On that personal statement…

I wanted to get a chance to get back to the blog all weekend, but was distracted by mothering and wife-ing. Twitter was a flitter at the end of last week with discussion of what faculty look for in a personal statement. At the beginning of it all seems to be this tweet…

…quickly followed by another lamenting the number of personal statements a senior faculty member reads about dying grandmothers.

Now, I have to confess the dirty little secret that I have had the same feelings of “why” while reading personal statements. That said, my discomfort doesn’t come from a place of contempt for these young people’s experiences. It comes from the uncomfortable repetition that comes from reading these statements and realizing that students feel obligated or expected to convince faculty that they are promising young scientists because of early life experiences.  That they have to convince us that their passion comes from the traumatic or formative experiences they’ve had from cradle. This expectation is coming from somewhere and I think we all owe it to our students (PhD and professional school candidates) to communicate that they are not obligated to tell us about these experiences.

crying mariahIt puts pressure on people of color and underrepresented scientists, in particular, to create a competitive trauma narrative – to create a story of overcoming the odds. It’s cruel to ask people who already experience discrimination to put on a performance of their trauma for the purpose of joining a club.  Beyond that, it puts the evaluator in an unfortunate place. Was my experience important, meaningful, or traumatic enough to convince someone that I want to dedicate my life to this? As an evaluator, I am absolutely, completely unqualified to determine this and I don’t want to be in the position to compare trauma. This is particularly important when the group doing the evaluating is fairly homogeneous. How do you judge the impact of trauma from people whose lives you don’t really understand?

And what if your drive to attend graduate or professional school wasn’t informed by an early life or trauma experience? As I have written about before, I was raised in East Los Angeles in a very impoverished neighborhood, lived with my immigrant grandparents for a spell, and my mother was a drug addict who died right after I went to college. This may have influenced who I became as a person, but no part of that experience influenced my desire to attend graduate school. This is my personal history and I am under no obligation to share it with people who are giving it only the most superficial attention.  I went to graduate school because I was living with my soon-to-be husband and he wanted to go to graduate school. I was working as a clinical researcher for a pharmaceutical company and figured if I got a PhD, I could advance in the industry. I thought I could make a little more money and further my career. Am I a terrible person because I didn’t want to selflessly find the cure for drug addiction or study the social challenges that Latino immigrants face? Do I lack motivation?

I remember, when I was a girl, my grandmother would sometimes get a “feeling” and that feeling was not to be ignored. In her spirit, I’ll preface this next bit by saying that admissions to graduate school are still largely determined by people who get a “feeling” about an applicant.

What do I look for in personal statements? I want to know what people have been doing in the most recent few years. Using scientist as an example, how have you figured out what a scientist really does? Have you really done some career discernment? Maybe you worked in a lab, but maybe not. If you didn’t, how do you know what you’re getting yourself in to? It’s good to follow your dreams, but would it still be a dream if you knew that it frequently means wading through shit? How have you used your recent experiences to your advantage? What did you learn from them? What skills did you get that you think are applicable to your future career? Did you do something and stick with it in a meaningful way?  Finally, how did you make something better? I was once so tickled by a student who told me a story about how she was doing volunteer work in a facility and realized that she could decrease the distance patients had to travel if they moved the wheelchair station.**  The facility implemented that change. I liked the fact that she wasn’t satisfied to be a cog in a machine or clock volunteer hours. She wanted to improve.

But, the best thing that a student can do when applying is to show their statements to as many people as possible. In some ways, the interactions on Twitter were a blessing because they were a window into the conversations that faculty are having behind closed doors. It might not feel good, and it may be offensive, but it means that there are people who feel this way and they are still the gatekeepers. Show your statement to as many faculty as will agree to read it and ask their opinion. Don’t try to convince them of why your statement is good. Just listen. The response you’ll get is likely the response you’d get if you were submitting your application to them. At the end of the day, the meritocracy is still really a club and gaining admission to the club means knowing the members.

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**Not the real details of the story, of course.

6 thoughts on “On that personal statement…

  1. Well, as a student desperately seeking for a Ph.D. Position, I am know wondering if I should make myself look like a victim.. I’m joking.
    Though some of my friends actually advised me to look more human in my application letters (I just try to look professional, that’s all), I’ll take your advices about going further than just describing my past experiences by explaining what I learnt, not only scientifically, but maybe also as a human being. Sharing the letter with other professors might also be a good suggestion, but I am always afraid to bother people..
    Thanks for your post!


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  3. Pingback: Links 1/17/18 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  4. A very insightful blog! Although, as a student, I am sad about how “trendy” it gets fro people to attribute their career interests to childhood experience. My childhood experience indeed largely affects my career choice. In fact, it’s the story that I told in my college application. But given the situation the blogger described, I don’t think that now many people would believe the story’s originality. Very sad situation, but I accept it.


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