How Much Personal Info To Share On A PhD ApplicationAug 09, 2023
How Much Personal Info To Share On A PhD Application
It feels like a trap. How much personal information should you share on your PhD application? A recent client brought up this question, and said “I know there is an official anti-discrimination policy, but I can’t shake the feeling that the admission committee might see it as a liability”.
This really rings true with anyone who has gone through some shit. And most people applying to do their PhD have gone through some shit. So how do you talk about it, if at all?
Check out the main points below to chart your path forward, so you can share what makes the most sense for you and your admission goals.
They Don’t Know What You Don’t Tell Them
I’ve worked with enough PhD hopefuls, where this obvious statement isn’t always obvious. You know all about your past experiences, but they don’t. And they don’t have to.
That time you got 2nd place in the conference poster competition?
Yup, that’s a goodie.
That time you had a nervous breakdown and barely limped through your last 2 classes?
Maybe not worth mentioning.
You simply don’t need to discuss every single part of your past. And indeed, you don’t have space on a PhD application, so don’t even try it.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking about specific past experiences, there is literally no way they will know they ever happened (unless you’ve documented them on social media).
I had a client who was fired from a job (she had suffered health issues and was not at her best). She was tormented thinking how to describe this on her PhD application. In one of our sessions I simply said “You don’t have to. Literally people leave jobs all the time for many different reasons, since you went to a new job, would it be reasonable for them to assume you just switched roles?”.
It blew her mind.
It’s this line of thinking that will help you navigate what you want to share.
Trauma Dumping Is Not Required
Now that you’re thinking about what you want to share, it seems necessary to point out that trauma dumping is not required.
Many people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those who experienced real trauma, can feel like it is a huge part of their identity and must be shared.
However, the PhD application is about marketing yourself and packaging your experiences to present you as the best candidate to come in and succeed in high level classes and creating original work. Living through trauma and sharing it is not required to get in or be successful in your PhD.
Sharing how you overcame trauma can indicate your resilience and ability to work through challenges – all valuable skills for your PhD. However, you can show those skills through your professional experiences as well, and don’t need to delve into the trauma.
If you are pursuing a field where your particular point of view would be helpful, e.g., anthropology and you want to study those who suffered from mental illness and you also suffered from mental illness, it can make sense to share part of your experiences here. Or even going into a field where your point of view would be unique and valued: an engineering field where you are a minority who has worked through multiple hardships could signal a resilient PhD.
Author, Emi Neitfeld, shares her experiences talking about, and largely leaving out, her mental health struggles to successfully get into Harvard undergrad. It showcases how mental health can still be difficult to package, and how one must be strategic when talking about these issues to get into top tier universities.
Here’s some examples of how to rephrase trauma:
- The mental agony of experiencing sexual assault has made me more passionate about helping people, and thus whey I plan to pursue my PhD in psychology.
- As a sexual assault survivor, I am poised to be an ethical researcher in this space and offer unique insight into the community and lives of survivors. Therefore, I aim to pursue my PhD in psychology so that I can better serve this community, and work towards solutions to reduce stigma around sexual assault.
- The immense pressure and stressful environment I was living in led me to have a nervous breakdown. I have recovered, and am now ready to take on my PhD in electrical engineering.
- Earlier in my career, I did not handle the work-related stress in the most constructive way and experienced burnout. I have since learned management techniques, which I deploy monthly when I create my schedule and manage my time to effectively meet deadlines without experiencing the high levels of stress I had previously. This self-awareness and ability to mange my time effectively make me an ideal PhD candidate who will succeed in the demanding electrical engineering curriculum.
Have A Plan With What You Share
If you do share trauma, past experiences, or academic issues (e.g, bad GPA), it is best to have a plan. How did you recover? What did you learn? Why were these experiences helpful to your goal of getting your PhD?
It is not enough to share your past experiences. Instead, you need to critically share what experiences shaped who you are today and how those experiences have made you a more well-rounded and secure PhD student.
If you experienced mental health issues that contributed to low grades, or a gap in employment, you can and should address these. But, you must be able to say how that same outcome will not be repeated. If you experience mental health issues again, why will this time be different? Or what steps have you put in place to safeguard your mental health so you can complete your PhD?
The last thing any admission committee wants is someone coming in the program who is mentally unstable or emotionally immature. For example, sharing that you were houseless may indicate your ability to rise above extraneous circumstances. But you must articulate how that experience makes you more prepared to do your PhD, and how you manage your finances today to be secure.
I know, it’s a tall order. Your parents screwed up, and now you need to explain it? Doesn’t seem fair does it? Well it isn’t. And this is exactly why you need a plan with any piece of your history that you share. You don’t have to share it, but if you do, you must connect the dots from that experience to who you are today and why you will be a successful PhD.
Your Trauma Doesn’t Make You A Better Candidate
It can be tempting to think that your trauma or mental health issues make you more of an “underdog” that the admissions committee will root for.
Maybe that’s the case, but not always.
PhD admission committees are looking for people who will succeed, and be easy to work with. True, your lived experiences are valuable, and provide context to how you will approach your research. However, they are far more interested in your potential than your past.
If you can highlight each experience and how it makes you ready for an academically rigorous 4-years and able to think critically to produce new knowledge, that speaks for itself.
Your past trauma can give flavor to your application, but it cannot overcome large gaps or lack of experience. Likewise, a pretty bland application that hits all the right points and showcases someone’s potential based on their past experiences may win out over an application covered in trauma.
None of this is easy. And I don’t envy anyone contemplating what to put in, or what to leave out. At the end of the day, it is a personal decision. I hope you feel more empowered to share your story in a way that resonates with the committee to make yourself the natural PhD candidate they choose. If you need help with your PhD application, you can connect with us and determine if we are a good fit to work together.