How well do you know yourself and your work? A Discussion on the Personal Statement

One of the major components of the graduate application is the personal statement. Often, the importance of the information given in this statement is underestimated and as a result many people write statements that limit their chances of getting into a graduate program.
So, what exactly should go into this statement? How should it be structured? Why is it necessary to plan this out? Well, the answers to all of these questions will come through this post.

I remember when I was initially writing my personal statement; it was terrible and I mean TERRIBLE. The problem was not in my ability to write, the problem was in that I did not REALLY take the time to connect to myself personally especially in regards to my work. I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, I knew why I wanted to go to graduate school, but I did not think of myself enough to connect my person with the end goal of obtaining my Ph.D. Let me give you an example of what I mean: “Since I was little, I’ve always wanted to be doctor and save the world.” Did you really? Are you sure about that? Too often there are cliché statements used in personal statements that do not capture the attention of the reader. One of the most important things I learned was that you literally have the first two sentences to capture a reader. This is where you must shine through, this is how you start the reader on a journey into your uniqueness.

Sharing your narrative adds vibrancy to who you are and what you will contribute.

Sharing your narrative adds vibrancy to who you are and what you will contribute. No one goes to an art gallery for dull art, find that gem about yourself that makes you art.

When I was writing my next draft of my personal statement, I took the time to think about something I enjoyed and connected to my work as a mathematician. I found a theme, if you will, and carried that throughout my essay. For example, the opening sentence of my personal statement went as follows: “Intricate, mesmerizing and challenging dance performances are a work of art. A well-choreographed dance has the potential to move audiences on multiple levels. Much like a meticulous dance routine, a well-choreographed work of mathematics is an art form.” Now, reading the first couple of sentences, you have no idea what direction I’m going to go in, but it is intriguing. So what does this show? It shows you can write and talk about yourself without detracting from the main purpose of your statement. I was able to connect something I enjoyed with my work. In doing so, I was also able to get a better understanding of myself as a person, and in some capacity, be more vulnerable. You have to make yourself (through your statement) a work of art. Toni Morrison stated that “Your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting for you to make it art.”


Now, that we’ve got your attention. What should go in there? Well, if you have taken time to think about who you are, your work, and what you love the major content of the personal statement consists of the following [Note: There is no exact formula, but these are things that could help]:

  • A Theme: Find a unique trait or angle to write from personal to you and relate that to your work.
  • Your background with highlights of achievements relevant to your research.
  • Strengths and weaknesses, but categorize your weaknesses in a way that play to you modifying them to strengths. Life is hard, we go through things, but you want to make sure you don’t sound like a sad story and more triumphant.
  • If there are gaps in grades or other elements, explain them but do not sit on them. In fact, make sure you show how you were able to surmount such an obstacle and go back into how it adds to your strengths.
  • Your research interests: What, Why, How, When and EXPERIENCE. These are important. Highlight a major research experience (if you have had one) and what you did, why you are interested in the work, how it will impact the community you are involved in and when you plan to continue with the work. This would also be a good place to talk about how your research relates to work the department is doing or a specific professor is doing (it shows you’ve done your homework).
  • Why this program is a good fit for you and why you’re a good fit for the program. This is critical, especially if you have reached out to people and made connections. Doing this, believe it or not, is research.
  • Where you want to go with your career. It is never to early to think about what your career will look like. You do not have to know every detail but this gives programs a chance to see how serious you are. A Ph.D. is a tool and along the way you are picking up other tools to help prepare for that career. Too often, graduate students think about just getting to a program and not HOW this program will help you beyond getting into graduate school.

The aforementioned bullets are a few good ideas for content of a personal statement. Once you have the content, the structure should tell a comprehensive, concise but well-written story. The basic structure follows essentially an introduction, body paragraphs that focus on your research, interests, and why the program is a great fit. You end with a conclusion that summarizes everything, talks about your future and broader impact and how the program and the Ph.D. as tools will help you. This is a simple recipe but effective for creating continuity in your story. The structure matters and clean transitions between sentences are underestimated. Take time to invest in creating smooth continuity in your writing; connecting ideas will give you a cleaner story. Creating that continuity comes with planning. You can expect to write several drafts. You should also expect to that outlining is useful. I would also suggest that you write your first draft straight from your heart; how you feel and what moves you about your work and your life experiences. Take that draft and then write from your mind – this is where the editing comes. Do not be afraid of planning and investing time in planning. Often, we fail things in life because we have no focus nor invest in the plans we create. The devil is in the details.

Communication is vital and writing a well-composed personal statement gives an idea of how you communicate. Think about it, eventually you will have to present research, go to conferences, write grants, etc., and this type of communication will help, so the practice through a personal statement is helpful. Moreover, what I like the most about the personal statement is the ability to tell your story. No one knows your life better than you and your story matters. When I think about some of my favorite inspirations, Einstein for instance, was a terrible student but managed to present the world with one of the greatest theories in physics. Had he not found a way to sell himself and tell his story, he may have never been invested in as a researcher, physicist and mathematician. Stories matters and it is vital you think about your story because after all, you never know who is reading, watching and will be inspired. Personal statements have the ability to make or break entry into a program. Do not sell yourself short, you’ve worked hard to get to this point. I’ll leave you with this:

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it. – Toni Morrison. 
As you talk about your story, if you want to know who you are, write it down, write it down, write it down.

Bullet Journaling for Grad School

The past couple of months have been intense and full of events, programs, and time-fillers. Between conferences, dissertation proposal, and life out of school, I’ve struggled to find a good pace for managing my commitments and keep record of what I’ve actually accomplished. I usually use a planner and Google calendar to organize my life, but I recently learned about bullet journaling specifically for research or grad school on YouTube. It’s simply a notebook journal with pages dedicated to goal-setting, tracking research progress for projects, future planning, to-do lists, done lists, and accounting for time spent doing research tasks (e.g., writing, data analysis, etc.). I picked up a nice journal from a recent trip to D.C. and spent an hour designing and getting started. The satisfaction of crossing off to-do items and seeing my done list grow = pure joy.

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“Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move Freedom, cut me loose!”

In Freedom by Beyonce she sings:

I’m telling these tears, “Gonna fall away, fall away”
May the last one burn into flames

Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!

It is the point in the semester where all our assignments and responsibilities are piling up and we are questioning why we are in our programs and/or the academy in general. This period is usually consumed with early mornings and late nights, sometimes filled with tears. It is important that we remember our education is the freedom our parents dreamed of. As some of us pursue our second or third degrees freedom still seems far and inaccessible. It feels as though we are trying to open a lock, in which we now have the key for, but our hands are too big or small. Which is to say that there are always hurtles to overcome.

Beyonce continues to sing:

I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves

Although you may currently feel stuck and/or lost, you have the capacity to break the chains and persevere on. The ultimate freedom is your education and what you do with it. You are creating a legacy for future generations that are yet to exist.


Retaking the GRE

If you’ve taken the GRE and are not completely happy with your scores, should you retake it? This is a very common question that has no one answer to it. There is a lot of variability between disciples and even programs in how much GRE scores factor into admission decisions. Therefore, do your best to determine how important these are at the schools you’re applying to by talking to your mentors, professors, and/or current students in those programs.

When to Retake
If you believe that you have enough time to study and meaningfully improve your scores, then it’s likely a good idea to retake the GRE. However, you also want to keep in mind that programs often consider every aspect of your application. Therefore, consider, if by taking extra time to study for the GRE, if you would be decreasing the quality of other components of your application that are very important such as personal statements.

Grad School? More Like Academic Hunger Games!

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

If you’ve seen the hugely popular film, “The Hunger Games,” then you’re quite familiar with that quote. The film’s plot focuses on how a boy and girl are chosen from each of the 12 districts, and are thrown into a battle-to-the-death where the last one standing wins.

I shared this famous quote, because graduate school can, at times, feel like an academic hunger games. However, no matter where you are in your graduate school journey, it’s important to be aware of the factors that can lead to a negative experience. These factors can include: students in your cohort, the lack of support, and your own progression.

As it relates to the classmates in your cohort, avoid comparing yourself or you accomplishments to them and their success. Comparing yourself to your fellow classmates, can lead you to doubt your own skills and ability to navigate the graduate program. The reality is everyone learns at their own pace, and students may have a better handle on the subject material than you do. Instead of looking at your lack of knowledge as a weakness, turn it into a strength by collaborating with your classmates and helping each other with understanding the material better. This will not only help you learn more about yourself, but also help your classmates learn things that they may not understand.

The next, and arguably one of the most crucial things, to have in graduate school is support. Not just support academically, but emotionally as well. Without proper support, your journey through graduate school can become increasingly difficult, as you may feel very alone. Making friends with students in your cohort is helpful as they can offer support when it comes to classes, and also help you with relieving stress when you put down the books and do fun activities. Support from your advisor is also important, as it’s imperative to keep in touch with your advisor on a weekly basis to ensure you’re staying on track with your graduate program. Keeping constant communication with your advisor shows him or her that you’re invested in completing and being successful in your graduate program. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss had support in preparing for the deadly competition from a stylist named Cinna, who helped her find her inner strength, and from a former Hunger Games champion named Haymitch, who helped her train and strategize. That support played a big part in helping her survive and win the games.

Lastly, the speed at which a student progresses in their graduate program can have the most significant impact on their success. When it takes you longer to learn material or progress in certain parts of the program, it’s easy to feel frustrated and become intimidated by your fellow classmates. For example, when it comes to qualifying exams, it can be frustrating when you don’t past them right away while some of you classmates pass their qualifying exams on the first try. But it’s important to not lament at your inability to keep pace with your classmates, and focus on progressing at the pace that works best for you. Learning and understanding the material in your classes in your own way will make you that much more prepared and ready for your qualifying exams and future research projects.

It’s very easy to look at graduate school as a fight for survival till the last man is standing. However, do not compare yourself to others, and trust the training and skills you have which have gotten you to this point of being a graduate student. So as they said in The Hunger Games: “Welcome to the Hunger Games. May the odds be ever in your favor.”


3 Ways to Survive Graduate School According to Olivia Pope

1.  Stand in the Sun

Olivia Pope talks about standing in the sun by embracing full vulnerability and facing her truth head-on. She honors the joy that comes with standing in the sun, while simultaneously recognizing the hardships. For many of us, graduate school is a life-changing 2-7 years of standing in the sun, whether it be confronting hidden demons or feeling as though you are not enough or deserving to be in this space. Regardless of the discomfort, you must remember your end goal and continue to stand in the sun. Its 3 months until winter break! Keep striving through the challenges of graduate school because your goal is worth it. Someone is watching you stand in the sun and face your truth head-on, only hoping to have the courage to do the same. You will come out of this experience a stronger and wiser person.

2. Be a Gladiators in a Suit
Being a Gladiator means fighting for what you believe in. Olivia Pope is a Gladiator, but also has other Gladiators to support her. In graduate school, your beliefs may be challenged and invalidated, but you must stand firm in your truth. Olivia is a powerhouse because she is grounded in her values and core principles, but she is nothing without her Gladiators. Graduate school is not a journey you should tackle alone. You must find other Gladiators who are also being pushed and challenged to lean on for support and comfort. They will get you through the long exhaustive days when the readings and coursework began to pile up and home becomes a paradise you daydream about.

3. Wear the White Hat
Is it a Friday night and you are contemplating between the bar crawl and the paper you have due next week? Is it a Sunday evening and you are torn between watching Insecure or going to bed early? If so, remember that graduate school is mined with endless difficult decisions. There is no right answer to these questions. Wearing the White Hat means doing the right thing for you. Olivia Pope works endless hours to maintain the state of the country, but she is only of use when she can show up as her best self to do what needs to be done. Sometimes doing the right thing is going to the bar crawl because you need a social gathering to decompress. Sometimes it is staying in and working on your paper, watching Insecure or going to bed early. It will look different for everyone. You cannot serve others if you do not first take care of yourself and do what is right for you.

I won’t deny that it is quite difficult to stand in the sun with your gladiators and wear the white hat. It is an attempt to: be open to vulnerable and transformative growth, center your health and wellness, and find a community who will ground you in your journey. Nayyirah Waheed said, “a friend. is someone who supports your breath”. Your Gladiators will assist you with the work necessary for your survival on this journey.

So ask yourself:
1. Do you know why you’re Standing in the Sun? Your purpose will ground you when you lose sight of why you’re here.
2. Who are your Gladiators in Suits? It’s 2am and you break down from frustration with a theoretical framework or you remember the time in class when you felt silenced, who are you calling?
3. What is your White Hat? What is doing the right thing for you? What is going to ensure your health and wellness so you can best support the greater good and live your purpose?

Teaching Support and Career Development for Graduate Students @ IU

Fall 2017_Events (CIRTL)In graduate school, many are us are assigned to teach courses as associate instructors or teaching assistants for the very first time. When I learned that my assistantship included a teaching component, I was both excited and panicked because I had never created a syllabus, designed a lesson plan, or even given a public lecture. Since I knew that a career in academia requires teaching and mentoring, Continue reading

Preliminary Steps for Applying to Graduate School

1) Are You Ready: Determine if you have the time (this is a very time intensive process), resources (applying and/or traveling for interviews can cost a lot of money), qualifications/experience to make a competitive application for programs you will be applying to. If not, then you may want to consider waiting to apply until you do.

2) Picking Programs: You want to begin narrowing down a list of 5-15 (this varies a lot by interest, degree, and discipline) places to apply. You can do this by asking professors, checking the places where the research you are interested in is being conducted, consulting books that outline the different components of programs across the country in your field.

3) Make A Timeline: Determine when you’re going to complete all the necessary components for your applications : narrowing down your list of programs, polishing your CV, personal and/or research statements, obtaining letters of recommendation, completing the application itself, taking and sending in GRE scores, etc. Having a plan will help you get everything done in a timely manner.

Far Reaching

C. Morton 2017

Photo Credit C. Morton 2017

Upon entering my doctoral program, I was told by one of my professors that doctoral study is a lonely process. I have never been one for crowds. So while I appreciated the notice, I did not put deep thought into her proclamation. Now in my fourth year of the doctoral process, I have a deeper appreciation for her words.

While the physical solitude of distance from friends and family stings at times, pursuing a doctoral degree for me has been more mentally isolating as I cultivate my academic self. In order to add to the body of knowledge I had to first consider who I am, who I am as a researcher, and who I want to be as a scholar. I encourage others to consider some of these questions before entering a program of study. For me the answers shaped my ontological and epistemological understandings of the purpose and goal of research. In turn, my understanding of my truths has shaped the courses I have taken and the way I frame my research.