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Writing a Personal Statement for Graduate School STEM Programs

I recently went to lunch with a college friend who has been deciding whether she wants to apply to graduate school. Her other considerations: medical school, working in the private sector, getting a government job, or applying to Masters of Public Health (MPH) programs. She’s 24, extremely bright, and not locked into any specific career path. The options are limitless. So how do you decide your next step?

My advice to her was to write the application essays and cover letters to any programs and jobs she was seriously considering. Yes, this is extremely time-consuming. Some of us hate to write; it’s tedious and frustrating, so writing 5 documents to programs you might not even apply to seems like a waste of time. But when I was trying to figure out my next step, the graduate school application was extremely useful in identifying why I liked science, what I wanted from a career, what research interested me, and what opportunities existed at research universities across the globe that would help me achieve my goals. Researching the internet and taking mental notes on what programs interest you are effective at guiding a decision. But the process of developing written, cogent arguments that convince both readers and yourself that you should attend specific graduate programs can be extremely enlightening. The most successful graduate students are motivated to answer research questions that are tremendously interesting to them. What better time to start figuring out what you want to study than while writing your application essay?

I tell you this anecdote not to convince you to write an essay for every potential program or job you are considering. Instead, I hope to convince you that the application essay is not meant to be a hurdle to your next step. Use this writing opportunity to help you make the best decision for you. If you’re really struggling to write a compelling argument as to why you should join a program, perhaps that program is not best for you. I was uncertain if I wanted to attend graduate school when I began the application process. But the essay writing process convinced and excited me about a future in STEM. I hope that with the following tips, you too will make an informed decision about your next career move.

Focus on some of your interests, not all

If you’re like me, your intellectual interests aren’t constrained to the research of a single department. The personal essay, however, is meant for clearly convey the research topics you’d be interested in committing five years of your life to. There are two approaches to identifying which topics to express interest in. Some applicants might have already identified what projects they’d like to work on during their Ph.D. If that’s the case, the applicant should carefully identify universities who carry out similar research since it only makes sense to attend a graduate school where those projects are possible. Alternatively, if you’re not entirely sure what you want to study, browse through faculty research descriptions and discuss what about specific laboratories excite you. It’s risky writing about research that is not necessarily studied at the university you are applying to; however, part of the beauty of working in academia is that new projects are born daily. If it’s something you’re passionate about and driven to initiate, include it in your essay. Your creativity and enthusiasm may put you at a competitive advantage.

Anecdotes are sometimes more insightful than explicit commentary

The introduction to my graduate school essay started with a childhood story (a clichéd approach, but I’m a strong believer that childhood hobbies are revealing). As a child, I was obsessed with watching tadpoles and butterflies undergo metamorphosis. Later, I convinced my college roommates to let me contain spring peeper tadpoles in our apartment (I didn’t know this was a weird request until my business major roommate told me it was). During my undergraduate studies, I performed developmental biology research, which inherently complemented my childhood interests. It seemed only natural to start my essay describing what had fascinated me when I was 7.

Childhood stories are common but hardly a requirement. Readers will enjoy some form of anecdote that shows how interested you are in a specific subject. Coursework, scientific publications, extracurricular activities, conversations with professors, film, and art are all great places to draw inspiration from to show your passion for STEM. Convince your readers of your interests, rather than just stating what they are. Explanations as to how you became interested in certain things are best.

Focus on results

When writing undergraduate admissions essays, creative storytelling is applauded and rehashing your resumé is discouraged.

"When writing your STEM graduate school application essay, however, it is important to highlight your accomplishments. Scientists are results focused."

That isn’t to say you can’t include stories or creative descriptions that express your passion. But if you’re going to discuss past research experiences, be sure to mention relevant skills obtained, publications, posters, talks, or awards. Affirm your ability to communicate, produce publishable results, and ask meaningful, relevant scientific questions.

Confidence is better than doubt

It might feel tempting to hint at your uncertainty about attending graduate school in the personal essay; however, the best essays convince your school of choice that you’re confident their program will help you achieve your goals. If you are uncertain (which we all are to some degree), approach the personal essay as an exercise to convince yourself and others. Of course, be truthful. But the tone of the essay should be confident as you explain your rationalization for applying to their program.

Research the University beyond the laboratories

One way to show that you’re serious about a program is to identify very specific qualities that make you want to attend that university. Identifying specific laboratories you’d like to join is a good start. But take it a step further and pinpoint specific resources, collaborations, courses, research paradigms, and university policies that make you excited to take part in their research community. Graduate schools and their respective universities have countless resources that can expand your skillset and establish multidisciplinary perspectives. Show that you’ve done your research about the program by expressing what sorts of things you’d participate in if accepted to the program. Not only will you show that you’ve done your research (as good PhD students do), you will also show that you are interested in science beyond the laboratory. Mentioning these programs is also a great segue for sharing your career goals, especially if you hope to use your STEM education in policy, science writing, education, or biotechnology. Graduate schools are interested in well balanced students who can apply what they learn in the classroom and the laboratory to future positions in academia and the private and public sectors. The personal essay is a great way to show your potential to make a difference outside the lab.

Closing Remarks

Yes, writing can be time-consuming and tedious. The application essay, however, is the perfect opportunity to figure out and outline what YOU want to do both in graduate school and your future career. Use this writing opportunity to be productive: explore what makes you excited about science and formulate a plan on how a graduate program can help you accomplish your goals. Not only will this writing process help you become a better applicant, it will help you figure out exactly what scientific questions are worth committing a lifetime to.


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