How to Write a PhD Personal Statement For Biology

If you’re applying to study Biology at PhD level, you may be required to submit a personal statement. Crafting an excellent personal statement is more than simply relaying a list of your qualifications and skills – it involves careful planning and putting thought into your motivations, interests, commitment to the subject area, and more.

This guide contains nine tips on how to write a stand-out personal statement for a Biology PhD programme. You’ll also find top tips from The Profs’ expert postgraduate admissions tutors as well as Profs Co-Founder, Dr Leo Evans, who has personally helped students develop successful applications for top universities.

1. Check what is required of you

Before you begin writing your personal statement, make sure you check what is required of you. Some universities do require you to write a personal statement for PhD Biology, while others do not (instead, they may ask for other documents along with a research proposal).
Each university that does require a personal statement for PhD Biology specifies slightly different guidelines. For example, Oxford asks for a 500-word personal statement for PhD Biology, while Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) asks for one side of A4.

Whether you are required to submit a personal statement, and what you include in that statement, may also depend on whether you are applying for a defined PhD opportunity (e.g. a funded studentship) that is on a topic chosen by the university, or an open PhD programme that asks you to submit a research proposal on a topic of your choice. There may also be some taught elements to your PhD, such as compulsory research methods and research integrity modules – if this is the case, think about how you can prove that you are prepared to develop these advanced research skills and succeed at this element of the programme in your personal statement.

2. Consider what appeals to you specifically about the course

It is important to research the specific PhD programme you’re applying for and discuss exactly why it appeals to you in your personal statement. University-specific research is often the most overlooked part of a postgraduate application and so it is a great way to stand out to universities. Consider why you have chosen to apply for this PhD Biology programme over another – perhaps it is the strong links the university has to your desired industry, or maybe the Biology department specialises in your particular area of interest. Whatever the reasons why your specific course appeals to you, make sure to include them in your personal statement.

3. Think about your motivations for applying

Your chosen university will want to know your motivations for applying for a PhD in Biology. It’s all well and good to be interested in the subject area, but having a more specific purpose or goal in mind will show the university that you are an excellent candidate to study the subject at PhD level.

For example, perhaps you have a particular career goal and completing a PhD will help you achieve it. If so, how will it help and what specifically do you hope to gain from the course? Maybe you have been inspired by a particular event related to your chosen course and want to enact real-world change. If so, tell the university how pursuing this course will help you do this.

Founder of The Profs and Imperial College London graduate, Dr Leo Evans, also recommends making it clear that you are committed to the subject area for the long haul: “Not only will academics be trying to gauge whether you are suitable for a PhD (i.e. that you are intelligent, qualified, a self-starter, driven and committed), they will also be judging whether you are likely to see it out when the going gets hard. Drop off rates are high in PhDs and it is quite expensive for departments to essentially train people who then leave (i.e. they take up departmental resources by having classes and taking up supervisors’ time, etc.).”

4. Go into detail about your past studies

When applying for PhD Biology, you need to outline exactly why and how you are well-suited to the course based on your previous academic experience. Universities will know what you have studied as it will be outlined in your grade transcript, so don’t be too vague. It’s best to talk about specific modules or topics you covered in your Master’s degree (or undergraduate degree, if you are applying without a Master’s) that have prepared you for studying Biology at PhD level.

You should focus on discussing any independent work you have completed, both during your studies (such as a dissertation or independent research project), as well as work that has allowed you to develop the necessary skills for studying Biology at an advanced level (particularly strong technical and problem-solving skills). This will help to demonstrate your academic competence, commitment to the subject, and ability to work independently – a highly important skill at postgraduate level.

As an example, if you are proposing to research into the evolution of sex chromosomes in plants, you will ideally need to demonstrate that you have a solid foundation of knowledge and experience in plant biology (botany) from the modules you studied at undergraduate level. If you researched a similar topic in your undergraduate or Master’s dissertation and can cite specific findings and academics, even better.

Top tip: If you have any gaps in your education history, make sure you address these in your PhD personal statement. Your university will be keen to know that your postgraduate degree is not just a ‘back-up’, but that you are serious and committed, and that it is part of your academic or career plan. Similarly, if you are lacking any subject-specific experience (for example, if you studied your undergraduate degree in a subject other than Biology), compensate for this by explaining how you have developed your foundation of relevant knowledge in other ways.

5. Include any relevant work experience

Including any relevant work experience you have completed in your personal statement will help to further demonstrate your genuine interest and real-world understanding of advanced level Biology on an industry-specific level. It is particularly important in a postgraduate personal statement because it shows proactivity and dedication to your future academic or professional career – something that your chosen university will be looking for closely.

Relevant work experience for a Biology PhD might include: taking a post as a research assistant, working a placement in the NHS or in a science laboratory, volunteering working with animals in a zoo or veterinary practice, writing for a scientific paper, and more.
Rather than simply listing the relevant work experience you have, make sure you show a degree of introspection. Tell your chosen university not only what you did on any work experience placements, but also what you learnt from it and how you intend to apply that experience in order to excel in your PhD.

Top tip: Though it’s important to include it if you have it, you may not be required to have professional work experience to apply for a Biology PhD. Many people who apply for a PhD have been in education their whole adult lives, so if you are missing experience then simply fill the space with further educational experience and skills that prove you are well-suited to studying at PhD level. However, some programmes (particularly those rooted in molecular biology or biomedical sciences) may expect you to have some clinical or lab-based work experience, so always check the entry requirements beforehand.

6. How else have you developed your interest in the topic?

Universities won’t just be looking at your past studies and work experience, but also how you have pursued and developed your interest in your chosen research topic in your own time. For example, maybe you led the Biology society at your previous university, or perhaps you have simply explored your interest in the topic through reading relevant academic papers. Make sure to include examples and name-drop any significant organisations, news, papers, and academics throughout your personal statement to support your claims.

Keeping up to date with news in the relevant biological communities (for example, updates about the NHS and health policy if you are studying biomedicine), is also a great way to enhance your personal statement. It will allow you to make relevant references and anecdotes, show your commitment to the subject area, and demonstrate your understanding of the wider context of your research area. Some resources that will help you do that include the New Scientist, the Biology section of The Guardian, The Guardian, Science.org, Smithsonian magazine, and the BMJ.

7. Briefly outline your 5-year plan

Universities will be looking for PhD applicants who are driven and committed to their industry. A strong personal statement should outline your goals for the future and explain how studying a PhD in Biology will help you to achieve your 5-year plan.

If you don’t have a 5-year plan, you’re not alone! Start by thinking specifically about what you hope to achieve by the end of your PhD, whether educationally or professionally. If you have professional objectives, explain how this course will help you move towards your career goal.

Top tip: Coming up with a 5-year plan may seem like a daunting task, but remember that plans can always change. The 5-year plan you outline in your personal statement does not have to be set in stone and it is expected that you will inevitably adapt your plans based on your changing circumstances and interests. However, no matter how daunted you are, don’t be tempted to leave this part out – it is invaluable for demonstrating your motivation and commitment to the course.

8. Show that you have the technical skills required

University level Biology requires students to have more than just excellent subject knowledge – it is a highly quantitative subject that requires excellent technical skills. Depending on the research you are proposing, you may need to demonstrate that you are able to use certain software and lab equipment, and have strong data analysis skills.

If you studied Biology at Master’s level, you will almost certainly be familiar with many of the technical skills required and will be able to demonstrate this in your personal statement. However, if you studied a slightly different (but related) subject area, you may need to research what skills you will need in order to conduct your research project effectively. This will help to reassure your university that you are prepared to study Biology at PhD level.

9. Consider how your work can contribute to the department, university, and wider society

Our final tip to writing an excellent PhD personal statement for Biology is to consider how your work will contribute – not only to the specific department and university you are applying for, but also to wider society. Universities will want to know that you understand the wider context in which your research will sit and what gap it will fill in the current research.

When applying for a PhD (especially a funded PhD), you’re also essentially asking a university to invest in you, so you need to convince them that you are worth that investment. A major way to do this is to explain how you will add value to their department and be an excellent member of the academic community.

Biology research can also have real impacts in a range of other disciplines and in wider society. For example, developments in molecular biology underpin clinically relevant subjects including cancer, embryology, movement disorders, arthritis, and more, and allow for new and life-changing treatments to be developed to help patients.

How can we help?

The Profs’ PhD admissions consultants are true experts in helping students prepare for study at PhD level, submit stand-out PhD applications, and get into their first choice universities. Our network contains current researchers, lecturers, and ex-admissions staff who have reviewed hundreds of postgraduate applications, as well as Biology experts, so they know just what universities are looking for in PhD applicants.

95% of students who work with our team secure places at their first or second choice university. These universities often include top 10 institutions like Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL, Manchester, Bristol, and more.

For professional, one-to-one guidance on your PhD application, get in touch with our team today.

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