I realized I might not get enough traffic on the SoP part of the original question as I would here, so I am posting a new version of it here.


I recently thought of an interesting topic to research, that has strong ties to my masters thesis but also pushes me to new ground. I feel very very encouraged that I could think of something like this, but something occurred to me, as this would be the biggest academic risk I think I have ever taken:


If I purpose research like this on a SOP for PhD admissions, and it turns out that while I show I clearly put a lot of thought and background research in it, that the question isn't very significant, will that hurt my admissions chances? Or will the fact that I tried to frame a question, and am applying to work with people who work in a similar field be encouraging to them ?


I am going to talk about the project with my thesis advisor, but I probably wont have much time to develop it significantly while I'm working on my masters thesis and teaching classes.

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In your other post, you mention spending some hours background reading but that you aren't sure if it is something interesting or if it's too obvious/trivial. It sounds like you have done your due diligence in terms of doing some checking out of your idea and I think it's a good time to talk to a faculty member about this. Depending on the prof, some might be okay with their students just coming in to brainstorm/discuss ideas with them while others might want their students to spend a fair amount of time thinking about it first (but it sounds like you have).


I view grad school as the ideal place for people to think up new, "risky" ideas, discuss them with colleagues and mentors, and then decide whether or not it's worth the time to pursue. So, I think it's something that you should talk to others about and they might be able to provide feedback to refine your idea and/or help you gauge whether or not it's possible.


One thing you might be wary about is that if you talk to people now and get people on board with your idea, they might want to work with you on it and it sounds like you want to do this as your PhD project instead. So, you should be clear with the people you're talking to that this is what you're planning. Depending on the people in your department, you might want to make sure you talk to someone you trust who won't want to "steal" your ideas.


Finally, to actually answer your question, I personally do not think the SOP is where you want to propose research problems. I would use the SOP to describe why you are a good fit for their program, in terms of past experience and achievements as well as showing how your future interests lie with the department's faculty. For the latter, I think it is enough to describe the kind of research (experiments, instruments, methodology, theoretical approaches) you want to do, but it would be far too specific to describe an actual research project. In addition to the risk of your research project not being significant enough, there is also a risk of constraining yourself so much since if no one wants to work with you on this project, you might convince the committee to not admit you on basis of fit. In my opinion, statements like "I am interested in developing [skill X] during my PhD and with access to [Facilities A, B, C / Profs D, E, F/ Labs G, H, I, etc.], your school would be a great fit for my goals." are the kind of statements you want to make in an SOP. I would only propose actual research projects if I am asked for a research statement (e.g. many fellowship/grant applications want this) and if I have discussed the project with people I might work on that project with first (to take advantage of their wisdom and experience). 


Thus, I think it's great to have new ideas and you really should not see it as a risk! Grad school is a great time to try out random ideas! I would feel that if I thought up something potentially interesting, my supervisor would be fine with me taking a few days to explore it and decide whether or not it's viable or if it's too difficult etc. If it doesn't work out, a week spent exploring isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of a PhD and what I learn during that week might be helpful later anyways. So, don't feel like you are taking a risk when you bring up a new idea with a faculty member. But, I personally do not think it is the kind of thing you want to put in a SOP, even if you have a fully thought out idea. That is my opinion though -- I'm sure others here might want to bring up a different viewpoint.

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I see, so in my SOP i should say i am instead in a general form of these kinds of problems instead of a specific form of this problem , IE modeling melting processes in the mantle instead of "specific" melting process in the mantle. 


Also, a reason why I want to do it for my PhD, so to speak, is because I'm already a year into my masters thesis.... and it will require writing EXTENSIVE code to explore.


Thanks for the advice... it seems very sound, I'll focus on making sure that my SoP conveys that I am interested and have explored  the types of problems that are currently being researched without being too specific. Some advice that was given to me mentioned that most students put "buzzwords" in their SOP like "I am interested in exploring plate tectonics" when a better answer would be, "I am interested in developing geodynamic models that couple ridge, hotspot, and subduction zone interaction" so to speak. Or do you think that is too specific .

Edited by GeoDUDE!
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