My PhD application research statement

I am committed to making the PhD application process more open and clearer to new students, since it is my view that the unnecessary opaqueness of the status quo mostly serves to discourage minorities from applying and to preserve power in the hands of elites. Therefore, I share below the personal statement I used when applying to graduate school in 2018, in hopes it may help someone down the road. I added some comments in square brackets to explain my intended purpose for each section.

Of course, it must come with a big disclaimer: I am not in any way claiming that this is a good statement, let alone a model for others' statements, nor making any promises about your success if you follow this advice. Also, note that the fact that I am posting this online means that this text will appear in an online search, so you probably don’t want to copy specific words or phrases ;)

Personal Statement

To whom it may concern,

[This first paragraph is a very brief summary which answers the questions “who am I?”, “what am I applying for?”, “why should you hire me?” The rest of the statement serves as a justification for the pitch made in this paragraph.]

My name is Silvia González Sellán and I am a Mathematics and Physics undergraduate student with experience in Computer Graphics research at a high level. I am writing to apply to the direct entry PhD program, to hopefully begin in Fall 2019. I believe my previous achievements can vouch for my ability to proficiently participate in a world-renowned institution like University of Toronto, and I hope my interdisciplinary training can bring to it an innovative perspective.

[The next three paragraphs are “background”, and they are not specific to which University I am applying to. Their purpose is to show that I have the experience you’re looking for as a recruiter and I am confortable describing and discussing the details of my research. Also, detailing the specific responsabilities I took on with each project.]

By this summer I will be granted two individual Bachelor of Science degrees in both Mathematics and Physics. However, for the past two years I have been dedicating myself mostly to my Computer Graphics research, supervised by professor Alec Jacobson (University of Toronto) and partially funded by several Fields Institute of Mathematics programs. Specifically, I have focused on the subfield of Geometry Processing, working with two or three-dimensional shapes in the form of meshes and using mathematical tools to analyze and manipulate them.

In our latest finished project, we circumvented the problem of achieving solid meshes of complex domains by presenting a new way to define discrete differential operators on simpler meshes that make up the final domain via set operations. The applications of our method are manifold, from shape deformations to data smoothing to the computation of solid geodesic distances in a complicated shape. Our work has so far resulted in one high-level publication of which I am the first author, “Solid Geometry Processing on Deconstructed Domains”, which has been accepted with major revisions in the journal Computer Graphics Forum. I have also presented our results in poster format in several venues, like the 2018 Eurographics Symposium on Geometry Processing or the Graphics Interface 2018 conference. Lately, I have begun working on a new project, also supervised by professor Jacobson, involving morphological operations and geometric flows on surfaces, which is still on its early stages but the results of which we intend to submit for publication in Spring 2019.

[This ended up happening in Spring 2020!]

As the first author and the only student working on these projects for most of their duration, I took on the main responsibilities associated with them: with my supervisor’s assistance, we produced the necessary code and mathematical results and presented them in the most polished way possible, both in poster and paper form. I also worked on satisfying the reviewers’ comments during our first peer-review phase and submitted an improved version of our paper which complied with the major revisions required and is currently under review.

[This is the vision section. My intention was to tell the reader “You won’t need to worry about figuring out what to do with me, I have a very clear plan that you should be excited about”.]

If given the opportunity of working towards my PhD at University of Toronto, my vision for the program would be two-fold. My most immediate intention is to complete my reading and formal studies in order to achieve a global grasp of Computer Graphics as a field. Attending lectures in different congresses such as SIGGRAPH 2018 has woken me up to the very different avenues one can follow within it, and I would very much love to have a better understanding of these so I can choose my future wisely. Secondly, I would like to continue with my work in Geometry Processing and Discrete Differential Geometry, making use of your laboratory’s resources to collaborate with other scientists in order to produce high-quality research and have the satisfaction that I am significantly contributing to such a young, fast-growing area of knowledge like Graphics is.

[Now begins the institution-specific section of the statement. I thought it important to add concrete facts that relate me to the institution, and start from the bottom up: beginning with the specific supervisor (it is important to name them), then the Department and ending with the University as a whole.]

During the past two years I have cultivated a great relationship with the University of Toronto Department of Computer Science and, more specifically, with the Computer Graphics area of the Dynamic Graphics Project laboratory. Not only have I been directed by professor Alec Jacobson in two Fields Institute of Mathematics research programs, but this has also meant that I have spent a combined time of four months working in the DGP laboratory, directed by professor David Levin. I have also given research-related talks at the Department of Computer Science Undergraduate Summer Research Program (UGSRP) in 2017 and 2018, and even travelled to Toronto in the winter to attend and speak at the Toronto-Montreal Area Graphics Workshop (TOMOGRAPH) in late 2017, which was hosted by the same Department. In the upcoming years, I would be interested in being supervised by professor Jacobson or professor Levin in order to continue with our research together.

My excitement about participating in this Department’s PhD program is only matched by my desire to belong to University of Toronto’s community as a whole. I first visited St. George’s campus as a tourist during my first trip to Canada in 2013 and was captivated by its beauty as much as by its welcoming climate of tolerance. During my academic visits to the University in the following years I was privileged to interact and collaborate with various U of T graduate and undergraduate students, and it was thanks to them that I became determined that I am a great fit for Toronto’s academic and cultural community. The institution’s commitment to tackle gender-based harassment and create a diverse and inclusive environment has convinced me even more that I should present myself as a candidate for this position.

[Closing, standard language.]

I kindly ask that you consider my application for the PhD program to begin Fall 2019. I am looking forward to knowing your decision and remain at your disposal for any additional information you may request, as well as for an interview if you were to deem it helpful.

Yours faithfully,

Silvia González Sellán