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I'm applying for a PhD in neuroscience and I've recently finished writing my SOP and supplementary essay. My supplementary essay asked me to respond to the prompt "Please tell us about an incident in your research where you experienced failure. Include what you did about it and what you learned from the experience." I wrote about how due to my social anxiety I failed to reach out for help in preparing for graduate school, leading to a delay in attending graduate school. I wrote about how I corrected my behavior to no longer respond to anxiety with avoidance. Most of the essay focuses on what I did to correct my behavior and my talk of mental health is kept fairly minimal. I asked the admissions whether it was okay to write about a personal difficulty I overcame throughout my academic career instead of a technical failure in the research process, and they said this was fine. However, when I showed my essay to my academic advisor he said I should avoid mentioning mental health and therapy as it might scare off the admissions committee. The specific lines he had a problem with were as follows:

"However, towards graduation I became preoccupied with moving away from my parents instead of preparing for graduate school. This was despite the fact that they offered to pay for my graduate education on the condition that I stay. I later learned, through working with my therapist, that I was attempting to escape an abusive environment."

I feel as though these lines are very important to contextualizing the situation. Would a line like this really scare off admissions?

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I'm pretty sure you misinterpreted the question. I would think that they wouldn't (dare) ask about your personal failings or mental state. The question as I interpret it is about a setback in the research itself. Suppose you don't get enough subjects to properly carry out your experiment as proposed. What do you do. Or you learn something part way through an experiment that invalidates it and you have to go back and revise.

If you never have setbacks then I'll guess that you aren't trying hard enough to get to the important questions. For a mathematician to be able to prove every proposed theorem says those theorems aren't very consequential. (I've been in that place, actually).

Focus on the research, not your own psychology. Your application should clearly indicate that you are absolutely the best person for this position and will obviously be a success. Moreover you are flexible in overcoming the unknowns that pop up during the execution of it.

  • This is the answer in my opinion! You surely misunderstood the question. – Alchimista Sep 24 '19 at 9:00
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I think I agree with your advisor. Mental health issues can be discussed in an application on a "need-to-know" basis: if you need to explain some missing time in your academic/work history, a semester of bad grades, etc, and you are explaining that this was caused by mental illness that you have successfully dealt with (as evidenced by improved performance afterwards), then this can be helpful to your application.

There is no reason to discuss your parents' offer to pay for grad school to keep you close, or any of your other difficulties with them, or with anyone else, or any other details or explanations from therapy. Those are personal details to discuss with your therapist and to help you personally, not things to put in an application essay.

Whether or not it would "scare off" admissions is not really the question you should be asking: if any part of your application is not doing something to help you look like a better candidate, it is extra and should be left out.

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Mentioning your therapist and parents are bad ideas. You want to portray yourself as a producing asset, as an independent adult.

Nobody is your parent, priest, friend, etc. Anything radiating childish dependency or the like is a turn off. You're going to get good things out of the program and deliver good value in return.

A better example might be a project that was too ambitious (failure). And the subsequent learning (on that project or a followup) was to constrain the scope. There are other examples you can come up with. But the key thing is that it shows you moving to being a better asset, becoming more sophisticated. And in a direction that they are familiar with.

P.s. I also think writing about the application process is a bad idea. Write about research (if it will be a research centric degree) or about school (if school centric). But "I did my applications late"? No. Just no. Reminds me of the large percentage of guys talking about shaving on their first speech in communications class. (Very clear they had made up a topic at last minute.)

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