Updated 1 June 2020
When applying for a PhD position, a personal statement is often required. This can be the case whether you are applying for an advertised PhD research project or with a personally devised project.
This personal statement is separate from your PhD research proposal, which will go into much greater detail about the PhD project you are proposing or applying to undertake.
This article will delve into what to your PhD personal statement should contain and how to structure it for the best chance of success.
A PhD personal statement will support your application and is intended to shed more light on your motivations, academic background/achievements and personal strengths.
Your statement will most likely be read by the admissions tutor for the department, who, based on your statement and research proposal, will decide whether your application should progress to the next stage of the process.
A personal statement will not always be required, so make sure to check the requirements for your institution and department.
When writing your PhD personal statement, you will need to convey your suitability for the programme or position, indicating that you have the academic ability, background knowledge and drive to take on a project of this level of complexity.
Statements are expected to be heavily related to the discipline and research angle being proposed. Your statement should draw out the strands of your previous exploration and research and illustrate what led you to apply to complete this particular PhD project.
It should discuss your interest in the subject matter, your academic interests within the field and your motivations for applying to the institution in question.
Below is a list of topics that need to be addressed in your personal statement.
The examples provided are for illustrative purposes only. It is important that your writing is grounded in your own experiences and aspirations, and consistently linked to your research proposal.
It is important to talk about your motivations for undertaking the project, along with an awareness of the challenges you may experience, as this will display your drive for completing your research.
Directly reference your research proposal, talking about how your current or previous studies relate and have prepared you to undertake this project.
The strongest argument for why you want to undertake the PhD will come from the arc of your academic research and displaying a genuine enthusiasm for advancing the research of your chosen field.
“During my master’s degree at the University of Nottingham, I had two primary focuses: cultural behaviours and social media impacts. I was interested in how culture reacts under new stimuli, so I wrote my dissertation on how cultural practices can be newly read through the lens of media platforms. My proposed research proposal takes this theoretical and desk-based research a step further, exploring the reflections of the specific cultural practice of…”
When applying for a PhD, what you will bring to the university as a junior academic is an important factor in the decision-making process. You will not just be a student but a member of the department, most likely with teaching responsibilities.
The faculty will want to know that you can meaningfully contribute to the department through both your research and teaching.
If your work links into other PhD projects currently being supervised, or to the research of a senior academic or professor, it is good to indicate these connections and the potential they hold – whether this is in terms of supportive research, a complementary strand or a new angle or perspective.
If there is an academic whose work you are particularly interested in and you have not already indicated that you would like the opportunity to work alongside them, highlight this. Display that you are knowledgeable about the department’s current research interests, specialities and standing.
“Since beginning my MSc research and developing a more specific interest in mangrove restoration, I have closely followed the research being conducted by Professor Stephens into restoration and wave attenuation. As I subsequently elaborate upon in my research proposal, I believe that my project fruitfully intersects with this research. It aims to make a meaningful contribution to a department world-renowned for its research into marine and coastal climate change impacts.”
It is important to convey why you want to conduct your research specifically at the institution you are applying to. Admissions will want to know that you have thought carefully about your application and know exactly what undertaking a PhD with their department will involve.
Conveying this intersects with the sentiments of the above point, as you should display that you have investigated the work of the professors in the department and are aware of any individual research groups or projects that relate to your work. These intersections help to show why the university is the best choice for you.
“I believe that the University of Cardiff offers the best reciprocal environment in which to grow and diversify my approach to this research. Working alongside my supervisor, I intend to tap into the departmental expertise on biodiversity mapping and – using the framework of the 2019 report by Fischer, Raymond and Wills – reveal new insights by building upon the current research.”
The PhD personal statement is an opportunity to promote yourself, so it needs to be specific, personal and unique – nobody else has your history, aspirations or skill set, so explain what it is about you that makes you best suited to this endeavour.
When stating that you possess certain skills, back them up with concrete examples or explanations that are unique to you.
Be wary of making your personal statement too general or simply writing what you believe the admissions team want to hear. There are no correct answers, perfect CVs or ideal academic paths to have followed to reach this point. Your personal statement should reflect your journey and what you have gained from it, segues and unconventional routes included.
"During my English Literature master’s degree, I focused on videogames and late medieval literature. I could see at that point that literary studies had a lot to offer the study of games and that games provided interesting new angles for applying longstanding theoretical approaches and fields. This led me to complete a further master’s degree in videogames as I sought to apply my research in a more specific and digitally focused arena. I found, because of my background in humanities and literary theory, that I possessed a perspective that my fellow empirically-minded colleagues, with backgrounds in coding, lacked. Using this unique perspective, I am now seeking to develop the research of my master’s dissertation through a PhD project"
To get to this stage, you will have already spent many years devoted to studying and growing your interest in your subject matter, so sell yourself and your talents. Think about the individual and group projects you have undertaken and the skills they helped you to develop and hone.
Remember to be specific and relate your skill set back to your proposed PhD project. For example, talk about the methodological approaches you have used previously to yield results, the new connections and collaboration you fostered across disciplines, or the positive impact made by projects you were involved in.
Your examples will vary greatly depending upon your academic background and the PhD you wish to complete but, regardless of topic, it is important to reveal your high level of skill and competence.
“During my MSc, I conducted fieldwork in [location] and gained direct experience of collecting samples for paleolimnological analysis. I developed an aptitude for rapid algal species analysis and enjoyed the challenge of comparing this population data across cores and sample locations. This practical background has enabled me to be confident in my ability to source and analyse the sediment cores I require for this PhD project.”
If you have any extenuating circumstances for any results or grades, do not be afraid to explain the situation in your statement. Be honest about your struggles or challenges and seek to convey how you have grown as a consequence of these.
It is important to have thought carefully about your plans for life after your doctorate, as displaying clear goals will help the admissions team to determine that you have the correct motivations for applying.
Having a considered path you intend to follow beyond your proposed research gives confidence in your dedication to the project. Someone with articulated ambitions is more likely to be committed to the programme in the face of challenges.
If you wish to pursue a career in academia, as many PhD graduates do, show that you are aware of what this will involve. If you have a different industry path in mind, don’t be afraid to share it in your statement. PhDs can lead on to a variety of different career paths, so impress the admissions team with your aspirations of practical application.
The university will also want to ensure they can provide you with the skills and training you require to be successful and reach your goals. Letting the department know early on about your aspirations can help to ensure that the tailored support you will require can be provided.
“After completing my PhD here, I intend to pursue an academic career within an architectural faculty in the UK. If the opportunity is available, I will be looking to apply for a lecturing position within this department. I am, however, acutely aware of the fierce competition in this field. I will be proactively seeking legacy funding for my research project as its potential to inform the typologies of housing used for settlement upgrading extends well beyond the timescale of this PhD.”
If you are applying to more than one institution, which is highly likely, ensure that you tailor your personal statement to each university. Taking the time to craft a statement that speaks to the specificities of the university and the research of the teaching department will exponentially increase your chances of moving on to the next stage in the admissions process.
Below are our tips for structuring your PhD statement. You must ensure that you are aware of all the requirements set out by the university to which you are making your application, as these will influence the structure and content of the piece.
PhD applicants are expected to be highly adept at writing, so it is paramount that your personal statement is carefully constructed and reflects your ability for written communication.
The university you are applying to may provide you with a word count, or it may be stipulated by the space allowed on an online application form. Check if this is the case, as it is far easier to write to a specific word limit rather than having to make extreme edits to a piece that exceeds accepted length.
A PhD personal statement should be approximately one to one-and-a-half pages in length and be split into clear and concise paragraphs. If a sentence does not add value to the personal statement, omit it.
As a guide, aim for between four and six paragraphs, depending on their length. As previously indicated, it is best to keep paragraphs shorter rather than longer, as this will make your statement easier and more enjoyable for the admissions team to read.
When writing your statement, use a formal tone, correct grammar and appropriate language.
Colloquial and familiar language should be avoided. It is important to talk about your past academic and, perhaps, fieldwork or research experiences, but keep these professional in tone rather than anecdotal.
Ask someone to read through your statement to sense-check the tone and language used. It is always good to get a new perspective, particularly on a piece you spent a long time crafting.
Ensure you thoroughly check your grammar and spelling using the spell check function on your computer and also by eye. If including complex academic terminology, double-check that your terms are spelt correctly and have not been mistyped or incorrectly recognised and changed by your computer.
Writing a personal statement that accurately reflects your achievements, abilities and drive to take on your PhD can be a difficult task.
It is important to leave yourself enough time to write a draft statement so you can receive outside feedback, review it yourself and make the necessary improvements to ensure your piece does your potential as a PhD student justice.
Demonstrate your suitability for doctoral work with a personal statement that is personal to you and your unique experience and skills. A carefully thought-out, well-structured and well-evidenced statement will sell yourself and your academic abilities.
Seek to connect with those who read your application, explaining why your journey has equipped you for completing a PhD you will be proud of.
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