Writing Personal Statements (Hidden Curriculum Series #3)

The hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. In keeping with the applications theme, this new addition to the series is on the personal statement. 

Thanks to everyone on Instagram who helped with the decision!

A note on the personal statement

This post is about writing personal statements for funding applications, not grad school applications. I realize that there also exist “statements of purpose,” which are sometimes asked for in addition to a personal statement.

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Image credit: GREedge (greedge.com)

In the case of funding applications, “personal statement” and “statement of purpose” are often used interchangeably. 

Take for example these two funding opportunities from my university:

#1: The statement of purpose must be single-spaced, 12pt font, and three pages maximum including any bibliography, citations, project timetable, graphics, etc. These should be written in language for non-specialists, should describe the proposed research project and discuss its rationale, objectives, design, timetable, feasibility, and methodology, as well as the projected benefits of this trip. If the applicant will be working with an established research project, a description of the organization and the activities in which he/she will be engaged must be included. Applicants should also discuss any language skills needed to conduct the proposed research.

#2: Students’ personal statement…should address the importance of the student’s work in the beginning two or three sentences. The statement should include the theoretical framework of the dissertation, its specific aims, methodologies (how the student is conducting the research), originality, and the significance and contribution of the project to the field…The statement should be written with an interdisciplinary faculty review panel in mind; i.e., reviewers will NOT necessarily be familiar with the technical vocabulary of a specific field.

The purposes of the funding opportunities are slightly different. One specifically supports international research and the other supports work on the dissertation (writing and/or research) more broadly, with an eye toward completion. 

However, the requirements for the statements are roughly the same. 

If you’re unsure of what to include in a statement, funding institutions usually spell out what sort of information they’re looking for in a personal statement/statement of purpose.

The Hidden Application Curriculum?

You’re probably wondering why this ‘application’ theme persists. Aren’t there other aspects of the hidden curriculum that I could talk about?

First of all, yes, there are tons of other things.

Second, I’m sticking with this theme because 1) applications can seem daunting when there are so many requirements, and 2) I would know, since I’ve applied for a lot lately.

Application writing is fresh in my mind, so writing about the topic seemed particularly apt. 

A few days ago, I saw someone on Twitter acknowledge that their page would look a lot different if they shared all of the times they didn’t get something they applied for. I’ll admit that, even though I give advice on applications, they aren’t always successful. Of the six funding applications I submitted this year, I received three rejections. 

The ratio was much worse when I applied for grad school.

This funding application cycle, however, wasn’t totally a wash, though. Just this week I received news of a successful application. 

I point to this application because I think that the personal statement really put me over the top, so to speak. I applied for so many funding opportunities that I thought recycling the same statement for different applications, tailoring them to the differing requirements, would help me. 

Indeed, it did save me a lot of time, especially since I didn’t follow my own advice and often left my applications until the last minute, leaving little time for asking for and incorporating feedback.

When I wrote on my application for this particular opportunity, however, one reference quickly provide feedback. I took her feedback and incorporated it, and I think doing so really helped my application.

I wanted to share here four pieces of advice that she gave me.

1. Aim for a strong opening statement

The reviewers read a lot of personal statements, so make sure that yours grabs their attention from the beginning

The way that I’d always started my statements in the past was by indicating my reason for applying for the fellowship:

“I am applying for X fellowship to carry out research directly related to my dissertation project”

However, it’s better to start discussing your project and why it’s important from the beginning:

“My dissertation project, De-centering the Symposium: Characterizing Commensality in Late Classical Olynthos, Greece, deconstructs the traditional, Athenocentric definition of the Greek symposium, or drinking party, in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the range of drinking practices on the ancient Greek mainland.”

2. Have a clear idea of what the ultimate payoff of your research is

If you don’t know what the ultimate payoff, or larger contribution of your research to your field, is yet, consider these questions:

Why are you researching this topic from this perspective?

What perspectives or approaches is your research responding to?

What do you hope that your research will contribute to the larger discourse?

Once you have some answers to these questions, find ways to incorporate them into your statement. 

Ideally, you should have at least one sentence in your introduction that sums this up, in addition to further elaboration later in the document.

3. Define your terms 

Whether or not your application is reviewed by specialists in your field, they can’t always decipher a personal statement filled with jargon. 

This includes specific terms (petrography), methodologies (x-ray fluorescence), and theoretical frameworks (e.g. network analysis or communities of practice).

Sometimes it is hard to recognize jargon when you or your colleagues read through your statement, because you’re already familiar with the terminology of your field. 

Try sharing your statement with someone outside of your field and ask if any terms need clarification. If you’re using these terms in your introduction, briefly define them and then go into more detail later.

4. Articulate why your perspective or your conclusions are so exciting or interesting

Most personal statements for funding applications center around discussions of methodology in order to justify the need for financial support. It’s easy to get lost in how you’re going to carry out your research. 

But what you also need to consider – and include in your statement – is why you’re doing your project in the first place.

Why did you choose this project, time period, data set, etc.?

Why is the way you are approaching the topic different? To whom or what are you responding?

Why is your approach important to you?

In my example above, it is abundantly clear what I am responding to:

“My dissertation project, De-centering the Symposium: Characterizing Commensality in Late Classical Olynthos, Greece, deconstructs the traditional, Athenocentric definition of the Greek symposium, or drinking party, in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the range of drinking practices on the ancient Greek mainland.”

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