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Personal statements are the only thing fully in our control.

Personal statements are the only thing fully in our control.

Personal statements are hard. Hard to start, hard to write and hard to finish.

They feel like the most important part of an application and at the point of writing they are. Though not because they can influence an application completely, rather it is because it is the last and only thing wholly in our control in the later stages of an application.

GPA is set, letters are written and test scores are in. The only major aspect that can be changed is the personal statement. And so it feels so vital to the process.

I did a lot of pre-writing for my statement. I did several rounds of brainstorming, a couple outlines at least two false starts. Eventually I just gave in, sat down and wrote until I could think of no more. I wrote stream of consciousness with notes interjected into the writing and bracketed phrases that needed to be changed depending on the school. Once finished with this free write I went back and color coded comments according to if they are for editing, adding more in or just venting.

It sat on my desktop for a day before I went at it again. I kept every version I made just so I did not lose anything and so I could see how it evolved if I ever looked back at it. With a decent draft done I sent it off to two people who I trusted to edit it (both recently attained masters degrees in English related subjects) and give general advice.

My first draft was written on November 16th and the final version for all of the schools were finished December 9th. I have written previously about my experience writing the personal statement, mostly while I was in the depths of it.

One thing I found lacking on the internet was a personal statement for physics graduate school, so I am posting the general template I used for each school. I do this as a reference and I ask that no one copy it or plagiarize it in any way. Keep in mind that those reading these are not staff members but physics professors, who I would say are fairly smart people. And if someone can find this to copy so can they. For this draft I left blocks of text blank with [University] or [Professor], I filled these in with what I learned by talking to the professors, not just off the websites.

It is the intellectual challenge that drew me into science, the challenge of walking to the edge of the known and searching for the next step. I found this pursuit before my years at university through books such as Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. These authors gave me an idea of how to think about the world as a physicist and what it could mean. When I read their words I did not know about the mathematical formalism behind the theories or even the idea such formalism existed. However, I did know that I wanted to study physics and enhance the knowledge of humanity. This aspiration has led me to apply to the [Department] at [University].

While many of my peers were beginning research positions with professors, I spent my junior year at Edinburgh University studying Astrophysics.

At Edinburgh my particle physics professor encouraged me to go to CERN’s last public open day. At CERN I found the work and challenges of the Compact Linear Collider completely fascinating. The guide gave a brief rundown of their current challenge involving the large electric field of the beam breaking down the walls of the waveguides. While she explained, I experienced a direct connection between classroom theory and a real problem faced by an experimental scientist. 

It was the combination of my trip to CERN and my year of astrophysics courses that led me to the fields of space and solar physics. I enjoyed learning about stellar structure and evolution in my courses and the experimental aspect of plasma and high-energy physics at CERN demonstrated to me what can be done in a research setting. Most of my exposure to these fields has come from reading professors’ research and attending various colloquia at my university.

While I work on my research doctorate in space physics I am interested in pursuing research similar to [research] by [Professor]. My goal is to work on space related instruments and technology as well as focus on research that will aid in furthering the exploration and achievements outside of our own world. Research in space and solar science can help me pursue my goals.

I feel the most important class I took to prepare me for advanced research was my second year physics honor’s lab taught by [Professor]. This was a yearlong class designed to introduce how to conduct research. In the first quarter I was given a seemingly simple experiment, such as finding a relation between the size of a capillary and its rate of flow. There were no lab manuals or instructions, and while I was given help by the professor, every step had to be my own. The second quarter of the course was dedicated to two skills: learning LabView in order to regulate the temperature of a copper bar and learning how to fabricate parts in the department’s machine shop. In the final quarter the class collaborated on building a piece of equipment for another professor. For this I learned basic drafting, CAD software, realistic design and how to work with a group on a project.

During my time abroad I applied for several summer REU programs so I could do some real research. Unfortunately, most of the programs were too impacted and I was unable to research over the summer. At the start of this year I contacted and joined [Professor] in his Experimental Cosmology group here at UCSB. I am currently working on two projects, the first is a cryogenic heat pipe and the second is using a micron bolometer for atmospheric modeling. The goal of the heat pipe project is to create an efficient cooling system for the next balloon borne instrument, the COsmic Foreground Explorer (COFE) that the lab will launch sometime next year. For the micron bolometer, I am currently designing and building an enclosure for long term outdoor use. The goal is to predict cloud formation to facilitate several of the telescopes operated by the group in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

I realize I have only begun what will become a lifetime of research and discovery, and to that end I am applying to the [University]. I feel that my skills and curiosity will be a match for the program at your university. I am looked forward to participating in the research opportunities offered by the [University] specifically in [research topics]. Along with the research being done by [Professor], I am also interested in the research on [research topic 2] being done by [Professor]. My background in astrophysics and my work with [Professor] has readied me for this kind of research and participation. I consider acceptance to the graduate program at the [University] one of the best opportunities I will have to pursue my research interests will lead to an even better understanding of how the world works. 

Since this is a personal statement most of this will only apply to me but I hope that the general structure and topics will help others writing their own personal statement.

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Some cities have all the good ruins.

Some cities have all the good ruins.

Over the past few weeks, especially since the end of the Physics GRE, my spare time has been spent working on my personal statement. I feel that the personal statement is one of the hardest parts of the application process, not because of innate difficulty, but because it is the only part that can be tangibly changed while applying. Other parts such as the GRE, letters of recommendation, research experience and transcripts are all cumulative events that are difficult to wildly influence towards the end. But the personal statement can be changed dramatically until it is submitted.

Getting started was the hardest part. I found some resources online about personal statements in general. I went to a career services class on writing personal statements and I tried to gleam some information from the prompts themselves. To be honest these things sort of helped or will help when I am finalizing but none really sparked me into writing. Then again this is not something that can be dived into without any sort of preliminary work.

The best way that I brainstorm is with web diagrams, writing something down in a circle then branching off of that with more words until a web of ideas form. At least it helps when I have no idea what I am doing. Luckily I found a neat free application to help with this called FreeMind. It is open source and runs on all operating systems and has really helped me organize what I want to write about.

To start I created branches listing what I am interested in studying, what skills I have, my experiences and then structural features of my personal statement. Once I wrote this stuff I collapsed those branches and never really looked at them again (well once just now). I sections filled with questions from various personal statement resources from Career Services at my school or the internet. Just the questions, no answers to any of them.

I also asked one of my professors for his advice on personal statements as he was on the graduate admissions committee. He did say that personal statement do not matter that much, but other sites online (like physicsgre.com) have professors giving the opposite advice. But talking to a professor really did help. Essentially he said to show in the statement several things: I am ready to do research, I enjoy lab work, I know what I want to study and how this department fits with what I want to research. The things is to show that the writer is on top of things and not just randomly applying in order to put off real life.

Once I organized all of the advice and tips I started writing. Not the personal statement though. I mentioned that I some advice sites list questions to help getting started (I forgot where I found mine otherwise I would link to it), I answered all of those. Or at least all of them. Some I did answer but it was more of a venting thing then a real answer. Answering these questions help in that they let you start to find your voice for the personal statement. Since I already write a bit (this blog and journals) I already know what my voice reads like so it was not much of a problem. But if you are unused to writing, especially about yourself, then answering these short snippets will help.

Finally I wrote my first draft. To get started I did the whole thing as a free write where I kept on writing. In between solid paragraphs I wrote comments or just superfluous statements about the process. The key to a free write is that it is much easier to correct and edit then it is to create.

I have not gotten past the first draft, I need to give it at least twelve hours to brew. The next step is too start correcting, filling in gaps, transitioning and structural work. Once a readable draft is ready I will send it to a lot of people to look over, critique and edit. Since every school requires something different I will then edit, alter and adapt my one good statement for the schools.

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