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I am currently in the process of writing my SoP for applications to PhD in Physics programs starting Fall 2018 (in the US schools). I am definitely writing about the content that I have studied rigorously as well as about the research projects that I have been involved in and so on. But I also want to involve something about a paragraph (not a specifically small one) about some of the colloquial talks and articles that I have read during my undergraduate years that have played a significant role in shaping my interests inside theoretical physics. I have been quite a YouTube buff and have watched a lot of semi-popular level talks and have been quite motivated by them in my interests. These talks have been very useful in making me aware of the current frontiers of research as well as in narrowing down my interests for good. Of course, these are not the only factors but these are among the non-negligible factors. So, I wanted to ask whether mentioning this part would be considered good or it would give my statement a non-serious and a childish tone. Or worse, might it look like I am confusing real physics with what is shown in the popular level talks?

Along with anyone interested or knowledgeable about this kind of a situation, those with a first-hand experience of looking at someone’s statements with such references or those with a first-hand experience of writing such a kind of statement are particularly requested to comment/respond.

  • The title suggests "Popular Science References" and your question suggests "semi-popular level [YouTube] talks," can you be more precise? You go on to mention "[t]hese talks have been very useful in making me aware of the current frontiers of research as well as in narrowing down my [research] interests," which suggests that these talks might be beyond "semi-popular." Are the talks aimed at undergraduates/postgraduates/researchers, rather than the general public (which is suggested by your use of popular/semi-popular)? If they are, then I think they are worth mentioning, albeit only in passing – user2768 Dec 4 '17 at 11:11
  • @user2768 I apologize for the inconsistent use of words. But, in fact, I am not entirely sure what they should be called collectively as I believe the set of talks I had in mind were spanned on the spectrum. But I get what you are suggesting--I can consider briefly mentioning the true semi-popular talks or the talks more rigorous than those. Thanks! – Dvij Mankad Dec 4 '17 at 13:34
  • To make a more concrete suggestion: if the talks were academic in nature or part of a lecture series, then they might be worth mentioning, perhaps along the lines of the following: I studied Prof. X's ABC e-course (mentioning why that is relevant to the PhD that you wish to pursue). – user2768 Dec 4 '17 at 13:48
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From my experience, telling the tale why you became so fascinated with one particular topic is to be kept to a minimum. It does not add any weight or edge to your SoP, other people will have their more or less interesting story. You can use maybe one or two sentences and I don't see any need to have a "not a specifically small" paragraph on why you became fascinated with a topic. It might sound harsh, but they will not care. You have to use the limited space in your SoP for other things. But that's another question/answer.

In short, I would avoid citing pop science to a very bare minimum, especially in a field as rigorous as physics. Unless you use this reference to show something you have achieved. For example, I read pop science X which inspired me to run experiment Y which has produced Z.

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First of all, let me emphasize on the CV part. Because your statement of purpose is usually considered as a whole with your CV.

My personal preference is to list these things.

I divide my CV in half. In first half, I list all the academic-related things. Such as publications, reviewerships, academic awards etc.

The second part contains non-academic things about me. Such as my hobbies, life achievements, my educational YouTube videos about algorithms, and even my reputation in this very website!

This achieves two things:

  1. If people do not care about my personal life, they can just not read that part.

  2. By a tiny chance, they might find something interesting about me to put me a few inches ahead. It might be an answer I gave in Academia.SE, or some point I've mentioned in my YouTube video.

In your case, you might put another section entitled Slightly academic related. All in all, your CV is you in a nutshell. Thus, if you think that one has to know something, then you better put it in your CV.

As for the statement of purpose, after you clearly write your research plans and your interest area, if you think some of these activities support your purpose, then putting them usually shows your ambition. Of course, I would not suggest you to put any single thing, but you might mention them in case someone finds them interesting.

If your research related statements are strong enough, I would not think that the whole statement of purpose will be childish.

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This is a partial answer, to supplement what @user4050 wrote. As s/he explained, you probably should not use up valuable space in your essay for tangential content.

But I can think of a few possible exceptions:

  • The instructions ask you to talk about how your interest in your field began or evolved.

  • The instructions ask you to talk about Science Outreach (which is becoming a hot topic these days).

  • You yourself have a serious and abiding interest in Science Outreach.

  • You have a serious and abiding interest in Science Pedagogy, and believe that the right sort of youtube video fits integrally with the teaching of science.

  • You have made videos of the type you described, you're proud of them, and you want to continue this hobby while in grad school, and you have some way of explaining how this hobby connects integrally with your studies and your research.

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I can offer some advice, but take it with a grain of salt. Firstly, I suggest that a decision of including such content into a SoP should be primarily driven by relevant expectations from schools you have decided to apply to (many schools likely even have guidelines on preparing SoP and other required or desired documents). Secondly, if the relevant expectations from SoP are flexible, I suggest you to have a section (instead of a paragraph) dedicated to explaining your motivation. IMO, it should include not only motivation specific to your chosen domain (theoretical physics), but also motivation to dive into science, in general. However, to prevent this from being interpreted as less serious / too lightweight, it is important to find and use relevant solid references. One example of such semi-popular, but solid and well-known, source is the famous talk by Dr. Richard W. Hamming "You and Your Research" (text of the talk is available here and relevant video of the talk - here). Thirdly, such semi-popular references ideally should be complemented by references to solid research papers (seminal and/or survey papers) on specific aspects of your research interests. Good luck!

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I'm no expert, but your question gets at some very broad self-marketing considerations, so here's my thinking. If you're talking in your SoP about why you got interested in the first place or what motivated you to actually go into the field, I'd just make a brief reference to popular science reporting and science outreach sparking your interest. If there is a particular video or article, you could mention the specific topic it covered as an example of this outreach, but I wouldn't talk about the delivery format (especially if it was a video, unfortunately). Absolutely, if the speaker was a well-known scientist, you could say you were inspired by a talk they gave. It doesn't have to be a talk you heard in person, and probably these days, people would assume it was a video. But, to me, it's a little like the difference between getting some initial info from Wikipedia and actually citing it as a reference.

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