I am applying for a PhD in a highly theoretical field. One of my recommenders, a faculty in the field, understands that I have a unique situation when it comes to applying for grad school, so he has given me some advice on how to write my statement of purpose. He suggested that I read a certain series of lecture notes in this field in order to find a very specific topic in this field that interests me, then write my SOP about that topic.

The problem: I have read the notes and they are all far beyond my level. On one hand, I want to tell my recommender this and ask whether he has any advice regarding an alternative approach for writing my SOP. On the other hand, since he is my recommender, I worry that asking him this would reveal that I am not as smart as he thinks I am, which would make his recommendation less strong. What should I do?

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    If the notes at this stage are 'well beyond your level', how do expect to go through the PhD? – user41783 Oct 11 '15 at 6:28
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    @Ghost The notes are from a conference that is attended by the best graduate students in the field. The background knowledge required to understand them is typically learned during graduate school. – topjej Oct 11 '15 at 6:33
  • Then you're going to have to be honest - in order to write the SOP at least. – user41783 Oct 11 '15 at 6:35

Instead of saying

These notes are far beyond my level, do you have other suggestions?

Consider something like

What level of detail do you recommend for me when going through these notes? What kind of things should I be looking for and taking note of?

to gain a better understanding of what he intended for you when suggesting that you read these notes.

It's possible that he expected you to understand the notes, and that your inability to do so is a worrying sign.

It's also possible that he didn't expect you to understand them fully, but suggested them for other reasons: to gain an idea of overall trends in a particular field, to get a sense of what advanced coursework in the field looks like, just to find an idea that inspires you, etc. If you read the notes and skip the details (the derivations, the proofs, etc.) and look up unfamiliar terms as you go, can you understand some of them? Most of them?

It's also possible that these notes are at an advanced level, but that your inability to understand them is not necessarily a worrying sign. Perhaps he expected for you to spend a lot of time studying them in detail (probably using external resources to fill in gaps in your background knowledge) before you can begin to understand them.

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    I don't think not being able to understand the notes is automatically indicative of not being up to a PhD. In my field at least, and I'd guess therefore also in others, it seems that most people misjudge what others can take in a large proportion of the time. – Jessica B Oct 11 '15 at 6:45

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