I am applying for some PhD programs, and I don't know if I should mention my country's situation in those letters, like the difficulty in being a female scientist without having a friend at court or free speech problems in my country.

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    What sort of "situation" are you needing to mention? Or is the country name enough to let people know, based on current news?
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 14:11
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    I wouldn't say name wouldn't be enough for some people. One of the reasons I'm applying for PhD programs outside of my country is the lack of free speech and diffucilties becoming a researcher since our current government doesn't care. It's a country from middle east with no current war going on. Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 14:34
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    Do you have one or more female mentors in your circle? And are they willing to write about the situation so that you don't need to? An especially enlightened male might do as well, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 14:37
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    Not a full answer, but I know some people who think e.g. that some restrictions on free speech (e.g. Singapore, Hong Kong to a lesser extent) is defensible, even desirable. If you bring up free speech and one of these people read your application, it can conceivably backfire.
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 15:24
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    @DanRomik I would also make sure we are thinking of the same kind of free speech protections. Singapore has been criticized by Human Rights Watch for curtailing free speech, but the particular kind of free speech targeted is "deliberate online falsehoods". It's not clear to me that most people or academics think allowing QAnon-style "free speech" is good; in fact the reverse might very well be true.
    – Allure
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 6:51

7 Answers 7


It’s generally okay to mention it, and any person with a heart is going to feel sympathy for your situation. But it’s important that you understand that this will have zero effect on your chances of getting admitted to most PhD programs. The only possible exception is in disciplines where your background of being from a country where there is a lack of free speech and women aren’t treated well is relevant for the discipline you want to study. For example, if you applying for a PhD in political science or human rights law and want to cite your background to explain why you have the passion to study those topics, this would be a helpful narrative that could actually make an impression on the admissions committee.

But for most topics, admission is based on merit and potential to succeed in the program. If you are applying for a PhD in math, say, I suggest focusing on why you have the passion and talents to succeed in your studies in this area rather than on why you want to move to a different country, which, although it is obviously important to you, would have no relevance to your ability to succeed in a PhD program. Good luck!

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    Another exception might be if someone's demonstrated successes have come despite barriers to that success, suggesting a resiliency that would be an asset in graduate school.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 16:02
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    Would it be relevant if she lost out on academic opportunities because she's female (say, due to systematic oppression from the government or something)?
    – justauser
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 19:03
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    @justauser it may be relevant, but your framing isn’t helpful. The decision to admit someone into a graduate program is not an act of charity or a way of addressing some grave injustices in the world. The focus is on whether the person has potential to succeed. If her life’s story demonstrates that she does (which could include overcoming adverse circumstances as Bryan suggested), then that story is relevant. However, the mere fact of being deprived of academic opportunities does not demonstrate anything other than the person is probably less prepared for the rigors of a graduate program.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 19:12
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    @justauser about your follow up question: life isn’t fair, and neither are college admissions in the sense that you are defining fairness here. The purpose of admissions is to select the most promising candidates that can make the best use of the very costly resource that is a university education. (Some people are also advocating for it to be used as a tool to correct various societal injustices, but that’s a long debate and much too complicated to discuss here. By and large, what I’m saying here is how most professors will approach the issue you are raising about country of origin.)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 15, 2021 at 19:17
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    @NotThatGuy it’s very common for grad school applicants to cite irrelevant personal circumstances in their applications, usually because they are not good at judging what’s relevant rather than because they are trying to be emotionally manipulative. Professors quickly learn to ignore these things. I stand by what I said, there will be no effect, either positive or negative.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 14:08

You need to be careful in how you phrase it.

In some ways, a PhD application is similar to a job application. You need to convince people that you are the best person for the position.

After reading your application, you want the application committee to remember you as "the super-qualified candidate whom we'd love to have in our PhD program, because it will be pure pleasure to do research with them", not as "the poor person who'd take any position just to get out of their terrible country". I'm not saying that the latter is the case, I'm just warning that you might create this impression if you get the wording wrong.

If possible, present it as a hardship you overcame (and which, therefore, speaks for your character), not as a reason to have pity with you.


I agree with @DanRomik's answer and would like to add one exception:

One case in which mentioning it would be advisable is if you apply to work with a particular advisor (which is generally the case in Europe), and that advisor indicates an interest in working with students that come from challenging background. That indication could be a statement on their website, a membership in a particular mentorship cycle, relevant tweets, or likewise.


This ultimately hinges on whether there is some aspect of the application where this information would be relevant. Some application processes will ask you to write a personal statement, or ask what attracts you to the institution you are applying for, or ask you to specify if you have encountered hardships in your previous work. In all these cases the culture and professional limitations in your home country might potentially be relevant and you could mention them. Ultimately, you will need to judge whether those details are germane to any part of the application process for the position in question.


I think it is good to mention it. I have never seen such statements in PhD applications (I am in math and in the USA) but I would, as a member of hiring committee, consider such applications favorably. I think that just mentioning the name of the country is not enough. It is important that you personally care about these issues.


(Decided to upgrade this from a comment to answer)

Whenever you bring up political/ideological issues like what you describe, you need to be careful, because if you reach someone with the opposite politics/ideology it can backfire.

For example:

female scientist without having a friend at court

If you're applying to an Afghan university, this will not work well.

Note what looks uncontroversial to you might still be controversial to people you've never met. For example,

free speech problems

As I mentioned in the comments, I know people who think free speech is a bad idea and semifree speech is the right thing. For example, they support the national security law in Hong Kong because Hong Kong is part of China and it is natural to restrict speech that promotes secession; furthermore Hong Kong will become a full part of China in 28 years, so gradual restrictions are sensible. If you live in Hong Kong and write about free speech in your PhD application, and you reach someone who believes this, it can backfire. To quote a more loaded example:

in most left-leaning universities arguing that you would really like to move to the US because the US, unlike your European home, allows you to buy a semi-automatic weapon with relative ease, is neither a convincing reason for a move nor will it strike brownie points on an emotional level with many faculty members.

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    "In most left-leaning universities arguing that you would really like to move to the US because the US, unlike your European home, allows you to buy a semi-automatic weapon with relative ease, is neither a convincing reason for a move nor will it strike brownie points on an emotional level with many faculty members." I moved to the USA from a non-free speech country and I have not even seen a semi-automatic weapon except in European movies.
    – markvs
    Commented Sep 16, 2021 at 3:58
  • I think even in repressive regimes a lot of people think they enjoy freedom of speech and other freedoms (except for minor limitations directed only at traitors and criminals), rather than being anti-free speech. Historically, communist regimes have put great store by supporting liberation movements in third world countries, so saying "I'm a poor peasant oppressed by corrupt government" might well be a good thing even to a totalitarian regime.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 9:07
  • @MarkSapir not to totally derail this, but that might just be because of where you live. I live in a fairly left-leaning area of North Carolina and I still definitely see semi-automatic handguns carried openly at least a few times a year (in addition to police officers, who always carry a semi-automatic handgun). If you are maybe conflating semi-automatic weapon with assault rifle, that's much less common and I've never seen one carried openly, though I have family members who own one.
    – bendl
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 13:00
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    @bendl: Saying that people emigrate to the US because it is possible here to buy semi-automatic weapons is not even offensive. It is just stupid.
    – markvs
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 14:12
  • @MarkSapir 100% agree on that point.
    – bendl
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 14:55

There are motivated, intelligent people in every country of the world.

There are many countries, though, in which it's much harder to study and travel abroad if you're a woman. It's stupid and counter-productive, but that's the way it is.

This fact can be used by recruiters from other countries: if you're a woman coming from a misogynistic culture and you apply for a PhD, it means that you probably have faced adversity, but did not give up.

You don't need to explicitly mention the difficulty in being a female scientist in your country, but you can hope that recruiters will connect the dots.

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