James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

January 28, 2010

Grad School Admissions Essays

Filed under: Campus Life — James @ 4:19 pm

This is the second year I’ve had the privilege of reading the personal statements of the prospective new grad students being interviewed by our department. It’s interesting to see the strategies people take in trying to sell themselves. Broadly applicants can be grouped into three categories (at least successful ones, the department doesn’t let us see the essays of the people it rejects so I can’t comment on those):

  • #1 Ever since an early age I’ve been fascinated with plants…
  • #2 The research I already do on plants is so exciting let me tell you about it…
  • #3 There are a lot of problems with the world, in plants/agriculture/biology I see the potential for solutions, which is something I want to devote my life to because …

Of course, as with any gross over-generalization, this skips over a lot of complexity and individual variation* but these do seem to be the predominant, successful, strategies. I really wish I could take a peak at the reject pile though, to see if there are only so many ways to writing a personal statement for a plant biology program, or if it simply that these approaches appeal more to admissions boards than the alternatives.

Thinking back to my personal statement, I definitely fell into category #2 “I don’t have much interesting to say about me, but let me tell you about the awesome plant science I’ve worked on so far!”

*One repeated trait that showed up in some essays belonging groups 2 and 3 was “[I was going to be/my parents want me to be] a doctor, but…” I’m not sure whether I would recommend this to people writing their admissions essays or not. It seems to me that this can even come off as flattering (this person could have been making a six figure salary and do a job depicted on countless TV dramas, but they liked our field so much they chose it instead!) or annoying (so they didn’t make the cut/were afraid to apply to med school and though plant biology would be an easy fallback did they? I’ll show them!).


  1. I’ll probably on the application side in a few years. It will probably be nice, because by then I’ll be totally immersed in something I like and will have my finance studies behind me. I’m still at that one, since I’m fairly close to finishing it and I figure it will still come in handy if I work in the private sector, but I’m planning on focusing more on taking classes for the horticulture degree and then going to grad school to study biotechnology. And then…I haven’t planned that far ahead. I’ll have to get myself involved in something good to write about because there’s not much interesting about myself. My University does work with cacao genetics (yep, chocolate trees in here in central Pennsylvania), maybe I can worm my way into that once I’m a bit farther along on the hort end of things. My real passion is underdeveloped crops, which I found no one here really does (besides one person who’s doing hardy kiwi research). I prefer woody perennial crops, but in my undergrad years if I have the chance I might try do do something with a crop like naranjilla or cassabanana, that could potentially be an annual if the time to maturity could be dramatically cut, or something like lichi tomato, kiwano, or ground cherry. Or maybe mayapple, they’re probably fast maturing, and they’re really tasty, if only someone could do something about their toxicity. I wish I would have started in this direction when I first entered college.

    One of my German professors once told the class that foreign language skills are a strong plus in grad applications, for business anyway. Something about showing not what you do know, but that you are good at learning and studious or something like that. Do you know if that holds true to scientific fields? Right now I’ve got 47 credits of them spread across five languages, kinda hoping that will stand out on a resume. That’s my other hobby.

    Comment by Party Cactus — January 28, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

  2. It sounds like you’d already be in great shape to write a great standard-personal-statement-type-3 essay about the things you want to address with plant biology and plant breeding. While it’s definitely a good thing to have lots of research experience, being able to talk intelligently about how you expect your future work to impact the world is a big plus too.

    If they can make cotton seeds non-toxic (which they have), I’m sure if you put your mind to it you could create a non-toxic mayapple. Of course just making them non-toxic would be the tip of the iceberg if you wanted to develop a variety that was suited to agricultural production. I’ve always thought it would be cool to attempt to domesticate a new crop completely from scratch using modern molecular tools and what we’ve learned about the genetic changes our ancestors selected for during crop domestication.

    Is the cacao research related to the cacao genome sequencing project that was announced back in 2008? If so I’d be fascinated to hear any more recent gossip you’ve heard on the subject, as I haven’t heard so much as a whisper since the original announcement.

    And I’m afraid I have no idea how foreign language studies are looked upon by grad school admissions boards. Before I graduate I want to wrangle my way into the role of student representative on the admissions committee for our department so I can get an inside look at how those decisions are made, but there are lots of years left for me to do that.

    Comment by James — January 28, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

  3. I’m not sure how directly involved they are in the genome sequencing project, but MArs is involved with it and the cacoa program’s site lists Mars as one of their collaborators, so there may be some relation. I should go poking around in the building where they do it again, they’ve got lots of posters in there on their work. I was there in the summer, when wondering around the campus was warm and fun. Now I mostly just scurry from class to class and ignore everyplace else.

    Comment by Party Cactus — January 29, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

  4. Wow… I don’t even REMEMBER what my essay was like. All I recall was getting an e-mail saying “We just found out we could get you in the running for an awesome fellowship if your application is in in tomorrow!” and rushing to a computer lab between classes, typing awaying wildly, and pressing send, hoping I didn’t have too many typos… But I assume it was a type-1 essay. That would be the truth, anyhow. Plants have been my life since age 5.

    Comment by Joseph Tychonievich — January 29, 2010 @ 5:21 am

  5. Whatever you wrote, clearly it was a success.

    I have a bad habit, though much as I used to, of putting off my personal statements to the last moment (without the excuse of last minute e-mails about fellowships), and I do my best to avoid ever reading them again so I don’t have to spot everything from typos to the occasional pseudo-sentence that lost some vital word during the hurried editing process.

    Comment by James — January 29, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  6. haha, I was a 3.

    One of my buddies from college had an AWESOME first draft cover letter for dental school.

    “everyone in my family (dad, granddad, etc.) were dentists and it was always expected that I would be one too, but I think I can do more with my life – dental school will be easy and then I can go on to become an oral surgeon, which actually matters”

    Comment by Matt — January 30, 2010 @ 8:56 am

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