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I'm currently in the midst of drafting up my statement of purpose for the upcoming application cycle in the USA, and am feeling very confused as to how to go about the part where I mention how my research interests align up with those of prospective advisors. More specifically I'm wondering how narrow my research focus should be, and how specific I should be when mentioning advisors I may want to work with.

I am well aware that I should be mentioning how my research interests line up and fit with those of prospective advisors that I hope to work with; on that note I've heard that I should be aiming for one (if not two) advisor that I would really like to work with. However, I have also heard that being too specific on these things could potentially backfire, especially if prospective advisors aren't taking students or if research interests are too narrow to match up.

On the other hand, is it bad to be have interest in working with multiple advisors/labs at a department (since you may be able to work with another lab if one doesn't necessarily work out)? Do they necessarily need to have similar research interests, especially if they are within a similar field?

Edit: I would be applying to a PhD holding just a BS, having worked as a consultant for the past year and a half, and I am applying in the USA, if this information helps.

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  • Are students in the program you are applying to expected to have an advisor chosen at the point of admission or to decide some time in the future? Is admission on merit only or is there a different bar if a professor is able to fund you? How specific are your research interests - do you have a specific project or area you want to work on, specific people you want to work with, or are your interests more general?
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 2, 2021 at 21:05
  • Just made a slight edit to the question, if this helps people answer the question.
    – Daveguy
    Sep 2, 2021 at 21:08

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With rare exceptions in the US, you don't need to say much of anything when applying with only a BS. It will be helpful to have a general idea, but there is a lot to do before starting doctoral research. The exceptions might be primarily in engineering or some lab sciences where you need to join a lab early.

But for most universities and most fields, admission is by committed and funding is from the department/university, not the advisor.

The first task of a student entering with a BS/BA is to take the advanced courses that let you pass the comprehensive exams (again, there are some exceptions). Only then is it essential to have an advisor for the dissertation stage as opposed to a general academic advisor.

The flip side is that most advisors won't be in a position to do much for you until you pass comps. Many will put you off until you are able to "prove" yourself a bit.

But you can, and should, take one or two of those advanced courses with people you think you'd like to work with. Then, you get to know one another a bit and can make a more informed decision. You might also have the opportunity to join a "research seminar" with faculty and other grad students in your field of interest. These are often available at places with large faculties. There may be three or four faculty generally interested in the same set of problems. Even if your participation is informal, you might learn a lot to help you make a decision.

It is good to have interests and goals, and they can help your application, but it is also good to be flexible early on. Don't overcommit. The problem you will eventually work on may be quite a lot harder than you imagine at your current stage.

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