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Okay yes I know another 'I'm a bad candidate help me' post sorry.

I was in grad school years ago but I quit because the program wasn't good for me. The exact program doesn't matter. It was a small one on the USA west coast though, and for MS not PhD.

The problem was the people in the program didn't like my concentration field (lie groups). All the profs thought their own fields were more interesting, wanted me to focus on those instead (like discrete geometry). No other students were really interested in my concentration so important classes got canceled, "low enrollment" they said.

Now I want to apply to a new school that I think does not have this problem. I want to know though, how can I talk about this in my statement of purpose? I have to address the reason I left a previous program but I do not want to sound whiny or vengeful or make the admissions committee think the problem was my fault.

Note I made up some of the details here because in case some admissions person at my future school reads this forum. But the general point is still right. Thanks!

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In addition to @PeteL.Clark's good answer, as additional concrete suggestions how to sell yourself, I'd consider saying something in the cross section of that you were burnt out then (re-wording of Pete's suggestion), were tempted by whatever job you probably took in the meantime, or (probable white lie) that it happened for "reasons in your personal life." – gnometorule Feb 29 at 6:29
@gnometorule: Yes, I concur with this. – Pete L. Clark Feb 29 at 13:15
I don't see anything in the OP's post that refers to burn-out. Inventing white lies about "personal life" is a bad idea, if you are asked about it during an interview (and it's a legitimate issue to ask about, to understand what support you might still need for your second attempt at grad school). I suggest you simply delete all the emotive language and state the facts: you abandoned the program because your research interests did not align with those of the (small) institution. – alephzero Feb 29 at 14:52
@alephzero: FYI, there are no interviews for math graduate programs in the United States. – Pete L. Clark Feb 29 at 16:22
Don't go negative at all. The people reading your statement of purpose are professors who have done well in the current system; they're not interested in or sympathetic to propsective grad students' concerns about that system, regardless of how reasonable they are. Instead, focus on how you like Lie groups and want to study them in more detail, and thus this particular department would be a great fit because it would afford you that opportunity. – anomaly Feb 29 at 22:20
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Don't go "negative" in a statement of purpose, or any other statement for that matter. Instead, turn your negatives into positives.

For instance, don't write, "I've had bad experiences with programs that don't offer courses in Lie groups." Just say, "I am very interested in programs like yours that are strong in Lie groups." People know that there are good and bad programs around, but they appreciate your not going negative on others, which saves them the worry of, "when will this guy go negative on us?"

On the other hand, if you cast your aspirations in a positive light, the feeling is more likely to be, "our program is a lot better, or at least more suitable for this candidate than those others that don't emphasize Lie groups." They'd worry much less about what you want that they don't have, because you haven't mentioned those things.

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In my opinion you should not "go negative" at all in a statement of purpose. A vivid description of what turned you off to a previous program seems only to give those considering your admissions case something concrete to worry about, whereas just saying that you lost interest and have since regained it (and then talking extensively about the second part!) is not such a hard sell: by the way, most people lack the perspective to find graduate level mathematics (or whatever) interesting. But a certain percentage of students who do an undergraduate degree in mathematics (or whatever) slowly but surely find their interest and passion in the subject increasing until the point where they are motivated to go back to school for further study. As long as you sound interested and motivated now, how you felt in the past is not so relevant.

It may also be helpful to know that your specific story did have a mildly negative effect on me.

The problem was the people in the program didn't like my concentration field (lie groups).

Having your heart set on one mathematical field while starting a master's degree is probably a mistake. At best you know something about your initial interest; you can't possibly know whether you are interested in everything else (and even what other things relate to your interest).

All the profs thought their own fields were more interesting, wanted me to focus on those instead (like discrete geometry).

You were surprised by the fact that faculty are interested in their...interests?!? That surprises me. If you have your heart set on Lie theory, why didn't you go somewhere in which Lie theory was a major research focus?

No other students were really interested in my concentration so important classes got canceled, "low enrollment" they said.

Lack of sufficient interest is exactly what causes courses to be cancelled. You didn't expect them to run classes for you and you alone which lie outside the research interests of the faculty, did you?

By the way, when I went to grad school I had my heart set on algebraic number theory...and ended up doing that (or one of many things that comes under that broad banner). In order to do algebraic number theory I had to learn some Lie theory and some discrete geometry, and these remain of interest to me to this day. Though I know relatively little in each of these areas, I know more than enough to know that they are fascinating fields, and that if I had studied them as a graduate student rather than algebraic number theory per se...well, that would have been fine. And of course my point is not that these two subfields (which I gather are not the "real ones" occurring in your narrative) are so specifically great: rather, believe that if you have the temperament for graduate study in mathematics, then you may just as well study any subfield -- or any subfield of interest to the faculty and your peers in a strong graduate program. So to me, your claim that you would have done well the first time if only you had been learning "the right mathematics" is a bit suspect. It might be true, but it might equally well be true that you just weren't into your studies as much as you needed to be to continue...and now you are. Again, I would go with the latter narrative.

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Your answer is very much appreciated and helpful but please note the disputed research interests part not just the the specific field were the made up details part of the question. I did not expect so much focus on that portion of the story. Sorry for distracting. The truer story I did not want to write online makes it harder to claim lack of interest in my case. I get it though, can't expect good answers without right data. – Applying again Feb 29 at 17:09

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