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I'm applying to PhD programs in CS this round and was finishing up my application materials when I had a question regarding the SoP.

Many people have advised me to state why I want to pursue study at that particular institution and what I want to study. My main research interests in my own subfield tend to be rather specific (discovering latent bias variables in natural language processing tasks) but I'm also open to exploring other options as well.

I have also heard stories where a competitive applicant is not offered admission because how they explain their plans of research are "too specific" and there aren't any faculty members that would be willing to work on that particular aspect.

This led me to wonder how specific I should actually be writing my SoP, or if I should include something like "My main interests are in X but I am also open to exploring other topics in the larger field."

Any opinions are welcome, thanks.

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I do not think you can be too specific about your research interests.

You said

not offered admission because how they explain their plans of research are "too specific"

What has actually happened here is that the applicant has applied to the wrong university. You should follow these steps:

  1. Identify faculty working in your area of interest.
  2. Contact them and ask them if they are recruiting PhD students in that area (if it is not already stated publicly).
  3. Apply, stating in your application that you wish to work in an area (or a few areas) where you know they are recruiting.

Then your application will never be "too specific".

If your research interests are not specific enough, this might imply you do not know what is involved in a PhD and you might not succeed as a PhD student.

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  • Thanks for the answer. I'm assuming this is implying that if I have more than one area of interest, I'll be tailoring my SoP accordingly. – Seankala Nov 14 '20 at 3:23
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I'm applying to PhD programs in CS this round and was finishing up my application materials when I had a question regarding the SoP.

but I'm also open to exploring other options as well.

It really depends on why are you applying to that particular institution.

Your interest sounds very particular, as you said. Is there someone at that particular institution working on that? If yes, would you be willing to work with him/her? Would he/she be willing to work with you and be your supervisor? Had you reached out to this person?

If not, what "other options" are you willing to explore? Is some potential advisor in the institution you are applying for working on one of those "other options" you are willing to explore?

If your research interest are so specific, and noone in the university you are applying to works on that, it is unlikely that they will change their research agenda to adapt to your research interests.

You should find somebody that works on your particular interest, or better define those "other options" you are interested in, and find somebody who works on that and who is willing to be your supervisor.

In the end, they could also admit you even with your particular research interest. But it is much more likely that you will end up adapting to the research interests of your supervisor, than your supervisor to yours.

Then the question for you would be the same, but just asked after you have been enrolled, and so when it is too late to come back.

If those new research interests (the ones of your supervisor) would turn out inadequate for you, all of you, your supervisor and the university will be harmed by that (but mostly you).

Hope it makes sense.

EDIT: What I want to say is this: you can't just write "I do NLP. I know you do formal languages and compilers, but I am willing to explore other options". That makes no sense.

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