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I'm taking some time off between my undergraduate and graduate studies. I've definitely kept up the practice of my field during this time through self-study. My question relates to how I can show this to graduate admissions next year. Let's say I've been working through some very important books/papers of my field which prepare me for research. What's a good way to show this? Simply stating this on my statement of purpose isn't sufficient as I've seen first hand people mentioning or exaggerating the extent of their study/projects and there'd be no way to tell if what I'm doing is any different. Should I be typing up notes as I go along and uploading them somewhere? This to me seems like a tedious task which would take time away from the actual study. Or should I upload my hand-written notes? This on the other hand seems a bit unprofessional.

Edit: For clarification, I should mention that my field is theoretical physics.

  • Create a blog (or use ready-to-use blog engines on Quora, Medium or Tumblr, if prefer) and post notes and/or annotations for the literature that you're reading. Additional benefit of producing and posting annotations (with keywords) is that it will make your life easier, when/if you decide to perform a formal literature review for a thesis or a project (even if you won't need a formal review, you will have a much better understanding of research streams in the area of your interest). – Aleksandr Blekh May 17 '15 at 11:39
  • "Should I be typing up notes as I go along and uploading them somewhere?" I find that this is a good idea anyway: it helps you suss out mistakes, and writing things in your own words forces you to make sure you understand. – Anonymous May 17 '15 at 20:17
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    Your subject strongly affects advice here, I think... E.g., in some subjects "research" is eminently feasible without much prep or guidance (apparently!), in others less so (to say the least). Please clarify? – paul garrett May 17 '15 at 22:28
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    Re the last question: typing up notes is much better than posting handwritten notes. – Kimball May 18 '15 at 0:38
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    This is what I was searching. Stackexchange community never cease to find me solutions to my problems, thank you. – papabiceps Apr 21 '17 at 21:13
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Yes, things like typing up notes, writing a "learning/seminar blog" and being active on SE sites are good ways to help indicate the level and seriousness of your studies. However, unless you are spectacular at this and manage to become well known this way, on most admissions committees, no one will have seen this stuff before they look at your application. This means that they can check out your blog, notes etc but probably will not unless they are interested anyway, or it gets hyped up by your letter writers. Consequently, this will be of some advantage in alleviating concerns of your time off, and is certainly worth doing for your own preparation, but it is better if you have something more reliable in your application.

Here is one suggestion: if there is an appropriate professor from your undergrad, preferably one you were fairly close with, you can try contacting them to let you know what you're studying, with aims to go to grad school, and ask if they can spare a little time to (i) suggest reading materials/exercises/projects, and possibly (ii) answer occasional questions you may have. They may also be able to (iii) give feedback on your notes/blog, though it makes more sense to wait to ask about this until you have something in hand to show them.

Professors are busy people, so someone may or may not have/make time to help you, but we enjoy working with good students, so at least you should be able to get some suggestions on reading materials. On the other hand, there's also the possibility the professor is willing to work rather closely with you.

In addition to providing valuable guidance to your own studies, this will keep at least one professor abreast of your continued studies, which should then come through in your recommendation letter from this person.

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    +1. In other words, you suggest seeking an academic mentor - seems like a good idea to me. – Aleksandr Blekh May 18 '15 at 2:09
  • Kimball, the self-study may not mean much to admissions committees, but it may mean, well, something if not much to potential PhD supervisors? Or do you intend to answer broadly as in PhD or master's and then admissions committees or potential supervisors? (This comment assumes potential supervisors are not part of 'admissions committees' which refers to, well, the people besides potential PhD supervisors you have to convince to accept you. Something like research assistants/postdocs are recruited more by professors but grad students are accepted more [or relatively more] by universities) – BCLC Sep 25 '18 at 15:01
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Further to Aleksandr's comment regarding creating a blog comprising your notes to the literature, consider doing some small projects that are essentially, research projects.

Any graduate admissions board will want to see evidence of your capacity for doing research. A good, digested, annotated literature review is a great start. You could show yourself in the best light if you attempt to pose a problem, and attempt to solve it.

Note: you don't have to come up with an answer in these research topics that you set yourself. You want to demonstrate curiosity, self-determination, process. Blog about what you're doing. Ask questions on a relevant .se board, for instance, evaluate the responses, read further as a result, review your assumptions, recast a hypothesis, attempt an amended experiment, analyse your new results. Repeat. Show -- i.e. record -- the process that a research scientist would follow. Show that record in your application.

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    As in my comment above, this advice may or may not be to-the-point, depending on subject, I think. E.g., in my field, mathematics, a literature review is not really to the point, although would be an interesting change-of-pace. But, yes, indeed, demonstration of curiosity is a never-fail plus. In contrast, the detailed manifestations of the "research scientist" is a bit more subject-bound, I think. – paul garrett May 17 '15 at 22:31
  • @paulgarrett I always interpret "literature review" in math as "survey." Though at some point, when I was first getting into the relative trace formula, I had trouble remembering what cases were studied or in which papers, so I wrote a sort of an informal "literature review" for myself, summarizing what was done in different papers. – Kimball May 18 '15 at 0:35
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One thing you can do is audit one or more graduate-level classes at a local university, if this is feasible. Usually professors will let you sit in on classes and even grade your work. If your performance is at a high level this will make a positive impression on graduate admissions committees.. it shows you can do advanced work and also are highly self-motivated. You might also get a letter of recommendation from the professor in the class that way. And you might be able to pass a qualifying exam upon arrival.

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