Should I put identity information in a grad school intention statement?
August 16, 2021 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of applying for a competitive grad school program. The department website has a statement about their attempts to foster diversity (which would, in this case, include me). Is it appropriate and/or a good idea to put something about ways in which I've felt marginalized and worked to overcome that in the intention statement that I need to include with my application?
posted by lgyre to Education (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Speaking as somebody from a marginalised class, I would mention it if (a) you can incorporate it into your story in a way that feels organic and relevant to who you are and what your interests are, rather than forced in; and (b) it's important to you that the program welcome that aspect of your identity.

Regarding (b), some people recommend hiding things because "what if it hurts your chances?!?" but I've always thought that if it hurt my chances, it wasn't somewhere I wanted to be anyway.

That said, definitely don't force it into the application if it's not relevant. Otherwise you risk looking like somebody who has an axe to grind or who doesn't feel they have anything to offer beyond their diversity. You want to be accepted on the basis of your academic merit and what you bring to the department as a scholar; the extra identity information should be icing on the cake at most.
posted by sir jective at 6:44 PM on August 16, 2021 [8 favorites]


Yes. Both appropriate and a good idea.
posted by shadygrove at 6:48 PM on August 16, 2021 [1 favorite]


Yes. Succeeding in the face of adversity is always relevant information for people trying to assess your potential for grad school. Also, if this is a place that would react badly to you discussing your identity, then you may want to consider whether it is a good place to spend several challenging years as a grad student.
posted by kms at 1:08 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]


Definitely yes for the graduate programs I help decide admissions for (music, area studies, urban studies) but I can imagine programs (like some stem degrees) where it would be better not to.
posted by umbĂș at 5:00 AM on August 17, 2021


Yup. Mention it. The app review form where I teach has a thumb on the scales for folks like you, OP, and I use it every chance I get. You also don't have to write about it as inspo -- I totally respect why some folks do not want to go there -- cultural competence is quite enough and I definitely take it seriously when I read apps.

That said, take sir jective's advice seriously, please. I had to not-recommend an applicant once in large part because both their essay and their recommenders communicated that the applicant went looking for (verbal) fights over their identity every chance they got. How did their essay communicate that? Well, aside from verbal pugnacity, which I could have overlooked (being more than a little verbally pugnacious myself), the applicant did not make clear why they wanted the set of careers that the program prepares for, much less why they wanted to come to our program. All they had to say was that they were of an oppressed demographic and it informed every move they made.

I didn't exactly love not-recommending them, but they would have been exhausting to teach, a hurdle for other students (especially since we insist on a lot of teamwork, since the professions we train for depend on it), and a dicey-to-place graduate.
posted by humbug at 6:30 AM on August 17, 2021 [3 favorites]


Most biomedical programs on my campus would look favorably on disclosing this. Does the program you're interested in have a publicly available list of who's on the admissions committee? Emailing a short, polite question to the chair of program admissions, the admin for the program, or the program chair itself is perfectly appropriate. I'd say in my field right now there's a majority but not universal consensus on improving the admissions experience for candidates from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented in STEM fields. There's also increased awareness of LGBTQ & other types of marginalization in the research community but this hasn't really translated to a consensus view on how to value other kinds of diversity in admissions (be it sexual identity, neurodiversity, disability, or something else). However, if your identity is explicitly called out in the department website statement, that's probably a good sign.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:32 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]


As someone who has been on a few admission committees in the physical sciences, in a department that is trying hard to become inclusive and often failing, I'd suggest including it in your cover letter if there is one or briefly in a final paragraph in your statement. "Focus on the research" is the place to start, but also, tell the committee why we should spend extra time thinking about your application. Phrasing it as, "here's why my experience is different from a lot of peers and would contribute to the diversity of the department," rather than, "here's why my GPA isn't great," is what I'd suggest, but others will disagree.

Asking letter writers your trust to talk about it is also a very good idea, whether or not you include it in your own stuff as well.
posted by eotvos at 7:05 AM on August 17, 2021 [4 favorites]


In my experience, institutional attempts to expand diversity in the grad population are a separate issue from your having overcome being marginalized.

If there is no other place to identify your status on the application, and your overcoming those barriers is an important and relevant aspect of your decision to apply to this program in this field, then yes, mention it.

But I agree with sir jective above -- there are risks, and you need to be aware of what you're communicating about what's important to you and what your focus is. For example, one applicant to our program once talked a ton about swimming during his interview, and eventually bailed on the program, to be a swim coach. That was disappointing to us, and attrition matters a lot for a program that takes in 10-20 students a year.
posted by Dashy at 7:10 AM on August 17, 2021 [4 favorites]


If your identity has helped inform what you want to study, or what you hope to do once you have your degree, or how you would relate to the undergraduate students you would likely teach and mentor, then that's very relevant information to the admissions committee. It demonstrates one part of why diversity is actually enriching to the program. The STEM programs I'm familiar with would generally see it as a plus, especially if a candidate can explain how their identity will contribute something to the research, teaching, or career development in the department.
posted by Ausamor at 9:34 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]


Yes, although my experience is with graduate film school. Issues around who the applicant actually is, and how they have overcome adversity are very strong statements in an application.
posted by MythMaker at 10:36 AM on August 17, 2021


This possibly varies by discipline, but in the humanities, sir jective has it - do mention it, but you've got to work it in organically in terms of your research, career goals, contributions to the institution/professional field, etc.

Every department I've been in had a diversity statement on their website, and every department also had faculty openly dismissive of diversity. Departments are usually made up of a number of individuals, many of whom will be stubborn or egotistically, who rarely all agree on anything. Unless the department you're applying to is small, you never know who might be reading and evaluating your application.
posted by coffeecat at 1:45 PM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]


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