Skip to main content

Grad Life

blog navigation

A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

blog posts

  • Applying for Fellowships: Telling the "Story of You"

    When applying for fellowships, you may be asked to provide a personal statement, professional goals statement, or something similar.

    A personal statement gives you an opportunity to elaborate on and offer context for information contained in other documents, such as a résumé, CV, research statement, or letters of reference. It gives you a chance to write the story of you:  experiences that have motivated you, people who have inspired you, ideas you’ve pursued, and choices you’ve made. I’ll offer some strategies for approaching these kinds of statements, but first are some suggestions for what to avoid.

    An impactful personal statement should avoid using generalizations and vague words that don’t communicate much about you. “I’m passionate about my gratitude for the multitude of educational opportunities created for me by the amazing dedication of the people who have supported me by sharing their own passion…” doesn’t really tell the reader anything about the person. It is not the story of you. Let’s consider some alternatives.

    The Principle of “Show, Don’t Tell”

    Whether you have two full pages or only 200 words, your story should be grounded in the principle of “show, don’t tell,” in which you demonstrate your qualifications and characteristics through concrete examples. A personal or professional goals statement gives you a chance to create a vivid picture in the reviewer’s mind by sharing your own unique set of experiences.

    Here are some examples. 

    Motivation to pursue graduate studies

    A funder may wish to know what motivated you to pursue a particular career path or course of study. Which version is more informative?

    Version #1: “I have always been passionate about science.”

    Version #2: “My interest in the field of modeling and control was sparked by my three years as an undergraduate researcher in a lab where I worked with emergency response robots.”

    Working three years in a lab demonstrates passion and long-term commitment to scientific research in the way that just using the word “passion” doesn’t.

    How about this:

    Version #1: “My professors were very inspiring.”

    Version #2: “In the spring of my junior year, I began an independent study with a professor to explore Reimannian Geometry using Petersen’s text.  Every week, I would present what I had read and be prepared to answer his questions. He also critiqued my solutions to the exercises, all of which deepened my interest and understanding.”

    This paragraph shows commitment on the part of both the student and the professor that, in this case, inspired the student to pursue graduate research in geometric analysis.

    Experiences outside of academia might also motivate someone to pursue graduate study, and the path may not have been straightforward. A student writing a dissertation in the field of modern Chinese history explained:

    “I majored in linguistics and studied abroad in China as an undergraduate, then taught English there for a year after I graduated. On a backpacking trip to Sichuan Province, I witnessed high-altitude Tibetan communities for the first time. When I decided to pursue my doctorate, this experience influenced my choice of research topic.”

    In each of these three cases, students used concrete examples to give the reviewers a vivid picture of what motivated them. The specifics they provided helped the reviewer imagine them working in a robotics lab, engaging in lively discussion with a professor, or hiking into a Tibetan village. They had no need to tell the reviewer that they were “passionate” or “inspired” because the time and effort they invested showed their motivation.

    Leadership and collaboration

    You may be asked to illustrate how you took initiative on a project and worked collaboratively with others. This is particularly important in fields where individuals are likely to carry out research as part of a team.

    Applicants early in their graduate career might draw on undergraduate experiences to illustrate these qualities:

    “My senior capstone project addressed the stormwater management challenges of our urban campus. Our team of four retrofitted an area of campus by implementing green infrastructure solutions, mainly rain gardens, rain barrels, and a pervious path. We surveyed the area, conducted soil tests, designed the technologies, and created complete construction plans and maintenance instructions for the project.”

    Work experience can also demonstrate these capabilities:

    “As the coordinator of an academic outreach program, I supervised undergraduate students tutoring at a local school which serves students living in a residential treatment facility and specialized foster care. I collaborated with school staff and administration in organizing the program, recruited and trained undergraduates, and coordinated day-to-day needs such as transportation to and from the facility.”

    The purpose is to show the reviewer that the applicant can be an effective and valuable member of a team or organization, coordinate activities, and achieve a set of goals within a given timeframe.  Even a reviewer who doesn’t know much about permeable sidewalks or youth in foster care can form an image of the complexities of the work these individuals undertook and the many steps and people involved in seeing it through.

    Universities offer ample opportunities for both leadership and collaboration. Details are the key to writing about them effectively:

    Less informative: “I helped organize a film festival.”

    More informative: “As a member of the German club, I helped secure a grant from the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., to co-sponsor an international film festival with other campus organizations, which we advertised widely across campus and the local community.”

    Less informative: “I helped organize outreach activities.”

    More informative: “As an officer of our student chapter of the American Chemical Society, I worked with staff at our city’s Science Center to organize and perform demonstrations with electrochemistry and fluorescence during National Chemistry Week.”

    You get the picture—the more informative version gives us a robust impression of a student who takes initiative and works effectively with others to achieve a shared objective.

    Teaching, Mentoring, and Outreach

    Should you include these kinds of experiences? That depends on what you’re applying for, and it’s up to you to read the guidelines and assess their relevance.

    The same principle of “show, don’t tell,” applies. Classroom examples can highlight creativity:

    “I use music as a tool when I teach English to non-native speakers. Lyrics provide an avenue to discuss slang, history, and culture. For instance, music from my hometown of Detroit, ‘Motown,’ provides a window into the civil rights movement, and folk music can illuminate the history of the ‘60’s and Vietnam-era protests.”

    Outreach can illustrate your commitment to enhancing diversity:

    “I co-founded a campus student organization to empower underrepresented women majoring in STEM fields and raise awareness of gender issues within the STEM community. We offer a series of professional development workshops to help women in science master’s programs transition to the workforce.”

    Perhaps a mentoring program in which you participated increased retention of first-generation college students, or a training manual you created for your lab continues to be used with new undergraduate researchers. Concrete examples illustrate how you have had a long-term impact on your campus.

    Impact & Future plans

    So far, all of my examples have focused on past experience. You can apply the principle of “show, don’t tell,” to the impact your research will have and the career trajectory you anticipate.

    Focus first on talking about the anticipated outcomes of a dissertation project. For instance, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) is interested in supporting the development of technologies that will benefit the armed forces. A student applying for DoD funding might link their proposed research to this mission:

    “The DoD will be able to use techniques I am developing to optimize the design of antennas for directed energy weapons systems along with communications systems that rely on impulse-like waveforms.”

    Antenna research will also have civilian applications, e.g., to improve cell phone reception. However, that is not the primary interest of the funder, and so the applicant does not need to discuss that potential use.

    Students early in their graduate careers may also anticipate how their proposed plan of study will contribute to a broader set of professional goals:

    “My research on slum resettlement programs in Morocco, advanced Arabic language study at the Qalam wa Lawh language center, and a subsequent internship with an NGO in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, will prepare me for a career as a foreign officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development.  ”

    “In Mexico, I will explore the infrastructure of a garment through research both on indigenous communities of traditional weavers and on clothing maquiladoras, factories that employ mainly women at low wages. This will prepare me for my long-term goals of teaching and running a non-profit to promote conflict-free, sustainable and fair trade clothing/accessories.”

    Will these individuals end up doing exactly what they write about in their statements? Only time will tell.  However, the details they offer demonstrate that they have put careful thought into how their short-term plans might translate into a long-term career trajectory.

    Crafting a Story That’s Uniquely Yours

    Concrete examples, when woven together, enhance and support the story told by other components of the application. The title of a dissertation or name of a graduate program takes on new meaning when the motivation behind the choice is understood. A single line on a resume about a student organization or a teaching experience is brought to life as part of the story of you – an active, engaged individual.

    How do you get started on writing the “Story of You”?

    • Read the funder’s materials closely to understand what they are trying to achieve overall by supporting graduate education, keeping in mind that funders might have multiple objectives.
    • Review the instructions carefully. What, specifically, does the funder want to know? How much space do you have in which to tell your story? This will help you with the next step.
    • Make a comprehensive list of relevant personal or professional experience. Start with the longest list possible, then select key items to include in the space you have available.

    This story sets you apart from other applicants. Step by step, it walks the reviewer along the path you have taken thus far. You can tell it most effectively through concrete examples that are grounded in your own life experience, and that illustrate your personal vision.

    This post is the first in a series from the Graduate College External Fellowships Office. Stay tuned for the next installment in the Fellowship Proposal series, "Proposal as Genre."


    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    Karen Ruhleder joined the Graduate College in 2014. As Assistant Director of External Fellowships, she presents proposal writing workshops for graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields and individually advises graduate students applying for grants and fellowships across all disciplines. She also helps manage the Fellowship Finder database. Ruhleder earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and a B.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of California at Irvine. Karen reviews for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition. 

  • Day in the Life: Beth Ann Williams

    Beth Ann Williams is a fourth year African History graduate student. She is currently living near Arusha, Tanzania conducting research for her dissertation. In this post, take a look at what a typical "Day in the Life" looks like for Beth Ann during her research year.

    4:30 a.m.: Two weeks ago my host family acquired a new rooster. For reasons unknown this particular fellow, a giant, off-white beast, likes to crow from the beams right above my bedroom window. I stumble out in the darkness, glad no one is awake to see my in my shorts, pick up the giant stick left behind from a recent construction project in the yard… and knock the rooster down. Luckily for him chickens can (sort of) fly so the 12 foot drop wasn’t dangerous. At that point I would not have cared.

    Five months into my time conducting historical and ethnographic research in northern Tanzania, there are some cross-cultural norms I’ve settled into. I am better about greeting everyone I see, including random strangers. Bucket showers. Live stock (other than the height-obsessed rooster). Offering rides down and up the mountain. No problem. Sometimes I still feel discomfort rooted in my American sensibilities about appropriate questions, time management, and personal space. But I also enjoy the warmth and hospitality of my host culture, and the real relationships I am building with my family, research assistants, and interview subjects.

    5 a.m.: Coffee. Yes, even in rural Tanzania I start the day with coffee, usually including some milk fresh from the previous evening’s milking. In some ways I am incredibly spoiled here.


    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    5:30 a.m.: The skype ringing noise will probably haunt my dreams for the rest of my days. Yet I am incredibly thankful that through the magic of the internet I can talk almost every morning with someone from home despite being halfway around the world and living in a community where most people still don’t have running water. Today it’s my youngest brother in Texas. He makes a comment about the roosters in the background, and I just laugh. Unless they are crowing directly into my window I don’t even register the noise. Actually, the cows are much louder.

    8 a.m.: Breakfast. I eat with the family, which I love. It feels so normal to sit at the dining room table, drinking chai (tea with spices and more fresh milk) and discussing our various plans for the day. After breakfast I get in my car, an unusual luxury that has been critical for getting around and accomplishing work. I wave to Mt. Meru as I drive down its slopes to meet my research assistant Glory and start a morning of interviews.

    9:30 a.m.: I’ve been at Glory’s house for over 30 minutes. She serves me (more) tea and mandazi (fried dough, kind of like a donut without the glaze). We discuss recent power outages in the area then the American election results and their potential impact on the global economy and Tanzanian immigration to the US. Eventually she gathers her purse and we can start work. Tanzania time.

    That morning Glory had two interviewees in mind. As we leave the house she calls the first woman, a local teacher who says she’s out right now, but will home later in the morning. We decide to start with her other friend, an tailor who works out of her home. Although my research focuses on gender change, asking how the local Lutheran church has affected gendered relationships and expectations since independence in 1961, the fact of my being a woman has brought me into contact with many more women. Tanzanians often make the same assumption that many Americans do: if you say gender, they think women. Glory and I have talked about getting some more men to interview. But it’s harder for her since her main contacts and closest friends are women, a fact that says a lot about the often separate spheres of life that men and women occupy despite living in the same community.


    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    The tailor ended up being unusually chatty and we spent almost three hours talking about her family, education, hopes, and challenges. As we left the house Glory could tell that I was tired. My Swahili is better than when I arrived, but several hours of conversation will still drain me. We agreed to reschedule with the teacher and I left to do some reading at a local university library.

    1 p.m.: After a quick lunch of rice and beans ($.50 at the school cafeteria), I settled in to read at Lutheran Tumaini University’s library. Stifling sneezes from the dust, a hazard familiar to many historians, I read about social programs started by the church in the 1960s, problems affecting Tanzanian marriages (sadly much the same as those in the States), and arguments about if and how church leaders should try to address questions of politics. Written by theology students, the theses are often low on facts and evidence, but provide a useful look into the kinds of topics and questions future church leaders were interested in throughout the later half of the twentieth century.

    5 p.m.: My brain is fried. I pack up my bag and head to the gym. Running and (ugh) lifting weights has become vitally important, not only to combat all the tea, rice, and snacks, but also to help refresh and rest my mind after days of reading and interviewing in a second language.

    6:30 p.m.: I’m still not quite used to the later dinners here. But the extra time in the evenings provides a great chance to sit on the back porch and enjoy the kids playing. Although we only have one little kid living with us, there are 10-15 kids in the area who often end up at our house in the last hour of sunshine.

    8 p.m.: After more rice along with greens and a nice beef stew, I’m starting to feel ready for bed. After backing up my new interview recording, repacking my bag, and making a cup of tea, I check the news and read a little of Mansfield Park before turning off the lights. That darn rooster will be up early. 

    All photos are courtesty of Beth Ann Williams.

    Illinois grad students - interested in writing a "Day in the Life" post of your own? Have an idea for a blog post? Send us an e-mail at


    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    Beth Ann Williams is a fourth year African History graduate student. She is currently living near Arusha, Tanzania conducting research for her (tentatively titled) dissertation, Women We Must Learn: Christianity and Gender Change in Post-Independence East Africa." While not reading or conducting interviews, you can most often find her at a coffee shop, running, or playing with whatever children happen to be in the vicinity.

  • Where Are They Now? Hannah Chan-Hartley

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this monthly series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: "Where are they now?".

    Hannah Chan-Hartley graduated with a PhD in Musicology from the University of Illinois in 2014. Now, she works as the Managing Editor and Musicologist at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In this capacity, she oversees the production of the TSO’s program books and other print publications such as the subscription brochure, which includes the creation, commission, editing, and proof-reading of content. She also works with graphic designers and printers to shape the look of these publications.

    What was most surprising about your career path? Or, what has surprised you most about your current job?

    Compared to working on a PhD (particularly the research and writing), which can be a rather solitary experience (and with goals often being quite personal in nature), in my current job, I work very much as part of a team which seeks to fill an organizational mission. In producing the publications for the TSO, I have to consider the needs, goals, and desires of many stakeholders — not only those of the artistic, fundraising, and marketing departments at the TSO but also the orchestra’s musicians, artist managers (who want to ensure their artists are being well-represented), and perhaps above all, the TSO’s audiences. The concert is really the end of a whole trajectory of work that a team of us accomplish in order to give our musicians and our audiences the best experience possible.

    What is the most interesting, rewarding, and/or challenging aspect of your job?

    I feel fortunate that in my job I get to draw frequently on the knowledge and skills I gained from my academic and music performance experiences. For example, my familiarity with the music and the history of classical music in general is quite essential to the task of editing content for the program books. But I’ve learned a lot on the job as well—in working with many graphic designers and printers, I’ve come to feel strongly that something like a well-designed program book can help elevate the live concert experience.

    I recently oversaw the redesign of our program books which included the opportunity for me to explore an idea I had for some time: to create graphic listening guides of major classical music works to help audiences better understand the structure of these pieces. I’ve completed twelve of these now—to my surprise, they began to receive a lot of attention worldwide (including recently winning a design award). It is rewarding to see that my idea is resonating with people and that they are eager for new and different ways to understand the art form.

    What has been the most valuable transferable skill you gained from graduate school?

    Honing my communication skills, through writing and teaching, and learning how to adapt the presentation of complex information for different types of audiences. For example, in my role as editor of the TSO’s program books, I aim to find a balance in the content I create or edit, making sure that it appeals to a broad audience—from a first-time symphony goer to a long-time subscriber with a deep knowledge of classical music. To this end, my previous experience teaching music history to music and non-music majors in particular has significantly shaped my approaches.

    What experiences made an impact on your career choices?

    My husband and I were both PhD students at the University of Illinois when the 2008 financial crisis happened. At the time, we were still a few years away from completing our degrees, but as the years unfolded, seeing the academic job market freeze or even shrink, while simultaneously get very competitive with the growing numbers of graduates entering the hunt, we felt compelled to be proactive about our future. Ultimately, we decided that what was most important to us was to live in a city, one that offered a broad range of cultural and intellectual stimulation as well as job opportunities. Thus, for a myriad of reasons, we felt Toronto was the place for us and we moved in 2011, despite having no certain prospects.

    In making the decision to move to Toronto, I think we had to be open to the possibility of not working in academia; while the city is home to several major institutions, jobs are nevertheless very limited. It would be unrealistic for us just to wait until academic positions became available. Thus, I think we had to keep an open mind about our career options. We’ve been very fortunate so far to find stimulating and fulfilling work in which we’re able to directly apply our academic experience in non-academic settings.

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois?

    Keep an open mind about what kind of career will make you feel stimulated and fulfilled…and remember it’s okay if it’s not in academia. When you’re immersed in the rigors and “culture” of graduate school where you’re honing your research and teaching skills for years, it’s easy to get into the mindset that you’re only fit for an academic career, or that a career in the academy is the only one worth having. For some, a career in academia may indeed be the path. But the reality is that there are more qualified candidates than tenure-track jobs available. Few will get these jobs immediately out of graduate school; more likely, some will spend some years in one (or more) post-doctoral programs, or move from one temporary teaching position to another, often in different cities. Meanwhile, other life factors will likely come into play (e.g. the career of your partner/spouse, children) that will affect the direction of your career. Taking a holistic view of what matters to you (as well as being adaptable and flexible) will be important in helping you make decisions that will better meet your needs, desires, and life goals.


    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    This interview is part of the monthly Grad Life series called "Where Are They Now?" which chronicles the career paths of recent Univeristy of Illinois Graduate College alumni. This interview was conducted by Derek Attig. Derek is Assistant Director for Student Outreach in Graduate College Career Development. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.