How specific do my interests have to be for grad school?
September 3, 2009 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm applying for grad school for a PhD in Integrative & Evolutionary (aka Ecology & Evolutionary) Biology. I don't know exactly what I want to study. How specific do I need to get on my application/statement of purpose?

I can narrow my interests down to these general themes: Conservation, Animals, Marine Animals or Primates, Evolution, Biodiversity...

I know that a lot of the grad school admissions process has to do with getting a specific faculty member/members to want you in their lab/s, and I have identified faculty whose research interests me. But when it comes to writing the Statement of Purpose, I can't write about any really specific thing or question that I want to study. Will this hurt my chances of getting accepted?
posted by Dilemma to Education (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, being too specific can actually hurt your chances of admission. You really don't know as an outsider what capacity a specific lab has to take on new students for the year you're applying to - the PI could be going on sabbatical, there might be a lack of funding, the PI may feel the lab is big enough, etc. In that case they will disregard your application because you won't mutually fulfill each others' wants.

I think a good strategy is to figure out what each department you're applying to has its main strength in. All departments are varied, but there is usually one topic that really stands out. Then say something to the effect of "I am broadly interested in topic X..." explain some general things about topic X that you find fascinating, and round out your statement from there.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:22 PM on September 3, 2009

P.S. It doesn't matter if what you personally are interested in is necessarily the department's main strength. Just go with what that main strength is, because this gives you the best chance of having multiple faculty interested in you, as well as the overall impression that you are going to fit in well there.
posted by sickinthehead at 4:25 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: sickinthehead: Thanks! That's clever. Could you recommend a good way to determine what the department's main strength is?
posted by Dilemma at 4:31 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: Have you done any research as an undergraduate that interested you or fell under those categories? If so, you could use that as a starting point for your statement (e.g. "For the last year, I have been involved in a research project studying X, Y, and Z. As a graduate student, I would be interested in continuing research on [the vague area of X]."). If you've identified faculty whose research interest you, think about why it interests you. Can you tie that in to the interests you list? You may also want to talk about that in the essay.

That said, I think that the research interests you list are of an appropriate level of specificity for someone just starting out, so don't worry yourself too much.

FWIW, I just went through all this just last year, and I'm now a first year in an Ecology & Evolution program. What I wrote above was my general strategy in writing statements of purpose, and it worked out ok. Good luck! And feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk about E&E grad programs :)
posted by pemberkins at 4:36 PM on September 3, 2009

(And by "those categories" in my first sentence, I mean the interests that you listed. I should proofread.)
posted by pemberkins at 4:37 PM on September 3, 2009

In my experience, being overly general can cause equally significant problems with your application. At my large, highly ranked school where I'm in the Environmental Sciences program, they consider a too-general application to be a major red flag that you may not be committed enough or not serious enough. They would rather have a clearly articulated idea and plan because it indicates that you have the capacity to think through the problem and create a feasible project that you're interested in. No one expects you to do the research project you suggested once you get in.

On another topic, you mention that you have identified faculty whose research interests you. That's a very important first step, but it is only the first step. At my university, you could have the best application ever, but if the faculty member is not allotted a slot that year, or if they have someone else in mind for their slot, or if seeing your application is the first time they've heard of you, you won't get in.

The people who do get in start early. They contact the faculty member in writing, expressing their interest. They show that they have read some of the faculty member's work, and make suggestions about how they think it dovetails with their research interests and skills.

If you are within a $500 plan/bus ticket of the school, it is majorly worth the investment of going there in person. Spend the day with the lab, meet your future adviser in person, talk more about how your interests and experience dovetails with his/hers.

When January rolls around, seeing your application should not by any stretch of the imagination be a surprise to the faculty member. They should be expecting your application. They will have told you months ago if they don't have any slots for this admission year, and if they really want you, they'll have found a way to "share" you with another faculty member who does have slots. If your application doesn't show up, they may know you well enough by now to go looking for it, and to fight for you if your application has stumbled elsewhere in the process.

In short: spend time getting to know the faculty you're interested in. At my school, and at the handful of others I've heard about, this is the most important element of getting into the program.
posted by arnicae at 4:39 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: I'm not going to say you will not get into grad school until you narrow down your interests significantly, because I have no doubt that there are people in the history of EEB PhD programs who have. What I will tell you is based on my experience as a now 5th (sigh) year student in an Ecology PhD program. These programs in general are very selective. They will have a lot of very qualified applicants and they will admit only a few of them. The main selection criteria used are your personal statement, your recommendations, and your "fit" with a particular advisor and lab (because everybody has great grades and GREs).

Most people applying know pretty specifically what ecosystems, systems, organisms, or model organisms they might want to work on and have at least some examples of questions they might want to answer. Most of them have some research experience in the area they are interested in, or at least some background in something that suggests that they have a real passion for the subject. All of this is triply true for people who work with charismatic megafauna like primates or marine mammals.

In my opinion, based on the prospective students I've met over the years, you need to seriously narrow down your "general themes" and begin to develop some specific areas of research you're interested in before you even begin to write a statement of purpose, in order to be competitive with the other candidates. This more than likely would require choosing between marine mammals and primates, or considering another group of organisms altogether depending on whether you decide you're more interested in conservation, evolution, or biodiversity.

You say you've identified some faculty you're interested in working with. My advisor's page says something like "If you can read 3 publications from this lab in a row and feel energized with new questions rather than bored out of your mind, you might be a good fit with us." So start reading. See what kinds of questions are being asked in each lab right now and take notes about things that excited you. You may find you already have more specific interests than you realize.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:43 PM on September 3, 2009

In light of the additional comments since I last spoke, an addition/revision:

Yes, you should definitely contact faculty you're interested in working with and see if they are accepting new graduate students next year. I didn't mention this in my earlier comment because you were only asking about the personal statement.

I would also qualify that if you write an essay listing ALL of your interests as listed above, that would probably not go over very well. But if you find an interesting faculty member who studies, say, primate conservation, that checks off two of your boxes, so that's good, right? Assuming you DO find yourself interested in primate conservation, you would then get in touch with them, and let them know that you are also interested in primate conservation, and ask if they will be accepting grad students next year. If you apply there, then you could focus on primate conservation in your statement. Taking that tactic might help you narrow things down.

I didn't mean to imply that you should list all of your broad interests in one personal statement, but if you pick one of those interests you listed to focus on (I know, that's the hard part, but you can always change your research plans to some extent later on), you'll definitely be off to a good start. (And I agree with hydropsyche that reading is essential.)
posted by pemberkins at 5:12 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: This isn't exactly in answer to your question, but I think it might be helpful:

What I did to develop a project for my PhD application was write out all of my diverse interests and try to find connections between them (I did this in a "mind map" sort of way, writing down stuff and then drawing arrows and circles and stuff). It really helped me figure out what core interests informed the wide variety of things that caught my attention. From there I thought about what projects I could do based on my core interests that would incorporate as many of my varied interests as possible. I combined this with a bunch of reading, but not super detailed, critical reading. More reading for excitement and questions, which helped reveal interests and got me thinking about potential projects. It was quite effective: I developed my master's and PhD projects in that week, and I've followed through on both.
posted by carmen at 8:42 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of this advice. I'm realizing, as I read the responses, that I actually do have more specific ideas and interests. My research experiences to date have been more instructive in what I don't want to do, but they have helped me narrow it down. I've been reading tons of faculty/lab websites and I'm planning on emailing faculty within the next few days. I'm just worried that if I talk to a faculty member and they are interested in working with me, I'll get locked in to that lab before I've really had a chance to decide what I want to work on. Does this depend on the program or school? (I know some programs have students do rotations for the first year, while some seem to have you start right away in a lab.)
posted by Dilemma at 10:21 PM on September 3, 2009

Best answer: As usual, I want to suggest LiveJournal's ApplyingtoGrad community.
posted by k8t at 10:39 PM on September 3, 2009

Yes, rotations and lab assignments will depend on the program you're entering. In my program, I have been accepted into a specific lab (the lab of the professor I contacted at this school last September!). However, I am more or less free to switch into another lab if I find that it better suits my interest. Of course, there are limits to this freedom - for instance, I can't decide halfway through my fifth year that I want to tear up my roots and start over in another lab - but starting out, I wouldn't worry about getting locked in.

Also, once you start becoming seriously interested in some programs, ask someone there what the policy is on doing rotations and changing labs and so on. That way you'll know, before you make your decision where to go, of how locked in you may be.
posted by pemberkins at 5:37 AM on September 4, 2009

Rotations vary a lot among programs, but, in my experience, it is far more common for someone in Cell/Molecular/Developmental Biology to change labs following rotations than for someone in EEB. I think part of this has to do with the interchangeability of techniques among their labs--people seem to jump from Drosophila to Arabidopsis and not even notice they changed Kingdoms--while on our side it's more likely that students only want to study primates, or orchids, or dirt and there's usually only 1 lab that does that. They may switch from studying wetlands soils in a soil lab to studying wetlands soils in a wetlands lab, but it's rare for someone to switch organisms completely, or switch from evolutionary work to more ecology work, or from population ecology to ecosystem ecology.

Also, research that requires fieldwork takes more time than research that is only done in the lab, so getting started on your research that first year is encouraged.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:50 PM on September 4, 2009

Best answer: I am recent Phd in EEB and now a postdoc in the same field. I also served on the admissions committee a few times so I have a good sense for good and bad SOPs. Here goes:

Aim for middle ground. Please do not write a paragraph on how much you love dolphins and whales. But at the same time, do not write your thesis proposal. Pick a few of the themes you listed above and address those. The committee needs to know that you can intelligently articulate why you want to go to grad school. You do not have to narrow down to a taxonomic group (vertebrate conservation, for example, would be fine). Depending on the lab you are planning to get into, narrow this down appropriately.

Some level of detail will demonstrate focus. Rather than just saying how much you are interested in biodiversity, go into a little more detail if you can. Did you take an ecology class? Did they talk about some theories/recent controversies that piqued your interest?

Have you done research before? Then describe what you did and how that motivated you to pursue topic x more. Take conservation biology for example. Start off by saying why this field is of interest to you. What you have done to pursue this interest thus far. What you are hoping to accomplish in the future. How you will incorporate conservation into your future dissertation research.

Don't stress out too much on this. As long as the rest of your application is competitive, and the faculty member has expressed interest in you (to the committee), a SOP will not (necessarily) be the deciding factor (unless it is horribly written).

Feel free to memail for more specific advice. good luck!
posted by special-k at 10:19 AM on September 5, 2009

To get into a little more detail, you need to do more than just 'identify' appropriate faculty. Have you talked to them? exchanged a few emails? Possibly a visit? Have they said something along the lines of "Hey I think you'd be a good fit. Please let me know once you've dropped in an app so I can keep an eye out for it"? If not, then nothing is certain.

I have seen applicants with perfect GRE/GPA that slipped through the cracks because they did not have a faculty sponsor.

Applicants with no research experience and straight out of undergrad also do not get looked upon so favorably. Your letters have to be strong and must say something along the lines of "I have seen x do research, write papers/reports and she has all the characteristics of a good scientist" .

Weak letters are the ones that say "X took all of the ecology classes I offered and got As." and nothing more.

So getting in requires (most importantly) a faculty commitment. Depending on their clout and how much they want you, poor GRE or GPA *can* be overlooked. But if more than one of these seems below par, then such an app will be very hard to rescue.
posted by special-k at 10:28 AM on September 5, 2009

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