Letters Part 2 + Personal Statements

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Emma Tosch

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Nov 20, 2020, 11:02:49 AM11/20/20
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Hi everyone,

Letters Part 2
First things first: if you have not emailed anyone for letters, you absolutely must do that right now! If you haven't emailed because you are still on the fence, it is okay to be honest about that in your message. For example, you could say:

Hi So-and-So,

I hope this email finds you well. I apologize for the late notice, but I have been considering applying for PhD programs this cycle and had wanted to ask you for a letter of recommendation. However, I've been reading all this advice on the internet and it says I should ask for a strong letter, which I felt I couldn't do just yet. 

Anyway, I am reaching out to you now because I realize I am running out of time. I know that you are probably quite busy right now and that the time is bad for everyone. In any case, if you have time, I and should I apply this year, I would appreciate a letter. If I do not apply this year, I will definitely apply next year, and would hope that you could write me a strong letter then.

Let me know if you would like to connect synchronously, and if you would like to see my materials.

Best,
Anxious Student 

This message accomplishes the following: (1) connects you with a possible letter-writer, (2) is considerate, (3) is honest about why you have not reached out yet, (4) leaves open the door for them to say no, and (5) establishes an avenue for continued communication.

Personal Statements
By now many of you are likely agonizing over your personal statements. There is a lot of advice floating around out there, and not all of it will be useful to all you, since you are a diverse bunch and many suggestions simply will not apply. Instead, I am going to focus here on practical suggestions for getting the thing done and giving you a sense for where you are going with this.

Do not feel the need to write more than you need to. Do not include fluff. 

Getting started writing: structure
Start with a standard summary paragraph, e.g., 

I am applying for the PhD program at University X in program Y, with an interest in discipline A. I am particularly interested in working with Profs. Foo, Bar, and Baz, due to reasons bleh and blah. I am motivated by questions pertaining to applications of Prof. Foo's research and then say something insightful here. Now use this sentence to pivot to a higher level vision that will potentially get you noticed by other professors, in case you misjudged what Foo, Bar or Baz care about:

Here is where you pivot to a bigger idea that may be cross disciplinary, high-minded etc. e.g.,

How can we apply the techniques of gobbledegook to bladyblah, some big idea related to the real-world or big frontier.

A quick note about the point immediately above: you may want to look at things like invited talks for the folks you are applying to work with. These are usually linked on their websites and can often be found on YouTube. These sorts of talks will typically outline the big ideas that these folks care about, provide a coherent story that is sufficiently respected in their publishing communities to earn them the invite in the first place, and will give you a higher level view from the perspective of experts of the research that these people do. They are in some ways better than the research papers themselves, which were written with a narrower audience in mind (i.e., the reviewers). They are much better than press releases or coverage in popular press. 

If the high level vision you suggest here is something you are very attached to, go with your gut --- that is the best way to ensure that you find a match. If you are less attached to it, tailor to each group in your application. 

Now fill the middle section of your statement with narrative evidence for why you are suited to do this research, with these people. I recommend doing this part on physical paper first: fold the paper in half so you have two columns. In one column, write "Evidence" and in the other write "Vision." Evidence will contain all of the experiences you have had that show how you will be successful. This should include experiences that establish both your technical skills and research skills, as well as any unique competencies or domain knowledge that will inform what you do. In the "Vision" column, list out the areas you are proposing doing research in, the problems you want to work on, and any questions you want to ask. Then draw lines between each of the entries in the Evidence column to the Vision column. Finally, annotate the vision pieces with the faculty whom you think would be suitable to advise you on each of them.

This piece of paper will now guide how you talk about your plans in the middle section. 

End with a short summarizing paragraph. It should only be 1-2 sentences. 

Workshop with peers
Use the Discord server to arrange times to meet synchronously to talk about your document with others. I recommend using the affinity groups to find people with similar backgrounds, since that will probably inform what actually goes into the statement. For example, those of you who are in the "non-cs-in-cs" channel will want to talk with each other on how you can use your non-cs backgrounds to show unique competencies. Those of you who are in the "return-after-working" channel will want to talk through how to explain your work experiences in the statement. 

Rewrite
The above outline is not meant to be a final draft. You should aim to get the words on the page first. The "words on the page" version that strings the narrative together is a sufficiently fine draft to send to your letter writers. After that, you will want to refine your statement so it flows and is true to your (scientific/technical) voice.  It may end up looking quite different from where you started, but this is an important skill to start on now, since you will be writing a lot  in graduate school.

Where this is all going
It can be helpful to know how the personal statement fits in with the bigger picture. Although there are many things you can do with the PhD, most programs were designed to produce professors. If you understand this, and then learn what that career path looks like, all of the requirements start to make sense.

All application/promotion in academia mimics the tenure application process. When you apply for tenure, you submit a packet that includes a research statement that may be 8-10 pages long. When you apply for academic jobs, your materials include a research statement that is 4-6 pages long. At some schools, such as UMass, your PhD candidacy exam includes a statement that is 2-4 pages long, and when you apply for graduate school in the first place, you include a statement that is 1-2 pages long. Over time, your research vision will mature and you will have more items in the "Evidence" column, but understanding that this statement is part of a larger exercise starts to make the pieces fall into place. 

Good luck!

Emma

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