REU: a do and do not list

hello all,

twitter thinks I should write about REU apps because its app szn, and who am I to disagree? For the uninitiated, an REU is a Research Opportunity for Undergraduates. These can be institutionally funded, federal agency funded, or NSF funded. In fact, NSF has a list of REUs on their website.

I actually think it’s pretty important for PIs to explain to their students-or at least, to their advisees-what REUs are, what they mean, and how to find them. But, once you do have students interested in REU’s, here’s what I think are the do and do nots of the REU application process.

1.Do: Start your search for REUs early–I started looking in October, and had most of my initial application materials together by January. This made it easy to determine which apps I would put the most effort into, and time to find letters of recommendation writers. Also, don’t limit your search to just EXACT TINY THING you want to study. I’m not saying that if you’re interested in biomedicine, to go out and do a physics REU. But, for example, I am a biogeochemist–so I applied to REUs in both terrestrial and aquatic biogeochemistry, with people who focused on the cycling of different elements and nutrients. Your undergrad education is supposed to give you breadth in your subject of study: REU’s are meant more to give you depth, and help you figure out what you truly want to study in the future.

Don’t: Wait until Jan 1st to start looking for REU positions. There are a lot of kinds of REUs out there, and it will take time for you and your advisor to filter out the ones you really want to fight for. Additionally, professors are more likely to write you letters of rec if you give them at least two weeks lee-way time. The earliest apps close Feb1st-14th, so keep this in mind.

2.Do: Apply to multiple REUs. I know this sounds hard on top of all your classes, but you really cannot put all your eggs in one basket on this one. For my NSF REU at Marine Biological Labs, there were so many applicants that there were only two spots left by the closing date. Try applying to 4-6 REUs at least. For me, I applied to four REUs my junior year- 2 were “reaches”, one was a “probably”, and one was a “safety”. “Reach” ones are REU’s at prestigious universities or research stations–these ones need near-perfect apps sent in before the closing date, with glowing letters of rec and a lot of luck to get in. “Probably” ones are where you feel confident in your app and your fit in the program. “Safety” apps are the ones where you send them places without a real emotional stake if you lose out. This isn’t to mean that you don’t put your all into the app. What I mean is, you would be happy to work here even if it doesn’t fit your personal research agenda entirely; but you won’t be emotionally devastated either if you don’t get in. For me, that meant I applied to an aquatic biogeochemistry REU at a freshwater lab–I would’ve loved to work in that setting with those people, but I understood their decision when they told my terrestrial biogeochemistry-looking self that I wasn’t selected.

The easiest way to apply to multiple REUs while taking classes is to give yourself at least a week to focus on each application-so it helps to start your search early. It also helps to make a general working body for your personal statement, which is then nuanced with the details specific to each REU position. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each personal statement.

Don’t: Apply to only one REU. When I applied to my REUs at MBL and RMBL, there was a 2.6% chance of getting in. For each REU, there were 8-12 spots and hundreds of applicants. The odds are not automatically in your favor, and you need to maximize your chances by applying to as many REU’s as you and your advisor feel confident in.

3. Do: Write a personal statement that tells a narrative of who you are, the research you love, and why you’re a good candidate for this program. Make a point about why X mentor at this REU is a great match for you, and what you plan on doing with that research experience. Let the reviewers know how this REU experience will genuinely help you and your career goals. Make sure the organization of your personal statement is tight, and its flow smooth. Reviewers, especially for competitive REUs, are looking for any excuse to axe you from the applicant pool–make them stumble in their search by ensuring your statement is golden. Go to the writing center, swap with peers, and finally try and go over your statement with your advisor before you hit that submit button.

Don’t: Write a personal statement that is a laundry list of your skills and the classes you’ve taken.

4. Do: Rework your CV to highlight your prior experiences, your skillset, and your publications first.

Don’t: just throw a CV onto the application that you haven’t looked at since Flume was popular. Update your CV at least once a semester and then once again before you finalize your personal statement(s) for your REU to ensure the information is conveyed well, and attractively. Sarah Myhre has a great one.

5. Do: Ask for letters of rec from professors who you did good class work for, who you have built up a good rapport through office hour talk or similar small talks, and who you trust on a day-to-day basis. Give them a month, or at least two weeks to write your letters, remind them when they’re due, and if you want them to highlight something specific about your work.

Don’t: Ask that one professor whose class you did mediocre in freshman year to write you a letter of rec, a week before the app is due. They probably won’t say yes; but even if they did, they wouldn’t actually be able to write you a good letter of rec. They would write you a bad one, and it doesn’t matter what you say about yourself in a personal statement if your letters of rec are trash. My letters of rec literally saved my PINEMAP REU after I bombed the interview with the PI, so take these seriously.

6: Do: Believe in yourself. I know that especially for URM students, REUs can be really tough in ways that aren’t as visible or visceral for people already familiar with maneuvering around academia.

For me, it was really hard to justify to my family that I wasn’t coming home for the summer. My first REU also didn’t cover my housing or food costs-it just paid us a big stipend over 8 months. That lack of security was scary to face without my family’s emotional support; and it was only exacerbated by the shame I felt everytime I had to ask my stepdad for grocery money after rent ate away my stipend. However, my lab mates from my REU were always there to help me. My lab mates in Forestry Service often brought extra food with them to the field to share with us undergrads; and my office mates and I in Forestry Service often exchanged food with one another to cheer each other up.

My family also didn’t really know how to help me secure housing or help me move-my mom has only ever lived with my grandparents and I or her husband. For months, I alone scrambled around Craigslist and other rental sites to find housing, to little avail. I ended up renting a room through the lab I worked in and moving down to Raleigh in a Greyhound bus. It felt insurmountable to think about, but once I actually reached out to my lab for help finding housing, they helped me fit everything into place. Other REU’s cover housing, food, and even travel for you–if you win one of these, the leap away from home will be much easier and worth it.

REUs can also be lonely; especially if your cohort is spread out across multiple universities, or if you don’t see yourself reflected in your cohort. However, REUs are a chance for deep introspection away from factors that might otherwise be influencing you (like a domineering advisor or parent). REUs are a chance away from home, and from your home institutions, for you to figure out both the scientist and the person you really want to be. When you feel lonely or lost in the city or in the lab, try to grapple with that feeling and contextualize it. When I was alone in Raleigh for my first REU, I used to split my time evenly between the bench lab work, my time in my office blogging, and doing data sorting for the Forestry Service. However, it was a 25 minute walk from my lab space to the space to my office space. I would often use that time to think about how the lab work I was doing made me feel, how I felt about going to the office to work, and how I felt about the relationships I was forming in the lab and in this REU. I encourage you, especially in the early weeks of the REU, to do this kind of deep thinking.

It’s also hard to feel accepted at a scientist at some elite institutions, where a lot of people rest on where they got their degrees and not necessarily on how inclusive their praxis is. When I was at MBL, I talked to David Kingsley about not feeling accepted in academia. He gave me a good piece of advice: don’t let how other people see you define how you see yourself, and don’t let it limit who you talk to. If you carry yourself confidently in the face of people who won’t accept your value as a URM scientist, the good people will tend to gravitate towards you.  I will admit that this can be really hard; and if you ever feel that an REU situation is becoming toxic, its okay to leave.

Don’t: Be too hard on yourself, isolate yourself, or otherwise feel that you need to apply to or stay in an REU because “people expect it from me” or “its the only way to get into grad school”. If you are applying to spend 10-14 weeks away from your family or your home institution, make sure its because you believe fundamentally that the program you’re committing to will help you achieve your long term goals.


This blog was way longer than I thought it would be. tl;dr: work hard on a half dozen applications, get letters of rec from faculty you trust, and both believe in and listen to yourself. Other than that, may the odds ever be in your favor.


p.s. It’s okay if you win an REU, do it, and don’t love it. It’s okay to leave a bad REU. And if you end up like me–sticking it through a toxic REU to find yourself questioning everything that ever made you love science-reach out to the people you love. Reach out to people like me who’ve been through it. I promise we will be here to help, to uplift you, and do whatever we can to rebuild you and help you find peace.





The heartbreak of academia

For the last semester, I’ve been enrolled in seminar as a class for my department. I’m actually really grateful for this, because it’s given me access to a lot of diverse scientific research. However, there are only 2 perspectives that I’ve encountered on the state of academia and the pathways that people in it can use to survive. I’ve gotten both of these perspectives from Very Famous Men In Ecology(TM), and their opinions are as divergent as their approaches to answering ecological questions. I’m not going to name names, because what is important here is the fact that these two men are at the peak of their careers, and have come away with wildly different perspectives on what it means to thrive in academia.


First, there is the opinion that is mainstream. We, as academics, must publish or perish. None of our research means anything unless it is published in a journal, the higher end the better. If you aren’t writing papers, then you need to be writing grants. You’ll need that grant money, because the likelihood of university backed funds is diminishing each and every year. Mentorship is important insofar as you create an academic legacy of people who also publish forever, get grants forever, and dominate the pages of journals in your field. Service – to your department, your community, etc-should all be minimized, because those activities won’t garner you any of the recognition you need to get you hired more or tenured or promoted. Put everything into 4 boxes of important-urgent, important-not urgent, nonimportant-urgent, and nonimportant-nonurgent. Try to ignore that last box as much as possible while maximizing your publishing record. Oh, and science communication? Talking to the public? Much like cookies, those are a sometimes snack–do it only so often to remind yourself of why you locked yourself in the ivory tower anyways, because talking to a scientifically illiterate public is Really Hard And Taxing. In fact, why are you even reading this blog? You should be writing.


The second opinion is that we, as scientists, have fallen critically out of touch with the world around us to the detriment of both society and ourselves. How much do we know about the sociopolitical and natural resource issues of the very university towns we live in? How many of us know people in a social science, in business, in the arts; and are we actually able to communicate with these people effectively to solve problems? Is our science actually generating valuable information for the people we share land with, or is it simply generating an H index statistic that looks good to a handful of other people? We should be training new scientists not just to produce information; but to produce useful information and communicate it to the public. We should be teaching students to form interdisciplinary teams, teaching them how to communicate their science to the public, and teaching them how to manage their time effectively so that our lives outside the ivory tower can mean as much as the one inside it. If we aren’t doing this, if students cannot communicate their research to the public well enough to inform sound public policy, then graduate school education is failing. If we are training 100% of students solely so that they can have a 14% at a tenure track position, then graduate school education is failing.


And this, I think, is the great heartbreak of academia. We can see ourselves becoming irrelevant to everyone but each other; but we remain as participants in a broken system. Think about it–one of the big election wins from a few days ago was the fact the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will now be led by someone with a STEM background for the first time since 2011. If we had been communicating our science, the importance of even basic research science to the public since the get-go, would we be in this position?

We, as scientists, are suddenly understanding that we have been training students to communicate to one another but not to the people who actively need the research to make management decisions. We understand that the publish or perish mentality leads to a toxic work environment, to the dissolution of friendships and romantic partnerships, and in some cases the need to publish over all things can lead to some truly toxic department cultures held together only by the motto “get along to get along”. We keep congratulating ourselves in cyclical social media conversations that “some of us” are doing scicomm, are doing outreach, are committed to service and to providing equity in STEM–but are we valuing those people as much as we are valuing the H index of someone else?

We, as scientists, can see ourselves and what we do in the ivory tower becoming irrelevant. So why are we continuing to fester in this heartbreak, and training 100% of students for a system that will only reward 14% of them, in a house slowly being consumed by the society that no longer cares for it?


Conflating “research experience” with student “drive”

Today, I woke up to a really good Small Pond Science post about the relative shortage of summer undergrad research experiences. I made a comment on Twitter about how while research experience as part of an REU or lab can be valuable, it shouldn’t be the operating filter when accepting people into a graduate program. People pushed back on this idea, implying that lack of research experience on a CV reflected a lack of drive in a student.

My big serious question to you is: do you really think anyone applies to a PhD program without having an incredible amount of drive?


Perhaps I am not the best person to say this, because I’ve done two REUs and one summer tech position abroad. I have /lots/ of research experience–or, at least, it looks like I have lots of research experience. But I have to ask: who do you think hears about REU opportunities, and why? Whenever I have participated on panels on REUs/external research experiences at my alma mater, I was the only person of color on the panel. I also found both REUs that I won (and indeed, the five overall that I applied to) through my advisors in undergrad who direct emailed me the opportunities as it came through the academic grapevine. If I hadn’t fallen into my advisors’ good graces, I don’t actually know if I as a first-gen Latina would’ve found out about REUs at all. Others have echoed this sentiment; or have brought up exclusionary requirements for most REUs around documentation or the extreme competition for limited spaces (see replies to this thread).

Additionally, a lot of the comments on my tweets seem to imply that finding research opportunities are easy. This is categorically not true for people who don’t have the socioeconomic backing of their family, or the feeling of middle class entitlement required to feel confident talking to professors outside of class or cold-emailing PIs. Even when my professors finally did coax me to cold email PIs at the end of my freshmen year looking for research opportunities, I was told that I didn’t have enough experience to work in the lab. First gen and POC students also often have to contend with choosing between volunteer research experience or having a job that supports their needs on campus–when I was fishing tampax out of abandoned dorms summer of my freshman year, or working multiple jobs on campus to cover my needs, I definitely wasn’t thinking about doing research for free. I was remarkably lucky to have close to full ride at Kenyon–in total I only had to pay about 5K overall for my schooling. Other POC and first gens are not as lucky; and its unfair to penalize them for lacking research experience when they might be looking poverty in the face if they don’t work during undergrad.

The last sticking point for me re:research experience is how much even PIs who teach undergraduate labs seem to discount labwork and independent projects done as coursework. There is apparently even graduate schools which explicitly ask for students not to include lab coursework in their graduate applications. To me, this is even more ironic, since may sophomore and junior year students use those same lab coursework skills on the CVs to get the immaculate REU experience that PIs seem to want.


I think this points to a bigger issue in academia-that everyone wants a “high-quality” student, but no one wants the work that goes into actually creating one. What a lot of people actually seem to mean by “high quality” student, is that you want students who can largely run solo without much effort on behalf of the PI. The good track record of having research experience-either by volunteering in labs, working in a lab in undergrad, or REUs- is a virtue signal that the student in question will need relatively little effort from you to succeed and pump out labwork and papers for your lab. This isn’t how we should be approaching mentorship in STEM, nor is it the best way to find and foster the brightest minds for the next generation of academics.


If you all are going to start using research experience as an unwritten metric for grad school admission, then y’all need to sit and consider what that means. And, if we are actually going to diversify the academy; then we need to start realizing that access to things like research experience doesn’t reflect the actual motivation of the student. Any student applying to graduate school is already signalling that they are willing to put in the work to get there. If you want them to lay out their traumas, familial situations, or otherwise in order to make up for a “lack of research experience”; ask yourself if you would probe wealthy/middle class students about how they managed to have multiple research experiences. If you wouldn’t, that means you are equating access with merit and hard-workingness, which plainly isn’t true.

Things could be really different for me right now, had I not been a part of PINEMAP in 2015. I likely would’ve never ended up doing any research,won subsequent REUs and research jobs,  never switched majors, and never applied to graduate school. With how a lot of graduate programs and PIs act, even if I had applied to graduate school I wouldn’t have gotten in. And I don’t think that’s okay. I think we, as academics, can do better than letting talented students fall through the cracks.

How to Be Online, But Yourself

Hi everyone! I had a really interesting conversation with a few people on campus this week. It was honestly such a relief because for once it didn’t feel like 4D chess playing or like a confrontation over my Twitter/real meatspace persona . Instead, it was comfortably honest talk between two humans just attempting to reclaim their humanity in the corporeal space.

Which brings me to my real point: it is really possible to be both your authentic self on Social Media (TM) while also not getting into an internet flame war that immolates you in the corporeal zone. (I also think it’s possible to be your authentic self in academia but that is a spicy topic for another time).


I think people older than me largely view social media-especially Twitter-as a space where kids vent outrage. I’m not going to try and claim this isn’t true, but I also no longer think it’s the only purpose of social media. The nature of social media is in its name-its to be social. The nice thing about blogging, Twitter, and other platforms is that *you* choose the nature of how that sociality comes about.

For me, I got on Twitter as a way to vent my initial frustrations with Academia(TM). At the time (fall2016), I didn’t think I was returning to academia at all–so I had a very scorched-earth, no holds barred policy. However, as I did research at Universitetet i Bergen, I realized that a lot of people enjoyed not only my true tea content but also my #scicomm . I made a decision: my personal Twitter brand would be providing to everyone the true tea ™ of the moment–whether that be about the inner machinations of academia, the banality of American evils, or the juicy research I am doing at the moment. I like to think I’ve done a pretty good job being a noted Social Justice Person Online, but also of communicating science. (feel free to drag me in the comments)

And I think everyone has that moment, or a glimmer of a moment, when they first start the voyage into the foray of social media. This can be an active or a passive choice: but it’s still a choice. I think a lot of academics favor the passive choice: because it makes it easier to be a “professional” and just talk about work or whatever topic is in vogue at the moment. You’ll accumulate a following slowly, and no one will have bad things to say about you because there will be nothing to say. You will simply exist. The issue with passivity, though, is that it necessarily depersonalizes you.

The way to avoid depersonalization-and the subsequent inauthentication of the self- is to be active in your content creation. There’s a very unifying factor among science|social justice twitter–and its that we’ve all made the active choice to generate a unique content stream around our science that necessarily opens the door to content on social justice and vice versa. Think of it like riding a bike: you need both wheels, and to get anywhere you must keep pedaling. So, reclaim both your time and your content. Talk to who you want to talk to;but say what you need to say. Participate in dialogue and even The Discourse, and take corrections politely.

Pedal on, friends.

(until next time)

#GradSchoolSearch SideBlog on the GradSchoolTax

Hello! this is one of #GradSchoolSearch’s sideblogs. Here, I vent about how universities are actually pretty bad at handling changes to the status quo; and how willing they are to abdicate any agency they have if it means they won’t have to change their internal machinations. The dilemma of the grad school tax is just one of the many examples of universities being willing to saddle their employees and their graduate students with undue burden; contributing to many people leaving the academic pathway.

So to all y’all who were trying to reassure grad students that graduate schools themselves would Step Up And Do The Right Thing (TM) if the graduate school waiver tax passed–let me tell you explicitly how you were wrong.

An R1 that I applied to literally told me that there was no way to change how they do graduate school accounting/bookkeeping in order to keep the tuition waiver from being taxable. There was also no mention of any release of funds or reclassification of students (especially out of state students) in order to lessen the burden on graduate students. If you make the minimum stipend in my department, say hi to a 1-3K increase in taxes. This is without even mentioning the additional state taxes the graduate students would have to pay; which as another part of this monstrous tax bill, we can no longer deduct from our tax burden.

Y’all really thought that university bigwigs and stuffed shirts were ever gonna lift an actual finger to protect its needy, huh?

A lot of folks wanna tell me that “oh, privately my institution won’t be that way”. But if you can’t give prospective students or current students that promise in writing, then what does it matter? I think a lot of people lack the understanding that there are students debating literally giving up graduate school for the foreseeable future or analyzing the risks on incurring massive debt.

For example: I’m a poor first gen WOC from South Tucson who makes 10$/hr working 40 hours a week in retail. I’m telling you that a life trapped in the hamster wheel of retail is suddenly a lot more feasible than trying to go to graduate school under this tax plan. For a lot of these universities, their cute attempts to recruit me fall marvelously flat when they tell me they can’t actually figure out a way to help me attend their school. Recruit means 0$ if you aren’t also willing to knuckle up and make sure I survive academia once I get in.

(Additionally, it is an extremely Bad Look for a university administrator to send me *someone else’s* open access tax burden calculator and then tell me that the extra 3K in taxes is ‘not a big deal’ when my grandparents scrape by on 18K/year and my yearly retail salary is only a little higher than that. )

if you made it this far in the sideblog, thank you! Until next time, 


#GradSchoolSearch Visit Weekend Musings

Hello again y’all. I wrote this post right after my visit weekend to NCSU. For context, this post is about visit weekends which are thrown by the graduate school. While I make an example of this school in particular, a lot of schools do this cookie cutter style weekend visit. And I am here to let you know how not to do them. 

I think, in theory , that visit weekends coordinated through the graduate schools themselves can be a pretty valuable and worthwhile way to get URM students in the door and interested in a school–especially since most visit weekends pay you to play.

But, I think grad school coordinators need to take care to remember that graduate school, at least for the individual students, is very personal. You have to like the DEPARTMENT and the people in it in order to commit for 3-5 years. You can’t figure out if you like a certain department or advisor if you only get 4/24 hours to speak to them because of “events” planned by the graduate school which houses your program.


There needs to be more coordination between the departments students are applying to and the graduate school planning the event; and more attention paid to the stage of the application process the students are in in order for the overall visit weekend to work. Either that, or programs need to not get Big Mad when students check out at minute 45 of a 90 minute panel on how to get a good GRE score or write a personal statement when it doesn’t apply to them. If your visit weekend is two weeks before the graduate school application deadline, it is too little too late to have a visit weekend centered on “how to apply to graduate school”. Students would be better served by skipping these events and spending time with their departments, which is what a lot of students in this visit weekend did. Most of us had already applied to our prospective programs, because the visit weekend was in mid-November and the deadline to apply was Dec. 5th. A lot of us ended up sitting in panels about how to get good GRE scores, how to get politically play people to get good letters of rec, and about the importance of our GPAs long after we’d applied. We also had to sit through a Fancy Dinner where graduate students milled around to speak to us, but most of these students weren’t even affiliated with the departments we had applied to. I hate to say this, because networking is a beloved academic pasttime–but not all networking is worthwhile if it takes away from the beneficial bonds you could be forming within your department.


Cookie cutter type visit weekends that try to cater to juniors and seniors in undergraduate but also to folks with MS degrees end up catering to exactly no one. I didn’t get to meet most of the people in the department or see the local cityscape bc of these “mandatory” visit events. How are we supposed to decide if the university, the department, or the local city and its community are right for us for the next 5 years if we never leave the student union? We literally can’t.

This accompanies by panels which insist that GRE scores are important, or that experience and letters of rec can’t make up for a bad GPA, or a department liaison that straight up loses students they’re supposed to be meetings, show that the graduate school itself is more interested in looking good at recruiting “top” students and not actually invested in ensuring the students who do make it are happy enough to stay. This is a bad sign, and a sign that you shouldn’t sign on the dotted line.


My suggestion for dealing with those situations is to severely touch base with your departmental PI or contact and let them know how the visit weekend is going. If they aren’t alarmed, or if they don’t rebuke what the grad school is saying/doing, it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. If the PI is willing to make departmental contacts and meetings for you, to actually use your time wisely and get you out of useless panels while shielding you from the disapproval of the grad school officers, then good.


Overall, on these visits, your prospie PI and your department need to make you feel like you and your voice will be valued, like you are necessary and heard, and that they will be willing to intercede on your behalf to shield you from bad actors. If your PI is more concerned about their tenure, about the opinions of peers they never talk to, and about administrative opinions of you than who you actually are, its time to dump them. I’m really blessed to say that a majority of my PIs made me feel really respected and valued, and not just as a cute ornament on their tenure or promotion package. If your department doesn’t make you feel valued, or if they don’t treat you with kindness and respectful interest, then find someone who will. You aren’t just a pair of hands to do some PI’s bidding in exchange for a degree. You deserve more than that transactional relationship, and you are worth much more than that. You are worth the PI willing and happy to build up /your/ career (not just their own).

Thank you again for reading! Until next time, 




#GradSchoolSearch Personal Statement Tips

Hello again! Here is the part of my grad school search on how I approached my personal statement. 

The personal statement is a tiny document (1-2pages) where you’re supposed to tell universities why you are who you are, and why you are the right fit for their program. This is usually hard; because not only do you need to have a story unique to you, you need to be brief about it and justify your choice of department. Having to do this for multiple schools when you’re programs don’t necessarily overlap can be pretty draining.

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel each time. Approach your personal statement as not one solid block of text, but as a few interchangeable parts. There should be a basic introduction piece about your personal story and motivations, which you add or cull details to tailor the ‘personal’ fit of your program. There should also be a paragraph that talks about your personal talents in science that leads you to advisor X at Y program at Z University; and why each of these choices make sense.  Your conclusion should explain where you want to take your science post PhD, and why. Your personal story should tie into this conclusion.


The personal history section and your personal talents should be the parts you can largely copy/paste into each personal statement. The paragraphs on how your talents feed into your chosen advisor in the department are the only things which should really change with each statement. You should focus on highlighting the skills that mesh the most with the PI and the lab, and how your PhD research will get you to the next stage in your career. At most, if you line up your personal story correctly, your personal statement is 2 copy/paste paragraphs plus 2 newly generated ones with each application.

For the personal story part to work, you need to speak simply. There isn’t timespace on the application for you to get flowery.  Get flowy instead–use words with impact and short sentences. No one will care how good your grammar in a 10$ compound sentence is if its boring. Have the end of that paragraph lead into your personal talents. The overall flow should be ” I am Person A, B Thing(s) happened to mean which drove me to persue C science, and C science gave me D skills to work with Professor X. By earning a PhD with Professor X, I can move on to my career as (insert live goals here)”.


There will usually be one school for whom writing the personal statement overall feels easier to write. Do not start with this one. Pick the program that is hardest for you to justify and write for that one, because it will help you have a more refined personal statement that is easier to modify for the other applications. I drafted my personal statement at first for UT-Knoxville, because based on my skillset I needed to justify a lot and very well why I was applying to a geology program. This allowed me to get my personal history and transitions really clean, especially after rounds of editing by my friends. It also led to a really good justification for why my personal background made me a good fit for graduate school and the departments I chose. My subsequent applications were then easier to write, because I had a good working body with which to start with and then plug in new evidence as I needed to.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! Until next time.