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Writing your PhD Personal Statement

If you are completing a PhD application, you may be required to write a personal statement, although you will find this is less common for PhD applications than those for Masters courses.

Typically you will be allowed around 1 side of A4 to say why you think you should be accepted on to the course.

Sometimes you will just be asked to provide a statement that supports your application, though at other times you will be given more of a description of what to include.

For example, if you are applying for a PGCE course:

Describe briefly your reasons for wanting to teach giving the relevance of your previous education and experience, including teaching, visits to schools and work with other young people.

There will be times when you are not given any clear indication of what you should include in your statement, so we’ve written some guidelines to help you put together a well-structured statement.

1. Write a checklist

Before starting to write your first draft of your personal statement, put together a beginner's checklist using the points below as a guide.

Try to write down a paragraph of 2 or 3 sentences for each question, as this will help you construct a good personal statement that focuses on what the reader is interested to find out. Think about:

  • Why do you want to pursue a PhD?
  • Why is this topic of most interest to you?
  • What previous academic and practical experience have you got that shows your interest in your chosen subject?
  • What skills do you have that will help you make the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate study and make you succeed in the research area?

2. Pay attention to detail

Make sure you use good vocabulary and grammar throughout your statement – using well-written sentences that flow easily will make it more fresh and dynamic compared to other applicants. Avoid overly long sentences.

Try to keep the tone of your statement positive and enthusiastic. You also need to demonstrate you are able to make the points required in a concise manner, and make sure you adhere to the word limit.

After you've completed your final draft, make sure you use the spelling and grammar checker on your computer to correct any mistakes. However, don't rely on this entirely - you should read it through several times for sense, and to check for other mistakes.

When you think your statement is as good as you can make it, ask a few friends or family members to take a look at it and see if they can suggest any improvements.

Print off a copy of each statement you write as what you have written will probably be referred to in your interview.

3. Give your statement structure

Your statement should be structured, with an introduction, main body and end. The aim of the introduction is to grab the reader’s attention and hold it so they remain interested and read to the end of your statement.

In the main body of the statement you should concentrate on relating your skills, knowledge and experience in the field and how this relates to the course you are applying for.

4. Explain why you chose your topic

This means writing down your reasons why you are interested in and enthusiastic about pursuing further study into the field.

Convey your motivation and mention any relevant projects, dissertations or essays that demonstrate your skills. Put down anything that shows creativity, responsibility and independence.

You should also mention any prizes or awards you have, plus any relevant travelling experiences or time spent studying abroad.

Again, think about why you want to study this particular subject – make your reasons clear why you have chosen it, e.g. does the course place emphasis on a certain area of the subject, or offer specialist modules? When did you become interested in the field and what knowledge have you gained about it?

5. Include why you like this particular university

Does the institution have special research facilities/equipment that appeal to you? Are there certain academic staff in the field you wish to work with?

Try to mention at least a couple of things about the university that you are excited about as a potential student.

Staff want to hear that you have done your research and tell them why you want to join their department.

6. Talk about your skills

These include:

  • Academic skills you have to offer – include IT skills, and knowledge of any appropriate research techniques.
  • Personal skills – e.g. ability to work as part of a team; communicate effectively with others; organisation and time management, etc. Give examples of how you have demonstrated each of these skills, as this shows that you have considered all your strengths and potential weaknesses.
  • Work experience - what skills did you learn from any placements you've completed since school? Again, think about specific examples that you can give to demonstrate these.

Place emphasis on your strengths and show how you are a better candidate than any others.

Include the relevance of your undergraduate degree to the course – describe how any work you did as part of your degree relates to the course you are applying for, and what foundation in knowledge it has laid for further study.

7. Career plans

Although you may not have a concrete idea of what career path you hope to follow after completing your PhD, you should at least have some ideas that you can put down for your statement.

For example, do you think you will want to continue working in academia, either in research or teaching? Or do you see yourself working in industry?

Having an idea of which direction you would like to go in will show more commitment to the course, and show that you are likely to get good results.

8. Make it unique

One way you can make your statement stand out is to relate a detailed example of something specific to your own experience, e.g. something that influenced your decision to pursue a particular undergraduate degree, or career path.

Remember that for each point you make in your statement, always provide an example to back it up.

E.g. if you are applying for a Masters in Biotechnology, saying you are a "good scientist" isn't enough - give examples of your previous laboratory experience, any projects you have completed and what technical skills you have learned.

9. Sell yourself

It's important to remember that a personal statement is meant to be "personal". 

There's nobody else who knows you and your experiences as well as you do, so you are the best person to write your personal statement in order to present yourself in the best possible light. 

You may wish to ask yourself: could my personal statement apply equally to, say, my friend or my neighbour?

If the answer is "yes" then it is probably too general and you need to make it more specific and more personal.

10. Tailor your statement

Do not use the same statement for each application – each one will require slightly different content depending on the university you are applying to and the department you are applying to.

Therefore it’s important to research each university and what’s involved in each project so you can see what is unique about each of your choices, and how they each stand apart from the others.

Don't underestimate how difficult it can be to write a good personal statement that will do you justice. Make sure you give yourself ample time to write it.

Best of luck with your PhD personal statement, and remember: you are not trying to answer your research question, just provide an outline of why you want this place, and what qualifications, skills and work experience make you so well suited to it.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying for a PhD, please see: