Last updated November 14, 2005
Open letter to a graduate school applicant in Russian Literature
The following remarks were written in response to the questions of a prospective applicant to PhD programs in Russian Language and Literature about what the Personal Statement should look like. I publish them here in the hope that other aspiring PhD students in the humanities may find them helpful.
Q.Should the Personal Statement highlight your academic/future research interests more than it should focus on how you reached the point of wanting to go to graduate school and your academic history?
Yes, I think so. In addition, it should be not too long (about 1 1/2 pages is perfect, in my opinion), and not at all sentimental. If you have an arresting story about fighting for your life (armed only with a copy of Tolstoy's "Family Happiness") against a kinzhal-wielding Circassian bandit on a suspension bridge 600 feet above the Terek river, by all means tell it, but no one wants to hear your misty-eyed reminiscences about how, while retracing Raskolnikov's footsteps through Petersburg, you gazed into the Neva and comtemplated ending your life....but then decided to dedicate it to studying Dostoevsky instead. To put it another way: give the reader (in the form of a reasonably coherent narrative, rather than bullet points) any information about your background and accomplishments that demonstrates your sound preparation -- in terms of both knowledge and intellectual prowess -- for the career you've chosen, and then move on to showing how you plan to build on these accomplishments as you continue your scholarly career at Graduate Program X.
Let's say you received a prestigous undergraduate teaching fellowship: that, presumably, gave you some insight into classroom life from the other side of the desk, and fueled your enthusiasm for becoming a professor. If you wrote a senior thesis on Russian and Mongolian love poetry, perhaps that represents the very tip of a comparative iceberg that you hope to be in a position to explore more thoroughly someday soon -- or perhaps, on the contrary, the experience of writing your thesis taught you that you would prefer to devote your professional scholarship exclusively to Russian literature and culture, and keep Mongolian as "just a hobby." Highlight any other accomplishments you'd particularly like the admissions committee to be aware of, and explain how they relate to your future plans.
Set the information outlined above in the context of your vision for your scholarly future. Remember that what the faculty at Graduate Program X wants to know, above all, is that you are going to repay their investment: that, if they offer you a guaranteed 5-year fellowship, you won't stall, or lose interest, or burn out (this is why they need to know that you have a passion for the work of literary interpretation, not just for Russian literature itself, and that your enthusiasm for both those things is balanced by a realistic understanding of graduate school -- and academia -- are about). They want to know that you're going to finish on time (i.e., that you'll be able to produce a dissertation without having a mental breakdown and/or taking 10 years over it), that you're going to be an interesting and active member of the Department's intellectual community, that your work will be interesting to read and -- eventually -- make an original contribution to the literature in your chosen subfield, and that at the end of the day they'll be able to support your bid for an Assistant Professor job as enthusiastically as I'm supporting your application to graduate school now. Obviously, they can't realistically tell how good a job candidate you'll be in seven years' time based on one little essay, but they'll be looking for signs that you're serious about academia, that you believe you'll be able to write a worthwhile book on Russian literature someday, that you understand what you're signing up for (grad school is not just more college -- see below), and that you're an original (but not too original -- no Dadaist flourishes) thinker.
"Graduate school is not just more college" -- this, I'm sure, is obvious to you, but it wasn't to me when I applied, so I make a point of stressing this fact to applicants whenever I get the chance. Graduate school is predicated on the belief (perhaps a fiction, but a reasonably noble one) that you want to dedicate your life to the field you're applying to study. It's a professional enterprise. Unlike in college, therefore, your classes are professional commitments, and you need to be commensurately rigorous about such things as attendance, deadlines, and outside reading (always assume that you'll need to do more reading than just what the professor assigns -- that you should be browsing the library shelves, at least occasionally, for new journal articles and/or classic tomes on the subject you're taking). Academic graduate school is a training program for future professors much as law school is a training program for future lawyers -- if you seem unaware of this in your personal statement, it'll hurt you.
Concrete mistakes I've seen in personal statements in the past include:
- Over-sentimentality (stressing "why I love Russian literature"/"emotional experiences I have had with Russian literature" rather than "why I want to make Russian literature my career, and why I think I'll be good at this").
- Excessive emphasis on teaching as a vocation (your desire to teach should always be presented as subordinate to your interest in Russian language and culture; not "I want to be a teacher, and Russian is what I know, so I figure I'll teach Russian," but "I am fascinated by, and good at, Russian, and would like not only to increase my own knowledge of the field, but eventually to be in a position to pass on my knowledge to others, in the classroom").
- Replication of the common misperception that academia is somehow separate from "the real world": I actually saw a P.S. once whose writer proclaimed that (s)he didn't want to enter the "real world" and would prefer to hide within the protective walls of the academy. This sort of self-presentation does not inspire confidence.
I think that's about all the wisdom I have to share regarding the content of the Personal Statement; now as to its importance:
Q.I have the feeling (and have been told) that the Personal Statement is a huge part of the admissions decision, but perhaps it's more than just a little overrated?
The Personal Statement might not be the single most important part of the application, but it's the most important thing that you have direct control over. Not everyone on the admissions committee will have time to read all your materials. Everyone will look at your test scores and grades, because those can be scanned very quickly. Everyone will read your personal statement, and everyone will read your recommendation letters. The letters are important because they are written by colleagues of the professors reading your application, and they're the best shot the latter folks have at finding out what they themselves are likely to think of you when they encounter you in class. The Personal Statement is important because it provides a quick snapshot of your accomplishments, skills, and goals, and gives the reader a sense of how good a writer you are. It should reflect your personality without getting too personal, and should provide full and well-explained information about your professional achievements and aspirations without being too colorlessly "professional" (stuffy, boring, anodyne, Power-Pointy, "Mission Statement"-like).
Other application materials, such as writing samples, are likely to be read in detail by some, cursorily skimmed by others, so I would rank those as less important. But the letters and Personal Statement will receive everyone's attention.
I've been far more longwinded in my explanation than you should be in the Personal Statement itself! But I hope that at least some of the above will prove helpful.
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