I’m writing this post because I was inspired by Nelson Liu’s service in making his personal research statement public. The information needed to get into the academic ivory tower is not that accessible, and it’s awesome that there are people out there trying to change this. This is my attempt to follow in their footsteps! Hope this is useful to anyone applying to PhD programs in the USA.

My personal research statement can be read here.

Disclaimer: I do NLP research and only applied to research programs in NLP. However, in a previous life, I applied to Neuroscience PhD programs, and I can attest that these pieces of advice would have really helped my application back then. So I think they are pretty generalizable.

The two most important aspects to your graduate application are your recommendation letters and personal statement. My advisor, Noah Smith, has great advice on recommendation letters here, so you should check that out.

Here are a few things I learned throughout the process of writing the statement. I tried to highlight some key points which you can refer to my personal statement to understand further.

  • Your research statement should be opinionated about NLP. BERT and GPT-3 are great and all, but what are their limitations? Where do you want to see the field go from here? Where are the new frontiers of NLP, and why do you care about them? In my statement, I chose to highlight the brittleness and expensiveness of NLP models, and how our evaluation methods don’t really transfer to the real-world. These topics wove together most of my previous work, even that in neuroscience.

  • Tell a story. Lots of personal statements re-hash CVs; don’t do that. Instead, try to weave a narrative around your work, and if you have had the opportunity to do multiple research projects, see if you can draw connections and relationships between them. I’m learning that selling your vision is as important as executing it. So this is good practice! Again, I chose to focus on one or two overall themes, and tried to figure out how my previous work would fit into them.

  • Just to emphasize this point further, make sure your ideas in your statement flow. Don’t start and end descriptions of new ideas without at least partially connecting them to previous ones.

  • Claim some ownership of area(s) of NLP that excite you, even if you haven’t delved into them a ton yet. Claiming ownership of a subarea doesn’t lock you into that area, but it does make you more focused and conveys scientific maturity. If you can show that you’ve worked on projects in this direction, even better.

  • Even though I think you should be bold about your ideas, make sure to be humble; most of the projects we’ve done or witnessed in NLP so far are just initial steps towards our scientific dreams. Using the right language to convey appreciation for the complexities/difficulties of NLP problems, while highlighting that you have done some cool stuff towards solving them, will go a long way.

  • While you should tell a story, make it structured. Put yourself in the faculty members’ shoes; they are reading hundreds of applications each cycle. Get to your points quickly and in simple language. Highlight keywords if you’d like, and structure your essay in such a way that someone can understand your main points easily. I structured my essay to highlight the main research ideas I was interested in, allocating one paragraph per idea.

  • With respect to structure, there’s a ton of ways you could go. Here’s one structure that I like, and followed in my personal statement: try to start your statement off with your main themes. Pretend the application reviewer only has time to read the first paragraph. What do you want them to take away from the whole thesis? Then break the themes down into finer ideas, referencing previous or ongoing work when you can, and then zoom back out to your overall PhD goals to finish.

  • Don’t be shy to use plain English, and always err on the side of simpler is better. While you want to get across that you know your stuff, you also want people to understand your ideas as easily and quickly as possible. For example, there was a lot of technical stuff we did in the VAMPIRE paper, but I was advised to highlight the most salient idea from the work in a couple sentences. The main idea I wrote about was that it’s a cheap pretraining method using bag-of-words instead of sequences. Simple and easy to understand.

  • Feel free to discuss ongoing work. While I was working on my personal statement, we were submitting our eventual paper Don’t Stop Pretraining. I just talked about the current ideas I had around this direction, even though they weren’t ironed out yet. This is a great thing to do; it will give you more to talk about during your visit days/interviews!

  • Make sure you mention who you want to work with at the university and why. Just 2-3 sentences towards the end are necessary, since faculty use this to direct your application to specific people.

  • Get people to read your statement I got probably 5-10 different people, some of whom were not super familiar with NLP, to read my statement and tell me if they 1) understood what I was trying to convey 2) whether there was any ideas that seemed to not make sense, or needed substantial clarification or simplification.

Anyway, there’s probably a lot more stuff I could mention; I’ll update this post if I think of anything else. Feel free to reach out on Twitter if you have any specific questions.

Last thing I’ll mention is that there are a number of cool programs to get feedback on your application. I’d point you to the UW PARS program where current UW CSE students are providing application guidance to prospective applicants.

Hope this helps, and good luck!