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I advised students to spend several weeks crafting a statement of purpose for PhD applications in the US, and have reviewed them. However, many students now report that there is an additional "personal statement" or "diversity statement", usually 500 words.

I don't remember these when I applied. When were they introduced? Is this in response to SFA v. Harvard? How seriously do readers review these?

I feel as though I misled students not to prepare them. I can give them a clear structure for the statement of purpose—a paragraph about each relevant research experience, an introductory paragraph stating the subfield, summary of experience, and that you want to create new knowledge.

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    Hi. Could you please be more specific? What is this statement for?
    – The Doctor
    Dec 12, 2023 at 17:33
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    They need the statement for phd applications in the US (?)? Or for something different?
    – user111388
    Dec 12, 2023 at 17:34
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    Nearly every application for a PhD (MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford) requires a 500-word statement in addition to the Purpose. It is called a "Personal Statement". It is phrased in a round-about way but it seems oriented around "diversity". E.g, Harvard's: "We are committed to educating individuals who reflect the growing diversity of perspectives and life experiences represented in society today and who will contribute to our commitment to sustain a welcoming, supportive, and inclusive environment. Please share how your experiences or activities will advance our mission and commitment."
    – Test
    Dec 12, 2023 at 19:48
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    @Test - those aren't really DEI statements in the sense that most people are using. They really are just "personal" statements where the student talks about themselves. The language re: diversity is kind of just boilerplate now, inviting students to tell the university how they (as people) will make the university a more diverse place. Some institutions are only interested in superficial metrics of "diversity" (e.g., "quotas" of students belonging to particular racial groups), but a lot actually just want students with different life experiences who won't all think the same as each other. Dec 12, 2023 at 20:16
  • Where can you find examples of these statements? Every example I can find puts diversity front and center.
    – Test
    Dec 12, 2023 at 20:26

2 Answers 2

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Diversity statements are relatively new - they started to get fairly popular in the mid-2010s or so, and are still included in many applications today, though some schools have stopped asking for them recently with recent pushback against diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. I have mostly only seen these kinds of statements requested for faculty hires, and never seen it in grad student applications.

However, some grant funding agencies require proposals to address DEI, so some institutions do actually pay attention to what's in a candidate's diversity statement and don't just treat it as a checkmark, as they want their candidates to be able to bring in money.

There are plenty of online guides about how to write useful DEI statements, and wherever they apply will clearly ask for these statements if they're needed, so you're not really misleading your students. In general, what institutes (who are actually serious about the statement) want is to see that the applicant is at least cognizant that there are under-represented groups in academia, and that the applicant can positively contribute to reducing that underrepresentation - whether through advising students who are members of underrepresented groups, doing outreach in disadvantaged communities, collaborating with diverse research groups, etc.

ETA per @user176372's suggestion: In terms of advising students on how to write DEI statements - the general format of the letters is a lot less rigid than in research or teaching statements, but generally start out with (1) some general statement on the importance of DEI (in the applicant's view), followed by (2) examples of how the applicant has supported DEI in the past, and (3) how the applicant intends to support DEI efforts at the institution they're applying to. As with any other application material, the student can give themselves quite the leg up over other candidates if they actually look up the institute's existing DEI policies and programs and tailors their statement accordingly.

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  • This seems like effectively the right answer to me except that it's missing advice to do better on supervising for DEI considerations in the future. Having gone through a faculty hiring season as an applicant recently: None of my mentors could very much advise me (because diversity statements are new). The "grace period" on this phase in seems to be closing a lot more rapidly than people may think.
    – user176372
    Dec 12, 2023 at 18:47
  • @user176372 What do you mean by, The "grace period" on this phase in seems to be closing a lot more rapidly than people may think.
    – Test
    Dec 12, 2023 at 19:45
  • @Test As this answer says, requests for DEI statements seem to be 5-10 years old. For junior applicants (from PhD through to asst. professor), I get the impression that hiring bodies aren't scrutinizing statements so closely. People have largely "gotten the memo", though. In the next 5-10 years, especially at the tenure-track level, I suspect most strong applicants will have service experiences with clear DEI framing to draw on for their statements. Probably doesn't matter applying for PhD, but postdoc for TT certainly.
    – user176372
    Dec 12, 2023 at 20:42
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I don't remember these when I applied. When were they introduced? Is this in response to SFA v. Harvard? How seriously do readers review these?

Diversity statements have been introduced in the US quite recently, to my experience around the George Floyd incident (specifically, they predate by years SFA vs Harvard). Mostly due to cultural and political factors. Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices currently take a huge part in many higher education institutes.

As of now they are predominantly popular in the US academic sector, and have also influenced some other countries that share similar political cultures, such as the UK and Canada.

Note that not all institutes in the US, and even less so in the UK and Canada, require Diversity statements.

How seriously do readers review these?

This depends on the institute and the specific reviewer. My experience is that the content of the diversity statement is not overly important, as long as it ticks the right boxes ("I am very dedicated to inclusion", "I believe in diversity ...", "I have experience in helping my community and people from underrepresented groups…" etc.).

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