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Background: Did an economics major after switching out of physics and I did a math minor in university with somewhat inconsistent math grades (A+, A-, D, C+, ... ). The reason behind my grade spread is, quite simply, a lack of consistent, deliberate, and persistent effort as an immature student. I am now very close to defending my MSc in resource and environmental economics with a 3.83 gpa in coursework, graduate awards, academic teaching & learning courses, conference proceedings, and hopefully a submitted paper for review by the time of my application , so there's been much growth for whatever that's worth.

Current Situation: I am trying to switch into mathematical biology to study similar natural resource problems I would in resource economics, but from a different perspective I find myself more drawn to. I have reached out to a potential advisor, they have my transcripts and CV, we are set for a video call to talk about me coming on as a PhD student.

Statement of Purpose: There are some math courses that I do not have as a result of not being a math major, and there are some courses I am planning to retake this academic year to boost the grades of the courses I did poorly in. In my statement of purpose, I am wondering how I can address the background gaps.

Initial Solution: After my chat with the potential advisor, I was thinking of writing out a concrete action plan (including MIT OpenCourseware, References to texts I would study from, and subject matter I would cover) to address the background gaps which would include a combination of taking courses and self-studying courses that are not being offered at my local institutions. This plan could then be submitted (appended?) to the Statement of Purpose.

The Final Problem: Given some deficiencies in background, how can one, or how should one, adequately address those deficiencies in a Statement of Purpose to communicate that by the time they enter the program, they would have a sufficient background to be successful in a program?

Many answers around Statement of Purpose tags have suggested that the statement be forward looking, and so I intend to not spend an inordinate amount of time talking about my history, and instead in the spirit of those answers, focus on the path forward.

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  • One issue is that many programs will probably not allow you to append extra material to a statement of purpose, or if you do, they will not read it. Otherwise such supplementary material might be used by some applicants to circumvent the length limits. Aug 15 '20 at 21:25
  • That’s a strong point. I think that perhaps my initial idea might have some utility outside of the Statement of Purpose, but I’ll have to think on it a bit more... Aug 15 '20 at 21:55
  • You should focus on your strengths,and focus on the road ahead. The main focus of the PhD would be research, and writing out a detailed, concrete plan for doing coursework may not help much. Graduate committees are looking for research potential, I guess you can mention that you have a concrete plan on doing the necessary courses in your SOP, and you can submit the detailed plan as a separate document under the additional documents section as part of your application package. Someone who is interested can take a look there.
    – Jihadi
    Aug 17 '20 at 4:11
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If your potential advisor wants to fund you as a PhD student, then it is very likely you will be given admission as their student regardless of whatever background deficiencies you may have. This is especially true now that your potential advisor is aware of those deficiencies. In terms of writing your statement of purpose, it is probably sufficient to say that you worked with Prof. x to create a plan to remedy these deficiencies.

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You can't "explain away" your deficiencies. They exist. And the SoP is not the place for it in any case. I also doubt that a "plan" for addressing those deficiencies is helpful in the SoP, which should be about your plans to succeed in the graduate program and beyond.

In the US, at least, there are courses open to doctoral students that will address at least some of your deficiencies and if your overall record is good, and you have good letters of recommendation, then a missing course or two probably won't be the single reason for rejection. Committees tend to look at the "whole picture" and try to make a prediction about the success of prospective students. If you can make that happen you can be accepted.

Treat the SoP for what it is intended. Commitment, hard work, dedication, interest, goals, plans. Make it a strong statement.

If you reach the point of an interview, you might be asked about deficiencies. That is the place to address them. And, if you still haven't been accepted anywhere, you can start to implement the "action plan" you suggest.

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  • I have taken the majority of your advice regarding SoP's. Glad to say I got accepted for the only PhD I wanted to be accepted into and went with the strategy of "forward looking" (as you mention here) and in other posts. Advice well received. Mar 15 at 0:42

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