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Sunday, November 22, 2020-

It’s November 22, which means graduate school application deadlines are coming up soon! When I was applying myself in the fall of 2018, I remember not being able to find many examples to read online, which is why I’m sharing my essays. Having experienced firsthand how useful it is to be able to look at a variety of writing examples, particularly when I was applying for fellowships, I would like to create the same sort of database below.

I have also edited many essays for other people, so I’m familiar with what sort of problems may arise when writing these.

The first thing to get through to your head is that, though writing these applications probably seem like a ridiculously scary, insurmountable task, it’s really just 4-ish pages of story about your life that you can probably bang out in 4 hours of focus time. I made this mistake many times in my life, which has resulted in me being a horrible procrastinator. I wrote 4 applications in Starbucks on Nov. 30/Dec. 1, allowing myself to cry for 20 minutes in between applications, and yet that was enough time for me to write a successful application. I know, I’m still shocked about it myself.

The Actual Writing Part

Usually, graduate school applications consist of two things: (1) A 2- to 3- page statement of purpose, which describes your past research experiences and what you’ve learned from them and how they shape your future research interests, and (2) A 1- to  2- page personal statement, which describes more of your personal journey through science (what experiences have sparked and/or continued your interest in science in general, what are your future professional goals, how have you furthered science outreach efforts throughout your undergraduate experience or how have you practiced science communication to diverse audiences, and how will you continue to do so during graduate school and beyond).

For the Statement of Purpose (or Research Statement):

CONTENT: is the most important aspect, not how beautifully you can write (in fact, please try to avoid florid phrases to the best of your ability, I have cringed on numerous occasions when reading them).

  • Start by writing a paragraph about each of your research experiences, if you have had multiple. If you’ve only had one, you can dedicate a paragraph to each project. Use the SPARG method.
  • Situation: A statement of where the research was performed and general statement about the project. “While in the XYZ Lab at ABC university, I worked on understanding how the gut microbiome composition shifts in response to daily caffeine exposure.”
  • Purpose: Discuss the motivations behind the project. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the gut microbiota are critical regulators of host physiology, including mood, cognition, and motor function. While it is difficult to conduct large population studies evaluating the association between the gut microbiota and serious drug addiction, 120 million American adults are daily coffee drinkers. Exploring whether there exists a link between gut microbiome composition and daily consumption consumption could pave the way for further mouse studies investigating how the caffeine-linked gut microbiota composition influences behavior.
  • Action: Discuss your personal role in the project. “I took the lead on DNA extraction, PCR amplification of the 16S V3V4 gene region, and sample pooling for subsequent sequencing with Illumina NovaSeq, for over 600 fecal samples.”
  • Result: Describe the conclusions of the project and its scientific significance. Here would also be a good place to write about any research products that formed as a result of the project. “Due to my efforts, my mentor was able to perform 16S rRNA sequencing analysis of the data within just a year of project launch. We concluded that there is a distinct microbiome composition associated with daily coffee consumption, compared with cohorts of non-coffee drinkers, infrequent coffee drinkers, and decaf coffee drinkers. I am a co-author on a publication currently under review in Gastroenterology.”
  • Growth: Describe how this project has facilitated your personal and/or professional growth. Alternatively, have just one Growth section to describe what you have learned from each of your research experiences.
  • End your statement of purpose with a small blurb about how ABC university’s Your Choice Graduate Program will be the perfect ecosystem for studying your future research interests because ABC university Sequencing Core has the latest Illumina NovaSeq 9000, and Faculty Member One and Faculty Member Two are affiliated with Your Choice Graduate Program. On one hand, FM One studies so- and so-, in alignment with your research interests, and is an expert in such- and such-, and you would love to receive the opportunity to study under FM One. On the other hand, FM Two is exploring so- and so-, and you also find this really interesting as well, and you wonder whether this project could be extended to include your research interests, relying on FM Two’s expertise in signaling pathways. You get the point- be very specific. Otherwise, you’d come across as “just wanting to do research in some sort of capacity.”

For the Personal Statement:

  • Talk about how you decided on research as your future career path. Avoid using the words and phrases “passionate,” “have always been fascinated with,” “I have a passion for,” and etc. It’s better if you can weave your unique upbringing into a story about why you are interested in science.
  • Often, the prompt will ask for how you intend to contribute to the University’s diversity mission. This prompt is looking for both a demonstration of your potential to contribute (what have you done in the past?) and your plan to continue to contribute (what will you do in graduate school). Talk about a time when you experienced discrimination and how that affected your personal growth AND how this influences your planned outreach efforts (only if applicable) OR talk about a time when you became aware of the privileges you have and how you plan to use this privilege to help others. This is often the most important part of the personal statement, so spend the most time on it.
  • Related to the last bullet point, discuss any of your meaningful efforts to advance science outreach and science communication.
  • The personal statement is also a good location to discuss any hardships that may have arisen during your studies and may have affected your ability to do well in class or to perform research. Always put a positive spin on it though (obvious advice, but worth mentioning). “Despite balancing two part-time jobs to pay my rent, each of which required 15 hours/week, my dedication to schoolwork made it possible to maintain my 3.4 GPA.”
  • End your personal statement with a discussion of how ABC university’s Your Choice Graduate Program will help you meet your personal and professional goals, but focus more on the personal aspect. What resources, seminar series, or organizations at ABC University directed at graduate students will help you become a better (science advocate, mentor, etc.?)

STYLISTIC ELEMENTS for both statements:

  • The Vegan-Friendly Anecdotal Sandwich.
    • This means sandwiching your CONTENT sections with two small sections of the same anecdote, to make your essays less boring for the admissions committee.
    • For the Statement of Purpose, you can consider omitting the anecdote and just making it fully content-based. Relevant anecdotes here, might be, how you obtained your first research experience, or, a personal story of why you chose the research area you did.
    • For the Personal Statement, the anecdote is more important. It is usually related to your unique upbringing or why you got into science in the first place.
    • The “sandwich:” It’s better if you can come up with some clever sentence near the end of your statements referencing the same anecdote you used in the beginning, perhaps tying the moral of your anecdote to what you learned either from your research or from the experiences you talked about in your personal statement.
    • Vegan-friendly: Omit all cheese from your anecdotal sandwich. You’ll know which phrases are cheesy, if you cringe and/or shudder when you read them. If you really can’t tell, have a brutally honest friend read for cheese (I’m thinking of you, Julia.)
  • A Tiny Bit of Tasteful Academic Humor
    • This is distinct from making vivid exaggerations. This is distinct from writing jokes directly into both statements. No, this is a certain brand of nerd humor that only uptight academics would read and think “Hmmm, that’s oh-so-clever of this person.” I’m talking about weaving analogies related to your field of interest into your writing. For me, these phrases would be “following my gut,” “working symbiotically with other researchers,” and “the desire to be at the bench is infectious.” You could also construct analogies related to your anecdote.

If you generally struggle with stylistic elements, it’s better not to try than to force something out. Instead, focus on writing good, strong CONTENT paragraphs.

Other Tips

  • Center justify your statements. It’s analogous to dressing professionally for a Career Fair. First impressions matter.
  • Have a complete draft of your statements done before you ask anyone to edit. Otherwise, it’s very disrespectful of the other person’s time, unless you make it clear that you just want feedback on whether the ideas you currently have down are good or not.
  • I’m not qualified to give tips on what a good timeline for writing application looks like, but it helps if you allocate an unbroken 6 hours to just sit and write a complete draft of one statement. Don’t “write a little bit here and there” – it makes it harder to put the pieces together later. Do it all in one go.
  • If you’re scared about asking faculty for letters of recommendation – I know, I almost always feel the same way, even to this day. Just remember that they were once asking their professors for letters of recommendation for graduate school. If that doesn’t work, write the email, then download Boomerang for Gmail, and schedule that email to send automatically during a time you’re asleep. Boom. Problem solved.

Best of luck!
the microbepipettor