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I'm applying for PhD and thesis masters programs in Electrical and Computer Engineering. In one of the schools, there is a specific faculty member I'm extremely interested in working with. However, admission into her lab is really competitive. Realistically, my odds of getting in are mediocre at best.

At the same university, there is another faculty member who I share some interests with. I have also done research in his lab as an undergrad, and I know for a fact that he has millions in funding and more or less accepts any grad student who applies because he can afford to. He's definitely not ideal, but I'd be okay with doing my masters with him and then finding somewhere better for my PhD.

Finally, there's a third faculty member whose work is also pretty interesting. His research interests align fairly well with mine, but admission into his lab is also extremely competitive.

If I mention all three professors in my SOP, does it affect my chances of getting into the competitive labs? Obviously, if I only mention one name, it makes it look like I'm a lot more passionate about her work specifically. I was hoping for a way to maximize my chances of getting into the first prof's lab while still retaining the second and third prof as a back up. I was hoping for some advice on how I can phrase my SOP to accomplish this.

  • Presumably this is about American universities? In many other countries, you need to determine your supervisor before you formally apply. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 7 '18 at 8:43
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I'm in a program (and went to a program) where students are admitted to the program, not a lab.

When considering students, I'm actually quite nervous about those who only mention a single professor they're interested in working with, as that's not a particularly robust "plan". What if they don't get tenure, or are recruited elsewhere? What if they have a personal emergency? What if they just don't have funding for a student right now? What if it turns out you just have wildly incompatible working habits (this happened to me)?

I'm going to echo Buffy's suggestion - don't try to write your SOP as the optimal solution to a game whose rules you don't know. Write about your interests in the program, and how that applies to one or more specific faculty members.

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I'm not sure this is a good forum for this question. You have set up the situation like a game with hidden rules. There is no algorithm for this and it depends on both everything you say and how the various readers will interpret it. Secret rules.

So, this is just a suggestion about something you might think about. It isn't a solution to the game.

But you could write your SOP focusing on the field or fields in which you are interested, rather than the professors. Make it as fine grained as you like. Talk about how you are suited to studying in those fields. You can stress those fields most that align most with the professors you want to study with even without mentioning them by name. Hint that you are flexible, but don't make it easy for them to make a suggestion you would rather have made otherwise. Emphasize your suitability for the option you most want.

If it is necessary to name one or more of the professors you will need to figure out how to work them in to it, possibly even at the end. But if it isn't necessary then perhaps you could leave it unsaid.

Don't write the SOP as if you are unsure, of course. State your goals. Stress the most important one.

  • It's not a game with hidden rules. People on this site have been on admissions committees and they know the rules. It is necessary to name professors. This shows the applicant understands what they are applying for. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 7 '18 at 8:41
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, My point was that, not knowing the people involved you can't know how they will interpret what you say. The opinions and behavior of people here don't figure into the actual process as experienced by the OP. If I name 3 professors will they all be insulted? I can't know that. If I name one and miss the cut, then what? – Buffy Sep 7 '18 at 9:50
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    @AnonymousPhysicist this is country dependent, some universities you contact the faculty personally directly, have an interview and the faculty then takes you on, organises the payment of funding as appropriate. This does sound like the OP is trying to "hedge their bets"... – Solar Mike Sep 7 '18 at 13:14
  • @AnonymousPhysicist The question isn't "Do I name professors", it's "How many". And I agree with Buffy that this question feels like "Surely there is an optimal number of professors to name". – Fomite Sep 7 '18 at 17:20

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