What is it about writing personal statements that make the mind come to a screeching halt?
It has been 8 years since I have had to write a personal statement for something on a professional level, at least having it described as such. I am now preparing an application for a mentored career development award, a mechanism intended to prepare trainees for independent research careers. The new-ish NIH biosketch format requires a personal statement explaining why I am “well-suited” for this award. In addition, major sections of the application focus on my background and potential to become an independent investigator.
I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. Sometimes I have trouble talking about myself: knowing what to say, how to brag without coming off as arrogant, how to provide appropriate acknowledgement to influential individuals without appearing as a wallflower. I know how to talk about my research, but the people reviewing this will be looking for more than “I like science, and I’m good at research.” It seems to me that the major question isn’t “Can you do great science?” but “Can you–with a bit more training and mentoring–grow to lead others in doing great science?”
Outside of the science, what does it take to be a leader? In my mind, leadership requires striking a balance between being receptive to ideas of team members but also knowing when to be assertive and say, “This is what we’re doing.” Being too controlling creates a dictatorship where people are unhappy and unmotivated; being too diffident creates a disparate and unfocused environment where nothing gets done. It requires innovation and creativity. You have to have a vision for your program, with short- and long-term goals and a strategy for accomplishing them. You have to demonstrate commitment to that program but not be so inflexible as to continue down a path against all indications that it’s a dead end. It means being willing to take risks but also knowing when to cut your losses and abandon a fruitless effort, even when it’s your pet hypothesis. You have to be able to communicate your vision and strategy to your supervisors, peers, subordinates, and granting agencies, to get them excited about it. And you must be able to execute the strategy, organize the people and resources ot achieve the goal. You must have integrity because those above and below you must be able to trust you. I also think that the best leaders are also good mentors.
How do I show that I possess or am capable of developing and honing those traits? This is where I’m getting stuck. This is where I have to dissect my life to date. What can I draw out of experiences in graduate school, my first “failed” postdoc, and my new postdoc to demonstrate my leadership potential? Is there more outside experience I can bring in to highlight particular skills? And how do I accomplish all this without treading the same ground as those before me and without sounding cliché and/or self-satisfied?
Or am I just making this much more difficult than it should be?
Fire away. In the meantime, I’m going to try to get some professionally productive writing done. Sigh.