How To Write a PhD Personal Statement

man focusing on his university work, writing in his journal

For your PhD personal statement to tick all the right boxes, it needs to answer all the questions which university admission teams will have in mind while reviewing your application.

While you will have the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks during your initial interview, with the competitive nature of some PhD programs, for the best chance of success, you will want to assure your favoured institution that you are the right person to carry out the research.

Your PhD personal statement should also prove that the research aligns with your career goals, why the university is a good fit for your skills and knowledge, and how your strengths set you apart from your peers. 

After outlining what a PhD personal statement is and its purpose, this article will highlight all the bases you will want to cover and provide helpful tips on making the best first impression with your PhD personal statement. 

What is a PhD Personal Statement?

While not every university or PhD program requests a PhD personal statement be submitted, usually, they are a key part of the PhD application process. 

A personal statement for PhD applications shouldn’t be confused with research proposals, which allude to the potential of your research; personal statements, sometimes referred to as statements of purpose, are your chance to demonstrate your suitability for doctoral research.

Rather than seeing writing your PhD personal statement as a challenge, see it as the ultimate opportunity to make your skills, knowledge, experience, and expertise seem invaluable to an institution. Even if the prospect of selling yourself to an admissions team makes you feel uncomfortable at first, see it as the first step in your doctoral journey which will bring you closer to your opportunity to create new knowledge in the academic arena and your career goals.

What Purpose Does a PhD Personal Statement Serve?

A PhD personal statement is a necessity in most PhD applications as it provides additional information on the relevant experience, academic background, and motivation for undertaking doctoral research. Unlike a PhD research proposal, it shouldn’t revolve around outlining the research topic you want to dig into, the aim of the research or its scientific value.

All PhD candidates are accepted on programs due to their ability to carry out unique and individual research; along with several other factors, acceptance depends on a prospective candidate’s ability to demonstrate they are unique individuals who can complete the research.

The required format of a PhD personal statement can vary; always ensure that you have looked at the unique requirements set by the university or universities you are applying to. Some universities may ask you to write your statement on the application materials provided. Other universities may ask you to submit a separate document, sometimes referred to as a cover letter; always check the requirements before you get to work writing and completing the application. 

Some universities prefer to focus on your research proposal and will get to know you on a better basis via their interview questions. However, if you are applying for a project with pre-defined aims, as opposed to submitting your own research proposal, you will likely need to write a PhD personal statement. Your statement will be your chance to prove why you are the best candidate for the position and funding – if applicable.

Who Will Read Your Personal Statement?

Each university and institution has its own application process, which means that who reads your statement can vary. Typically, you can expect your statement to be read by the following people: 

  1. Admissions Tutors  

Admissions tutors will read your statement to verify that you have the relevant qualifications and experience for the program, both of which meet the standards set by the institution. 

  1. Potential PhD Supervisors 

With some PhD programs, your PhD supervisors will be appointed to you; in these instances, potential supervisors will scour your statement with a particular interest in your academic background and motivations for joining the research group or department. 

  1. Interview Panellists 

Interview panellists are admissions team members tasked with preparing personalised questions based on your statement; this could include admissions tutors and potential supervisors. 

Even though admissions tutors, potential supervisors and interview panellists will all be interested in different aspects of your statement, an effective statement should provide the information to satisfy all of them.

How To Write a PhD Personal Statement

Generally speaking, a PhD personal statement which gets you through to the initial interview stage should answer the questions outlined below. However, you should always ensure that your statement is written with a particular focus on the candidate requirements, as outlined by each university or program.

Why are you interested in doctoral research in this field? 

Where possible, try to avoid answering this question generically, and always keep your answer as academically relevant as possible. When explaining your interest, share the extent of the knowledge you have gained. Concisely, outline how your previous work and research have built the foundation for your interest and further study.  

Why do you want to carry out your research at this particular university? 

Before attempting to answer this question, conduct thorough research into the curriculums, facilities, equipment and projects the university has been or is currently part of. Be sincere in your answers but not overzealous in your flattery. 

What strengths will you bring to the university and program? 

As PhD programs can be highly competitive, the onus is on the applicants to stand out from the rest, especially if the research has pre-defined objectives and aims. To distinguish yourself from the other candidates, always use evidence to back up your proficiency and capacity to carry out the research. This can be achieved by highlighting relevant projects, such as essays or dissertations and mentioning other technical skills or experience.

Do you have any transferable skills? 

Just as a PhD can allow you to obtain transferable skills, your transferable skills can secure your acceptance into a PhD program; relevant transferable skills could include project management, networking, and communication skills. Always back up any mention of your transferable skills with evidence of how you acquired these skills. 

Does the PhD program align with your professional goals? 

Not every PhD candidate knows which career path they want to take as they apply to a program, but even if you have a vague idea, this could demonstrate your dedication and commitment to the program and research.

General Guidelines for a PhD Personal Statement

Personalise your statement 

While guidelines such as the one you are currently reading can help you to write your statement effectively, never take a one-size-fits-all approach. Always tailor your statement to fit the program you are applying for. This is a great opportunity to demonstrate your willingness to go in-depth with your research on the program and institution.

Ensure your statement is as unique as you are 

Anyone can reel off a list of desirable traits in their PhD personal statements. If you are only using a brief list of attractive attributes and not backing them up, your statement won’t be far from the bottom of the pile. For example, don’t just say you are determined and highly motivated; provide an example which proves this kind of tenacity. Furthermore, once you have drafted your statement, review it with the question, could this personal statement also be applied to the other applicants? 

Don’t rush your personal statement

Personal statements are typically around one to two pages long. However, you shouldn’t aim to complete a personal statement in one sitting. Give yourself plenty of time to write a strong, concise, and impactful statement, then give yourself a period of reflection before you return to your statement and develop a final draft. Once your final draft is ready, ensure the vocabulary and grammar are above par for a doctoral research candidate.

Additionally, you will also want to make sure that the sentences are succinct and flow well. If writing isn’t one of your strengths, enlist the help of a proofreader you trust who will give you constructive criticism.



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