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One or multiple POIs?


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Hey folks, 

I have a kind of dumb question I'm hoping some of you can shed some light on. Throughout my experience and reading on here, it is obviously necessary (at least in psychology) to have a POI in mind. However, as I've been contacting different POIs over the past few weeks, it seems like many professors have recommended that I also show how I align with other faculty members in the department as well. I understand their logic, in that, if accepted, the new student won't be a lost puppy if something terrible happens and their one and only POI can't take a student/leaves, etc. But I still found this interesting, as I always thought that a cleaner, tighter focus (i.e. having one person in mind to apply to) made for a stronger application.

A secondary concern is this: are you expected to contact multiple profs in a program?  Sigh :/

So I guess I'm struggling to find a way to mention multiple profs without sounding wishy-washy in my interests. 

Thoughts on how to do this effectively?

Edited by Gvh
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It's always a good idea, because you never know if Professor X is taking students this year or if they don't have funding/are on sabbatical/didn't get tenure....  Having >1 POI means that, if Professor X doesn't work out but Xavier's School thinks you're an awesome student and wants to admit you, you could always come work with Professor Y or Z instead.  Also, they want to see you'd be able to collaborate with multiple labs in the department.  

I recommend aiming your app toward your main POI, but then spend some time talking about interesting extensions of your work you could do as collaborations with Professors Y and Z and how excited you are to collaborate across labs in this department where everyone is doing such ~amazing research~.

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I am not in Psychology but I think I can still provide some helpful thoughts that maybe a psychology person can correct or add to :)

Departments are looking for a candidate that will fit into the research program that is currently existing there. So, in addition to avoid having future students become lost puppies, they also want students to contribute to and build on the existing plan. In my opinion, graduate admissions is not just selecting the best candidates, it is about building a strong community of scholars with some purpose. 

In addition, while the eventual goal of the PhD is to produce intensely focused work on a very specific question, this is not where you are at now, as a prospective graduate student and this is not what admission committees are looking for. Yes, they do want to see that you have focus but I would say this is in the context that you have a good reason to attend graduate school and to attend their particular program, rather than a focussed research question or dissertation topic. 

When I applied (my field may be different), I contacted ~3 professors per department. If I could not find more than 1 professor per department, I didn't apply there because I didn't feel I would be a strong enough fit.

I think the balance between multiple professors and wishy-washy is important. Actually I think if you find your statement sounds wishy-washy because you identify a link to multiple professors, I would say this is a sign that you are doing something wrong. Here are two possible things to avoid:

1. If you are currently defining your interests such that mentioning more than one professor sounds wishy-washy, then I believe your scope is too narrow for graduate school applications. To use an example from my field (sorry--hope it still makes sense), a good scope for graduate applications in planetary science might be "what is the inside of icy moons like?". When defined this way, you should be able to connect your interests with multiple professors (for example, one that studies the surface of Europa [an icy moon of Jupiter] by telescope observations to infer interior structure, and another professor that uses geophysical models of planetary objects to predict interior structure of Rhea [an icy moon of Saturn]). But if you had said your interest was to only study Europa, I think that would be too narrow for graduate school applications as there may be only one professor doing this.

2. You may also sound wishy-washy if you are using too strong language and exaggerating your interest in a particular topic. You should definitely not tell each professor, in a separate email, that <whatever they are working on> is your favourite topic ever and that it is the thing you are most interested in for graduate school. I think you should avoid superlatives and be honest that it is one of the many things you want to study further in graduate school.

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Thanks TakeruK. Yes, I think it does make sense. I am going to have to work on how to strike that balance. I guess I'm concerned about my scope, because I do have multiple interests (like most applicants as you mentioned), but I also want to come across like this department is THE department for me. How do I state how my interests and objectives are well aligned for *this* department, without sounding like I could say this about 10 other departments? After all, the best departments are all looking for similar things (interdisciplinarity, critical thinker, willing to contribute to the scholarly community, independent yet collaborative, etc). I suppose that's what I mean by wishy-washy as well -- I am worried that, by mentioning multiple professors, I am simply coming across as desperate and calculated :/ *shrug*. 

Anyway, these are some good points -- I am going to put some priority into working the "secondary" POIs into my statement, for sure. 

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 I also want to come across like this department is THE department for me. How do I state how my interests and objectives are well aligned for *this* department, without sounding like I could say this about 10 other departments?

I don't think you need to tell every school you are applying to that they are "the" department for you, if by "the" you mean "the only one" or even "the best one". Faculty are smart people and everyone knows that there cannot be just one single program that is the only program that will meet your needs. It's okay to say things about one program that you can also say to another program.

For example, when I applied to PhD programs, I wanted to work on observational methods to study exoplanets. I picked schools that had good access to telescopes (i.e. they own some share of a major international telescope) and cited that resource as why they are a good fit in my application. I didn't try to say that School X is "the" department for me because they owned some telescope, since it's clear that a few other schools also own telescopes (i.e. their competitors). Instead of trying to compare (explicitly or implicitly) how well I fit in with a certain department relative to others, I just focussed on the positive aspects of fit with the school I'm applying to. For example, I could say things like "I am excited to work with Profs X and Y at University Z because of their experience and expertise with observing programs on Telescope ABC". I think this is a strong statement of why I am interested in University Z but there is no implication that University Z is the only place I'm applying to nor the only place that would fit nor any wishy-washyness, in my opinion. 

Demonstrating good fit does not require demonstrating that the school is the only good fit or even "best fit". Instead, it is clearly articulating why that school is a good fit that is important.

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