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For PhD applications, I have mentioned that I am interested in some research areas. Besides, I am thinking about mentioning some professors' names, so that it shows I have read their websites and I am not just sending out generic statements applicable to many schools.

But is it good to mention some professors' names in the statement of purpose, if I don't know them personally? In what cases is it good, and in what cases it isn't?

For example, is it good to only mention

  • those whose research directions are aligned with my research interests, or/and
  • those whose books or notes I have heard of, or better, might have read some parts of, or/and
  • those who are already established and famous (such as having certain titles), or/and
  • those that are directing the PhD graduate programs, or/and
  • those that are heads of the departments?

What will other professors who are not mentioned think? How will you do, if it were you?

  • 1
    I think it's more interesting to reference papers you are interested in, rather than professors. Referencing publications by the group you want to join are a good way to illustrate your knowledge of the field and specifically the group's expertise. – Marc Claesen Dec 23 '13 at 16:19
  • If I haven't been able to read and understand the paper, is it still better not to mention the professors? How much should I mention about the papers, if I will do? Will referencing papers of some professors make my chance with other professors slim, especially when the admission is decided by a committee rather than individual professors? – Ben Dec 23 '13 at 16:20
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    See my answer to a related question, especially the penultimate paragraph: The only credible reason to "target a particular professor" is if that professor's research interests already mirror your own. If you try to craft the bulk of your statements to different professors in different departments, the result will be much shallower, and therefore much less persuasive, than if you describe your own well-developed research interests. – JeffE Dec 23 '13 at 23:42
  • Make sure the professors are still at the school. You might think this would be an obvious thing to do , but you'd be surprised. – Peter Shor May 22 '16 at 13:20
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Your statement of purpose should be specific to yourself and your research interests, first. Mention names only when the owner's work is both relevant and pertinent to your research interests. As JeffE stated,

If you try to craft the bulk of your statements to different professors in different departments, the result will be much shallower, and therefore much less persuasive, than if you describe your own well-developed research interests.

Your statement of purpose should paint a persuasive and intriguing picture of who you are, and should not be a hodgepodge of famous names and those whom you want to impress. You are trying to sell yourself and your ideas. Mention those whose work you have both read and found relevant to your research (and perhaps cited in your own work), but avoid name-dropping solely for the sake of impressing those who may read your SOP. That said, you should tailor your statement of purpose to the specific department you are applying to. This may include mention of the work of individuals in the department, or those whose work has informed their research. How much of this you should do is a judgement call on your part, and you should lean away from appearing to name-drop for the sake of making an impression.

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I'm bewildered that anyone might think this was a good idea. It's gauche.

Mentioning a professor's name doesn't show you've read their website. And showing you've read a professor's website doesn't really say much anyway.

Namedropping? Leave it out.

And as for mentioning books you have heard of: surely now you are joking. Just in case you are not: that's beyond gauche, it's crass.

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    While I agree that for the most part it isn't particularly useful to mention professor's names, if you have directly come across (and perhaps cited their work) in your own research it might not be as bad an idea. I do agree with just about everything here though. – cc7768 Dec 23 '13 at 19:55
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You can certainly mention professor's names that you don't know personally, but have relevant research. Many professors in top schools especially rely more on the application pool that comes from the admissions committee. If you pass that step then your application will be handed to the specific professor you have mentioned. Of course knowing them brings a benefit, but it is not the only way to get their attention.

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