Not sure what the statement of purpose in the BE PhD application is supposed to look like? You’ve come to the right place. Let’s break it down.
The two most important questions to answer in your personal statement are:
- What have I done during my time as an undergraduate and afterward to prepare myself for being a Biological Engineering PhD Student?
- How do I show I am a good fit for the BE program specifically at MIT?
Let’s start with some tips on addressing the first point – your past experiences and preparation for a PhD program:
- Your personal statement should describe your most important previous research experience(s) in depth.
For those who have worked in several labs, discuss only those experiences which were the most relevant to your scientific journey. For those who have only worked in one lab, do not panic, that is completely okay! Either way, just make sure to describe both what you accomplished during your research and what you learned in the process.
What you learned in the process should emphasize either transferable technical skills you picked up, such as writing well-organized code, or research “soft skills” that you gained, such as working independently or collaboratively.Frequent approaches to talking about previous research with a compelling narrative include discussing a challenge you overcame and what you took away from it, discussing a moment of failure and how you moved forward, or discussing a moment that brought you joy to be doing research.You can spend multiple paragraphs addressing previous research. Also, feel free to mention if any patents or publications came out of your work (and it’s completely fine if not).
- If your transcript does not include both fundamental biology and quantitative coursework, discuss how you have demonstrated competency in the missing area.
It is usually best to leave your coursework to your transcript unless there are one or two advanced courses you feel had a large impact on your research interests. However, if you haven’t had any fundamental biology courses (like biochemistry or cellular biology), describe ways (e.g. online courses, reading, or research) that you have gained an understanding of how biological systems operate. Similarly, if your transcript does not include courses with significant quantitative components (such as ODEs, introductory programming, probability and statistics, or thermodynamics), discuss how you’ve supplemented your coursework with quantitative material.
Okay now for the trickier part. How do you show you are a good fit for Biological Engineering specifically at MIT? Here are some tips:
- Your personal statement should show that your goals align with the MIT BE mission to further knowledge at the interface of biology and engineering.
The MIT Biological Engineering graduate admissions committee wishes to know how you plan to fuse an understanding of how biological systems work (especially at the molecular and cellular levels) with engineering approaches (such as mathematical modeling, computation, and/or hands-on design) in order to measure, model, manipulate, make, or quantitatively analyze biological systems in novel ways for societal benefit.
- Your personal statement should describe your research interests moving forward, and should discuss how they tie into the research people in the department currently do. It is recommended you specifically mention at least two (preferably three) professors with whom you would be interested in working.
Rather than saying you are “generally interested in biological engineering,” discuss specific examples of subdisciplines (or even sub-subdisciplines) you would like to work in, such as “mammalian synthetic biology,” “cancer immunotherapy,” or “neurological drug delivery.” Make sure to describe why you are interested in these subdisciplines. It is often helpful to give examples of specific scientific questions you would like to answer or engineering challenges you would like to work on. Tying these ideas to work currently being done in the department/program will make them much more impactful.These interests may easily change while you are in the program, but it is still important to show you have identified and reflected upon the research directions you most likely want to pursue.Additionally, not all the faculty members you mention must be doing exactly what you are interested in so long as you can explain how your research interests fit with theirs.
Finally, here are a few miscellaneous tips to polish it off:
- Your personal statement should emphasize how your previous experiences will help you achieve the scientific goals you’ve described.
Basically, when you read back over your statement, it should be clear how what you’ve done in the past makes you qualified to do what you want in the future.It’s okay if you still have many skills you need to pick up on the way! That’s expected. It’s also okay if you don’t want to do the same thing in grad school as you did in/after undergrad (that’s extremely common). Just make sure to at some point explain how what you previously worked on makes you a good candidate for researching the kind of things you want in the future. This could include technical skills (e.g. you now want to apply machine learning to immunology rather than neuroscience) or soft skills (e.g. your comfort with independently designing experimental protocols will be helpful for making new methods for performing cellular measurements).Sentences addressing this point can be peppered throughout the narrative, or you can section off a paragraph for it, but make sure it goes in a logical place.
- At the end, your personal statement should very briefly discuss long-term career goals and research visions.
There is no right answer, and there are no expectations that you would know now, but best guesses are helpful. This can just be one to two sentences. And you don’t have to say that you want to be a professor unless that is something you think you might want to do!
- Your personal statement should be no more than 2 pages (single-spaced).
Them’s the rules.
- Get more tips on personal statements from the BE Comm Lab here.
- Tips for CVs/Resumes and templates.
- Don’t forget to prep for interviews.
Blog post written by BE graduate students Dylan Hirsch, Molly Parsons, and the Graduate Student DEI recruitment working group.
Posted Sept 2021.