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The anatomy of a personal statement
Our fourth book winner is Anna Yan, a prospective PhD student! Be sure to enter the book giveaway for your chance to win a copy of A Field Guide to Grad School! More details below (at the end of the post). Now, onto the good stuff!
As a part of the PhD application process, you are likely going to write a personal statement (although, note that some programs may call it an academic statement or even a research statement). In general, this statement is an opportunity to highlight your relevant experiences, research interests, and specify why a particular program and PI(s) are a good fit for you. Let me start off by saying that you may receive a lot of conflicting advice about how to best write this statement. What I offer here is simply my advice based on my own experiences, conversations I’ve had with my faculty friends and colleagues, and the successes of my students. Further, I write from the perspective of someone who is most knowledgable about the application processes in psychology (twice I sat on the admissions committee as a PhD student representative), behavioral science, and marketing. So, this is all to say, please consider what I share, but don’t assume it’s 100% the right advice for you (this is what mentors are for!).
With all that said, I’m going to walk you through the anatomy of a personal statement using someone’s actual anonymized statement for psychology PhD applications. Thank you to this anonymous person for allowing me to use their statement as an example to illustrate key points!
Some logistics. Before getting started, make sure you understand precisely what is being asked of you. Although you may be able to easily adapt your statements for different programs, there may be some slight differences. For example, a program may institute a word or page limit (I recommend not exceeding two single-spaced pages given no guidance on page or word limits). Additionally, a program may ask you to separate your academic and personal motivations for pursuing a PhD into two statements. For these reasons, among others, it is important to review application requirements early and note them in your spreadsheet (here is a link to the spreadsheet I’ve shared previously to track program and application information).
Gross anatomy. When talking with students, I typically break the statement down into three parts: 1) the hook (i.e., the questions that draw you to the study of something); 2) the experiences (i.e., the personal and research experiences that have led you to your questions of interest and prepared you for graduate study); 3) the specifics (i.e., what you would like to study, with whom, where, and why). Depending on your motivations, training, and experiences, your statements may take a different shape—this is just one possible starting point. Below, I highlight portions of the sample statement that speak to these different key parts.
The hook. Here, the author has captivated the reader by sharing simple everyday questions posed by children and connecting them to larger ideas and programs of research within cognitive psychology. In doing so, the author has demonstrated their understanding of the relation between psychology and the world and has highlighted the importance of pursuing research with children, including what children can reveal about adult cognition. This is quite an achievement in so few words. Note that in a second paragraph, the author shares a bit more about their specific interest in cognitive psychology and their motivations for pursuing it.
The experiences. Here, the author has walked through relevant personal, professional, and research experiences that have prepared them for graduate study. In doing so, they’ve demonstrated their commitment to studying cognitive psychology from a developmental perspective, highlighted their participation in a relevant academic network of early-career cognitive scientists, and walked through an example of an independent research project. All signs point to a student who knows what they’re getting into and that they’re prepared to get into it.
The specifics. Here, the author has specified why they want to pursue graduate studies within a particular program and with whom (and note that they included at least two faculty members, which I highly recommend!). Additionally, they identified concrete questions that they would like to explore. Again, this sends a strong signal to the admissions committee and relevant PI(s) that this student is an independent thinker ready to take their next steps as a PhD student.
Conclusion. The author of this statement successfully gained admission to a wonderful PhD program. Of course, there was more to their application than this statement; however, they really set themselves up for success by clearly articulating their thoughts, ideas, and goals. To do this in your own statements, be sure to reach out to friends, colleagues, and/or mentors for feedback on drafts. You don’t necessarily need to receive feedback from someone in your desired field (although, it can be helpful). You want to be sure that your readers walk away with a good understanding of who you are, what you’re about, and get the impression that you understand what you’re getting into. Lastly, like everything I’ve written about so far, there is more to say and more for you to learn. Please use the information I’ve shared as a starting point for further exploration.
Some homework. As you learn whether prospective PIs are accepting students (see my last post for information on how to reach out to potential mentors), begin to draft your personal statement. You could start by free writing responses associated with the three key parts I’ve identified above (i.e., the hook, the experiences, the specifics). Rather than start at the beginning, I recommend starting by walking through your experiences to build momentum. Do not aim to write a “final” draft the first time you sit down to write! Writing is an iterative process and you should expect to revise your statement(s) many, many times. On this point, be open to feedback and don’t be afraid to delete stuff (if you must, retain deleted stuff in a separate document). The goal is to tell a clear, cohesive story—so don’t feel compelled to share every last detail. Ok, get to writing!
SCHOLAR PROFILE #10: JAMES DUNLEA
The purpose of these profiles is to highlight and connect you to scholars at different career stages doing interesting and important research and service work.
This week, we get to learn about James Dunlea, who is PhD candidate in Psychology at Columbia University.
Now, let’s learn about James’s academic journey.
What are your research interests?
Broadly, I study how children and adults think about punishment, typically within the context of the criminal legal system. Recently, I have been particularly interested in understanding how people understand punishment's messages. In these lines of work, I am interested in understanding what types of inferences people make about individuals who have been punished (e.g., incarcerated individuals), as well as the types of inferences people make about individuals who who have relationships with punished individuals (e.g., children with incarcerated parents).
With whom are you working for your PhD?
I work with Dr. Larisa Heiphetz, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology.
Why did you choose your PhD institution and advisor(s)?
I was especially excited to work with Dr. Heiphetz for two main reasons. First, because of our common interest in understanding the extent to which people's reasoning about legal processes and institutions changes over development. Second, because we got along as human beings. I genuinely enjoyed my conversations with Dr. Heiphetz during the interview weekend; we talked about science, but also about who I am as a person, and I thought that was really special. I also liked Columbia for several pragmatic reasons: I had guaranteed funding for five years, health insurance, and the department had a friendly atmosphere. Also, location was really important for me. I felt happy when I visited NYC for my interview, and knew I could spend a significant amount of time working--and living my life in--this environment.
Please share more about your academic journey.
I attended Cornell University, where I majored in Human Development and concentrated in Law & Psychology. Throughout my time at Cornell, I was part of Dr. Steve Ceci's Child Witness and Cognition Lab, where we studied topics ranging from children's memory and suggestibility, jury decision-making, and how different types of formal education shape people's critical thinking skills. Toward the end of my undergraduate years, I was conflicted--did I want to be a lawyer or a psychology researcher? To adjudicate between these choices, I went on to pursue a M.S. in Law at Northwestern University Law School. While I absolutely loved learning about the law, I couldn't help thinking about topics central to psychological inquiry: to what extent do lay intuitions overlap with what the law says, what are the origins of legal thinking, and why is the law so powerful in shaping human behavior? I decided these questions were too fascinating to pass up, so I decided to matriculate as a PhD student in Psychology.
How did you navigate the PhD application process?
I sought a lot of feedback and started working on my applications early. I also made sure to tailor my research statements to each faculty member to which I was applying. Finally, I reached out to faculty members toward the end of summer/early fall. Doing this allowed me to connect with some faculty members and chat about our mutual interests, and provided me a chance to ask relevant questions (e.g., What is your lab like? What direction do you see your lab's work going in over the next five-ish years? What is your mentorship style?)
What is one bit of advice you'd like to give new (first-year) PhD students?
It is very easy to feel like you are the only person in your cohort who has no idea what they are doing--the one who "slipped through the cracks" of PhD admissions. I can assure you, no one knows what they are really doing. And that is okay! Your PhD journey is one giant learning curve, so embrace not knowing things and get excited to learn.
Is there anything else about you or your journey that you’d like to share?
Rejection is a common experience in academia. While rejection is never easy, know that it gets a bit easier with time. At the beginning of my PhD journey, I used to get really sad when one of my manuscripts was rejected, or if I didn't win an award that I really wanted (to be clear, this was many, many times). Now, with the help of my PhD advisor, I have learned to reframe rejections as learning and growing opportunities.
Many thanks to James for sharing more about his academic journey!
In this section, I highlight resources you may find helpful as you navigate the PhD application process as well as the PhD itself. This week, I’m sharing two Twitter threads as well as a link to a program designed to diversify the academy.
Twitter Threads: Twitter can be a great place to connect with other folks folks in academia via #AcademicTwitter. I’ve had wonderful experiences meeting up with Twitter connections at conferences and have even formed some new friendships! It can also be a difficult place (think back to my post about social comparison). So, jump in when you’re ready, but never hesitate to take a break or even mute certain words and phrases!
Unlearning the “half-ass work mentality” from @cesifoti
A short thread of helpful writing tips and resources from @rodriguesjm6
The Leadership Alliance: The Leadership Alliance, founded at Brown University in 1992 as a partnership of 23 institutions, came together to develop underrepresented students into outstanding leaders and role models in academia, business, and the public sector. Today, this consortium has grown to more than 30 partners and has provided research, mentoring, and networking experiences to over 4,000 scholars. The Leadership Alliance uses a time-tested model to leverage its collective resources to address the shortage of individuals from historically underrepresented groups in doctoral training programs, academia, and the broader research workforce.
Of the many wonderful things this organization does, they offer paid summer internships to students at participating universities in the United States. The University of Chicago happens to be one of the participating sites, which means I had the pleasure of meeting some of our site’s Leadership Alliance students this past summer! Apply by November 1 if interested in participating in this summer program next year.
How to reach me: You are always welcome to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or find me on Twitter @tweetsbymidge.
Let’s give away some books: Readers located in the United States and Canada are eligible to enter the book giveaway to receive a copy of A Field Guide to Grad School by Dr. Jessica Calarco. To do so, complete this survey and note that you only have to complete it once to be entered in all subsequent giveaways! I do hope to expand the reach of the giveaway; however, at the moment, the shipping costs are too great to scale. If you’d like to talk about ways your institution could secure an electronic (or hard) copy, please let me know (sign up for a 1-on-1 meeting below!).
1-on-1 sessions: Interested in some additional mentorship? Sign up for 1-on-1 sessions to discuss your questions regarding the social science PhD application process and/or completing a social science PhD more generally! Sign-ups will happen via Calendly and you can check periodically for updated openings. Sign up here!
Until next time!
Gross anatomy is the study of anatomy at the macroscopic level (i.e., the stuff we can see).