Selling the Researcher

When applying to graduate schools, or for competitive grants, you’re usually required to write a personal statement. This one short essay should span your deepest dreams and your highest accomplishments, and bundle it all up in the perfectly cohesive story of you. It should start with an engaging anecdote that encapsulates your motivation to study your research of choice. From there it should proceed to a series of research experiences which teach you life lessons as well as specific methods, and all connect in an intuitive progression. After dwelling on your intellectual victories, you should discuss all of the amazing things you’ve done to make everyone in the world love science as much as you do, preferably in a way that connects to your previously stated motivations for research. And finally, you should end with a set of future goals that demonstrate your ability to become the most successful researcher ever, and cure cancer in your free time.

The problem is, we’re real people. We don’t have cohesive stories; we lead messy lives full of twists and turns, and many of our decisions are based less on explicable motivations closely tied to our life goals, and more on a general feeling of “why not.” So writing these things becomes an exercise in spinning true facts into a believable story. Somewhere in the twisting, the story you’re creating gets bigger than your self. You pull out the brightest of your thoughts and passions and actions, and in the end all that’s left is that self huddled at the bottom of a life that’s been scraped empty.

It’s easy at that point, when you’re reaching for more shiny-ness and not finding anything, to blame that pitiful self for failing to do things or feel things that could have made your story so much better. But the truth is we do this backwards–we put the most glamorous, colorful moments into the paper, and sneer at the dull, scarred pieces left over. But it is those dark, gritty, scarring moments that make us who we are. It is the truths that sound awful or cliche written down that cannot be denied. The color and the shine are only our decoration; our core substance is made of much humbler stuff.

This is the personal statement I wrote for that self.

Personal Motivation: I’ve always loved to play outside. “Always” is a terrible word to put in a paper, because clearly newborn babies aren’t motivated to do anything other than survive, but there are pictures of two-year-old me covered head to toe in dirt from playing the best game ever: playing with rocks and sticks and dirt. Basically, I never really needed to grow up. I still spend time outside with plants and rocks and dirt, only now someone is willing to pay me to play the best game ever.

People ask me why I want to study forest communities. Why would I want to do anything else?

Academic Work: I was lucky enough to go to an amazing school where I got to take some really incredible classes with (for the most part) pretty decent professors. What I learned in those classes is thanks to them, not to me. I did well in those classes because I studied things I loved learning. I did well in those classes because I was willing to stay up until sunrise fixing bugs in my code. I did well in those classes because I had a great group of friends and we all helped each other out. And some days I still felt like I was failing at everything.

I’ve helped other people with their research and done some of my own research. Helping other people I learned a lot of what not to do, but then when I worked on my own projects a lot of it ended up happening anyway. That’s life. Things go wrong, you try to be flexible, and you make up for mistakes with hard work. Doing my own research, I get to ask complicated questions about the world and then engage on multi-year problem solving missions to answer them. Some people do crosswords, some people do sudoku. I do science.

Teaching and Outreach: 

In as much as I have ever felt called to do something, by an internal drive or an external duty, I am called to teach. That sounds stupid and corny and I would never put it in an academic document, but it’s also bare truth and any other way I would say it would be less sincere.

What it says on my resume is that I spent seven months teaching at a rural Indian school, where I developed my own curriculum, prepared lessons, and wrote exams. It says I learned to make detailed plans and to apply rapid problem solving to adjust to the demands of a combined-age classroom.

What it really should say is that I learned to make things up off the top of my head to adjust to the demands of the absolute chaos that happens when you take students from age 4 to age 10, and throw them together in the same classroom with a teacher who doesn’t speak their primarily language. That my only way to deal with the chaos was to keep making things up until maybe something worked. It should say that I spent seven months in Varanasi learning to be okay with being uncomfortable all the time, whether from being hot or cold or crowded or embarrassed. And it should say that I broke my heart on those dusty classroom floors so many times that some part of me still sits there, caught between the joy and the tears and the wishes that could never come true. So I continue to teach, partially for the sake of my students, and partially for myself, because teaching belongs somewhere in the core of who I am.

Future Goals: I want to continue to do work that I love, including research and teaching. The truth is I will do these things whether this particular organization gives me money or not, because though I’m promising you my work for your sponsorship, I refuse to sell you my soul. I will question, and I will teach, and the teaching will bring questions and the questions will bring teaching. And because there is more to me than my career, I will do so much more. I will create beautiful things and cook wholesome food and talk with inspiring people; and occasionally, I will drop all my work to run outside and dance in the rain.

 

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