When applying for fellowships, you may be asked to provide a personal statement, professional goals statement, or something similar.
A personal statement gives you an opportunity to elaborate on and offer context for information contained in other documents, such as a résumé, CV, research statement, or letters of reference. It gives you a chance to write the story of you: experiences that have motivated you, people who have inspired you, ideas you’ve pursued, and choices you’ve made. I’ll offer some strategies for approaching these kinds of statements, but first are some suggestions for what to avoid.
An impactful personal statement should avoid using generalizations and vague words that don’t communicate much about you. “I’m passionate about my gratitude for the multitude of educational opportunities created for me by the amazing dedication of the people who have supported me by sharing their own passion…” doesn’t really tell the reader anything about the person. It is not the story of you. Let’s consider some alternatives.
The Principle of “Show, Don’t Tell”
Whether you have two full pages or only 200 words, your story should be grounded in the principle of “show, don’t tell,” in which you demonstrate your qualifications and characteristics through concrete examples. A personal or professional goals statement gives you a chance to create a vivid picture in the reviewer’s mind by sharing your own unique set of experiences.
Here are some examples.
Motivation to pursue graduate studies
A funder may wish to know what motivated you to pursue a particular career path or course of study. Which version is more informative?
Version #1: “I have always been passionate about science.”
Version #2: “My interest in the field of modeling and control was sparked by my three years as an undergraduate researcher in a lab where I worked with emergency response robots.”
Working three years in a lab demonstrates passion and long-term commitment to scientific research in the way that just using the word “passion” doesn’t.
How about this:
Version #1: “My professors were very inspiring.”
Version #2: “In the spring of my junior year, I began an independent study with a professor to explore Reimannian Geometry using Petersen’s text. Every week, I would present what I had read and be prepared to answer his questions. He also critiqued my solutions to the exercises, all of which deepened my interest and understanding.”
This paragraph shows commitment on the part of both the student and the professor that, in this case, inspired the student to pursue graduate research in geometric analysis.
Experiences outside of academia might also motivate someone to pursue graduate study, and the path may not have been straightforward. A student writing a dissertation in the field of modern Chinese history explained:
“I majored in linguistics and studied abroad in China as an undergraduate, then taught English there for a year after I graduated. On a backpacking trip to Sichuan Province, I witnessed high-altitude Tibetan communities for the first time. When I decided to pursue my doctorate, this experience influenced my choice of research topic.”
In each of these three cases, students used concrete examples to give the reviewers a vivid picture of what motivated them. The specifics they provided helped the reviewer imagine them working in a robotics lab, engaging in lively discussion with a professor, or hiking into a Tibetan village. They had no need to tell the reviewer that they were “passionate” or “inspired” because the time and effort they invested showed their motivation.
Leadership and collaboration
You may be asked to illustrate how you took initiative on a project and worked collaboratively with others. This is particularly important in fields where individuals are likely to carry out research as part of a team.
Applicants early in their graduate career might draw on undergraduate experiences to illustrate these qualities:
“My senior capstone project addressed the stormwater management challenges of our urban campus. Our team of four retrofitted an area of campus by implementing green infrastructure solutions, mainly rain gardens, rain barrels, and a pervious path. We surveyed the area, conducted soil tests, designed the technologies, and created complete construction plans and maintenance instructions for the project.”
Work experience can also demonstrate these capabilities:
“As the coordinator of an academic outreach program, I supervised undergraduate students tutoring at a local school which serves students living in a residential treatment facility and specialized foster care. I collaborated with school staff and administration in organizing the program, recruited and trained undergraduates, and coordinated day-to-day needs such as transportation to and from the facility.”
The purpose is to show the reviewer that the applicant can be an effective and valuable member of a team or organization, coordinate activities, and achieve a set of goals within a given timeframe. Even a reviewer who doesn’t know much about permeable sidewalks or youth in foster care can form an image of the complexities of the work these individuals undertook and the many steps and people involved in seeing it through.
Universities offer ample opportunities for both leadership and collaboration. Details are the key to writing about them effectively:
Less informative: “I helped organize a film festival.”
More informative: “As a member of the German club, I helped secure a grant from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., to co-sponsor an international film festival with other campus organizations, which we advertised widely across campus and the local community.”
Less informative: “I helped organize outreach activities.”
More informative: “As an officer of our student chapter of the American Chemical Society, I worked with staff at our city’s Science Center to organize and perform demonstrations with electrochemistry and fluorescence during National Chemistry Week.”
You get the picture—the more informative version gives us a robust impression of a student who takes initiative and works effectively with others to achieve a shared objective.
Teaching, Mentoring, and Outreach
Should you include these kinds of experiences? That depends on what you’re applying for, and it’s up to you to read the guidelines and assess their relevance.
The same principle of “show, don’t tell,” applies. Classroom examples can highlight creativity:
“I use music as a tool when I teach English to non-native speakers. Lyrics provide an avenue to discuss slang, history, and culture. For instance, music from my hometown of Detroit, ‘Motown,’ provides a window into the civil rights movement, and folk music can illuminate the history of the ‘60’s and Vietnam-era protests.”
Outreach can illustrate your commitment to enhancing diversity:
“I co-founded a campus student organization to empower underrepresented women majoring in STEM fields and raise awareness of gender issues within the STEM community. We offer a series of professional development workshops to help women in science master’s programs transition to the workforce.”
Perhaps a mentoring program in which you participated increased retention of first-generation college students, or a training manual you created for your lab continues to be used with new undergraduate researchers. Concrete examples illustrate how you have had a long-term impact on your campus.
Impact & Future plans
So far, all of my examples have focused on past experience. You can apply the principle of “show, don’t tell,” to the impact your research will have and the career trajectory you anticipate.
Focus first on talking about the anticipated outcomes of a dissertation project. For instance, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) is interested in supporting the development of technologies that will benefit the armed forces. A student applying for DoD funding might link their proposed research to this mission:
“The DoD will be able to use techniques I am developing to optimize the design of antennas for directed energy weapons systems along with communications systems that rely on impulse-like waveforms.”
Antenna research will also have civilian applications, e.g., to improve cell phone reception. However, that is not the primary interest of the funder, and so the applicant does not need to discuss that potential use.
Students early in their graduate careers may also anticipate how their proposed plan of study will contribute to a broader set of professional goals:
“My research on slum resettlement programs in Morocco, advanced Arabic language study at the Qalam wa Lawh language center, and a subsequent internship with an NGO in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, will prepare me for a career as a foreign officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development. ”
“In Mexico, I will explore the infrastructure of a garment through research both on indigenous communities of traditional weavers and on clothing maquiladoras, factories that employ mainly women at low wages. This will prepare me for my long-term goals of teaching and running a non-profit to promote conflict-free, sustainable and fair trade clothing/accessories.”
Will these individuals end up doing exactly what they write about in their statements? Only time will tell. However, the details they offer demonstrate that they have put careful thought into how their short-term plans might translate into a long-term career trajectory.
Crafting a Story That’s Uniquely Yours
Concrete examples, when woven together, enhance and support the story told by other components of the application. The title of a dissertation or name of a graduate program takes on new meaning when the motivation behind the choice is understood. A single line on a resume about a student organization or a teaching experience is brought to life as part of the story of you – an active, engaged individual.
How do you get started on writing the “Story of You”?
- Read the funder’s materials closely to understand what they are trying to achieve overall by supporting graduate education, keeping in mind that funders might have multiple objectives.
- Review the instructions carefully. What, specifically, does the funder want to know? How much space do you have in which to tell your story? This will help you with the next step.
- Make a comprehensive list of relevant personal or professional experience. Start with the longest list possible, then select key items to include in the space you have available.
This story sets you apart from other applicants. Step by step, it walks the reviewer along the path you have taken thus far. You can tell it most effectively through concrete examples that are grounded in your own life experience, and that illustrate your personal vision.
This post is the first in a series from the Graduate College External Fellowships Office. Stay tuned for the next installment in the Fellowship Proposal series, "Proposal as Genre."
Karen Ruhleder joined the Graduate College in 2014. As Assistant Director of External Fellowships, she presents proposal writing workshops for graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields and individually advises graduate students applying for grants and fellowships across all disciplines. She also helps manage the Fellowship Finder database. Ruhleder earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and a B.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of California at Irvine. Karen reviews for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition.