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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Applying to the NSF GRFP: The personal statement

Olivia Wilkins

In a previous post, I gave an overview of the NSF GRFP, including some quick advice regarding the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (or more succinctly... the personal statement), pulling from my experiences of applying last year.

Personal statements can be a daunting task. How do you tell your life's story in a couple of measly pages? After writing multiple personal statements (read: recycling an under-two-pages-long personal statement), telling my story in three (yes, three!) pages for the NSF GRFP seemed impossible. I had managed to chisel away the least interesting bits of my life in previous statements, and now I could include them?

Between the extra one to two pages and trying to figure out how to write about my personal stuff, my relevant background experiences, and my future goals separately, I was left to stare at my screen for long bouts of time. I thought I had ideas, but alas, I could not get them to show up on the screen; I had a bad case of writer's block.

When writing my statement, I started the same way I always do:

I was six years old the first time my family traveled through the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia. Rising above the tall trees that filled the landscape were massive satellite dishes. Even at six, I knew there was something peculiar about these white giants. I remember crudely outlining two or three of the large dishes in my sketchpad, imprinting the awe-inspiring image in my mind. Twelve years later, my family returned to the area to investigate the complex that had caught my gaze so many years before.

The “satellite dishes,” as I had called them, were actually radio telescopes—large metal contraptions that explored the invisible universe....

If you've talked to a fellowship advisor or career counselor, you probably have heard some of the same advice I have about personal statements: much like your CV, anything before undergrad is irrelevant and should be left out. If you read the excerpt above, you see that I respectfully disagree; there is no straight rule for what to include in the narrative of your personal statement. If your journey in your respective field started as a small child, include it. Sure, no accomplishments may have come of it, but (1) it shows long-term passion and (2) including something... well... personal makes for a much more heartfelt hence genuine statement. If you don't have a lifelong relationship with your field, don't lie to get little-kid-cuteness points; your introduction to your field is probably just as magical if you are going to grad school for it. Dig deep into why you love your field. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Anyone can say they are passionate about their field, but if you open your personal statement by showing it, I think you are in a much better place.

For me, the first couple of paragraphs were the easy part. Initially, I set out to talk about my international travels visiting radio telescopes before settling in on the relevant background (namely, research) bits. This is where I got stuck. My relevant background experiences were entwined with my personal ones that I could not figure out how to lay out the personal separately from the research. After all, as I progressed through background experiences, I became more deeply tied to my field. The research was personal.

After wrestling with how to talk about my personal growth and research skills acquired through my first summer in radio astronomy research in Green Bank, West Virginia, I finally realized that separating them wasn't necessary. Despite the title of the "Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement" suggesting separation of these areas (at least it did to me...), the purpose of this statement is to "outline your educational and professional development plans and career goals." My educational and professional (and personal) developments weren't separable, so I stopped trying to divide them. Of course, if the best way to tell your story is to separate all of these components, by all means do just that. My point is to tell your story in this statement, and do it in a way that makes sense to you.

As with all components of the GRFP application, it is important to discuss your intellectual merits and broader impacts. While intellectual merits are generally research experiences, I think it is important to explain why those experiences have better prepared you for graduate study in your respective STEM field. Moreover, you can tie broader impacts into what you have already done. Take, for instance, my research experience in Green Bank. In my personal statement, I not only mentioned the experience and what I did, but I clearly laid out the intellectual merit and broader impacts achieved in this experience through three influential aspects:

  1. "... I experienced first-hand the interdisciplinary nature of radio astronomy research that had so intrigued me two years before." Here I related my research experience back to my opening narrative before delving into the specifics.
  2. "I seized several opportunities to present my research, perhaps the most rewarding of which was a presentation to more than 30 high school students...." Not only did I give a concrete example of outreach (complete with citation!), but I also discussed how my research experiences shaped how I presented information. Specifically, I had gained better consciousness about audience.
  3. "... [I was] learning that collaborations across international borders are imperative for enhanced critical analysis and maximum scientific productivity." Without going abroad before, I interacted with researchers from all over and witnessed global research networks in action. I also discussed how I became particularly interested in radio astronomy culture and research abroad, talking with people in Europe and ultimately pursuing research in Germany.

Yes, the review committee wants to see what you plan to do in the way of broader impacts, but it helps if you can show what you have done or learned already to convince them that "I will engage in public outreach" isn't just a thoughtless addition to your essay. If you have made progress in broader impacts, for example through public outreach: awesome. If not, what have you learned about broader impacts, whether they be public outreach, scientific inreach, teaching, or furthering your field? Do your best to show that you value the broader impacts of your work, both in- and out-of-field.

After wrapping up the personal and relevant background bits of your essay, it is time to end with future goals. I suppose you don't have to end with future goals, but in telling a story, I think it makes sense to go along chronologically. There are a couple of ways to approach the future goals, depending on where you are in your career.

If you are an undergraduate senior or a first-year graduate student, your plan for research (and in the former case, your graduate institution) may be unknown. Despite this, you still have an idea of what types of programs and research attracts you, so you can be hypothetical. For example, I mentioned I was interested in programs that focused heavily on research with less emphasis on coursework because I'd have more time to focus on practicing my research skills (especially since I am interested in both laboratory work and observational astronomy).

On the other hand, if you are a second-year graduate student, you (hopefully) have already joined a research group, so you have more clarity about your immediate plan.

Either way, the future isn't limited to the next five years, so be sure to include long-term goals (university teaching, industrial research, entrepreneurial work, etc.) too.

No matter how you slice up your essay between "personal," "background," and "future" aspects, the most important thing is that you are genuine. Let your passion shine through, even if you don't always feel like have much left at this point. Include the intellectual merits and broader impacts, but do so in a way that you tell your story. You'll probably have to revise the essay a dozen times, but in the end, you'll have something that you can be proud of.

Good luck, and happy writing!