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102: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Crafting the Perfect Personal Statement with Dr. Brian Rybarczyk

Please recount your life story, all of your future plans, and why this graduate program is uniquely suited to fulfill those dreams.  Limit your answer to 140 characters.

Okay, okay, the typical “Personal Statement” prompt on your grad school application is probably not that outrageous, but they CAN feel both cryptic and overwhelming.

Here’s a real prompt from a real grad school application at a major university:

In 1-2 pages, describe your career goals, research interests, past and present research experience, and why you’ve chosen the [Name Redacted] Program for your graduate studies.

This prompt can induce instant writer’s block in even the most prepared applicants.  So where do you begin?

This week on the show, we share tips for crafting the perfect personal statement that will highlight your grad-school-readiness and potential for greatness in a career beyond the degree.

Anatomy of an Application

The typical graduate school application has four main parts:

  1. Transcripts
  2. Test Scores (GRE, TOEFL, etc.)
  3. Letters of Recommendation
  4. Personal Statement

Let’s unpack these one by one.


Transcripts are the easy part. If you’ve already done the hard work of researching schools that will be a good fit for your aspirations, you simply need to visit the registrar to send transcripts. 

Sure, it’ll cost you a few bucks, but the main concern here is timing.  It can take moments or months for official transcripts to make their way to the intended school, so start early.  Many programs will accept ‘unofficial’ transcripts with an application as long as you send the real-sealed-deal eventually.

Test Scores

It seems like only yesterday when every graduate program required applicants to submit GRE scores, as well as some GRE subject tests.  That’s because it pretty much WAS yesterday.

In the last year, nearly 100 programs have dropped their GRE requirement.  You can find a running list, maintained by our very own Josh, in a Google Doc he updates regularly.

And while the GRE may not be required, many applicants will still take it.  Our advice is that if you choose to take the exam, you should definitely study.  Check you university’s website for test-prep classes and guides.

If English is not your first language, you’ll also need to take a language proficiency exam like the TOEFL.  Typically, grad programs will expect scores to be recent – within the last year or two – to ensure you’ve kept up with the language.

To learn more about the GRE requirement and why it’s falling from favor in biomedical graduate programs, check out our previous episodes:

023: Seriously, can we ditch the GRE already?

065: Does the GRE Predict Which Students Will Succeed?

Letters of Recommendation

While you probably won’t need to spend a lot of time on this section of your application, there are a few keys you need to know.

The admissions committee will be looking very specifically for letters from your research advisors.  

In other words, if you did two summers of undergraduate research and then worked for a year full-time as a lab technician, you should have letters from those three principal investigators.  Gaps between your CV and your recommendations send the message that perhaps your research experience didn’t go very well.

Moreover, it may be okay if the PI didn’t interact with you on a day-to-day basis, or if you worked under the supervision of a postdoc or graduate student.  While your direct manager can write the body of the letter, it should be the PI who submits it with her name.

The admissions committee will lend more weight to the recommendation if it comes from the top person in the lab.

Personal Statement

Okay, deep breaths.  You can do this.  And we asked Brian Rybarczyk to help.

Dr. Brian Rybarczyk
Dr. Brian Rybarczyk

Dr. Rybarczyk is Assistant Dean of Academic and Professional Development at the UNC Chapel Hill Graduate School.  He’s written several articles for Science Magazine on how to craft a personal statement that will impress the review committee.

First, give yourself plenty of time to craft your personal statement.  This isn’t a document you can jot down the night before the deadline and send without review.

You’ll also need extra time because each program may expect different essays.  The prompt at the top of this article requests information on your research experience, career goals, interests, and fit, while another prominent graduate school wants two essays: one with those items, and one about a time when you overcame adversity.

For essay 1 you will provide information on your research experiences.  For up to your 3 most substantive research experiences provide mentor name, Institution, length of project in months, and the approximate hours per week of effort, up to Dec. 1 of this year. You will also write an essay for one or more of these experiences providing your specific contributions to the work.  Please also describe your motivations for graduate study and a fundamental biological question that most intrigues you, highlighting potential [University Name] faculty mentors. Drawing on your past and planned experiences, please conclude with a statement articulating why you will be an outstanding graduate student.

For essay 2 you will describe an experience that demonstrates your resilience, perseverance, and/or leadership skills in response to a challenge in any area of your life.

And that’s important: a “Personal Statement” is not a single document! 

You’ll need to craft a different essay for each application, but you can build them up from a few common parts.

Begin at the Middle

Dr. Rybarczyk recommends thinking through your motivations for attending graduate school, and tying them into a narrative linking your training to your future career.

“A good place to start is thinking about why you want to go to graduate school,” he says.   

“Think about your career goals.  How does this graduate education fit into your overall career trajectory? From that, then you can start thinking about what examples you might show in your personal statement.  Talk about your past research experience and connect that to your rationale for applying to graduate school.  You want to think about your focus for graduate education and demonstrate that you’re actually ready for that next step.”

Demonstrating that readiness is key, and the admissions committee will base much of their assessment on the research experience you describe in your personal statement.

Keep in mind, your statement is not a “Materials and Methods” section of a journal paper, so if you’re listing the molarity of a reagent, you’re doing it wrong.

Instead, for each lab experience on your CV, briefly describe the key questions you were trying to answer, your role in the lab and on the team, and the main results of that study.

Your audience will be faculty members in the program, so they’re educated, but may not have a background in the specific areas of your work.  Avoid jargon and keep the descriptions at a high level.

Finding the Hook

Many applicants begin their statement with a story about their connection to science as a child, or list a desire to ‘cure cancer’ or ‘help people’ as their motivation for pursuing a graduate degree, but Dr. Rybarczyk recommends beginning with your undergraduate experience.

“Like any good story you want a hook – you want to engage your reader to be interested in being able to read the rest of your statement.  Starting with some experiences at the undergraduate level is probably the ideal pitch.  Some applicants may have had experiences in high school that really spawned their interest in science or doing research, but again, it’s not an autobiography where you want to go back to when you were in fifth grade and playing in the back yard.”

“You want it to start with your professional persona as a future researcher and that’s typically when you get started in the undergraduate years.”

Custom-Tailored Fit

The final component of the personal statement will be a reference to the ways in which a specific graduate program will be a good fit for your course of study.  You’ll want to highlight specific research going on at each university, scientists with whom you may like to work, and opportunities for career development unique to that location.

“You don’t want to submit a generic statement,” Dr. Rybarczyk observes. “You want to make sure that you’re highlighting those connections to those specific programs and making sure that that’s clear in each of your personal statements.”

And when you’re done, find a lab-mate, professor, or mentor to proof read and edit your statements.  

Dr. Rybarczyk concludes, “Feedback is important.  Have other folks read through you personal statement to see if it makes sense, to see if the different examples connect with each other, and to see if it’s convincing that you’re actually ready for graduate study. Get an outside perspective and critical feedback from someone you trust.”

For more advice and insights, check out Dr. Rybarczyk’s articles at Science Careers:

Sell Yourself: Guidance for Developing Your Personal Statement for Graduate School Applications

Perspective: Sell Yourself — Refining the Personal Statement

Sell yourself: Adding substance to your personal statement

Spring into Fall

We kick off this year’s IPA-Free Fall with the Left Hand Brewing Oktoberfest MÄRZEN LAGER.  This lager hails from Colorado where it’s apparently just chilly enough for proper lagering.  Yes, that’s a verb, and you’ll find out what it means this week!

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