We’ve discussed how the personal statements matter as much as the research statements for STEM applicants. But we haven’t really discuss what to include or how to approach your various narratives. From a content perspective, narratives are an exercise in self-reflection and projection. If you were looking into the proverbial pool at your own academic and professional reflection, what would you want to see?
Well, the answer can be simple for some and extremely complicated for others. For many advanced graduate students across all disciplines, the transition from the deferential humility of a trainee to the assertive expertise of a Ph.D. just doesn’t seem to develop organically. At some point, however, we have to put aside our ingrained humility and project ourselves as the expert in the room on a given topic, specifically our topic. In relation to the narratives, you are also the expert in regard to your own experience. This means that we have to recognize when it’s appropriate to assert our own experience. And fellowship applications are a perfect opportunity to do so. It’s okay – tap into a little bit of your inner Narcissus.
For many graduate students across all disciplines, both newly minted and advanced alike, the CV and personal statement can begin to feel somewhat airy when comparing it to the biographical descriptions of past award recipients. This is particularly true if those descriptions are taken from funder websites. One read-through of the AAUW International awardees website, for instance, can illicit daunting comparisons for any scholar. But here’s what is actually going on: you aren’t actually supposed to be those people – at least not yet. Funders want to market their awards as springboards to success and global impact. They want to market their awardees’ successes, at least in part, as the result of their prestigious awards. So your job is to convince them that you can be and want to be that person.
Whether you’re looking at the NSF, NIH, AAUW, or Ford, you should focus on what you do bring to the table rather than what you haven’t yet accomplished. Have you taught a class or been a TA? If so, maybe you haven’t yet had the control or influence to focus on the issues of women and girls for the AAUW. But maybe you recognized many of those issues in your experience, and have some ideas for how to address them in the future. Have you mentored undergraduates in research? If so, think about your perception of them and vice versa. Incorporate these reflections into your narratives. How have they changed your perception of the world? What practical choices can this perception lead to? Remember, you generally aren’t expected to have already altered the paradigm of education at your institution, or to have revolutionized economic theory in your home country. You are, however, expected to understand the context in which you are operating. So put yourself in that context. Create the best reflection of yourself – a reflection that deserves to be admired!