Personal statement for graduate school
June 16, 2012 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Applying for graduate school (PhD) in applied maths. Questions about personal statement. Relevant details within.

I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in maths this year, and I am applying for PhD programs in applied maths next year (aiming for enrollment the year afterwards). My circumstances are as follows:

- I actually had not planned on going to graduate school so soon, and in the beginning of my senior year, I accepted a job as a computer programmer (for after graduation). This is the job I'm working at now, it's entry-level and pretty un-noteworthy in terms of the technical skills used/required.

- However, the last semester of senior year I ended up working on an applied maths project with a professor that I (somewhat unexpectedly) greatly enjoyed. I just found the work very interesting and challenging in the right ways. This is what is prompting me to apply for graduate schools. The project itself was pretty simple (nothing groundbreaking or anything, no papers etc.) and my work was above average but not stellar. The professor has agreed to write a letter of recommendation for me. (I'm guessing it will be solid, but not spectacular).

- My undergraduate grades were average but upward-trending. I started off freshman year with C's and B's, mainly due to the adjustment to college level classes. My grades steadily improved to B+'s/A-'s sophomore year and A-'s/A's junior and senior year. (One exception of B+ the last semester of senior year.) This is partly because I got used to the rigor of college level classes and partly because I started taking less theoretical maths classes and more applications based maths classes. Unfortunately, I took some core classes (linear algebra notably) early on, so my grades in those classes feel like big black marks against me. I also neglected to take a pde/ode class due to repeated scheduling conflicts, which several of the programs that I'm considering applying to recommends in an undergraduate curriculum.

- I'm not sure what specific subarea I'd want to study in graduate school. I've always leaned more toward applied maths incorporating a strong computer science component, and I think I might like biostatistics or large data-set analysis as well. I know graduate schools like applicants to mention specific areas they'd be interested in and professors they'd like to work with, but these are still pretty unset plans as far as I'm concerned.

My question is: which of the circumstances above (grades/weird timeline/uncertainty of area of study) should be mentioned in the personal statement? Also looking for advice on making my personal statement a coherent whole (or does it have to be?).

Any additional advice both with the personal statement and the application in general is greatly welcomed. Please also feel free to message me privately.

Thanks in advance.
posted by dragonfruit to Education (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My question is: which of the circumstances above (grades/weird timeline/uncertainty of area of study) should be mentioned in the personal statement?

Absolutely none of them, except the part about the research project you worked on with the professor, which you enjoyed.

A personal statement is about telling a story whose obvious conclusion is that you belong at that graduate school. The personal statement then starts with, "this is what I worked on and was very interested in. This is what I plan to explore in graduate school. These are my plans and goals after I finish graduate school."
posted by deanc at 2:53 PM on June 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my opinion, you shouldn't mention most of the things above in your personal statement. They won't be things in your favor. Sometimes people mention exceptional circumstances that had an adverse effect on their performance (for example medical issues, need to care for others, pregnancy), but "adjustment to college level classes" is something that everyone has to do. Your grades speak for themselves, and the admissions committee already knows that an upward trend is better.

I know graduate schools like applicants to mention specific areas they'd be interested in and professors they'd like to work with, but these are still pretty unset plans as far as I'm concerned.

First, figure out a plan. Then, mention that in your personal statement. You will have some flexibility to change your plan somewhat later, but not having any ideas right now is a bad sign, both for your statement and your own career.

deanc explains it exactly right.
posted by grouse at 2:57 PM on June 16, 2012

Overhearing me give someone tons of advice about personal statements applicable in humanities / social sciences departments, a friend of mine who read applications in a small, unranked applied math program at an otherwise well-known school said they cared little about the personal statement and weighed quantitative criteria far more heavily. So I'd say just don't waste time drawing their attention to flaws, talk professionally about your research experience, and specifically but non-committally mention the research strengths of the program that you find attractive (based on looking up the faculty interests and publications). If you're not saying something that distinguishes yourself, e.g. you intend to go into academia like most other applicants, don't bother saying so. If you do have unusual plans to explain, be sure that spending 5 years in training to do pure research makes total sense.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:29 PM on June 16, 2012

I read lots of graduate applications at a top-15 math department with an excellent applied math specialization. (So one thing you should know -- at many or most universities, applied math is not a separate department, but included within math. Don't restrict your attention to departments of applied math.)

Unlike many other scientific fields, math doesn't expect you to know who your advisor is going to be, or even to have a well-defined specialization, before you enter. It's not weird that you're not sure and you don't need to apologize.

Your personal statement should tell the story of the research project you got excited about. You should say what you did and try to convey what excited you about it. Monsieur Caution is right that the personal statement isn't the most important part of the application, but it does give us a sense of how well-developed your mathematical sensibilities are.

We don't care what grade you got in linear algebra freshman year and there is no reason to bring it up in the personal statement.

The most important part of your application is the letter from your research mentor. You might find this uncomfortable, but you should ask your professor for some suggestions as to where to apply, because only your professor knows whether the letter is aimed to get you into Princeton, into Wisconsin, or into Northeast Western South Dakota State.
posted by escabeche at 6:03 PM on June 16, 2012

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