Writing a personal statement for grad school in biology

Oct 26 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Commenter Liz asked yesterday about personal statements for grad school and it struck me as something I could write a quick response to.

First the don'ts

As I mentioned yesterday, don't write about your child science inspiration. A letter that starts out "when I was young..." immediately makes me want to stab my eyes out.

As Odyssey pointed out, don't use personal experience as a motivation to stamp out disease. We get it, lot's of people have diseases.

Don't relate your passion for science by including quotes from Nietzsche or Mother Goose. Seen both. True story.

Don't think that length = impressive. Usually it = boring as hell and only partially read.

Don't describe a detailed research plan for what you think you want to do.

As for the Do's

Realize who your audience is. What does a PI want to see in your letter? Competence as a writer, demonstrated experience in research, ability to concisely describe one's research (h/t bugdoc) and evidence that you have done some homework when it comes to what you would like to do in grad school.

That's pretty much it. It doesn't have to be a work of literary genius, but it should be clear and concise. Get across that you have research experience, you have learned something about how science works and that you want in on the deal.

Finally, look like you considered what a particular program or lab can offer. If you are applying to a rotation, write about the strength of the department in the field you are interested. Perhaps you enjoyed the 2010 paper by Dr. Schnapps on Ethanol treatment of Care Bears and would be interested in discussing future directions with this work. And maybe you were impressed by Dr. Gliter's 2011 work on unicorn rainbow jumping and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss projects applying unicorn jumping behavior to other meteorological conditions. If you are applying directly to a lab, then talk about the work being done in that lab and where you would be interested in contributing. Again, remember that proposing your own line of research that fits with where you think the lab is going is not a great strategy.

Above all, be organized, prepared and concise. And don't talk about your childhood.

12 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    I would go with no quotes by famous people, full stop. Also agreed on no childhood stories, and no grandmas with cancer. Nobody gives a shit.

    What people DO give a shit about is that you are ready to learn how to be a scientist. What is it about SCIENCE that makes you--the grown-up you--want to spend the rest of your life doing it? Specifically! If you can articulate that clearly and concisely, without using any tired clichés or storylines, you should have a decent shot at getting in (provided your grades, GRE's, and letters are all good, too).

  • Melissa's Bench says:

    Yes, my advice to an undergrad mentee was to write a "personal history" of your research experience. A short essay in the first person that describes how you came to be interested in doing research, what you did in the lab, why it is important, its future implications, and what you want out of research coming out of this experience (ie, that you will kick ass in grad school if given the chance). Aim it at the professor level, but maybe a professor within the dept. but completely out of your field so you have to describe things clearly, accurately and intelligently.

    Nothing makes me reach for the trapdoor trigger faster than a prospective grad student who did research, but flippantly dismisses it or otherwise can't articulate what they were doing and why.

    Also, for those of you who did not do undergrad research, try to convey the same thing -- sophistication in your understanding of how science works and how labs are run, and your motivation for pursuing a(n often grueling) life of research.

  • Mac says:

    I'm actually surprised you say no research directions in the personal statement. One of my grad school apps asked for a mini-research proposal and for others I usually included some statement about questions I was really interested in working on or research areas that seemed likely to provide future opportunities for work in the lab. This was awhile ago but I remember getting positive feedback on these aspects of the statement - I'd be curious to hear more about why you think prospective students shouldn't do this in application letters.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Mac, obviously if it is a requested element of an application, you're going to do it. Basically they are looking to see if you can think yourself out of a wet paper bag, but in the end that's all it is.

    Undergrads who get into grad school are going to be graduating with a toolbox that has prepared them to start becoming a scientist. As such, if you identify a lab that you are interested in working in and spend two to four weeks trying to read the background literature and come up with a novel contribution, do you really think that is enough to come up with a solid research question as judged by someone who is immersed in the field, with their livelihood directly affected by being at the edge of said field? While I can see there being value in determining whether an applicant can reason through an experimental design with the tools they have available, there is a far greater chance of coming off as naive than there is of being thoughtful. Others may disagree and any PI is going to calibrate their expectations to the level of the applicant, but I rarely see this pulled off to the candidates distinct advantage when it is not requested.

    This may vary by field and others can weigh in from fields where it is more common.

    OTOH, if someone has an MS degree and is looking to do a PhD, I expect to see a little more research development there.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    If an undergraduate student has some idea what they want to be when they grow up, they should join the appropriate professional society as a student member. They need to look at the literature in the area and figure out who is doing what where. They need to associate them selves with an appropriate professor(s) where they are. Back in the good old days, Professors would call colleagues and say "Good buddy, I have an assistantship for such and such sort of person, do you have anyone? " Or, "Good buddy, I have a student you need to have come work with you. What can you do for her?"

    I suppose it is all mechanized today.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Awww, if only rampant cronyism weren't slightly less prevalent these days than back in the good old days! It does suck having to evaluate candidates based on their merits and not the good buddy seal of approval, but somehow we manage. Like machines.

  • DJMH says:

    I wrote my personal statement extremely impersonally. It was a summary of my research as a tech, precisely what experiments I did or participated in, and a statement that I wanted to do things kinda like that. The end. Got invited everywhere.

    They call it a personal statement, but that should not be mistaken for an opportunity for q diary entry.

  • I have served on graduate admissions committees for years, and I only read a few sentences of each applicant's essay: just enough to see if they can construct a decent English sentence. The single best predictor--by far--of success in graduate school are the GRE scores.

  • Sarah says:

    I have seen this advice not to start with story from childhood a number of times on blogs. I'm sure it annoyed some people, but my essay started with 2 sentences about a childhood experience and my adviser told me that he loved it when I joined his group almost a year later. Considering this discrepancy, I hesitate to use any absolutes regarding these essays other than to use a spellchecker.

  • Cam says:

    I applied for several PhD programs over the course of a couple of years. My top pick school didn't accept me and it's partly the personal statement (well me of course) to blame. I did say something about my childhood motivations and perhaps that contributed to my failure to be accepted.

    Indeed, the committee from the state school told me that my statement did not indicate sufficient motivation to complete a quality dissertation, despite that my CV boasted several 1st author papers, with hundreds of citations, essentially putting my h-index I think at about 3-4 at the time, which is great for a PhD applicant.

    To their credit, my undergrad science grades weren't stellar, so they had legitimate reasons to pass on me. But my highly related MS degree showed good grades, and in core PhD classes that were transferable to the program I was applying for. One of the members actually told me that s/he considered me a pretty strong candidate considering the authorship but it is the their best interests to accept high GRE scores in particular because of the policy that apparently gives more funding to PhD programs with higher academic levels in the accepted class. In other words, I would lower the funding dollars by being in their class! Far be it for me to reduce the University's funding, I realize that funding is everything. There's certainly nothing illegal about selecting from the cream of the crop, grades and scores being dominant in that decision of who is in the cream. The funny thing is that I had one section of the GRE that was low, I retook at with a decent score, for a combined score that would have been competitive, but the committee didn't even wait to see my new score of that section before making the decision to can me.

    But, hey, peace. I am now in industry and although I still look back with nostalgia at the possibilities that I didn't quite obtain. If I really wanted the PhD with a passion I could have just kept trying at other programs or simply accepted the less desirable ones that I did get accepted into.

    Still, the moral of the story is that the personal statement matters and I blew it for at least my top pick school.

    P.S. My state school loves me now because a patent resulting from my work as an undergrad researcher (same State University that I tried to get into for the PhD program) has received a large amount total patent royalties due to it's commercialization! I'm talking many more times what I would have ever paid in tuition even if I had been a perpetual student! So, I guess whatever my mediocrity was that made me produce a sub-optimal personal statement and a so-so academic record at least didn't deter me from having already thought independently and being one of two inventors for some patents with significant economic worth to that same University! I'm just grateful that I had a good lab and PI to do experiments in / with as an undergrad / master's student! Funny, thought, if the University had known this I wonder whether it would have any difference at the time. PI's after all, are hired to make money for the university through their research / IP.

  • [...] Along with transcripts and recommendation letters, many connoisseur module applications ask for some form of a personal statement. At his blog The Spandrel Shop, Prof-like Substance advises opposite stuffing that matter with clichés, observant “don’t describe your passion for scholarship by including quotes from Nietzsche or Mother Goose” and “don’t use personal knowledge as a proclivity to stamp out illness — we get it, lots of people have diseases.” Above all, he adds, “don’t write about your child scholarship inspiration.” [...]

  • Carly says:

    I hope you still get updates to this post! I am working on my personal statement right now. It starts with a short childhood story discovering my love and curiosity for animals and then goes on to describe how I came to the conclusion that I wanted to become a scientist and go to graduate school. During the story I also cover a point where I decided NOT to attend medical school or go the clinical/patient route with science. Is this ok? Or should I just focus on the reasons for wanting to go to graduate school.

    the prompt asks me to describe my general interest in science and field of study I would like to contribute to, and then also says that I should show why I want to go to graduate school. In the admissions requirements the tips say that they are looking for students who are highly motivated. Please help me out with any ideas if you can!

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