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The graduate school personal statement is your chance to show the graduate committee what it would be like to have you in the department.  Would you contribute positively to the program, work well with others, and have the necessary skills to undertake important research? Remember, the people reading your personal statement may be the same people who will spend years working with you as a student.  Convince them you are worth the investment. Like a CV and cover letter, you want to focus on specific and concrete experiences; however, the personal statement is your chance to provide a complete narrative for why you want to join the program (See explain the meaning of your experiences).

Unlike many of your application documents, the personal statement’s structure is much more fluid, so be sure to check out the annotated example to see how to tell a compelling story based on concrete experiences.

Criteria for Success

  1. Your personal statement convinces a faculty committee that you are qualified for their program.
  2. It convinces them that you are a good fit for their program’s focus and goals.
  3. You show a select group of skills and experiences that convey your scientific accomplishments and interests.
  4. Your experiences are concrete and quantitative.
  5. Meets criteria for length, formatting, etc. specified in the application, and answers any specific questions asked.

Structure Diagram

Identify Your Purpose

The graduate school personal statement should demonstrate that you are a good match for a particular department or program.  A good match shows the program that you are interested and that you are capable to contribute as a scientist. To do so, you must effectively highlight your strengths as an applicant and present a sincere passion for the work you will do. Be as specific as possible when articulating your relevant research experience and future research interests.

Analyze Your Audience

A graduate committee reads your personal statement to determine if you would make a successful graduate student in its department.  This determination is inherently subjective and could vary from committee to committee; however, you can be sure any committee will look for the following:

  • Your ability to perform high-quality research
  • Your readiness to complete the expected coursework for your program
  • Your likelihood to enroll in the program if accepted

Your personal statement should specifically address each of these criteria.

A graduate committee is usually composed of faculty from the program of interest.  They more than likely have the following:

  • A strong knowledge of the program’s general subject areas and familiarity with your proposed research area
  • Familiarity with the academic setting and some courses, but not necessarily the courses you have taken
  • Access to the rest of your application materials

If applying to MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering department, you can assume your audience knows what a tokamak is, but you cannot expect (all of) them to know every component.  Likewise, you need not list all of your courses but could emphasize one or two advanced subjects if they are relevant to your past and intended future research.

Your graduate committee may read hundreds of applications each year.  In order to stand out, make your statement interesting and straightforward.   To be interesting, create a unique personal narrative. To be straightforward, make direct, concrete statements about your accomplishments and qualifications.


Create a personal narrative

An acceptance into a Ph.D. program is an investment in your professional and scientific growth by a university.  To provide evidence that this investment is worthwhile, craft a personal narrative that provides a complete picture of your career as a scientist.  Consider the following:

  • What research directions are you passionate about, and why?
  • Was there a moment that sparked your interest in your proposed field?
  • What do you picture yourself doing in 10 years?

Get the committee excited about investing in you by opening your essay with a brief portrait of what drives you as a scientist.  Close your essay with a 2-3 sentence discussion of your career goals.  Your readers will not hold you to these goals, but they will see you are forward-thinking and have ambitions.

Describe concrete experiences

Experiences are the meat of your essay, around which you create a complete story. Consider the experiences that led you to develop your skill sets, demonstrated leadership, etc. State concrete achievements and outcomes like awards, discoveries, or publications.  Wherever possible, quantify your experiences to make them concrete. How many people were on your team? How many protocols did you develop? As a TA, how often did you meet with your students?  Describe actions, not just changes in your mental or emotional state. A personal statement is a way to make a narrative out of your CV. It is not a diary entry.

Vague experience Concrete experience
My mind was opened to the possibility of
using different programming languages
together to create code that is faster to
run and easier to understand and modify.
During this project, I collaborated with other
group members to develop a user-friendly
Python wrapper for a 10,000-line Fortran library.
I won the physic department’s Laser Focus prize. I won the physics department’s prize for the top
student in my cohort of 20 students.
I learned about how particle accelerators work. I took apart and repaired two electromagnetic
steering filters inside of a particle accelerator.

Explain the so what of your experiences

Meaning is the “why” or “so what” of the document.

  • Why was this experience important to your growth as a scientist?
  • What did you gain from or demonstrate during that experience?
  • How will this make you a better grad student?

Even if it feels obvious to you, you need to explicitly answer these questions to your audience.

Experience only Experience and Meaning
As a senior, I received an A in a graduate-level CFD course

I independently developed a digital data acquisition software for gamma spectroscopy

My advanced coursework demonstrates my ability to thrive in a challenging academic environment.  A graduate-level computational fluid dynamics course challenged me to…

My research experiences have developed my problem-solving abilities.  When the commercial software was insufficient for my gamma spectroscopy project, I … This has given me the confidence and software skills to attack open-ended research problems

Demonstrate match to your target program

Demonstrate an understanding of the program to which you are applying. Directly address how you will be a successful, contributing member of that program. To do this:

  • Read the program’s website. See what language they use to describe themselves, and echo that language in your essay. This is also a good place to see what kind of research is currently being performed.
  • Get in contact with faculty in your target program. If you have had a positive discussion with someone at the department, describe how those interactions indicate that you will be a good match.
  • State which professors in the program you would plan to work with and why their research interests you. Show how their research areas align with your background and your goals. You can even describe potential research directions or projects. This is even more effective if you have contacted the professor beforehand and spoken with them about the possibility of doing research for them.

Resources and Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 1
Annotated Example 1

Sample Personal Statement 1 MB