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I'm currently applying to grad school to do a PhD in physics in the United States. I would really like to mention in the personal history statement/diversity statement essays: 1) the work I did in my undergrad to create a safe, informal community for other LGBTQ students in my department and 2) how it's a future goal of mine to be an openly gay professor (having an out-and-proud academic role model would have been very valuable to me, even though that may sound ridiculous*).

Is it prudent to mention my orientation in these essays? Or am I just asking for trouble?

My identity is very important to me as is the work I have done/plan to do to make academia a more accepting environment, but at the same time, I am scared that I will be risking my chances of getting into grad school by mentioning what's still considered a very 'controversial' issue by many people. Hope this question is appropriate for this forum, and thank you in advance!


(Edit 11/25) Note these statements are not the statement of purpose (which is entirely academic) but rather extra essays requested in addition to the statement of purpose. UC Irvine gave advice here about these essays as:

Write about your contribution to diversity in your Personal History Statement or Diversity Statement of the graduate application, if there is one. If there is no Personal Statement or Diversity Statement, then include a paragraph about your contribution to diversity and diversity activity in your Statement of Purpose. If appropriate, briefly explain what obstacles you have had to overcome and how that shapes what you aspire to do in your future career. This has been found to be an accurate measure of future success, dubbed grit. Describe any contributions to increasing diversity in the Personal History Statement or Diversity Statement. Discuss specific things you may have done (mentoring, tutoring, Physics or Astronomy Club president, etc.) that have acted to broaden the participation of women, minorities or other underrepresented groups.You could also discuss what you would do at the institution you are applying to improve equity and inclusion there; for example, start a graduate women in physics group or lead outreach events. Be sure to read up on what programs already exist at that institution.


*To explain just one example of why it would be useful to have an out instructor, I was subjected to explicitly homophobic criticism by one instructor at my undergraduate institution. I did not complain because I did not know whom I could trust, but if there had been an instructor who was out/even out as an LGBT-supporter/ally, I would have felt comfortable complaining about the harassment.

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    Are they explicitly requesting something called a "diversity statement essay"? – Nat Nov 25 '17 at 7:03
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    In absence of a explicit request, note that personal statements are broad and generalized for a purpose. You can write anything that relates to you here. – Frank FYC Nov 25 '17 at 7:35
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    By all means, mention the LGBTQ volunteering you did. I'm not sure 2) benefits your application at all and I'd wonder if you might use the space to write more about physics. – Keron Nov 25 '17 at 7:54
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    I agree with Keron. You're hopefully not wanting to be a professor solely because you're apart of the LGBTQ community, rather because you're passionate about the field. – Eppicurt Nov 25 '17 at 8:42
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    Well done with 1): If you can explicitly state what you did for and tie that into organisational skills and collaborative nature, then even better. Number 2) is something to state later on in your career, such as in talks where you want to give a personal element to what inspired and motivated you. – Dr. Thomas C. King Nov 25 '17 at 15:14
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I am scared that I will be risking my chances of getting into grad school by mentioning what's still considered a very 'controversial' issue by many people.

There's never any need to hide a personal commitment to diversity in an application in the U.S. In other words, it would always be appropriate to list your specifics in sections on volunteer or leadership activities. Also, if you received recognition or an award in connection with diversity advocacy or activism, definitely list it. The admissions committee might include someone with a strong personal commitment to diversity, and if your application contains a clear hint that would make the diversity bell in that person's mind go "ding ding ding!", s/he can then push to get you on the short list.

However, I do understand your feeling of uncertainty about putting your commitment front and center. Researching each specific university you're applying to will help you tailor the application to the position.

For some applications, you can write exactly what you wrote in your question (including the relevant details, within the space constraints, of course). If a university specifically requests a diversity statement, that is a helpful clue that they may be looking for someone who will provide the kind of leadership you are hoping to provide. Some universities are desperately trying to find people who will be an asset academically, while also strongly supporting diversity so they can increase their diversity graduation statistics.

At the other end of the spectrum, let's say there are no indications on the website of a strong commitment to diversity. Maybe it's a small school with low diversity in its student body. In this case you might choose to leave this aspect of yourself more in the background. Quietly discernable.

Bonus feedback: If I were on the admissions committee, reading what you've written here, I'd say it's a great start for a diversity statement. But I'd also be looking for someone who can generalize from his or her specific experiences. Can you expand your statement a bit, building on your own experience, to arrive at a supportive stance towards other types of diversity as well? For example, if you've ever been involved in allying with other types of campus diversity organizations, that would be helpful to include in your essay.

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Edit (in response to revised question):

In light of the revised question, this sounds like exactly the sort of thing they are asking for, so yes feel free to talk about L, G, B, T, Q and X. However, my guess is that whatever you write here won't make too much of a difference (as long as you don't make yourself sound crazy or anything), for the same reasons I indicated in my original answer.

Original Answer Below (where it sounded like this was about a personal statement):

Unless they are asking specifically for you to address diversity issues, I don't think it matters much what you say about LGBTQ issues in your personal statement, as it has nothing to do with physics. Note: depending on the department and admissions committee, the statement of purpose may be important or not important (e.g., Why do admissions committees consider the Statement of Purpose to be important? and How important is the statement of purpose in a PhD application for admission to a top school in the US?).

What I look for in a statement of purpose (in math, which I imagine is similar to physics) is basically what I look for in the rest of the application: your preparation for grad school, your talent and work ethic, your interests/fit with our program. Though it also helps to get a sense of your personality (so it's not good, e.g., if you sound like a crackpot).

I don't think the issues mentioned in your question reflect too much on these things. On the other hand, I don't think it will hurt your application if you want to briefly mention at least (1) and possibly (2) if you can weave them in naturally, but these things shouldn't be the focus of your personal statement, as they say nothing about why you want to go to grad school. (Certainly your CV is a suitable place for (1), so it can make it onto your application there.) Academia is relatively LGBTQ friendly in my experience. However, we don't want to know your whole life story on your application, just the part of your story related to (in your case) Physics.

  • I should have clarified (and now have) in the question that these personal history statements/diversity statements are different from statements of purpose (and I will be submitting both separate essays to these universities). But thanks for the still helpful comments! – daisy137 Nov 25 '17 at 15:47
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    @daisy137 okay, I revised my answer – Kimball Nov 25 '17 at 16:20
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I can speak from personal experience in this arena.

I was out in my Diversity Statement to UC schools and any other school that asked about, but not in any Statement of Purpose or Personal History. I suggest just reading everything very carefully. Oftentimes, the groups that they state as ones that they do not discriminate will be different from the ones they count as diversity. There's a stock term of "visible minority" that is used to discount LGBT people as diversity. I don't suggest pushing against this. If they do that, then the university administration is not ready. Even if the department want to do something with this, they cannot. If they say something relative to LGBTQ stuff, then have at it (it's my impression that most if not all of the UC system is happy with work for LGBTQ folk counting). If they do not specify, go for it.

My understanding is that, typically, the diversity statement will only factor in after they already know they want to accept you for purely scientific reasons. For example, I think UCSD can use this to find new fellowships through the administration.

An important thing to note is that (for the UC system) often they want to see that you have done something with respect to underrepresented groups, not just are a part of one. If being a part of one helps the author understand your motivation, then feel free to throw that into the diversity statement.

If accepted, you should be ready to walk into that department with everyone knowing. I declined going to a university after being accepted where I was out on my grad school application. At prospective weekend, the grad chair was very keen and quick with correct pronouns for my partner. YMMV. Also, people do not forget. I then met a faculty member again five years later after the prospective weekend and remembered what I had said in my diversity statement.

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Sexual orientation should be your personal issue. Let's be professional. Your personal identity should not be an exception from the current positions. And furthermore, how being an openly gay professor is related to what is most important - being qualified academic with teaching skills? And honestly, I think that you only want to claim your potential future rejection to be subject of your openly declared sexual orientation.

  • I definitely agree with the sentiment; the idea that an instructor should go out of their way to advertise their sexuality to students is egregiously creepy. That said, apparently the application's actually asking for a "diversity statement"; how might the OP respond? – Nat Nov 25 '17 at 17:20
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    Nat, I think you misunderstand - I would not shout out to students that I am gay to "advertise my sexuality", I just mean "out and open" in that I would not be hesitant to, say, mention my wife in the way many male professors of mine have mentioned their wives (in a relevant way of course, typically mentioning their wives' relevant research). I would not want to hide, because I think having out role models is important for young LGBTQ students just the way having female lecturers is important for female students in male-dominated fields. – daisy137 Nov 25 '17 at 17:34
  • In (maybe) second version of the question OP stated that he would be an openly gay professor. That what has driven my response. – robinj Nov 25 '17 at 17:37
  • robinj, I absolutely do not want to use this as an excuse. I am asking out of genuine concern because I have had poor experiences in the past (another student outed me to an instructor who then made derogatory and defamatory comments about my identity for the rest of the year, and there was no one I could go to for help because I didn't know whom I could trust as there were no out LGBTQ/ally instructors). When asked for my "contributions to increase diversity", my efforts and hopes to create a more accepting environment for LGBTQ students is an integral part of that. – daisy137 Nov 25 '17 at 17:40
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    Accusing the OP of self-outing as a preemptive excuse to complain about rejection is wildly speculative and unhelpful. Also maybe unwise to assume that somebody going by the name of "Daisy" is a "he". – Geoffrey Brent Nov 26 '17 at 3:24

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