The difficulty of personal statements

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.

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10 Responses to The difficulty of personal statements

  1. Zen Faulkes says:

    “How do I show that I possess or am capable of developing and honing those traits?”

    It seems to me the paragraph you wrote immediately above that question does that.

  2. DrDoyenne says:

    I agree. You’ve already written a pretty good personal statement about leadership–it just needs slight polishing. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to be in an official “leadership” position such as a PI to be a leader. “Leading by example” is something that anyone in any position can do. You just have to decide what values are important to you (personally and professionally) and then stand up for them no matter what. This can sometimes help you explain difficult choices (“failed” post-doc).

  3. Agreed with the above two commenters that you could fine-tune your post to describe what you see as good leadership. Taking it to the next level would involve explaining that there are subtleties and judgments related to this that you need additional training and experience to master, and that is why you should be given the mentored career award.

  4. biochembelle says:

    Zen, DrDoyenne, and PhysioProf–Thanks for your feedback. I was getting hung up, but this helps greatly. Much polishing and editing for tomorrow 🙂

  5. tideliar says:

    Are there ay situations outside of the lab that you can use? Obviously you have to strike a balance, because you don’t want to be seen to be doing *too much* non-bench work, but a professional scientist isn’t just a lab rat. For example, have you been on committees where you took a leadership role? Any non-work committees (e.g. national postdoc association, in my case). have you ‘supervised’ any grad students or junior postdocs? Direct in-lab training is vital to their success and a good PI knows her staff are doing a lot of the training.

    Have there been situations where you’ve been ‘forced’ to take the lead on a project? perhaps pushing to get grant finished, or a paper out the door?

  6. Dr 29 says:

    Like Tideliar mentioned above, can you think of your leadership/mentoring roles you’ve had that maybe haven’t even used the word leader/mentor. I think that striking a good balance between lab life and outside life is a good way to show how well rounded you are as a scientist and future PI. Have you volunteered to give a science talk, teach kids, tutor, outreach, etc? Talk about how those may have impacted your research life, goals and lab style. Maybe talk about the good qualities you’ve learned from your previous mentors and how you’d like to implement those same methods in your future lab/mentoring style. It is hard to talk about one-self when it truly matters w/o looking cocky or too proud, but if you keep your language and flow like you did in the paragraphs above, it should come off as natural and flowy, not over-fluffed and cocky. Best of luck!

  7. Anthea says:

    Dr 29 has a good point there about talking about how to strike a good balance between lab life and outside life as a means of demonstrating how rounded you are as a scientist and future PI. Good luck!

  8. biochembelle says:

    Thanks for the suggestions! I think one of the biggest challenges I face when writing personal statements and cover letters is confidence in my experience. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what will be taken seriously, especially in research-focused applications such as this. I am trying to incorporate some of the ideas here and am beginning to make some headway 🙂

  9. Pingback: Early or thorough? | There and (hopefully) back again

  10. jakester says:

    I’ve just come across your blog and have been reading back through time so I’m sure you’ve long ago submitted your grant application. But, I’m making the assumption that you’re applying for a NIH K99 award (for which I have experience) and I’m going to comment anyway… There is no indication in the K99 instructions that reviewers are looking for demonstration of leadership. As far as knowing how to run a lab, this is a skill that you can acquire during your mentored phase by taking courses and learning from your mentor. For this particular application, you have to sell yourself as a great scientist with major accomplishments who has potential to be productive in the future. I think “leadership” is an overused word and you can subtly demonstrate that you have this quality without actually saying it. Mention students you’ve mentored and things in the lab you’ve spearheaded. Also, have your letter writers say the same things. It means more coming from them. Other things to include are: important results, high impact publications, verification of your results by other groups, how your PhD work being followed up, invitations to speak in seminars or at conferences, patent applications, news and views or popular press articles about your work, faculty of 1000 citations, etc. Also, including things about a work/life balance is absolutely inappropriate (in my opinion) for the K99 application. This particular application requires that you do NOT have any teaching responsibilities and is totally research centric. There are other funding agencies that require you to have some sort of service or outreach component, but the NIH is not one of them.

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