4 minute read

I’m writing this post because I was inspired by Nelson Liu, who made his personal research statement public. The information needed to get into the 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 found 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 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 points that 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 cost of NLP models, and how our evaluation methods don’t really transfer to the real-world. These topics wove together most of my previous projects, even those 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. 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.

  • 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 describe projects you've worked on in your claimed areas, 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 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 with one paragraph per main research idea.

  • With respect to structure, there’s a ton of ways you could go. Here’s one structure that I like: 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. To finish, zoom back out to your overall PhD goals.

  • 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 new technical ideas in the VAMPIRE paper, but I highlighted the most salient idea from the work in a couple sentences. The main idea I wrote about was that VAMPIRE is 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 project, 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 understood what I was trying to convey. It was super helpful to get feedback on certain ideas that needed 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 PAMS program where current UW CSE students are providing application guidance to prospective applicants.

Hope this helps, and good luck!