Personal Statements: Crafting Your Intellectual Biography

Fellowships and scholarships are structured as financial investments in an individual scholar, rather than a specific research project or scholarly endeavor. As such, applications for these types of awards often require a personal statement or personal essay of some sort that presents your intellectual biography as a scholar. Striking the appropriate tone and including the right details in a personal statement is a delicate balancing act that depends heavily on the type of funder and the goals the funder intends to accomplish. In this post, we will discuss personal statements for three specific award programs as examples of the variety within this genre.

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships provide support for three years of Ph.D. study in a STEM field, which covers social science, science, and engineering discipline(s) chosen by the applicant. Applications are evaluated by tenured and tenure-track scholars in the applicant’s field, and are judged on the basis of intellectual merit and broader impacts (see NSF’s Merit Review page). Successful personal statements for this award often have a dual focus parallel to the review criteria: Part of the two-page personal statement demonstrates applicant’s scholarly engagement with the academic discipline by describing their current or proposed degree program and research topic, the previous research and/or coursework which led them to choose that topic, and the ways in which the degree program, research project, and fellowship funding will come together to enable the applicant to pursue a specific career path or scholarly objective. Another part of the personal statement describes past experiences that demonstrate the applicant’s commitment to specific societal outcomes such as improving teaching and mentoring, engaging underrepresented groups, developing public science engagement and literacy, and other broader impact goals (see NSF’s Project Description guidelines).

AAUW International Fellowship
American Association of University Women (AAUW) International Fellowships provide one year of fellowship support to women who are non-US citizens pursuing graduate degrees and postdoctoral programs in all fields of study. Applications are evaluated by an interdisciplinary panel of scholars as well as by the board of directors. The one-page personal statement of an effective AAUW International application illustrates the applicant’s commitment to the advancement of women and girls in her home country, provides evidence of past community and civic service there, documents the home country’s need for the specialized skillset that the applicant will acquire through her degree program, and explains her financial need and motivation for graduate study. While this means that one short document will need to accomplish many things, the advancement of women and girls is the paramount interest of the AAUW overall, and therefore this element of the personal statement must be clearly articulated and carried through the other elements of the essay whenever possible. For example, in describing her past community and civic service in her home country, the applicant might focus on outreach to local schools to provide a strong female role model to young women.

EPA STAR Fellowship
Finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) fellowship program provides multiple years of fellowship support to graduate students conducting research projects that fit within a specific, current funding opportunity within the biological, physical, mathematical, or social sciences or engineering (see the 2012 solicitation- link- for examples). The two-page personal statement for this application asks candidates to describe their academic and environmental career goals, explain how their proposed degree program will help them accomplish those goals, and demonstrate their capacity for leadership, collaboration, communication, and broadening engagement in environmental problem solving. Since environmental concerns are paramount to the EPA’s mission as a funder, the ways in which a fellowship candidate’s goals, graduate program, and skills point to the ability to make a positive impact on the environment are paramount to their selection.

Whether they are applying to one of these three programs, or one of the hundreds of other awards that require this type of essay, personal statement authors nearly always have much more to say about themselves than they can fit into the page limits given. Therefore, applicants should work to highlight the experiences that can be most effectively used to appeal to the specific review criteria of that individual program.

Regardless of the award program, personal statement authors should to keep the following guidelines in mind: Cast yourself as a professional and scholar at the graduate level. Keep a positive tone throughout the narrative. Build an argument for the long-term value of the award for your career. Finally, use GradFund’s resources (available to Rutgers graduate students), such as our Knowledgebase and Proposal Review Meetings, to help you strike the right balance in your personal statement!

This entry was posted in Funder and Award Spotlight, How to Write a(n)..., Proposal Writing Advice and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.