In a statement of purpose for PhD applications, should one talk about their undergrad research like

I did X ...

or, should one (rightfully) say

My advisor and I / we did X ...

Would admissions committees be concerned that the applicant "lacks confidence", when they talk about their research work and emphasize that it's work between them and their advisor? Would committees rather hear the applicant talking solely about their own work?

(Option no. 1 seems a bit ... wrong.)

  • 5
    You should write whatever is true. – Dan Fox Sep 26 at 7:05
  • 3
    If you want, you can just write "We" without specifying whether it's only you or you and your advisor (usually in scientific papers, even single authors use "We" so nobody would consider this suspicious) – Yanko Sep 26 at 10:03
up vote 18 down vote accepted

This is an XY problem. Saying "I did X" repeatedly is wrong and offputting, and saying "My advisor and I did X" repeatedly sounds weak and annoying to read. Neither is the right option alone.

You should adjust the phrasing so that subjects are simple, mostly either "I" or "we", and explicitly credit yourself for things you actually did on their own. After all, you did have some independence, right? It's not like your advisor was over your shoulder every minute of every day.

Bad example:

My advisor and I were looking for a project in field X. My advisor gave me a project to apply X to Y, and my advisor and I planned the general strategy after my advisor taught me the basics, so that after two months, some progress was made, though my advisor decided that the data analysis would have to be redone. Later, a paper was drafted with the editorial support of my advisor, which is now, after having been submitted, under review, at Journal Y.

Better example:

I wanted research experience in field X and approached Prof P, who agreed to be my advisor. My project was to apply X to Y, and after a brief reading period I began two months of independent work, during which I picked up techniques A, B, and C. However, I found these techniques were not powerful enough for the problem at hand. We decided on a change of strategy, and I modified the analysis with techniques D and E, which I used to produce compelling results. We have written up and submitted these results to Journal Y.

Of course you would use fancier language in the real thing, but note how the second example makes you sound like an actual sentient human being, while the first makes you sound like you were just passively "along for the ride", even though it technically makes the exact same claims.

  • 5
    This answer is very good, with (imo) one exception. I would avoid "my advisor directed me to" like the plague - if you have to write something like this, I would phrase it as "we decided" in this case. – xLeitix Sep 26 at 9:25
  • 1
    @xLeitix You’re right, edited! – knzhou Sep 26 at 9:33

I was taught that it should be “This was planned” and not “I / we planned this” or

“XXX was built or carried out” and not “ I built this” or

“analysis of the results show..” not “my or our analysis shows...”

  • 9
    I was taught to avoid this. Nobody likes reading typical stale scientific writing with every sentence in passive voice. Saying “the experiment was planned” conveys next to no information. – knzhou Sep 26 at 8:49
  • 1
    The discrepancy between the comment and the answer comes from 2 semi-conflicting rules of writing: 1) it is a general rule of writing to avoid the passive voice. 2) in certain academic contexts, one should not write in the first person. But for a statement of purpose, there's no reason to follow rule 2). – Kimball Sep 26 at 12:41
  • So how are books written and why are they written like that? Is it for clarity and to avoid ambiguity? – Solar Mike Sep 26 at 14:44

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