2 November 2008
Posted by Jessica Ball
In the process of applying for extra funding for my graduate studies, I’m finding myself again stuck writing a “personal statement” essay, and I can’t say that I’m fond of it. Oh, I have plenty of motivation to write the thing – what grad student doesn’t want to, say, earn an NSF fellowship and not have to worry about their funding for the next three years? But I’m never comfortable writing an essay that basically demands that I trumpet how wonderful I am. (Dave Barry calls it “strumpeting”, which he usually uses to describe what he does in a book tour, but it’s basically the same thing.)
I don’t mind writing about what I’ve done in terms of research, or my education, or my nonprofit work last year – that’s basically just stating facts. But when it comes time to say, “I’m a wonderful scientist, and I can do better than everyone else I’m competing with, and my project will change the world”…well, I don’t really like that. I’m not saying I won’t do it – how else would I have gotten a job last year? – but it makes me really uncomfortable. It feels like hubris.
It’s possible that this feeling stems from a need for more self-confidence. I’m constantly second-guessing myself on things, even when I’m reasonably sure that I’m right, and being able to write about myself in a confident way doesn’t always come easily. I had a hard time with my grad school applications when it came to this, although judging by the responses I got, I must have been doing something right. I honestly don’t know where this whole thing comes from, though. I never experienced any discouragement from my family or teachers when I let them know that I wanted to be a scientist – just the opposite, in fact. And when I got to college, I didn’t come up against a single instance of anyone trying to discourage me because of my habits or gender or otherwise.
So I’m left wondering where I developed this minor phobia. I love to write, and I obviously love to write about what I do, or I wouldn’t be blogging. But I don’t like singing my own praises – maybe I feel that my work should be able to do that better than I can. At any rate, I’ll sit here and write the damn essay, and it will be great, and hopefully it’ll help earn me the fellowship. It’s necessary, and it does get results, and as much as I complain about it, I’ll still get the thing done. But I won’t enjoy it.
(Then again, this could just be a “this is the weekend and I don’t wanna work” sort of thing. But seeing as I’ve been putting off this part of the application for a while now, I’m betting it’s more than that. Eh.)
I used to hate those, and still don’t like them very much. Probably there should be coaching or classes in how to write personal statements!
I’m very much in favour of enjoying what you are doing at the moment, and if that is “strumpeting”, then put your heart into it. Besides, they don’t want to hear “I am wonderful”, they want to hear “I will be successful at the task for which you will be funding me because I have already demonstrated the needed skills thusly ____”
I know exactly how you feel. I’ve just had to do one myself. Absolutely hated doing it. I showed it to a colleague for advice and he told me that I wasn’t ‘strumpeting’ myself enough. He said I had to do more because everyone else will.
Sounds like you have a healthy amount of humility which is far better than someone who actually believes they are the best. It does make writing that sort of thing difficult though.