My personal statement for the Marshall Scholarship was one of the most challenging documents I have ever written. It was two pages of concentrated “me”; two pages to coherently explain who I am and why I live my life as I do; two pages to convince a panel of strangers to invest the resources of a nation in me. The punch line: I was named a 2007 Marshall Scholar. The process of getting there, though, taught me a valuable lesson about personal authenticity.
I learned of my eligibility for the Marshall Scholarship in the summer of 2006. My college years were spent studying fascinating topics and pursuing rewarding experiences without the additional calculus of how they aligned with fellowship criteria. I studied the mysteries of humanity in my religious studies major and the marvels of the universe in my astronomy major and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time analyzing how these puzzle pieces fit together to make me. I’m just really curious! A follower of the Gospel of the late Dean G. Alec Stewart, if you will.
My first draft of the personal statement was pretty easy to write. I just read the scholarship criteria and wrote about how I thought my life to date was reflective and why I wanted to pursue a PhD in Astronomy at Cambridge. And so began the editing and re-writing process. Over 20 drafts and several months later, I was exhausted and confused. A few days before the application was due, I shuffled into Ed McCord’s office, dragging my Frankensteinian personal statement and mangled sense of self. Ed read my statement and affirmed what I dreaded: my statement wasn’t me. It had become a disjointed checklist of beautifully crafted, soulless talking points. But how to fix it?
Sheepishly, I pulled out draft #1 of my personal statement. Ed’s reaction held hope: here’s the authentic Anna! Here’s the voice that makes sense of studying physics, religion, and philosophy while being Editor of the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review and a researcher studying the early universe and a science communicator. The first two sentences of my personal statement were “I love asking questions. Provocative questions promise new ideas, and that has always excited me.” And that’s who I am.
I made the application deadline for both the Marshall and Rhodes Scholarships. I had little expectation of success but ample satisfaction that my application was sincere, genuine, and my best effort. Meeting the selection committee would be fantastic but life would go on if they decided not to buy what I’m selling, so to speak. I was disappointed when I received a rejection letter from the Rhodes Scholarship and I sat in amazed silence at the invitation to interview for the Marshall Scholarship. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since becoming a Marshall Scholar, I have competed for other selective fellowships with both successes and disappointments. The invaluable lesson that I’m at my best when being myself has given me the confidence to maintain my authenticity and unique voice when pursuing new opportunities and the courage to persevere in the face of setbacks. I am hopeful that sharing my experience will help others to find the same.
Anna graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2007 with a BS in Physics and Astronomy and a BA in Religious Studies and History and Philosophy of Science. She earned her PhD in Astronomy from the University of Cambridge in 2011. Currently, she is working on science diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State, as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)