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A PhD program that I am applying to requires a personal statement based on the following prompt: "what struggles have you overcome?"

Would it be risky to write something with the following effect: I started college late after a long period of substance abuse. I have been sober for many years now. I have accomplished a lot academically in my sobriety.

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    I would say that’s too much information. It might be good to highlight some struggles you had to overcome but maybe not something as personal.
    – user126108
    Dec 7, 2023 at 14:19
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    Don't. Many people have a prejudice against (dry) alcoholics, many people have had their own personal experience with (dry) alcoholics, and many have (had) an alcohol problem themselves. Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps, also in this respect.
    – Karl
    Dec 7, 2023 at 21:26
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    Focus on an interpersonal situation, the challenge and how it was gracefully, maybe even productively, resolved. Dec 7, 2023 at 23:07

10 Answers 10

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I think it would be risky, though I can't judge inappropriate. The problem is that you will be judged by individuals, some of whom might fear a relapse in the middle of your studies. If that would cause issues in your field, other than personal ones, then they might not approve of you as a candidate.

I would, myself, stick to academic struggles and challenges, including starting late (for personal reasons) and far behind, but developing the work habits to catch up and excel.

I think the same would be true for issues other than alcoholism that might result in a debilitating relapse affecting performance.

Good luck in both academia and your struggles. Not an easy road.

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  • I appreciate the answer
    – user180328
    Dec 8, 2023 at 1:35
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    Essentially the first sentence of the statement should read something like 'I only enrolled in college at age 23 for personal reasons.' and then continue from there.
    – quarague
    Dec 8, 2023 at 10:41
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    @Cfr, alcohol use disorder is a chronic disease and I would characterize it as such ("medical reasons"). I agree that you shouldn't name it because of prejudice. Or if that feels weird, something like "poor choices from my adolescence that I needed to learn from." Being too cagey does nothing for you, imo. It's a personal statement and the goal is to get the reader to connect to you so they'll go to bat for you against another candidate with similar marks so you can get the interview.
    – GenesRus
    Dec 8, 2023 at 19:07
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PhD programs want to admit the applicants who have the highest potential to succeed in the program. By disclosing that you overcame a struggle with substance abuse, you will be revealing something deeply personal about yourself. That is impressive on many levels - it shows a high level of integrity, and courage in being willing to speak candidly about this painful chapter in your life, even to complete strangers who hold important power over your professional future; and other positive things.

However, all the positive things that this impressive act of disclosure would say about you are completely unrelated to your potential to succeed in a PhD program. They might say admirable things you, but not really the sort of admirable things that are of interest to PhD programs.

At the same time, any rational person who hears about your struggles and needs to decide whether to admit you into their PhD program might reasonably wonder about the risks of relapse. Being in a PhD program is stressful; stress is a known factor that leads some former substance abusers to relapse; some percentage of substance users are statistically known to relapse even after many years. These are all empirical facts. And those empirical facts do imply something about your potential to succeed in the PhD program (at least from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know you personally and can only consider you at a superficial level based on a small number of things they know about you). Do you really want the admission committee members to need to take these sorts of factors into account when making their decision?

Good luck with your applications in any case!

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It is really risky. I really respect your efforts and success on quitting alcohol and adjusting your life back to a normal track. I think that it is GREAT, and congratulation. I really mean it.

However, adding on the existing accepted answer, I believe that you are misunderstanding the application essay as a whole. The essay "what are struggles have you overcome", is NOT about "Struggle", it is NOT about "Overcome". It is about using this essay to show you are hardworking, talented, positive, passionate, kind and earnest.

This applies to every other essay, regardless of the title. I would like to point this out because from my past experience and my communications with my fellows and friends, for some reasons, cultural, personal, etc, we focus on the title too much. Of course, you can't just write completely something else or just saying you are good. You should use struggle and overcome as a stepping stone to start a good story talking about good things about yourself.

In your essay, you should just describe that "struggle" for 2-3 sentences. You should not even talk about a "real struggle". What I mean is the following:

A real struggle: I was an alcoholist and my life was in the wrong path for a really long while.

A "good" stuggle: My family was not economically sufficient, so I worked part time in a public library to 1) earn some extra money; 2) I can secretly read my beloved mathematical books, and copy down what I saw important in my note book. When I finished working back home, I would review them and bring them to my dream. (Yeah this is bad wrtting, but you get what I mean).

Write something positive, really passionate, really motivating. Show them you are a positive person, filled with passion and motivation, DESPITE your struggle.

Your struggle serves as a tool to show you are GOOD. Your struggle is not just a struggle. It is a special experience, a valuable period of time, in your life, that made you a better person. And, you appreciate this struggle you had.

In the application essay, everything bad should be written in a way that even the worst thing is the best thing. You should write them in a firm and positive way. You should show that, you trust your ability, you believe that you are a good person and you are talented, from the first day since you were born.

I understand that this sounds really "fake" and hypocritical. And it seems like the whole application essay is just a facade. This is what it is. And your goal is to get in the school you want. With some tweaks, you will write the essay in an honest, yet good way. I am not saying anything about faking your essay. But, everything has two sides. You should write the bright side only.

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In academic administrative English, “what struggles have you overcome?" says “We want to hear what a brave strong person you are” but means “Tell us a reason why we should ignore you because you might be a high risk and best avoided”.

Administrators don’t mean to be like this but they are human. If you had 300 applications to go through for 12 places, wouldn’t you be tempted by a quick painless way of reducing 300 to 299?

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  • But who besides the OP would give a reason which can be perceived so negatively? Wouldn't people write neutral things like "I overcame my fear of heights/I was bad at sports an improved" etc.?
    – user111388
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:51
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    I disagree with your interpretation. The question is primarily about affirmative action and secondarily about resilience. Dec 14, 2023 at 1:59
  • Some administrators probably do think as you describe. But I think the original intent of the question is to get a sense for how well the applicant does when life throws them a curveball. Unfortunately, the question does not take into account that "struggles" are often viewed differently depending on their nature.
    – Mentalist
    Dec 15, 2023 at 4:51
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I believe it would be unwise to disclose about health data in your personal statement. Unfortunately, you may risk unconscious bias from admissions which could impact your application. Although it is an experience that you have overcome, many do not consider drug dependency as a form of disability. In many European countries, alcohol addictions, or substance use disorders, are not even recognised as disabilities under their respective Equality laws. Therefore, please be very mindful when applying. It may also lead to speculations on whether or not you have a criminal record.

Rather than discuss health data, perhaps you could provide information on your studies. For example, you could discuss an instance in which you improved an area or skill as part of your academic progression. This would probably be more beneficial to you application than highlighting health data as it outlines your commitment and understanding of your subject area.

I hope this helps, and I would like to take a moment to say that you should be proud of all your achievements, including overcoming substance misuse.

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I generally feel that authenticity is the best policy. When you're authentic, you attract authentic people to your cause. But I'm not sure this applies here. Rather, I think "strategic authenticity" is key for your application. I suggest that you think about what the admissions committee is looking for when they ask this question, make a list of several struggles you've had, and choose the struggle that best fits the real purpose of the question. In addition to the good insights in the previous answers, I think you need to find a way to stand out from other applicants. ***These days, substance abuse is so common that saying you overcame it could seem mundane. What other struggles have you had that would allow you to showcase your character, introspection, and expressive writing skills? Ultimately you want to sell yourself. I just don't think that overcoming substance abuse is a strong enough main selling point, against the millions of other people who have done the same.

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I believe the original intent of the question is to get a sense for how well an applicant does when life presents them with unexpected challenges. A candidate who overcomes a mostly external and unforeseen challenge, and does so cleverly with determination might be viewed as a great problem-solver who can think on their feet. On the other hand, person whose challenges are more personal in nature, not relatable to everyone, and have some stigma associated with them might be depicted as weak-willed or unpredictable (even if this is not the case).

There are certainly external factors that can trigger internal struggles (death of a loved one, past trauma of all sorts), and external factors (a nurturing home environment/upbringing, financial stability) that can help a person deal better with internal struggles. So there is crossover between external and internal, and plenty of nuance that often goes unaccounted for. But external struggles are more relatable and easy to understand for the average person who hasn't shared similar experiences and doesn't know your life story. So it's probably best to highlight an external struggle you handled well.

The company wants to believe they are doing everything possible to select candidates who, when the team faces unexpected challenges, will step up to the plate and turn the situation around. They want people who can ooze leadership and positive thinking, and always "crush it". They want a superhuman "purple squirrel", even if their ideal candidate does not exist. Most of the candidates will come to the interview ready to describe themselves as everything the employer is wishing for, and more... to whatever extent they feel they can get away with embellishing. With this in mind, talk as positively about yourself as you can, within reason, and not boastfully.

The reality is that the scope of what constitutes a "struggle" is broad, and open to all varieties of interpretation. You can think of it in term of: which struggle you choose to talk about is the first basis that your answer will be judged on - so choose wisely. And how you overcame it is the second basis.

There is a sort of meta layer to this, which is that a person who can overcome deep personal struggles such as addiction will most likely have learned some big lessons from that, and it's a testament to their character. But the administrators who have the capacity and compassion to recognize this as a positive thing will be in the minority. So if you choose to mention that, you're gambling that those judging you will be capable of understanding such circumstances and the scope of your personal victory. To those able to appreciate your candidness and sincerity, disclosing this fact about yourself could be viewed as a plus. But your chances of being interviewed by such a person (or people) is probably not high.

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There is another aspect in addition to the answers already given. Doing a PhD generally requires a quite large degree of mental resilience. It can be lonely, you can find yourself in the middle of a tunnel with no light at either side and only persistence and faith to keep you going. Everyone's experience is different and the supervisor can reduce it, but these experiences might make a relapse more challenging to avoid. You should really make sure to have a good support structure in place to help you avoid temptation. Hopefully this will help you with the perspective of a supervisor.

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    I have to mark this down. It's a bit preachy and not what the poster is asking for.
    – Eggy
    Dec 10, 2023 at 19:17
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It is risky. Some of the other answers mention that many people have bias and misconceptions about substance abuse. Here's an alternative reason.

While I have no personal experience with substance abuse, I have known several academics who abuse substances. I would guess that these people believe that they do not need to overcome substance abuse to be successful academics. Suggesting that overcoming substance abuse is important to success might be interpreted as saying the professor reading your application is not capable of success. They would not like reading that.

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  • Is this just a guess or do you know more? In my experience, eg smokers do value when somebody else managed to stop smoking. I'd say that people who do not value this wouldn't say about themselves that they "abuse" substances.
    – user111388
    Dec 14, 2023 at 9:50
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If they ask the question, they should be prepared for the answer

I realise that other answers here say that this is risky, but they are asking explicitly for struggles that you have overcome, so my view is that they need to be prepared for the messy answers this invites. I would find it quite two-faced if recruiters ask their applicants to give personal statements about their personnal struggles and then use these statements against them. It's possible that some recruiters and academics are indeed that two-faced, but I would hope that is rare. In part this situation highlights the inequities that arise when recruitment processes deviates from concern with professional qualities and start trying to engage in social engineering, but that is an issue for another day.

Although I can only speak for myself, if I were reading your application, I would not draw an adverse conclusion from your disclosure of struggles with alcohol. This would be for two reasons: (1) the application has invited you to tell us about your personnal struggles; (2) your disclosure of this issue shows candour and a willingness to openly reflect on your lifestyle; (3) this particular struggle is something that you have overcome for a substantial period of time; and (4) even if you were to relapse to alcoholism, I'm aware of some successful mathematicians who have had severe problems with drugs and alcohol in their lives, which has not precluded their professional success.

On this last point, struggles with alcohol and drugs are not something that disqualifies mathematical success (though obviously it is an impediment in general). There have been many famous mathematicians in the past who have abused drugs and/or alcohol and managed to continue productive professional careers. Paul Erdős took Benzedrine or Ritalin every day for the last twenty years of his life and still produced mathematical output. Stefan Banach famously used to do some of his mathematical thinking moving from pub to pub in what was essentially a pub-crawl. These days the modern corporate university is a different environment and it is not so amenable to these types of lifestyles, but it is clear from history that mathematical competence and success is not mutually exclusive with alcohol abuse.

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