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What are your potential advisors looking for in a personal statement?

Applying to graduate school is, among all else, selecting someone you'll find fulfillment in working with. Your advisor during grad school is a mentor and supervisor, and they are also looking for students with whom they'll work well. We surveyed some faculty in our program to ask what they, specifically, like to see in students' applications, including their personal essays, test scores, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. There are some similarities among the advisors' responses below, such as looking for students who demonstrate determination and abilities to take on challenges in (or outside of) science. However, there may be differences in what particular advisors are searching for, such as the level of importance they place on students' grades, or knowledge of a student’s work style demonstrated in undergraduate research experience. After having reached out to potential graduate school advisors who reply saying they may consider you as a student (see advice on this in our previous issue, linked here), it doesn’t hurt to ask what traits, abilities or background they specifically are looking for in their graduate students.


Many of the faculty interviewed value prior research experience. If you aren’t yet at the stage of applying to grad school but want to learn what research is like and gain experience that will be valuable in your future applications, we recommend investigating research opportunities with a faculty member. Many opportunities exist for undergraduate students to gain paid summer or semester research experiences working with faculty, both at WHOI (through the programs linked above) and other institutions (maybe even your own!). If you are interested in learning about these opportunities, the best place to start is by reaching out to faculty and asking questions! Unfortunately, research opportunities are not always advertised in a timely manner on lab or academic department websites, so talking to faculty is the best way to get involved. Experiences like this may galvanize you towards pursuing one field or another, or even provide the realization that you want to look elsewhere for your career. See our previous article with advice on how to reach out to faculty. If you are already at the stage of applying to grad school but do not have formal research experience, see some tips here about how you can approach this situation in your personal statement!


Finally, we’d like to note that the admissions process at many programs, including MIT-WHOI, is more complicated than gaining the approval of a single faculty member, and may also vary depending on the department. The views expressed here represent the perspectives of all faculty members who responded to our survey. These faculty members were kind enough to be interviewed, but their perspectives are not universal and admissions committees may look for other aspects of applications as well.


Liz Kujawinski (speaking to student advisee and newsletter crew member Noah)

“The piece I like about essays is when the student shows something of themselves. For example, if they did an undergrad research project, what did they like about it? What did they learn? In another example, if there was an activity that they enjoyed particularly in college, what was it and why was it enjoyed? These give me a sense of whether the applicant might have the aptitude for graduate school. Are they curious? Do they find enjoyment in completing a task? Do they have interests outside science that will enhance their graduate school experience? The reason I look at these things is that most grad essays have similar content - (to summarize - "I love the oceans", "I want to save the world from climate change", "I went to the beach as a kid and fell in love with the oceans"). That's all great but why do you want to come to WHOI? What do you want to study? Given that these questions are tougher to write in specifics, rather than generalities, I look to the points of the essay that can be written genuinely and specifically and often show me a little of the student to come. You, for example, wrote about your experiences leading the marching band.*” Liz also mentioned that she does not look at GRE scores. Her concerns are basically letters of reference, personal statements, and the record of what courses a student took (for her lab, a good chemistry foundation is a must, and a student shouldn’t be afraid of calculus).

*Click here to read more about Noah’s personal experience applying to graduate school. In his application, he discussed the importance of music in his life and a desire to continue doing it outside of his studies.


Ben Van Mooy

"Having consistently excellent grades in college is a good indicator of whether someone will do well in our classes here. But earning a Ph.D. here is so much more than just classes, and I look for signs that someone has the intense drive to overcome the challenges of fieldwork, inevitable failures in the lab, and the impersonalness of the peer-review process. This evidence could be successful previous research experience, bad grades freshman year and subsequent improvement, or an example in a reference letter about when someone got in over their head but ultimately rose to the occasion. "


Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink

“When I look at applications, I am always intrigued by evidence for prior research experience or exposure to the field of study, such as research internships, opportunities to join fieldwork or a cruise, work as a lab tech, etc.  This helps ensure that the prospective student knows what working towards an advanced degree entails.  I also look for any indication of artistic interests, as the sciences and art have much in common.  If there is an indication of grit, I am also intrigued. Grades are important to some extent, but as long as prospective students appear to be reasonably book-smart, I’ve found that determination, endurance, passion, and grit win out over top grades. In letters of recommendation, I look for indications of the above characteristics, ideally if they are written by people I know so that I have some idea of how to interpret what they write. There is of course no substitute for having worked with an applicant before (e.g., SSF [Summer Student Fellowship program at WHOI], PEP [Partnership Education Program in Woods Hole], other internships), as the pursuit of an advanced degree depends on the efforts, trust, and 'meeting of the minds' of both the student and the advisor."


Jeff Seewald

There isn’t really one thing that I look for or rarely does something jump out at me. What I look for is that the student has created a quality document and expressed a genuine interest in science and the process.  It is important that they take the time to write something that reads well. Put it down after the initial draft and read it  a week later so that you can evaluate what you’ve written with a fresh perspective. Have someone else read it and see what they think. For me, the research statement is a demonstration of a student’s ability to write and assemble a set of coherent thoughts.”


Seth Zippel

I think one of the most important things a student can do is to call out specific labs or scientists that they wish to work with (especially good to reach out to them directly by email outside of the application as well). This pings those scientists, who are then much more likely to closely review the file. I’ve seen a few very strong files that don’t call out any specific lab or scientist go relatively undiscussed, as there is no one to fight for them in group discussions.”


Veronique Le Roux

For me, the process starts before the application deadline. What grabs my attention is a student who has reached out to me by email before they put in an application, and asked to chat about the research project together. If they are asking questions about the program and the potential projects, and share what THEY would like to do even in vague terms, I see the potential of someone becoming an independent scientist one day.”


Carolyn Tepolt

A good statement makes it clear what kind of bigger-picture questions you want to research, and why you find them interesting. You don't need an extremely specific research plan, but I want a sense of what questions motivate you - this is both to demonstrate that you've thought about the type of research you want to do, and so I can tell if my lab might be a good fit for you to do that research. I also look for a clear narrative of why you're interested in those questions and how your background has drawn you to them and may have helped prepare you for them. (Conversely, it is generally not a good idea to give a laundry list of unrelated questions - it can suggest a lack of focus, and that you are more interested in the "name" of our program than in exploring a specific research area.)

A really good statement will also demonstrate maturity, professionalism, and in general, will show that you are prepared to launch into an independent research project that you will lead (with guidance). Personally, I find work experience - including outside of science - a great way to help demonstrate this type of maturity. If you were in the military out of HS or worked at a pizza joint throughout undergrad or had a job after graduation - mention this! This kind of work experience demonstrates maturity and professionalism that guided, short-term undergrad research generally does not. While you should focus your application on science, incorporating the broader skills that working has taught you can be an asset in an application.

Of course, a HUGE thing outside of a statement is to reach out to potential advisors in advance. It is not very likely that I will take on a student who hasn't done this. A lot of the work of a good grad school application is in identifying an appropriate lab in which to work, and this really helps demonstrate that you've done that work.”


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