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Writing an Effective Personal Statement for PhD Graduate Programs

Personal statements should be a reflection of your academic skills, success, and goals.

By Kaela Singleton
Doctoral Candidate in Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience


A personal statement is one of the most important components of any doctoral graduate school application. This post will guide you with some general steps to get you started with generating a personal statement that is concise, reflects your academic success, and emphasizes your goals for graduate school. The individual graduate programs will provide writing prompts that detail exactly what you should address in your statement, so be sure you touch on everything that they want you to cover!

Before you start writing


  • Update your CV: Having a complete list of your accomplishments will make it easier to include and exclude information from your personal statement. Your CV can be used as a timeline of your achievements, and therefore an outline to how your past experiences have prepared you for graduate school. For guidance on CV writing, see 7 Tips for Writing a Successful CV.
  • Research Graduate Schools of Interest: Gain insight into the coursework, faculty, and student life for each program you are considering. Using the program website, generate a list of qualities that appeal to you about each school you’re applying to. Emphasize how and why these qualities contribute to your decision to apply to this program. This list should include research and faculty members that interest you as well as any other pros (i.e. location, cohort size, post-graduate jobs etc.)
  • Create a team of editors: Your personal statement will be read by faculty members and graduate students studying different topics within the program. Therefore, your personal statement should be compelling to a broad audience. Ask peers, mentors and advisors from various disciplines well in advance to edit and provide feedback on your statement.

Now start writing


INTRODUCTION

The goal is to engage your reader with a quick synopsis of who you are, what you want out of graduate school, and your qualifications to join this specific program.

  • Introduce yourself and identify your academic interests: Provide a brief introduction of yourself and your academic interests. If you have a personal anecdote that explains how you became interested in science and research, start there. These “narrative hook” anecdotes engage the reader and set up a great platform to describe the motivation behind your experiences. Then go into your academic interests, which can be a couple of sentences broadly stating your research interests.  
  • Emphasize your skills and overall goals: Use both your research on the program and CV to highlight how your skill set will complement and grow from participation in this program. Speak in broad terms, showcasing how your goals align with the overall mission of the program.

THE BODY PARAGRAPHS

The goal is to expand on the points you mentioned within the introduction. Provide concrete examples of how past and present experiences led you to writing this application.

  • Explain how you became interested in your particular scientific field: Highlight key moments that encouraged you to apply to graduate school. This can be the very start of your interests in the field or from skills and knowledge that you gained from internships, research experiences, or coursework and class discussions.
  • Describe your prior research experiences and importantly what you learned from each experience: Provide a past experience where you used and developed a new skill that is pertinent to your ability to conduct research. Be sure to explain how this skill will be useful for your future in graduate school. It is critical to discuss what you learned from experience and to be as specific and concise as possible. For example: I worked with Dr. A at institution B. My work focused on C. The project entailed D, E and F techniques. From this experience, I learned G. This taught me F about my decision to attend graduate school. 

CONCLUSION

In the conclusion paragraph, you should discuss what you learned about the graduate school program that you are applying for. Highlight specific faculty members or courses listed that excite you, and re-emphasize your goals.

  • Summarize your qualifications and experiences: Bring everything together here. Emphasize the skills you currently have and how joining this program will aide in continuing your success. 
  • Personalize: In this final paragraph, include specific faculty and program qualities that appeal to you as an applicant. Show that you have researched specific faculty or courses that will aide in your future training. Also be sure to discuss your career goals. 
  • Edit: Proofread and edit. Send your statement out to friends, faculty advisors, and people outside of your discipline. 

Personal statements should tell your story and be compelling across fields. Remember that a PhD program trains you to build and utilize scientific skills to advance research. You won’t want to try to convince the reader that you’ll cure cancer or discover the flu vaccine. Instead, focus on persuading readers that graduate training is right for you, and that the accompanying enrichment of your research skillset will help you reach your academic and professional goals.


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