How to write a PhD personal statement?

Masters Avenue

The most awkward aspect of any graduate school application – be it for a masters, or a PhD – is the personal statement. Most people find talking about themselves (especially when they need to “sell” their personal qualities and accomplishments) extremely difficult, and even slightly embarrassing. Getting the tone right – the balance of accurately describing your positive traits, without sounding arrogant or self-obsessed – is hard enough, but there’s also the question of assembling a convincing argument for why you deserve a place at your chosen institution.


Where a PhD is concerned, there are specific targets you need to hit with your personal statement to assure your admissions board and prospective department that you are the right candidate for their research team. Although the work is often solitary, a PhD is to a significant extent an apprenticeship – you are expected to fully participate in the life and research activities of the university. Your personal statement is the main space you have in which to demonstrate to your future colleagues that you have the temperament, passion, and other personal qualities to make you a good fit with their team.


In general

Much of the same guidance that applies to any personal statement – such as for an MBA or an undergraduate course – also applies to PhD personal statements. The main thing you need to do is to tell a compelling story, in which the protagonist is you. The motivation of that protagonist, the events and plot twists they have experienced, and the conclusions they have drawn from them, should be drawn from your own life history – with a view to both providing an engaging, convincing account of why you’ve chosen to apply to read a PhD, why you’ve chosen to read a PhD in this subject, and most importantly of all, why you’ve chosen to read a PhD in this subject, at the institution to which you are applying. Be sincere. Be original. Be passionate. Be specific. Don’t be boring. Show, don’t tell.


In particular

When you’re applying for a PhD, there are a couple of extra considerations you need to bear in mind. Admissions Officers and academics often measure applicants against these standards, as they relate to the specific challenges associated with a PhD, that may get in the way of you completing and submitting your thesis on time. If you have these traits, you will make for a much less risky candidate:


  • Passion and focus - Although passion for your chosen subject is important, what’s equally crucial is an ability to focus – the subject of your research project will be a highly specific set of questions within a much broader field; it’s important that you won’t get distracted.
  • Determination and fortitude - PhD study is long and difficult, you need to considerable strength of character to push through to the end, write up, and submit your dissertation.
  • Rigor and experience - Academic departments will want to see that you have plenty of experience of research, and that you have fully understood what will be expected of you.


Work in evidence of these qualities in your PhD personal statement, and your application will be all the stronger for it!


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