08 December 2010

Questions posed by grad schools

If you’re applying to a grad program, here are couple of questions you might find on an application.

Describe your professional goals you hope to achieve by pursuing a graduate degree.

Translation: “What job do you want after you finish your degree?” Or, to be even more blunt: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

First sentence should be something like:

“I want to work to be a [ professor / technician / researcher / patent lawyer ] in a [ teaching university / research university / community college / state government / federal government / start-up company / pharmaceutical company ], because....”

The rest of your response should flow from that first sentence.

Here’s another question you might get.

Describe why you are interested in your chosen field of study.

This question uses sleight of hand. I think it’s what it’s trying to find out is not your reasons as much as whether you have a “chosen field of study.” It’s a subtle way of asking if you have an understanding of what is currently being researched. Are you engaged with an intellectual problem? Have you read any research literature?

That means your first sentence should be something like:

“I want to study cell biology / ecology / herpetology / evolutionary biology / animal behaviour / taxonomy / molecular biology, because...”

The more specific you can be about the field in the first sentence,
the better. For instance:

Good: “I want to study microbiology, because...”

Better: “I want to study extremophile archae that live in high temperatures, because...”

Still better: “I want to study enzyme stability of extremophile archae that live in high temperatures, which several faculty in your department work on, because...”


Anonymous said...

You know, I am currently applying to grad schools, and your recommendations somehow give conflicting opinions to the ones I've read in almost any book about "how to write a personal statement." Granted, the questions must be answered directly, but how do they, the admission officers, account for the fact that most applicants seem to be interested in some specific field, or sub-field, or sub-sub-field, and end up dropping out and pushing the attrition rate to above 50%? I always thought that besides intellectual ability, what matters in a personal statement is, as egocentrical and selfish as it may sound, ME...my persistence, background, personality, "loveability", and other poignant, and maybe unnecessary, characteristics.

Heh, thanks for the input. I will tailor my statements as you advise. If I follow your advice, at least I will have some justification for making rationalizations later, after I get a few denial letters. :)


Zen Faulkes said...

I freely admit that my views are maybe not shared by everyone. This is why it is always important to get feedback from multiple people.

I don't think what I wrote and what you wrote are mutually exclusive. "You" are definitely important! But I do think you have to make sure to answer the question. And I've seen some who just... don't.

A personal statement is more art than science. (Hm. I wonder if anyone has actually done research on what makes for effective personal statements.)

Anonymous said...

I've actually done some research on mine. I wrote a statement in which I thought the first paragraph would desensitize readers to the suffering and accomplishments of other application essays. I decided to test that. I did an experiment by using three essays and a bevy of random students. This is the story:

I randomly selected 30 participants, whose only shared characteristic was that they have good reading comprehension skills , and randomly assigned them to two experimental conditions. In the first condition, subjects were required to read my personal statement (desensitizing essay) first and then a personal statement I picked from an outside source . Before administering my statement, I made sure to remove all the clues that might signal who wrote it. The personal statement from an outside source was picked on the basis of its emotional worth—the essay tells the story of an applicant whose mother struggled with AIDS. After reading my personal statement and then the poignant statement, I asked them to imagine that they are admission officers in a graduate school, and that they have to rate on a scale from 0 to 100 (0-no importance; 100-very high importance) how much importance would they give in the admission process to the emotional essay. To the second experimental group I provided the same personal statement I gave initially to the first group, except that it had a change in it: I omitted the desensitizing paragraph and included instead a paragraph that shows my interest in the field I was planning to do research. Afterward, the subjects were offered the same emotional essay I gave to the first group. I compared the mean averages for both groups (the one that read the essay with the desensitizing paragraph and the one who read the essay with the neutral paragraph) for the emotional essay. I found out that the essay that had a desensitizing paragraph led the first group to give lower scores to the emotional essay.

I hope this precis makes sense, I am rushing somewhere now...

Becca said...

I think it depends on the program whether a personal statement should be so directed and specific. Some want students to come in knowing exactly what they want to do, while others are happy to bring in bright, motivated people and let them find their niche once they get there.

I had no idea what I was doing when I applied to grad school, and my personal statement was about exactly that. It was self-deprecating, but also passionate, and showed that I was committed to studying neuroscience until I drew my last breath. It is without question (my advisor even confirmed this) the reason I got into grad school, since I didn't have the traditional science background most of my classmates had.

Because of that, I'm much more of an advocate of the somewhat unconventional personal statement. Zen, don't you think the admissions committees are going to read a million "I want to be a -ologist because" statements? Shouldn't people try to make themselves stand out a little?

Zen Faulkes said...

For context, I should say that this post started in response to an email I got from a student who was crafting a personal statement for an application to a grad program.

It was completely adrift. It had no form. It didn't answer the questions at all.

Critiquing that particular student’s statement may have led me to write an overly specific blog post.

Becca: I've had cases where I personally responded very well to an application that said, "I don’t know what I want to do in the long run." So yes, that certainly can work if it also shows commitment and an engagement in an intellectual process - which it sounds like you had in yours!

There is certainly no One True Way™ to do a personal statement, and that's something that I didn't get across in the post.

"I plead guilty, your honor!"