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Grad School: How Do I Write a Personal Statement?

2014 January 9

Grad School Series: Applying to Graduate School in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Starting Sophomore Year: Should I get a Ph.D. or Master’s? | How to Get Research Experience
Starting Junior Year: Preparing for the GRE | Getting Recommendations
Starting Senior Year: Where to Apply | Traditional vs. Online Degrees | Personal Statements
Alternative Path: Managing a Career Change to I/O | Pursuing a PhD Post-Master’s
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year
Rankings/Listings: PhD Program Rankings | Online Programs Listing

So you want to go to graduate school in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology? Lots of decisions, not much direction. I bet I can help!

While my undergraduate students are lucky to be at a school with I/O psychologists, many students interested in I/O psychology aren’t at schools with people they can talk to. I/O psychology is still fairly uncommon in the grand scheme of psychologists; there are around 7,000 members of SIOP, the dominant professional organization of I/O, compared to the 150,000 in the American Psychological Association. As a result, many schools simply don’t have faculty with expertise in this area, leading many promising graduate students to apply elsewhere. That’s great from the perspective of I/O psychologists – lots of jobs – but not so great for grad-students-to-be or the field as a whole.

As a faculty member at ODU with a small army of undergraduate research assistants, I often find myself answering the same questions over and over again about graduate school. So why not share this advice with everyone?

This week, I’d like to cover one of only two parts of a graduate school application that you have direct control over: your personal statement.  This sometimes called a “statement of research interests” or “entrance essay” or similar.  The core problem is always the same though: you need to write a page or two about yourself.  So what do you write?

Before you get started, you need to plan.  You shouldn’t just dive into a personal statement, because it says several things about you, and you want to make sure those messages are on target.  Here’s what it says, and here’s what to do about it:

  1. This is the best quality of formal writing that you are currently capable of.  
    • The situation: Graduate school involves a lot of writing.  A lot.  You will be writing proposals, you’ll be writing term papers, you’ll be writing theses, you’ll be writing journal submissions, and on and on.  Despite this, most graduate programs don’t explicitly teach you how to write – instead, they assume you learned it in college. As your potential mentors read your application, they’ll in part be thinking, “just how much work is it going to take for this person to become a decent science writer?”
    • The solution: Treat your personal statement like a formal paper. Remember everything you’ve learned previously about how to write. You should have an introductory paragraph, several paragraphs of specific content (each with an appropriate topic sentence that explains the purpose of the remainder of that paragraph) and a conclusionary paragraph. You should ensure there are absolutely no spelling or grammatical errors. You should ask someone that doesn’t know you very well – and preferably someone who is a good writer – to read it over and tell you what they think.  Often, your college or university will have a career services unit that will help you with this if your academic advisor won’t (or can’t) help.
  2. This explains why you are applying to graduate school (in I/O psychology).
    • The situation:  A lot of people apply to graduate school for terrible reasons. The most common terrible reason is, “I finished college and didn’t know what else to do.” This is pretty obvious in an unfocused personal statement, because it’s hard for you to explain exactly why you are going to graduate school. You need a good reason, and you need to explain it well. The reason this is important is because people without good reasons burn out. Grad school is hard.  I like to refer to it as “trial by fire.” If you don’t come in with long term goals that you are fully committed to, you aren’t likely to finish – and that means advisors aren’t going to want to spend their time training you only for you to leave after a year.
    • The solution:  You really need to sit down and think about why you’re going to graduate school. This is different for every person, so there’s no single right answer here. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a professor. Maybe you’ve worked in human resources before and want to make it better. Maybe you just want to make a difference in the lives of employees and see applied I/O work as the best way to do that. All of these are fine answers – but your personal statement needs to explain your answer and how you came to it.
  3. This explains why you are applying to this particular graduate program.  
    • The situation: It’s fine if you want to apply broadly – in fact, I recommend it. But that doesn’t mean you can get away without doing in-depth research on each school you are applying to.  Faculty want to know why you applied to their program.  A single, untargeted, generic personal statement sent to a dozen different programs is one of the worst things you can do with your personal statement.
    • The solution: Remember that applying to graduate school is very unlike applying to college: you’re not applying to take classes, you’re applying to work with a particular faculty member (or perhaps a few faculty members).  If you have particular, targeted research interests, you need to say what they are, which faculty members you want to work with, and why.  If you don’t have particular, targeted research interests, that’s fine too, so you should say that – but you still need to explain why you applied to this particular program. Did you talk to graduate students already in the program? Were you recommended to apply by your advisor due to the quality of the program? Something else? No matter what, you should have a different personal statement for every school you apply to. Don’t ever say you’re targeting a school because it is convenient to you (e.g. near family, lets you keep your job, etc.). If something like that is your only reason, you shouldn’t apply there.
  4. This explains how you’ve prepared for graduate school.  
    • The situation: Something you’re likely hear a lot in I/O graduate school is “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” One thing that faculty want to know is how – specifically – you have prepared yourself for graduate school. This also speaks a bit to #2 above.
    • The solution: If you’ve been following my blog’s advice since your sophomore year or earlier, you should have a lot of information to talk about here. You need to discuss what you learned in each research lab you’ve worked in and how this experience prepared you for graduate school. If you worked on particular projects that inspired you in your research interests, describe a specific anecdote or two (e.g. a particular research challenge you faced) and how you solved it and learned from it.

There are a few common problems with personal statements:

  1. Your statement is not your life story. While your 8th-grade teacher may have had an amazing influence over you that eventually led you to I/O psychology, it’s not very relevant to your application. Traumatic experiences (e.g. the death of a family member) are the same way.  Although your great-grandfather’s death may have inspired you to do something with your life, it doesn’t really have much to do with your I/O career path.  For each paragraph (and thus every sentence), you should ask: does it help the person reading this statement accomplish one of the four objectives listed above? If not, get rid of it.
  2. Your statement is not an opportunity to get creative.  Remember point #1 above. This is a formal paper. It is the closest thing to scientific writing of yours that the selection committee is likely to see. Creative narratives, clever use of spacing, etc. make you memorable, but not in a way you want to be memorable. You want to be memorable for your qualifications. Don’t start your statement with a quote or cliche; for example, I cringe every time I see, “Life is a marathon” at the start of someone’s statement.
  3. Your statement should be about what you think and what you know, not what you did. When you apply to graduate school, you’ll also turn in a curriculum vitae (the academic equivalent of a resume). This should say which labs you worked for and when. It should also cover which classes you took. Don’t waste space in a personal statement reiterating this information; assume that the people reading your application have already seen your vita and build from there.
  4. Your statement is not exhaustive. Even if you have a ton of information that you want to share, and even if the program doesn’t provide a specific page limit, you should keep your personal statement under 2 pages.  Maybe 3 if what you’re including is exceptionally compelling. Writing your personal statement should be an exercise in brevity – sharing as much critical information as possible in as small a space as you are able.

There’s no single “right way” to write a personal statement, but these guidelines will give you a good start to make a compelling argument for your acceptance.

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. Rachael permalink
    December 15, 2014

    Do you know where I could find an example of a personal statement for industrial organizational psychology? I’ve read numerous examples of psychology personal statements but none that are IO oriented.

    • December 15, 2014

      A good statement is honestly very different from student to student – and I’m afraid I don’t have any examples of good IO statements specifically.

  2. Mark McDowell permalink
    November 16, 2015

    Thank you for the information in which you provided. I am currently working on a statement of interest for a class in my junior year. I currently have an A.S. in Chemistry and recently changed my major from Pre-Med to Psychology. I unfortunately have not had much research experience, but plan to in the up and coming semesters. I also have not had any intern experience outside of time spent in preparation for medical school requirements. I guess what I am wondering is if that information is appropriate to share in this document, or if since it does not relate to I/O Psychology if it should be left out. My other concern is that with my on the job experiences that I have had as a nontraditional student, would they be a good topic for discussion. I have grown quite fond of finding ways to help a business thrive and make things more smoothly for coworkers, and felt that I/O Psychology would be a better option for a career over Medicine. If you can share any information, I would truly appreciate it.

    Thank you for your time.

    • November 16, 2015

      Anything is appropriate insofar as it explains how it a) makes you ready or b) makes you familiar with the realities of I/O research and practice. So anything that helps make that case is fine. Just remember that I/O psychology is about the science of employees in workplaces, so you don’t really want to talk about “making things smoother for coworkers” in general unless either what you did was research based or it specifically triggered you to learn about and apply I/O psychology on your own. You definitely don’t want to mention the experiences you haven’t had – focus on what you’ve done, learned, and gained from the experiences you have had, as long as they’re relevant to I/O.

  3. January 20, 2016

    Hi Professor Landers,

    I was wondering if you recommend any text books on I/O. I was looking for something particular that explains all the job titles that can come from an I/O degree but anything works.



    • January 21, 2016

      The book I use for my own I/O courses is Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational PsychologyLandy and Conte’s Work in the 21st Century. A new edition is coming out in 2016 though, if you want the newest of the new.

      Job titles though is a different problem, and a difficult one to answer. We generally get jobs based upon job requirements (i.e., have you been trained in the skills needed) rather than titles – the titles can vary dramatically. “Consultant” for example could be an I/O job or something completely different. That is probably why most I/O jobs are located through personal networks – I wouldn’t ever recommend an I/O even look at Monster or an online job board.

  4. May 3, 2016

    Hi, your blog proves to be very eduactive and informative.
    I had my bachelors degree in english and sociology but i want to defer and have my masters in I/O psychology. I took a semester course in I/O during my undergrad and became hooked and intrigued about the course. I have no thesis on it or any form of research work based on it. I am currently working but it does not have anything to do with i/o. What I want to know is, will that affect my statement of purpose, although i do really want to pursue a career in I/O psychology.

    Thank you.

    • May 3, 2016

      You will certainly need to explain in your statement why you are qualified and motivated to pursue an I/O graduate degree with an atypical background, yes.

  5. Mark McDowell permalink
    May 3, 2016

    Dr. Landers,
    Thank you for your response. My next question is related to statistics. Due to stats and research being a large part of the I/O field, are there any other Stats courses that you would recommend taking besides 2600 (College Statistics) and 2700 (Statistics for Behavioral and Social Sciences), that will better prepare me for a career in I/O?

    Thank you for your time.


    • May 4, 2016

      In most cases, the department bringing you in will require you to take any advanced statistics courses you need then. However, you can demonstrate your ability to succeed in such courses by taking basically any advanced stats course you can find now and are qualified for, preferably at the graduate level. The most relevant to I/O that are potentially within an undergrad’s level are likely psychometrics and regression. If you are incredibly comfortable with stats, you might even try a multilevel modeling course or structural equation modeling course, but those are way, way advanced. I would regardless recommend you talk to someone in your program first about what classes are available and what they think you could take. You’ll need permission from any graduate level instructors directly (they are not something you can just sign up for).

      For comparison, you have currently taken the equivalent of the first month or so of graduate level stats. So adding courses you would likely or could take as a graduate student certainly builds your credentials, but it’s not required. Most students applying will have basically what you have now.

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