“Why does every PhD applicant start their essay with ‘since I was young, I have been curious’?”
This question, asked on Twitter today, is an interesting one. As a fairly frequent reader of applications, I will confess to believing that some application essays are too personal. This is not to say that childhood interests or family background aren’t valid motivations for an academic career; they obviously are — and the snarky implication to the contrary draws appropriate ire. On the other hand, they say little either about one’s potential — though whether this can be measured from an application essay at all seems doubtful — or about how one understands the field one wishes to work in beyond one’s own initial stake in it. Essays that treat the PhD as the next chapter of a narrative of personal development can seem uninformed about the profession and unaware of the community of scholars in the field already. This will not always meet with a charitable reception.
As this suggests, though, the problem is in part with the readers. Rather like total injunctions against using the first person, absolute distinctions between personal and academic interests can become mannered and artificial. This is especially so in the context of application essays whose typical authors, by definition, have no professional record to reflect on and at most a few years of academic work — little self-directed, most rudimentary — upon which to draw. Candidates may perhaps rely too much on certain parts of their autobiographies to do the work that other, later parts should do instead. They may fail to move effectively from personal experiences or interests to clearly articulated academic concerns. (This is, in my experience, a common problem — one not helped by institutions that demand a “personal statement”.) But they can hardly excise themselves entirely; what else do they have? Deep knowledge of the field, research experience, contributions, publications, credentials — these are what they seek.
In the end, the insistence that students should not resort to their personal experience can mean different things. It may be, first, that some experiences are more “personal” than others. My own reference to growing up in a British colony did not detract from my application to study the history of empire — or, at least, not so much as to prevent me from getting into a top program. Or it may be that the problem is one of reading between the lines — understanding “personal statement” as “professional plans”, and cloaking personal experience in professional language. Children of academics might have a double advantage here: first in that their backgrounds are, in a sense, “academic”, and second in that they may have sufficiently precocious mastery of academic language to translate personal interests directly into academic terms. All of which raises the obvious question of what sorts of personal background are read as useful preparation for academia, and what sorts are seen as detrimental — and by whom.
But perhaps all this is overthinking the problem. The simplest solution, in the end, might just be to read past the first line.