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How to discuss faculty research/instrumentation and whether to discuss mental development information in it


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Hello everyone, 

So I've had a few people look at my SOP lately, and there have been 3 things I haven't quite been able to address. I've added excerpts from my SOP to show you what I mean. 

1) How does one discuss faculty research in their SOP? Do you write what they do, and what parts interest you? Or what parts you can contribute (e.g. maybe discuss the potential direction their project can go and what you can contribute to it)? As my SOP stands, I simply state what the faculty member does, why its important, and how it falls into my interests (earlier I had stated my focus was on elucidating protein mechanism via understanding its structure and dynamics, to help aid drug design)

E.G. Dr. X research on Enzyme Y fits my interests perfectly. His use of NMR and SAXS to elucidate the structure and dynamics of Y is a key step in understanding the mechanism of EI in the PTS pathway. His work on elucidating the allostery of Y through his structural and dynamic work on it, provides crucial information for drug design targeting metabolic diseases.

 

2) Should you discuss mental development? What I mean by this is, in my SOP, I discuss how joining an undergraduate research lab has helped me grow and mature, and what skills I've attained from the experience (i.e. troubleshooting, responsibility, time management skills, etc.). 

E.G. The lab also helped me mature as a person, and is the key contributor to my desire to continue my education and pursue a PhD. Being part of a lab full time, and taking classes full time, really taught me how to meet deadlines and manage my time better.

3) How does on discuss the instrumentation at the school? Do you discuss why the instrument/facility is great and what things it can be used for it? Or do you get more specific and discuss how that specific instrument can be useful or aid you in your interests, or the faculties project? 

E.G. School X has an amazing state of the art NMR facilities with 500, 600, and 700MHz instruments perfect for both liquid and solid state work. The chemistry department also has a great list of diffractors, microscopes, and mass spectrometers that are perfect for studying crystal structures of proteins that are difficult to elucidate using NMR, or for proteins that don’t express in enough quantities for either NMR or crystallography.

Edited by samman1994
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We've talked a bit before, so take my advice for whatever its worth.

1) There may be some differences here between your area and mine. However, the way I approached this was to mention their research and how it directly ties to what I want to do. For example, one professor is using a methodology that I think will be beneficial to my project so I emphasize that connection while another has a history of looking at these areas connected to my research so I emphasize that. These are not all those profs do, but I tried to show (in a sentence or two) that I have read some of the prof's work (not just their faculty page) and am thinking about the theory and methodology that would connect my work to theirs. I do not think it's appropriate to hypothesize on someone else's work in your SoP. Rather, state that you are excited to explore X with Y professor. X can include future implications, not just the present cut and dry topic, but don't say, "I think your research could go in this direction and I want to work on that."

2) Mental development is difficult to discuss well in your SoP. If not done carefully, this can come off as childish. In your example, "Being part of a lab full time, and taking classes full time, really taught me how to meet deadlines and manage my time better" is something that (personally) makes me cringe. So you took classes and worked in a lab full time, many do. This may still be something you want to emphasize, but framing it the way you have here makes me feel like you might be unprepared for the more difficult load that is a doctoral program. This is the difficulty of discussing mental development. Although you may have grown as a person (and that's good), if you don't discuss it carefully you may give off the impression that you have not grown enough (see your feedback on my SoP about discussing my break from academia).

3) The school already knows what they have and what they don't. They don't need you explaining what they have. They do need you explaining how what they have would be useful to you and how you would be useful to them. Your E.G. tells me what the school has, but it doesn't tie that into your own intended research and ultimate professional goals. Don't leave the adcom thinking, "so what?" when they're done reading your SoP. They should have a clear idea about how they can benefit you, how you can benefit them, and that you will be the perfect fit for their program.

Edited by GreenEyedTrombonist
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Thank you for the reply! So:

1) Yeah, I think that's definitely a much better approach than what I do. As it stands, I'm describing what faculty membersdoes, and you can draw line between what they want to do and what I want to do, but it's not explicitly stated. I think I should probably ditch just summerizing their work and hoping the adcom can see the line draw, and discuss key parts of their research and how it fits into my interests (explicitly). 

2) I didn't fully post the whole paragraph for it, but the entire paragraph is basically about how I learned to be responsible, through time management, critical thinking, and juggling multiple research and lab. In research, I feel like responsibility and maturity is actually very important, one that is not usually discussed. However, it plays a huge role in the research capabilities of a person, and from what I've seen, many people lack it and thus make poor researcher (despite their good grades or intellect).

Here is the rest of it so you can see what I mean: 

"Working with other people in a similar time-constricted schedule as myself, taught me how to work not only as a team, but how to work efficiently and cleanly so as to not obstruct anyone else’s work. Since I was the only person assigned to my project, I learned how to pursue my project independently, relying on my own knowledge and data analysis skills to direct my project. Combined, all these skills taught me the most important skill, responsibility. Responsibility for my project, my time, my data, my notebook, my school and grades. With these skills in hand, I feel confident that, although a PhD program is big commitment, I am not only ready for it, but will succeed in it."

3) I think in regards to this then, it would probably be best to describe some of the instrumentation (instead of all of them) and again, explicitly state how I would use them.

I think the main problem regarding faculty and their facilities is, I'm not drawing explicit lines, but rather just implying things. I.e. "This is what I want to do, this is what the faculty does, this is what the instrument does."  Now since the faculty and instrument do what I want to do, one could assume ok so that's why I'm interested, but I think it's a poor way to do it. I think I should probably write explicitly out what sections of the faculties research I would fit into and could contribute to. Same with the instrumentation, probably ditch the instrumentation list+uses, and explicitly state which instruments I would be using and how (in regards to my research interests). I.E. Rather than saying the NMR will be good for liquid state/solid state. Go into more detail about what kind of experiments I could run, and how it would be useful for solving the structural components of proteins. 

Thanks for the feedback!

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Ok, so about point 2. I do think it could be good to show responsibility and other soft skills given your circumstances. However, what you are doing here is telling me you are responsible, not showing me. It's kind of the opposite of explicitly stating how your research connects to faculty and the program. Anyone can tell me they're responsible and have good time management, but only so many people will actually show up every day on time and will complete a section of a project that someone else was supposed to do and bailed on. For research interests, explicitly stating the relationship is best because it shows self-awareness and indicates you can connect previous publications with your current work (lit review). For soft skills, give examples that illustrate the skills rather than saying "I am responsible because x." Conversely, if one of your LoRs is from your lab director, you can mention that you'd like them to discuss how you were in the lab (not just the work you produced, but how you produced it) when talking about your LoR request. This will carry more weight coming from them.

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When it comes to the mental development section the "show, don't tell" writing rule is critical. Telling about your development waters it down.

So for example:

I worked for three years with mental health service delivery and I learned about problems in the field. That made me want to switch from counseling to policy effectiveness evaluation.

OR

After working in mental health service delivery for 4 years, my interest in counseling changed to the policy behind the practice. My interest grew as I noticed thar treatment plans were haphazardly aligned to personal client recovery. I wondered what caused the misalignment and how to fix it. The more I considered policy flaws, the more I wanted to find out how to improve upon the current methodology. That led me to effectiveness evaluation.

 

In #2 I illustrate both my personal development and other field specific skills (client-centered, self-driven, inquisitive, etc.). They get a feel for my personality and thought process. #1 wouldn't give any of that insight.

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