• April 16, 2014

Leave Dr. Seuss Out of It

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

At this time of year, many professors at universities with graduate programs are poring over applications. Those applications usually include at least one narrative statement in which candidates describe their academic experiences and explain why they want to pursue graduate study.

In those statements, applicants have a chance to show their interests, motivations, and goals. Unfortunately, some applicants to graduate programs in the sciences simply don't know what to write. Some students seem to view the statements as a creative-writing exercise and spend more time sharing how they feel about science than describing their scholarly experiences and interests.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old science professor, I will state emphatically that when I read an application to our graduate program, I do not want to hear about your second-grade teacher (with all due respect to excellent second-grade teachers). Neither do I want to read about a star-gazing experience at age 8 (even on a cold, windswept hill), a childhood chemistry set (no matter how beloved), a fantastic documentary that someone happened to find when a televised golf match was canceled (serendipity!), or anything that is supposed to convince the graduate faculty that you have really, truly, profoundly loved science for a long time.

It's fine if an applicant mentions an early inspiration. I can deal with that, but it should not be the centerpiece of the statement, presented as a compelling explanation for your motivation to pursue graduate research. Presumably you have had other experiences later in life that can also explain a sustained interest in the chosen field. I don't believe that the depth of your love for science, or any pursuit, correlates with how early you discovered that love, so I find such descriptions of childhood inspiration unconvincing in an application for graduate study in the sciences.

Some applicants start their narrative with a quotation from a song, a poem, or a beloved book, including children's books. Whether that's because the applicant wants to convey that we can find profound wisdom in Dr. Seuss even after we grow up, or because the applicant has not read any other books, I do not want to know. The quotation is typically mentioned early in the statement, and then, following some rule of creative writing, is mentioned again at the end, wrapping up the text in a neat and annoying bundle.

A few years ago on my FemaleScienceProfessor blog, I organized a "Statement of Purpose (SOP) Contest" in which readers competed to write the worst such statements. It was akin to "The Bad Hemingway Contest," only my version was for graduate-application essays.

Many of the entries, including my own, were somewhat unkind in their parodies, but they all contained one or more classic elements of the genre, such as:

  • A quotation that is supposed to be deep or cute.
  • An expression of the applicant's great respect for the university and its faculty (adjectives like "prestigious" and "world class" are particular favorites).
  • Mention of childhood (that inspiring second-grade teacher; the chemist uncle; a memorable science fair).
  • Name-dropping a famous scientist. Einstein is too obvious, but some applicants think Feynman is not a cliché and Marie Curie is useful to make a point about diversity.

Another element of some statements: The inadvertent mention of a university that is not the recipient of this particular application ("And that's why my greatest dream is to pursue graduate work at Other University"). Yes, we know that students apply to more than one graduate program, but it would be best to avoid that error in your narrative statement.

I include here, for illustrative purposes, one of my own attempts at a fake Statement of Purpose:

How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man?

Bob Dylan wants to know the answer to this question and so do I. I have always loved quantifying impossible things, and I want to continue to do so in graduate school. I would not stop at counting roads, though, because counting roads means looking down. I also want to look at the sky.

How many times must a man look up, before he can see the sky?

That's another thing that Bob wants to know, but in this case we disagree about the important question. I want to know how many times must a man look up before he can really know the sky and what is in it. The sky has always been a mystery to me ever since I was a child. What is the sky? We must know this before we can count things in it. I do not like science fiction though. I love science.

In the classes I have taken as an undergraduate, my professors have attempted to teach me many things, but the things I want to know are not in books.

I have always collected things: shells, pebbles, cats. I even tried collecting staplers for a while to try to get over my fear of them, but although that didn't work well, it shows that I am not afraid to face obstacles and at least try to overcome them. Now my passion will be collecting data.

I think that the graduate program at the University of X is the best one for me because you have a lot of faculty who count the atoms in our universe and our planet. Some of these atoms even make up Bob Dylan, his roads, and the sky we both want to look at and know.

There are many reasons why that fake essay is awful, but the most important one is that it doesn't say anything.

There is no information about the applicant's academic record, research experiences, or specific interests for graduate study. Although mine is an extreme example, I have read countless statements from applicants who spend paragraphs trying to convey their love of science and their unique personalities rather than describing their qualifications for graduate study.

An applicant who writes a creative but uninformative statement is at a disadvantage relative to a student with a professional statement that clearly explains the applicant's academic record (including research experiences), motivation for graduate study (in a particular field or program), and career goals.

It's not necessarily fatal for an otherwise strong application to include a Dr. Seuss-quoting statement of purpose. Most of us reading the applications know that students are not always well advised about the application process. Even so, I can't help sighing when I read yet another "cute" statement of purpose. In fact, I just read one that started with a little rhyme. I am sure that my own graduate application would make me cringe if I saw it again, but I am also certain that I did not include a rhyme.

A statement of purpose need not be a dry document that consists of lists of names and dates. I can appreciate a well-written narrative about someone's life and goals, even if it mentions some personal details. Just leave Dr. Seuss out of it, please.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.

Comments

1. traductio - January 30, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Yes, yes, and yes. A thousand times, yes. I'm in the humanities, where the entrance essays are worse.

I am making my undergrads who are thinking about grad school read this.

2. pete_l_clark - January 31, 2011 at 01:44 am

I too am currently poring over applications to my department's graduate program (in mathematics). So, yes, boy [girl?] did you hit the nail on the head with your description of the personal statements. (And I agree with traductio that this would be a useful piece for grad school applicants to read.) Many of them attempt to pinpoint the exact moment, long ago, when the applicant's love of mathematics was kindled. But really, who cares?

The only thing I will say in defense of these students is that the grad candidate personal statement is a very difficult form: they have no prior experience with it, and evidently they are not getting a lot of help with it.

I would also say that at least for me, this is in most cases one of the least important parts of the application. It would be nice to see a clear-eyed understanding of what grad school is all about, but we get plenty of good students who don't acquire that until after they get here. It would be nice to see something which is successful at least as a writing sample -- i.e., which demonstrates competence in grammar, spelling, punctuation and clear expression of their ideas (be they about Dr. Seuss or otherwise). But some of our applicants are foreigners with a different native language, and I'm sorry to say that a flawlessly written essay from a mainland Chinese makes us skeptical that she has written it herself. (Anyway, we require our students to take the GRE verbal and our foreign students to take the TOEFL exam and we do care about those scores. A score of, say, 700 on the GRE-V impresses me more than a snappily written personal statement.)

A really good (or really bad!) personal statement may get passed around the table, but that's mostly to give ourselves a little break from the relentless data-processing which looking at applications mostly involves. The one situation in which we seriously look to a personal statement is to explain weaknesses or irregularities in the application. For instance, if the student has in fact not been a student for the last five years, that's a little concerning: what has she been doing since then? What makes her ready for graduate school now? (It may well be different in other disciplines, but in math there is generally no advantage to acquiring "real world experience" before starting grad school, and in fact the road is least bumpy if you just plunge right in at age 22 or so.) If the student did very badly in a particular course or semester, perhaps there is a good explanation for that. Most of all, if a student is transferring from one graduate program to another, we would really like to hear why.

So I don't believe in the killer personal statement, in either sense of the term. I do remember some wise advice that a CS department head gave me when I was an undergrad attending a seminar on grad school. (I will shorten the story somewhat.) He saw an otherwise excellent student write in his personal statement that he wanted to attend grad school because he was too lazy to do any real work. Distinctly unthrilled by this, he decided to admit the student anyway...and it turned out to be a huge mistake: the student, albeit bright, had no desire to do any real work. So I have vowed never to admit a student who writes something like this in their personal statment. Almost nothing else would be a dealbreaker.

3. becauseisaidso - January 31, 2011 at 08:13 am

As someone who works closely with students who are preparing thsese statements, I can say from experience (limited to my own university, however) that the reason why emotional/personal irrelevancies are in the statements and the development of scholarly credentials and research productivity is not is because they have plenty of the former and do not have much of the latter. Except for the most advanced and sophisticated students,few undergraduate students have extensive research experience in areas of their own interests. At best, they've done a thesis or presented a poster at a student conference on a topic of their mentor's, not their, choice. Should students who have not even done these things be applying to research-oriented graduate programs? Probably not. But they do make it easy for the admissions folks: students with personal statements like those highlighted in this article should be turned away. Read no further--they don't get it, they won't be happy, they don't have a clue what graduate school is about. Just think: if they wrote better statements, their unsuitability might be harder to detect.

4. anon1972 - January 31, 2011 at 08:23 am

Another delightful (not) cliche of personal statements in the humanities: the swashbuckling adventure story inserted at the beginning to "catch the eye." Example: "As I was fighting off pirates amid the icebergs of the Arctic Sea, where I was pursuing my ambition to become the first female solo canoeist to circumnavigate the globe, I looked deep into the frigid waters and realized that my true calling in life was to study medieval Japanese poetry." SOMEONE tells students to put these in because it will make them "memorable." But not necessarily memorable in a good way....

5. henry_adams - January 31, 2011 at 09:05 am

Good advice, Female Science Professor. I advise undergraduate English majors. I don't know how many times I've explained to an advisee what should go into a personal statement, only to have the student show me a draft that begins with a tale of learning how to read at age four and always loving Nancy Drew or Harry Potter or whatever. I tell the student to rewrite the piece to show the person's professional goals. Some do, but many just become angry and refuse.

6. quidditas - January 31, 2011 at 09:30 am

"I'm sorry to say that a flawlessly written essay from a mainland Chinese makes us skeptical that she has written it herself. (Anyway, we require our students to take the GRE verbal and our foreign students to take the TOEFL exam and we do care about those scores. A score of, say, 700 on the GRE-V impresses me more than a snappily written personal statement.)"

Um. You do know that those haven't always been real either, right?

7. 11232247 - January 31, 2011 at 10:23 am

Completely agree. Everyone loves a little "cute" but being "too cute" is absolutely insufferable.

8. annon1234 - January 31, 2011 at 10:48 am

#6 - that was my first response too LOL. I went to grad school with a chinese student who had someone in china do all his work and managed to cheat on his comps the same way too. Sigh. Then there was another chinese student in the program who clearly did all her own work and was good.

Here is what I want to see
1) Why do they want to go to THIS school
2) Which faculty in this department are doing research they are interested in and why
3) At this point in time (realizing that it probably will change) what specifically are they interested in studying
4) If they have been out of school for a while, what (if anything) does what they did with their life before grad school applications have to do with what they want to do with their life now. Please tell me this in a way that lets me know that the day after tomorrow you don't plan to now become the first person to live on Mars, a week later you plan to then find the cure for cancer...

9. tsenft - January 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

This is very helpful guidance. Yes, it focuses on what not to do, but tis the season to read trite application letters.

Perhaps, for students or advisors interested, Chronicle readers could post links to "how to write a letter of intent" guidance they find constructive. I wrote something a while back for the students in the humanities (I understand the sciences are very different.)There's a fair amount of 'what not to do', but there are also tips about how to generate the kind of writing committees are hoping to see. It was especially designed to help students facing a bit of blank page syndrome, and is online at: http://tsenft.livejournal.com/79786.html

Others?

10. rtfisher - January 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

A great piece -- but probably too late to do much for this year's applications. It would have been more impactful had students had the opportunity to read it in November or December.

11. pete_l_clark - January 31, 2011 at 11:17 am

#6, #8: yes, we do know this, albeit rather recently. Something I said on a Q&A site for research mathematicians prompted an email from a former director of graduate studies at another department who had actually had some Chinese students admit they had cheated on their GREs, specifically the math subject exam (which is a nontrivial test: a score of above 50th percentile from an American applicant looks good to us). So we are rather wary about these things now. It can be frustrating: often when reading a Chinese (or other foreign, but for some reason it seems especially so with the Chinese) application we just can't get the information we need to tell whether the applicant is worth admitting. (We're trying: at the big roundtable meeting last week, someone brought in a ranked list of the top 30 Chinese universities.) And of course we don't want to be uniformly skeptical because -- guess what? -- our program, like many others, has gotten some truly fantastic Chinese students over the years. So it certainly behooves us to try.

Anyway, I have only seen one foreign applicant (who took the TOEFL, I mean) with a 700 on the GRE verbal, and the rest of her application was so exceptional that we're totally buying the scores.

In general, that particular remark about 700 GRE-V was directed at American applicants.

12. texasguy - January 31, 2011 at 11:48 am

I too would welcome a column about "How to write a narrative statement." After thirty-plus years in acedemia, I do not think I would be able to write a cogent statement.

13. aprilmay - January 31, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Excellent and much needed piece. I have read far too many memorable applications that are memorable in a bad way. While some of these are from fresh undergraduates, many are from older applicants. It makes them look immature. Although we are not a fine arts program, more than one applicant submitted a painting! I am waiting for someone to send a rock opera. We don't need your poetry, childhood story, or comedy. Almost none of our top picks have this immature language, and in those rare cases we normally like the applicant in spite of their immaturity. I can only think of one case where the applicant was a bit unusual and it worked. That is because the statement included only one line that was witty and completely in context of why they wanted to go to graduate school. The rest of the text was not witty or trying to be unusual. The whole application was extremely well-written and would have worked well without the witty line, too.

Another key mistake is to have a very famous person write a medicore letter. No matter how amazing your letter writer may be, it won't help you if they are going to write that you are okay. We also don't need you to take up several paragraphs describing how incredibly smart you are. A brief "I am an intelligent and hard-working student" is okay, although a bit trite, but don't go on and on about how brilliant you think you are. It is better to show us this by describing your accomplishments and how you think about the field.

14. unusedusername - January 31, 2011 at 01:02 pm

The problem is that when student are applying for their undergraduate college, fluffy, emotional personal statements are exactly what the people in the admissions office are looking for. People in undergraduate admissions programs love essays about how you were inspired by an caring 4th grade teacher, and how you overcame some sort of adversity in order to fulfill your dream. Then, when graduate school applications come, students don't realise that graduate schools are looking for people who are smart and hardworking, and don't care what color you are or where you came from.

Fire 2/3 of college admissions department workers, base college admissions strictly on grades and SAT/ACT scores, and your problem is solved.

15. drangie - January 31, 2011 at 01:13 pm

The graduate faculties who have to read this stuff have no one to blame but themelves for it--they are requiring it on applications. If you don't want to know Johnny or Susy's personal story, then
don't ask!

16. pathdoc - January 31, 2011 at 01:20 pm

I read a lot of personal statements for medical school. Please not another dying grandma story!

17. willamette - January 31, 2011 at 01:41 pm

@unusedusername--

"Fire 2/3 of college admissions department workers, base college admissions strictly on grades and SAT/ACT scores, and your problem is solved."

I truly hope you're joking. If you really do believe that only those applicants with the highest GPAs and test scores are worthy of admission to your school or program, then you deserve what you get.

18. thenomad - January 31, 2011 at 02:19 pm

I absolutely love this article. As a former grad student myself and someone who now works as an international student recruiter at a university in Canada, I have been able to help some friends of mine with their personal statements when applying to other institutions. I always get them to eliminate the plethora of personal stuff in their and get them to focus on what they want out of their graduate program and how it will help them to achieve their life and career goals. One of those students I helped was admitted into the MBA program at both Harvard and Wharton, so I guess I must have done something right.

Too many times, I get inquiries from prospective students who have no idea what grad school is all about. They don't know about concepts like thesis research or finding a supervisor. I'd like to think it's cultural differences, that maybe in their home countries, the process is different, but I get enough inquiries from students in those same countries that totally understand it, so I think for students who don't write an appropriate letter of intent, they're not going to be prepared for what it takes to be a successful grad student. Unfortunately, in many countries, graduate degrees are prestigious and allow people to get better jobs, but the students are not necessarily into lifelong learning.

A final point is that there are just too many people out there that don't know how to write well generally. I've witnessed and been the proofreader for atrocities committed by high schoolers to PhD holders. It's just not a skill everyone has, unfortunately.

19. timmo3 - January 31, 2011 at 02:43 pm

I cannot help it: my gut reaction to this thread has been intensely negative. When I went to graduate school I thought I knew what I wanted, but as it turned out that was not what really got me into science (biology) nor what propelled me over the next 25 years. My first year of graduate school was a period of self-discovery that simply could not have happened as an undergraduate, nor could I have anticipated it. I would think that research/ science graduate schools would still be interested in mostly native intelligence, inventiveness and capacity for problem-solving, and only in a few cases would a specific research problem be identified a priori. To be candid, the general sense of this discussion sounds better suited to hiring a good lab technician than to recruiting students for advanced study. I recommend Martin Schwarz's 1pg essay "The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research" to any undergrads considering a career in science research.

20. 11262324 - January 31, 2011 at 02:56 pm

timmo3.....finally someone who sees through all of the prior nonsense. Kudos to you and shame on the others.

21. eise1593 - January 31, 2011 at 03:50 pm

BAD WRITING IN APPLICATION

Funny. Really funny. That is how I feel about the "Bob Dylan" application, as revealed by Female Science Professor. It reminds me of when, at another university than the one I am currently at, a student showed me his essay for graduate school. He asked me to read it and let him know what I though. I read it. It was more of a creative writing essay, with things like "For awhile, I did not get good grades in school because there was the beach. And, girls."

I gave him this feedback. "It reads more like creative writing than an application that will get you into graduate school. And, it reads like you were stoned when you wrote it." He said "I was stoned." I told him "I strongly advise you not to send this in."

Later, he told me he had sent it in. He had gone against my advice. And, he was rejected by the school.

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.

Russell Eisenman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Texas-Pan American

22. aprilmay - January 31, 2011 at 04:16 pm

timmo3 and 11262324,
I'm not sure I see your point. Can you elaborate on what specifically you are disagreeing with? We're not suggesting that the statements can't be passionate and personal. But the "memorable" parts should not be put in just to be funny or different. They should be related to the application and the focus should be on graduate studies, not childhood memories. Shame on me for not wanting to accept an applicant who spent their statement writing about juggling and not about why they want to go to graduate school? Really?

23. totoro - January 31, 2011 at 04:18 pm

I don't remember seeing this in applications from potential economics students. The bad ones would be people who told us how much they were interested in business or finance when our program had nothing to do with that. And I have seen a Chinese student with a verbal GRE above 700. Her English was excellent (and not the only foreign language she could speak). But she struggled when it came to doing research. So I use GREs as a hurdle or threshold rather than selecting students with the highest GREs.

24. nacrandell - January 31, 2011 at 04:30 pm

"At the risk of sounding like a cranky old science professor, I will state emphatically that when I read an application to our graduate program, I do not want to hear about your second-grade teacher (with all due respect to excellent second-grade teachers)."

Generally, you're hired by a person and fired by a person. If that person does not like something, then you are not chosen. Female science prof is judging 22 year olds with little experience against her own experience of reading applicatins for 'x' years. It would seem that she needs to remove herself from the review committee if she prejudges applicants.

25. thenomad - January 31, 2011 at 05:39 pm

#22, I agree, we're not saying that there should be no creativity, but sticking to the topic is usually better. My obejction to students' lack of prior understanding about what thesis research entails is general. I always tell students to think about what they might like to research during grad school, underscoring the fact that this will not be set in stone, even if they write it in their letter of intent. It simply demonstrates that the applicant has thought more deeply about the subject and has some questions in mind based on the combination of his/her experiences and educational background. That's the capacity for inventiveness and problem solving. My own research had nothing to do with what I put on my letter of intent due to lack of travel funding in our department, so I understand that topics and interests may change. In any case, some of our departments do require students to identify their supervisor before they apply; whether this is a good policy or not, it exists, and students are expected to have some idea of what they want to get out it, not just what made them want to study a subject in the first place.

26. aprilmay - January 31, 2011 at 05:40 pm

I'm surprised at the multiple posts that disagree with this article, although am interested to see another view point. Female Science Prof isn't prejudging applicants. She is reading the applications and viewing some of them to be less appealing than others. She's written an article that gives guidance on some very common, very harmful mistakes that applicants often make. These 22-year olds with little experience are being compared to 22-year olds who are demonstrating maturity in their essay without including a sample of photography or teenage journal entry. These unfortunate applicants think they are helping their case. They aren't. I think Female SciProf is trying to help. Writing a trite, creative writing style essay to get into, for example, a doctoral program in mechanical engineering is similar to wearing a sweatshirt to a law interview. It demonstrates a lack of maturity and a failure to understand the process. If the lawyers don't hire them, they aren't "prejuding" the applicant. They are making a decision based on the applicant.

For those of you that disagree, are you on admissions committees? I have never seen the truly childish writings be considered anything other than a negative. There have been times we have been excited about an applicant in spite of their essay.

27. timmo3 - January 31, 2011 at 06:53 pm

Sorry if my earlier post was unclear. I will take another swing at it. Going back to an issue raised by #3, rephrased as a question: which undergraduates make the best candidates for research-oriented graduate programs? I am thinking of the natural sciences, but perhaps these remarks apply more broadly.
Identifying promising students is clearly the object of the admissions process, so how can the essay help? IMO, this comes down to the personal statement conveying a sense of who this person is...his or her voice must come through in the writing and that must resonate with YOUR (the admissions committee member's) understanding of the general qualities needed to succeed in research. That is why I recommend the essay by Schwartz. In my experience on grad committees and as an undergrad advisor, the number of graduate school applicants who understand what they are getting into is vanishingly small. How could they know (much) about research? Here again I agree with #3. Therefore, a well-written essay that conveys a sense of purpose, even if somewhat off topic, generally scores higher with me than almost predictable, sometimes coached statements that claim they want to do project X with professor Y.
A couple final remarks: First, from Schwartz "...but I think science education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries." Keyword, transition. Applicants ARE students in transition, and what I look for is a sense that this or that applicant can make transitions well, some evidence that knowledge gained in one area will be plastic and portable to new problems.

28. mitdun - February 01, 2011 at 11:01 am

As a graduate student, I would say "What You Ask For is What You Get". If you want me to re-hash my CV in sentence form, just say so! Otherwise I'm going to think you want a glimpse of who I am as a person, information not included on the forms and in test data. After all, my performance as a graduate student in the lab, my interactions with a PI and colleagues, are not quantified by my grades and GRE scores. They tell you nothing about my "hands".
I had no cutesy quotes in my application, to be sure, but I did talk about the childhood with a Wal-mart microscope and a rock-collecting bag on the riverbank while my Dad was fishing. I did mention my 10 years teaching math and science in middle school, and my desire to move up after getting an MS for teachers in a rigorous summer program.
As a former middle school teacher, I can tell you that the math section of the GRE is mostly 8th grade math (pre-algebra, not Algebra I), with a little Algebra I and Geometry thrown in. I thought it would be a lot harder, but my brighter middle school students could ace getting into your graduate school, just based on pete_1_clark's cutoff, if GRE were all that mattered. The verbal and essay-writing skills are also taught in decent American middle schools.
I understand your desire not to read Bob Dylan quotes, but please make sure your application materials clearly define what you DO want before you criticize students long-trained in the "art" of writing foggy, emotional essays too much.

29. mmor2011 - February 01, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Gotta agree with #28. You suckers in admissions asked for it. You got it. No one to blame but yourselves.

The solution is simple: Do not include a request for a narrative statement on the application. You clearly don't WANT one. Why torture yourself and the applicant with this futile dance? Look at the redundant nonsense you request in the statement:

"There is no information about the applicant's academic record, research experiences, or specific interests for graduate study."

Why WOULD there be? If you designed your application better, that should all be included in the primary, non-narrative section. I mean, there HAVE to be slots that already include the applicant's academic record... so why ask for it AGAIN in a written essay? Furthermore, why aren't there simply blanks for "Please list relevant research experiences", "Please list specific interests for graduate study", etc. I don't know why you're determined to have the applicant bury this information in an otherwise meaningless essay paragraph, just so you can work to extract it later.

Instead of beating your heads against the wall, you should invite the faculty from the graduate programs for Information Architecture/User Experience Design and English to come over and show you how to design a proper form and show you what the purpose and value of a written statement should be. Or, easier yet, just leave the ridiculous essay portion out.

30. larryc - February 01, 2011 at 01:36 pm

"At the risk of sounding like a cranky old science professor...."

Too late!

31. kalveka - February 01, 2011 at 04:54 pm

This article made me laugh and remember ruefully the application letter that did *not* get me into graduate school. This is helpful advice, but how many aspiring grad students will see it? And how many aspiring grad students who do not come from families familiar with academia? It could be helpful, as some have stated, for all graduate programs to be specific that childhood memories, inspirational quotations, and references to famous scientists are not the most useful aspects of a personal statement. Or, follow the advice of mmor2011 in order to find out the information you truly want from those who do not have access to the knowledge of what will help an admissions committee--often precisely the underrepresented communities we'd like to see discovering the true joys of counting atoms, stars, and all those odd things you do in science graduate programs.

An aside: I was told explicitly not to mention specific professors since they might be leaving a program at any time. What do you all think about this?

32. zephyrw - February 01, 2011 at 06:10 pm

Like many institutions, mine asks grad applicants to describe career goals, research and/or teaching experience, and research interests for grad study. I don't think this request needs to be rewritten by experts in writing instructions. Most applicants provide the requested information. However, there are always some that go for the cute/memorable approach or start with a dramatic story about a dissected sheep brain in middle school. These applicants are at a disadvantage relative to those with more professional and focused statements, although, as the original essay notes, an immature statement is not necessarily fatal to an otherwise strong application. Maybe there are some institutions/applications that request a personal statement about why the applicant loves science (or whatever), in which case: bring on the shell collections and camping trip memories. For the majority(?) that request information about career goals and academic experiences, however, it would be good if undergrad advisors steered more applicants away from the childhood anecdotes.

33. annon1234 - February 01, 2011 at 06:32 pm

TO #32

I am the one who posted about relating your interests to what professors are doing... depending on whether the program is an "apprentice style" program (you have one prof want you as his/her student and thus you get in presuming you pass the other minimum criteria) or "we admit you because your interests are in common with the strengths of the department and figure out who your major prof is later" type of program you may or may not mention specific profs.

If it is an apprentice program then not only do you need to pick one (not necessarily stating that as the only choice depending on how many people have that interest), it would behoove you to set up an apt well before the application is due to meet with him/her under the guise of visiting the program. So then, yes, when you apply you mention whatever *group* of profs who are studying in you area have interest in common with yours. (group because you never know if prof X would have admitted you but their 5th year student is hanging for a 6th with support and so has been told they can't bring in a new student this year so prof X calls in some favors to ask prof Y to admit you OR prof Y also wants you and so X and Y fight it out over you)

If on the other hand they admit by general interests then you discuss the portion of the focus of the department that matches yours (so you still have to look up the prof pub lists)-and discuss it in more general terms - my interests are X and I see that this appears to be a strength in the department based on the recent publications of some of the faculty (not necessarily mentioned by name), my secondary interest is Y which I also see at least one faculty member has been doing some research in this area blah blah blah

Stupid is the grad student who goes somewhere and not one faculty member has any interests that over lap their interests (and if they lied about their interests to get in then it will serve them right to have to stick to their lies). Good luck getting a committee put together or having anyone care if you finish. That being said, interests do change, the focus of department do change... and the prudent grad student modifies their interests sufficiently to be able to sell a committee chair on it. After all the goal is a done dissertation in something that is at least marginally related to what you are interested in. If need be save your "real" interest until you are out if you can't get anyone behind you in the department. The goal is the PhD degree, not an award winning piece of research that took 27 years to get someone to agree to chair.

Students need to realize that all sorts of things affect the getting into a PhD program crap shoot. Most fatal flaws on the application are avoidable. Applying to a PhD program, no matter how prestigious, where no one shares your interests, is a waste of money and your application only showcases your laziness researching the school.

Applying at a grad school with a Big Name faculty member you hope to study with is useless unless you spend some of the fall visiting and talking with Big Name while "checking out" the program. IF you have done that then it is appropriate to reference the visit and target the program because of Big Name. Especially if you have no intention of going if Big Name won't take you.

34. vitak - February 02, 2011 at 02:59 pm

I will also agree with #28 re: universities providing a framework for what kind of information they want included in the SoP. When I was applying to PhD programs, the schools varied in what they asked for, some pretty general and some specific. This helps the applicant greatly in the process which they have (most likely) never done before.

My initial reaction to the article was also a little indignant, although it mellowed as I kept reading. In fact, I went back to read my SoP, as I knew I had opened with an anecdote, albeit a two-sentence one that I used as an attention grabber and a way of connecting my history with my application. The rest was much inline with what has been suggested here.

Personally, I think the most important thing in writing SoPs is to show that you've done your research and know the university and program you're applying to. I tell everyone who is planning on applying to a PhD program to do this, identify 1-2 faculty they would potentially want to work with, and email them well in advance of the deadline to introduce themselves, ask any questions about the prof's research, and do a quick sell of themselves to see if the prof thinks they'd be a good fit. Then you can reference that in your SoP.

I also have some issues with purely rehashing every accomplishment you've ever had in your SoP; this is why you are often asked to submit a resume/CV. Of course, you should be highlighting why you're the awesomest applicant the program has ever seen, but redundancy wastes time and space. The SoP should show that you are both excited/smart/critical thinking in both your ideas for the future and your past performance.

35. mnogojazyk - February 03, 2011 at 03:58 pm

What I'm about to write assures me that my application will be rejected if what I write here becomes public (and it certainly will given my run of bad luck in recent years). But I have to ask anyhow.

This proscription is long on what not to say in an application but short on what to say. I've been in situations when I've been told what not to do and what not to say, but have not been told what is acceptable. I can tell you from bitter experience that this is a setup for failure, ignominious failure at that. So I ask the female science professor what one is to say. Generalities are not sufficient, e.g., just talk about your research interest. It would be helpful if you cited examples of what is acceptable just as you cited what is unacceptable.

Many thanks.

36. physicsprof - February 08, 2011 at 11:56 pm

#35, despite being Russian you obviously know English well enough to communicate what you want. So do you know what you want? It is your responsibility to come up with good test scores, grades, recommendations, and a personal statement. If you are explicitly told WHAT to say, what is the value of your statement then? Consider the article to be a simple advice of the importance of having SOMETHING to say. Ask yourself why do I want to spend my next 5-6 years there and just put the answer on paper. If you are not sure then why bother?

37. toddstanfield - February 09, 2011 at 03:06 am

We had an applicant to our graduate program list her 10+ family farm animals by their pet names (e.g., Harry the hog, Mittens the cat, Betsy the cow, etc.).

38. norgi - February 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm

no need to sugar-coat negative opinions about this except to get past the censors. this is pure institutional, arrogant b---s---! it's like you're recruiting club members instead of a reaching out to co-learn with people with different perspectives. that's why real people relate to terms like "liberal elite", "ivory tower", etc.

just keep on being exclusive, creating your own language, and see if you don't end up with a click of people walking and talking alike doing self-titillation, calling it research while the rest of the world wonders why their tax money, tuition and fees only seem to crank out things that are absolutely useless to anyone but the people who wrote it. people will drive by the school thinking "what the hell are they doing in there--the biggest building in town?" (wait, that's exactly what has already happened.)

it's not real people's responsibility to learn to speak like you. it's your responsibility to speak our language so you can tell us what YOU are worth and what the hell you're doing with our resources. by recruiting people who align with you, you're insulating yourself from us, not helping us.

-- if it's deep or cute to me, it's deep or cute. you need to learn to appreciate that, we shouldn't have to convince you.
-- "world class" and "prestigious" come straight from your recruitment posters. it appears that your kind like those words so why wouldn't a kid try to give it back to you.
-- how could a young person's "interests, motivations, and goals" come from anything but childhood? how could anything be more meaningful to that person?
-- viewing Marie Curie as a cliche is your problem. how could you possibly pass judgment on someone's perception of profundity?

you just wrote a 1000 word formula for not being formulaic? really? and it was formulaic! it was a worn out "pet peeve" template, christ!

good advice is to be genuine: if you like Dr. Suess and the school's gatekeepers can't accommodate that in the admission paper work, how do you expect them to do anything but indoctrinate you in to some narrow-minded, high-walled, pseudo-academic fraternity and you can get that anywhere else for free.

norgi

39. supplicant - February 10, 2011 at 02:24 pm

This article would have been more useful to be two or three weeks ago. Even so, my statement basically went "I got a degree in Field A, but I was only mediocre at it, so I switched to Field B and did awesome work with awesome people. I got involved with Group C, who helped me focus on Subject D. I identified Problem E, but I don't know enough about it and I think your faculty's knowledge of F, G and H would really help me figure it out." I just changed D, E, F, G and H a bit to better match the programs I was applying to, but the difference was negligeable.

Maybe it's just me or the field I'm in, but my childhood has just about nothing to do with my career plans. Things that happened to me just four years ago have just about nothing to do with my career plan. I wouldn't bring up Dr. Seuss unless I want to do an MA specifically on his work and I wouldn't bring up Einstein unless I wanted to study relativity. Even then, I would assume that, in most fields, quoting contemporary researchers would be better. Discussing Marx shows that you took an introductory class in sociology, economics or politics, but discussing Patricia Hill Collins demonstrates an interest in a very specific area of sociology and feminist theory and probably tells the admission committee a lot more about the kind work you want to do.

It took me years to develop the ability to tell important information apart from useless crap, but it's a useful skill.

40. physicsprof - February 11, 2011 at 01:30 am

norgi,
Science provides very tangible benefits, some of which you can easily google out with the help of your computer (itself a testament to the usefulness of science). Yes, in a social contract between taxpayers and scientists you may of course demand that the latter speak your language and pretend that there could be nothing more meaningful for a 22-year old college graduate and aspiring scientist than his childhood dreams, or that people who write cliches are going to develop into truly innovative researchers. But then please don't be surprised if the quality of your science goes down, and when other countries (whose people are less intent on reining in that arrogant self-titillating "click of people") leave you in the dust with most of high-tech jobs going overseas as a result. On the upside, nobody will be able to pass judgment on your "perception of profundity" or hurt your self-esteem, and you will only be told how wonderful it is to be able "to reach out to co-learn with people with different perspectives".

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