Criteria for Success
- Your personal statement convinces a faculty committee that you are qualified for their program.
- It convinces them that you a good fit for their program’s focus and goals.
- You show a select group of skills and experiences that convey your scientific accomplishments and interests.
- Your experiences are concrete and quantitative.
- Your personal statement is no more than 3 pages.
The graduate school personal statement tells your story and demonstrates that you are a good match for a particular department or program. Matching goes both ways: they should be interested in you, and you should be interested in them. Your personal statement should make this match clear.
Analyze Your Audience
Your personal statement will be ready by a graduate committee, a handful of faculty from your program. They’re trying to determine if you will be a successful graduate student in their department, a positive force in the department’s intellectual life, and a successful scientist after you graduate. They are therefore interested in your qualifications as a researcher, your career goals, and how your personality matches their labs and department.
The graduate committee probably reads hundreds of applications a year. To make it easy for them to figure out that you are a good fit, make direct, concrete statements about your accomplishments and qualifications. To make it easy for them to remember you, create a narrative that “brands” you.
Create a personal narrative
PhD programs invest in the professional and scientific growth of their students. Get the committee excited about investing in you by opening your essay with a brief portrait of what drives you as a scientist. What research directions are you passionate about, and why? What do you picture yourself doing in 10 years?
Close your essay with a 2-3 sentence discussion of your career interests. No one will hold you to this; this just helps your committee visualize your potential trajectory.
Describe your experiences
Experiences are the “what” of your essay. What experiences led you to develop your skill set and passions? Where have you demonstrated accomplishment, leadership, and collaboration? Include research, teaching, and relevant extracurriculars. State concrete achievements and outcomes like awards, discoveries, or publications.
Quantify your experiences to show concrete impact. How many people were on your team? How many protocols did you develop? How many people were in competition for an award? As a TA, how often did you meet with your students?
Describe actions, not just changes in your internal mental or emotional state. A personal statement is a way to make a narrative out of your CV. It is not a diary entry.
|Vague experience||Concrete experience|
|During this project, my mind was opened to the possibility of using different programming languages together to create code that is faster to run and easier to understand and modify.||During this project, I collaborated with other group members to develop a user-friendly Python wrapper for a 10,000-line Fortran library.|
|I showed initiative in my second project in the lab.||Frustrated with the direction of my first project, I consulted with other faculty and proposed an entirely new project.|
|During my first year, I became a more curious and capable scientist.||I explored the literature and proposed two alternative procedures to make the experiment efficient.|
|I won the physic department’s Laser Focus prize.||I won the physics department’s prize for top student among my cohort of 20 students.|
|I learned about the role of enzymes in cancer.||I quantified the kinetics of three enzymes implicated in cancer onset.|
Explain the meaning of your experiences
Meaning is the “why” or “so what” of the document. Why was this experience important to your growth as a scientist? What does it say about your abilities and potential? It feels obvious to you, but you need to be explicit with your audience. Your descriptions of meaning should also act as transition statements between experiences: try to “wrap” meaning around your experiences.
|Experience only||Experience and Meaning|
Demonstrate match to your target program
Demonstrate an understanding of the program to which you’re applying and about how you will be successful in that program. To do this:
- Read the program’s website. See what language they use to describe themselves, and echo that language in your essay. For example, MIT Chemical Engineering’s website points out innovative research areas and interdisciplinary opportunities.
- Get in contact with faculty (or students) in your target program. If you have had a positive discussion with someone at the department, describe how those interactions made you think that you and the department may be well-matched.
- State which professors in the program you would be interested in working with. Show how their research areas align with your background and your goals. You can even describe potential research directions or projects.
Sample Personal Statement for Chemical Engineering
I am convinced that the migration of the trout must be one of the most touching phenomena of life on this planet. In their thousands of miles’ journey of migration to the sea, the trout swim inexhaustibly, often against the currents, with little rest and consumption of food, shuttling through countless turbulent rivers and treacherous shoals, with the sole purpose to fulfill their sacred mission of life reproduction. It is precisely this tenacity of the will that has guaranteed the successful survival of the trout family in the entire history of evolution.
The story about the trout is of apocalyptical implications to me. In the very first semester after I entered University of XX 1996 where I majored in chemical engineering, I experienced a period of severe frustration and depression resulting from my low academic ebb. Although in July that year I won the honor of Outstanding Senior Middle School Student of XX Municipality (a special title awarded to only 100 students out of a total of several hundred thousand students of the city that year) and succeeded in the very competitive national college entrance examinations, I still went through a period of disorientation and maladaptation to the formal and challenging university education. All my academic efforts seemed to little avail and by the end of the semester I found myself below the average level of the class. I lost my past glory.
Nevertheless, I did not lose my self-confidence. Ever since the end of my primary school I had been the athlete of my school (by the second year of my senior middle school I had become the national level-2 athlete, winning second prize in the national juvenile sports meeting in the javelin event) and this athletic experience endowed me with the spirit of incessant perseverance, athletically as well as academically. As an athlete, I realized that, apart from perseverance, making strategic adjustments was also necessary. Therefore, while making psychological adjustments, I endeavored to improve my methods of study and gradually but unmistakably I achieved remarkable improvements in my academic performance. As a result, my sustained ascendance in academic performance led to my overall GPA 3.23 (3.61 for my specialty GPA), bringing me five scholarships and two Outstanding Student Leader honors. While laying a solid academic foundation in chemical engineering, my undergraduate education reinforced my already deep interest in chemical engineering and prepared me for a lifelong career in this field.
My thesis entitled The Experiment and Model Study on the Carbinol Synthesis Through the Flow Direction Switching is an indication of my research interest and potential. The research was aimed at exploring possible alternatives to fossil fuels, a cutting-edge subject in chemical engineering research. The Forced Unsteady-State Operation (FUSO) as used in my project has considerable practical value in industrial application as it is energy-efficient and cost-effective in addition to facilitating adequate reaction. Under the guidance of my advisor, a leading authority on catalytic reaction, I enhanced my research ability and broadened my academic vision. The panel that evaluated my thesis rated it as “first-class”, commenting on it as “clearly reasoned, with detailed and complete experimental data, demonstrating a thorough grasp of professional knowledge.”
On account of my strong background in chemical engineering and my research potential, I was recruited, when I graduated in 2000, by XX, China’s major research center and manufacturer of olefin catalyst. Over the past three years I have accumulated rich research experience by participating in a number of research projects. Those projects include the research on N-catalysts in high quality BOPP film production，research on high-activity high porosity catalyst, research on the effect of dealcoholation process on the catalyst performance and on polymer characteristics，research on the effect of more effective donors-Diethers in high performance polypropylene catalyst，and the improvement of the performances of N-catalyst.
My most important research experience happened in the project of producing CD Catalyst using domestic technology to substitute imported Japanese product. Together with my team members and experts from XX Company, the authorized dealer in U.S.A., I performed comprehensive analysis of the mechanical properties of polypropylene products made with NG catalyst and CD catalyst on the Amoco process device. By focusing on catalyst activity and titanium concentration, we applied multiple ester-added compression and decompression method. We worked out a number of experimental plans and made constant modification until ultimately，based on the plan that I proposed independently as the blueprint, we managed to produce a Chinese CD catalyst up to all technical standards. With its industrial application in XX Petrochemical Co. Ltd and XX Petrochemical Co. Ltd, two largest petrochemical enterprises in China, the quality of BOPP products has been markedly improved and profitability of the enterprises significantly raised. Capturing the general attention of China’s petrochemical world, our research findings won the First-class Award for China’s Scientific and Technological Advances in Petrochemical Research and for my unique contributions to this achievement as the key figure of the research team, I was selected as Outstanding Researcher of the Institute in the Year 2002.
Based on my formal academic training and my work experience, I would like to apply for a Ph.D. program in chemical engineering. I would like to focus on two specific fields—polypropylene catalyst research and simulation study and my motivation originates from my direct work experience. At present, I am engaged in the research on the new type super-active C5H6 metal and on the catalyst with diether as internally-supplied electron body. Those two new catalysts will be more effective as industrial catalysts but a lot of issues remain unresolved. On the other hand, as our research on the Ziegler-Natta catalytic system has achieved high activity, high isotacticity and controllability in polymer appearance, I am also interested in the structural optimization of the polymer.
My interest in simulation study is based on a series of considerations. Many of my research ideas involve large-scale experimentation but the prohibitive cost of the necessary experiments simply makes it impracticable. Additionally, some chemical experiments involve serious pollution and toxicity. In the cases of failed experiments, immense wastes in human labor and in financial and environmental resources would result. Considering the fact that off-line research and automated simulation are far from being extensive, I wish to master mature simulation technology so that I can abridge a technical gap in China’s chemical engineering research.
In filing this application of mine, I believe that I am well-grounded, well-motivated, and clearly-focused. It has been my long-cherished expectation to enter your prestigious university for a Ph.D. program that will make possible my even more fruitful career development in the future. Apart from making academic contributions to your program, I believe I can make equally important athletic contributions to your extracurricular campus life. During my undergraduate program, I won two second prizes and one third prize at three XX Universiades in the javelin event and won two third prizes for cross-country team race at two National Universiades. Perseverance and strategy are two tools that I will inform my proposed degree program.