At the moment my life is revolving around two things: chemistry research and graduate school applications. Of the latter, the most time-consuming bit is the writing of the personal statement (also called the statement of purpose ‘SOP’). The goal of the document is to summarise my education & relevant experience in my own words, and articulate the reasons I’m applying for a PhD program, and why I’m applying to University X in particular.
Each university weighs up their applicants differently. Some admissions committees desire the highest GRE scores and a slew of previous scholarships. Other committees prioritise the candidates with extensive work experience. I suspect it varies with the personal taste of who is on the admissions committee, as well as by departmental policy. Anyway, I know of at least one Chemistry PhD program which does not put much emphasis on the personal statement – preferring the opinion of referees to the candidate’s own.
I don’t want to take chances on that. I’m serious about putting together a good statement that (a) showcases me at my scientific best (b) reads as a compelling case for admitting me to PhD programs (c) is reflective of my personality and individual traits.
What is the creative process behind knocking up a personal statement over the course of autumn weekends?
As the regular readers know, I applied for PhD programs last year and thus arrived at this application cycle with a fully-formed personal statement. I didn’t like it though. I dislike most of the things which I wrote in my past – with hindsight all written pieces look hideous.
Obviously I would have to give the draft an update – a whole year of CHEMISTRY had happened since then. Yet I needed to do more than that, based simply on the fact that the statement in its 2011 form hadn’t got me any offers of admission. The universities I was re-applying to would still have my 2011 application on file, most places will consider the re-application side-by-side with the first attempt. I made the decision not to bother with editing the 2011 draft: I was going to click (CTL + N) and start right from the beginning again.
Stage 1. The Forage.
I went for a rootle around GradSchool.com, the Fulbright UK-US Commission’s ‘Study in the USA’ web pages and online advice columns to see what I could come up with in the way of guidelines for personal statements. I looked at examples of personal statements to chemistry programs – both online and from contacts in the USA – seeing what I liked the look of and what I thought worked well. I came up with some nifty ideas to do with headers.
Stage 2. The Draft Graft.
Next I forced to myself to write the preliminary drafts. No excuses – just get the words out. Start editing only once all the necessary information is on the page.
Stage 3. The Critique.
The halfway decent drafts were send out to the individuals who kindly agreed to review them on my behalf. I asked them to not be as kind in their feedback, and sent them a list of things to look out for which I considered important: motivation, details of research experience, style of language, narrative. I also went back through my drafts and critiqued them harshly. Using referees
Repeat Stage 2 & 3 as often as necessary.
In the end the drafts get more and more likeable. Last weekend I had a minor shock to the system when I realised – for all my wordiness and information-cramming, the prose reads atrociously. Seriously, it was all lists, disjointed clauses and strange word ordering! This is what you get if you focus in on the individual sentences and words – you lose a sense of who the document as a whole reads. Thankfully that seems to have been dealt with now. That’s the advantage of going away from the writing for days at a time, when you come back you can re-read your draft with fresher eyes.
My work has been in a combination of places – the main Imperial College Library and in Starbucks around the city. Fuelled on espressos and muffins. With hectic hours on my research project (not sure if I’m progressing or staying still some times…) I don’t feel like I’m able to properly switch off and relax at any point. I’m going to make a serious effort to finish drafting this weekend so I don’t burn myself out before Christmas. Properly finish. Finish and hit ‘Submit’ in a few instances.
I think the finality will be good for me.