As the leaves begin to change color, cool breezes replace summer heat, and Trader Joe's exchanges their normal inventory for nothing but pumpkin themed food, it becomes clear. Application season is in the air. Whether it's a for a fellowship, graduate school, or funding for a virtual conference, now is the perfect time of year to cozy up on the couch and write multiple pages about your life's dreams and achievements. Even amidst the chaos that is our world, at least there are still some intact deadlines to construct a sense of normalcy. Having read >200 application essays as a member of the graduate student admissions committee for my PhD program, a teaching assistant for fellowship-seeking graduate students, and a peer mentor in writing workshops, I have observed some common pitfalls that students encounter when preparing their personal and research statements. Save yourself (and your mentors!) some time now by avoiding these common mistakes.
1. Telling instead of showing
In my experience, "telling" instead of "showing" is the most common pitfall as well as the most important to avoid. Telling instead of showing occurs when a student explicitly states how they generally think, feel, or behave instead of showing these abstract concepts through concrete examples of their work. For example, students often write that they "love science" or "work hard." However, saying "I am a hard worker" isn't really convincing. If I am the reviewer, how do I know that the student is actually a hard worker? How do I know that the student and I have a similar idea of what it means to work hard? Showing the committee that you work hard by relaying concrete examples of your work is much more effective. Imagine a student instead writes, "I developed a month-long synthesis protocol, tested the protocol in triplicate, and then assessed the purity using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR)." This student clearly worked hard to develop the protocol and test it three times. This student has also efficiently communicated that they are skilled in basic organic synthesis and NRM without having to list these specific skills and the reader has learned about the student's unique work. Showing instead of telling increases the credibility, word efficiency, and interest of the work.
Note the showing should include specific details. These details paint a story in the reader's mind, helping them to understand and remember you. Names of your faculty mentors, the company at which you worked, a specific instrument you used extensively, or an organization where you volunteered are all details that are appropriate to include. Instead of saying you performed "experiments and assays," say "western blotting and qPCR." Instead of saying that you earned a scholarship, say that you earned the "Exceptional Student Award, which is given to one student at the University of the State per year for high academic achievement."
Another subtle form of telling instead of showing is what I refer to as a "reflective sentence". A reflective sentence is when students relay their personal thoughts or feelings about an experience retrospectively. For example, a student might write, "I learned how much I love science through this internship and decided I wanted to study biochemistry and go to graduate school." Students often include these as conclusion sentences. Note: not every paragraph needs a conclusion sentence. In addition, a few (1-3) of these reflective sentences throughout the entire essay is more than enough to assure the committee that you love your work. These take up space, are a bit cliché, and can easily derail into a personal monologue. Use them sparingly.
2. Research experience lacks appropriate scope
A close second for the most common pitfall is the failure to fully communicate key aspects of a research experience. Internships, research assistantships in a university lab, and intensive class projects that require primary research can all be considered as research experiences. Note that most class projects do not recapitulate the firsthand experience of being in a lab or company, so these should only be included if it is your only experience or your project had an exceptional outcome beyond the classroom.
How you frame a research experience is not just a list of bullet points from a resume converted to paragraph form; it is a window for the committee to see how you think as a scientist. Students often fail to explain the big picture (why is the study important enough to do), what their specific role was in the work (as opposed to the work of mentors and the lab), or the outcomes of the experience (whether the work led to a poster, publication, new protocol, a new direction in the lab, etc.).
Each experience should described in 1-2 paragraphs or more depending on the number of experiences or breadth of one experience. If you worked in one laboratory for four years, for example, you can break down individual projects as different experiences. The description of the experience should be broad in scope at the beginning, answering why the problem is important to study. Think, "this disease is deadly" or "this organism has unique properties." Next, describe the larger goal or approach of the lab. If the big picture is a need for renewable energy, perhaps the lab is developing new solar cell materials. Importantly, you should identify what work you actually did, such as testing the efficiency of the new solar material described earlier. Finally, you should connect how your work led to progress toward the previously identified goal and list any outcomes. Outcomes can include presentations, reports, publications, a new method or protocol, or any new direction that the lab will take because of the work. With the exception of using 2-4 sentences to describe your work, all other questions can be answered in 1-2 sentences. This change in scope from big picture to narrow to big again resembles an hourglass as shown below.
3. Personal statement is too personal
The personal statement is deceptively named, and students often are not sure what should actually be included. Instead of thinking of it as a personal essay, think of it as a "professional-personal" essay. Do not include your life's story. Rather, experiences that were a part of or significantly impacted your career and are unique to you (that's the personal part) should be included. Importantly, the personal essay is a chance to convince the reviewing committee that you will be a good return on their investment. You can also use this space to showcase attributes that are difficult to discuss elsewhere in your application such as teaching experience or volunteer work.
What should/can go in a personal essay
What should not be in your personal essay:
4. Informal writing for a formal occasion
This one is pretty simple conceptually, but it's easy to forget. Again, while it may be called a personal statement, this is really a professional declaration of your accomplishments with a persuasive element to convince the committee to invest in you. Unlike if you are writing a text to your best friend or a note to your mom, you should follow formal writing conventions in your essays. This means proper grammar, defined abbreviations, a professional tone, and my personal pet peeve, no contractions! Pick up a book on formal writing conventions and have some colleagues take a look at your essays if you need help.
Unnecessary negativity sometimes occurs when a student is trying to communicate challenges they have overcome, particularly when those challenges were other people. It is not appropriate to complain about other individuals or groups of people, including your family and hometown. Students may also use negativity inadvertently to emphasize a positive point. In an attempt to show that they are truly motivated to pursue higher education, for example, they may simultaneously suggest that their community of origin is uneducated, dispassionate, aimless, etc. There is no need to put another scientist, institution, family member, or people group down to build your essay. There is plenty of credit to go around!
Happy writing! If you are putting together applications for the first time, check out our podcast on how to ask for letters of recommendation as well.
What do you study?
Whether at a family reunion or conference poster session, you have probably had to explain your research at some point in your career. More likely, you have had to explain your research many, many times and to a variety of audiences. These short conversations often represent key opportunities to start a new collaboration, find a job opportunity, or share new science with the public. A little preparation can go a long way to turning these elevator pitch-style answers into conversation starters.
In our recent episode "Prep your research pitch - skill share! ", Sally and I craft a research pitch in real time and tailor it for a given audience. We challenge our listeners to do the same!
Here's the challenge:
Choose your audience:
Write down and practice a 30 second answer to "What do you study?"
Deliver your pitch! Call your mom, send a video to your friend, or zoom with your labmate. Ask them what they found exciting, memorable, and confusing. Don't forget to save your pitch somewhere, too. You can pull out your notes and practice before a conference, virtual or not.
Send your pitch to Double Shelix! Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) an audio file, leave us a voicemail, or send us a tweet (@doubleshelixpod) with your name and intended audience. We will be thrilled to hear from listeners and may feature your pitch in a future episode - with your permission of course!
Toxic mentorship can thrive in academia, but is often hard to spot. Entrenched power dynamics and internalized imposter syndrome can make victims of toxic mentorship, and their advocates, question if things really are that bad.
The list below, while not comprehensive, details a few traits of toxic mentorship. My goal is to identify behaviors to watch for so that trainees can spot toxic mentorship before joining a lab. It may also make it easier for student advocates, including faculty, to identify and support students facing toxic mentorship.
Toxic mentors often set intentionally unrealistic expectations of data quantity or quality so that when the trainee inevitably fails to meet them, the trainee will work even harder to meet the goal. This kind of intense pressure can lead to bad science, especially when a toxic mentor is unwilling to consider alternate hypotheses, despite what a trainee’s data may show.
Science is hard and frustration is common. But when critique of a dataset turns to personal attacks against a trainee, this is toxic behavior (“I knew you weren’t good enough to do this work,” “Students who really care come in every Sunday”). Feedback should be free from personal attacks.
Many aspects of science are competitive, like funding, publishing, and hiring. But when mentors bring this strong sense of competition into their labs, this can be extremely toxic for trainees. Lab members may race to achieve the same goal, compare hours worked or experiments completed, or fight for limited resources. In a healthy lab culture, mentors encourage collaboration and support among team members.
Code of Loyalty
Many toxic mentors are deeply invested in lab members being “loyal” to the lab or to the PI (principal investigator). They may use “harming the lab’s reputation” or “spreading rumors” as reasons why it is not appropriate for struggling students to seek input or support from other faculty. This is preposterous; asking for outside help is a normal part scientists’ training, and good mentors know and encourage this. When anonymous criticism does arise (negative tenure letters, ombudsperson mediations, department interventions), PIs may intimidate students to reveal the complainant or stop trainees from speaking up in the future. This is the dark side of a “This lab is a family” attitude; you may tolerate many behaviors from your family that you should not have to accept in the workplace.
Success at any cost
It may seem like a PI with a strong track record of funding, publications, or institutional support couldn’t possibly be a toxic mentor, and potential advocates sometimes minimize students’ experiences as overblown or unbelievable. Academia, however, does not usually reward healthy mentorship. Well-regarded PIs can still be toxic, and their influence can follow students throughout their careers, especially if the PI is conventionally successful. In some fields, there are “leaders” whose toxic mentorship is an open secret; trainees and faculty peers alike tolerate this behavior because they think “Oh, it’s worth it to have X’s name on your resume.” Communities should seek to give opportunities (speaker invites, awards, etc.) to faculty who treat their trainees appropriately.
Toxic mentors must be doing something to continue to attract trainees to their group, get money, maintain collaborations, and publish. Often that thing is manipulation. This can take many forms, including high praise and big promises for prospective group members and first year students, while harshly criticizing or totally ignoring older trainees. Harder-to-spot red flags include weird attitudes about data sharing (like keeping data secret from other group members or collaborators) and funny business around money (like how it’s spent or if/when trainees will be paid).
Toxic institutional culture
In many communities, there is a sense that being treated terribly is par for the course for students and postdocs. That this behavior, which can resemble hazing, is a necessary part of becoming a “real scientist.” Even if many professors in your department/institution behave toxically, or if a mentor doesn’t seem “as bad” as someone else, that does not make it okay. Often, trainees in these toxic cultures will eventually adopt this same mentality, judging newer lab members by these same toxic standards and perpetuating the cycle. Faced with a bad overall culture, ask yourself, “Would this person have been fired if they worked at a company with good HR?” If yes, it’s toxic.
Dealing with a toxic mentor can be extremely draining and isolating for trainees. In the best-case scenario, a new trainee would identify toxic mentorship and choose another lab to join. Often, this is not possible, so support from peers and other faculty is crucial to trainees’ success and wellbeing. If you suspect a trainee may be dealing with a toxic mentor, reach out to them and offer to help however you can. Believe them. Trainees in toxic situations, it is not your fault. Ask for support from peers or other faculty and try to find sources of happiness outside the lab. Training scientists well is a crucial part of being a professor, and we should all seek to promote healthy mentorship practices and reward good mentors.
About the author: Sally recently completed her PhD in Bioengineering at UC Berkeley and feels compelled to mention that she did *not* have a toxic advisor, which is why she can speak freely on this topic. Many victims of toxic mentorship cannot speak freely about their experiences. It is important for everyone to be informed on these issues so we can collectively support students!
We are heartbroken at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and many others, and we condemn police brutality in all forms. Black lives matter. Fighting for change in unjust systems is at the core of our mission to promote inclusive science and, frankly, we are ashamed that we have not done more.
We hope that our audience will join us in taking action to help our communities (or department, lab, team, workplace, family) be anti-racist and support and promote Black peers, students, mentors, faculty, friends, and community members. Many in our audience are at an early career stage, and may not have much experience speaking with people in power to confront racist behavior or implement new anti-racist initiatives. We challenge our non-Black friends to get comfortable being uncomfortable and speak up anyways, recognizing that not everyone has the privilege of silence.
Going forward we commit to featuring more Black scientists, engineers, and leaders on our podcast episodes and other platforms. Below, we have linked a few resources for ways you can join us in donating, learning, and action.
Sally + Kayla
Resources and data
Hello listeners! Double Shelix Podcast is expanding into the blogosphere.
Content will feature skill building guides, metascience commentaries, and scientists' personal stories. We will also highlight studies on inclusive STEM education/research and how to put this information into practice. We envision these posts as resource for listeners looking for more information on topics we regularly discuss in the podcast (or at least a good excuse to procrastinate while feeling productive).
Want to contribute? Email us an idea pitch at email@example.com! We are interested in short (500-1000 words) or long (<3000 words) posts, and we are always excited to hear from our fantastic listeners.
Thanks for reading!
Sally & Kayla