Last year (November, 2016), I applied to a sociology graduate school program. I’m going to share my personal statement, redacting just a little bit of information.
The reasons that I have decided to pursue a graduate degree in sociology twenty years after obtaining my B.A. in political science are complicated. This personal statement provides an insight into those life experiences that have been instrumental in guiding me to this decision.
After completing by bachelor’s and working for about six years, I stepped off the career path (for what I thought would be a brief break) and travelled, got married, moved to xxx, and started a family. It was when my two daughters were diagnosed with several serious medical conditions that I found myself thrown into an unfamiliar world full of doctor appointments, hospital visits, and medical caregiving responsibilities. Eventually, both my mother and grandmother also required increasing amounts of assistance, so our family moved back to New Jersey to help.
Because of my family’s situation, I became active in online patient support communities and patient advocacy efforts. The main catalyst for this involvement was my daughter’s potentially life-threatening food allergy diagnosis and my desire to have the FDA treat sesame as an allergen for food labeling purposes in the USA. When my daughter was young, the mainstream food allergy patient organizations told me that sesame labeling was not a priority for them. I decided to learn about sesame allergies and FDA regulations myself so that I could personally advocate for improved labeling. Through social media, I connected with other parent advocates and in 2014, The Center for Science in the Public Interest filed a sesame labeling petition with the FDA (my comment is on page 16 of the 21 page petition). I also became involved in more general patient advocacy arenas and my suggestion to publicly post “individual consumer” comments on the regulations.gov website became an official proposal of the FDA Transparency Initiative and was implemented.
While working towards my advocacy goals, I became intrigued by how social, political, and economic factors affected the interactions between different groups and organizations in the food allergy community. The online patient support group that I belonged to was highly diverse (stay-at-home moms, lawyers, PhD researchers, etc.) and the in-depth discussions we had exploring food allergy and asthma topics were captivating. We were disruptive: allergy professionals and mainstream allergy organizations were not used to receiving high-level critical feedback from patients/caregivers about their published literature, research and advocacy priorities, conflicts of interest, biases, and the quality of their patient educational materials. Our group was run by volunteers and we had no financial conflicts of interest which allowed us to maintain our integrity and purity of purpose, and it gave us the freedom to be extremely frank and to openly discuss controversial topics that others might shy away from.
On a micro scale, as I became more knowledgeable about allergies, doctor-patient relationship dynamics seemed different and I experienced several issues. For example, one time I disagreed with an allergist’s medical opinion and tried to explain my view logically, but was not taken seriously until we travelled to a xxx’s allergist for a second opinion (who agreed with the concerns that I had regarding my daughter’s health). In another case, I tried to share an idea from my online support group that I felt might improve patient care and potentially even save lives, but the doctor put disparaging comments about my “self-performed literature” and “research” in my daughter’s medical record. I became acutely aware of power positions in medical culture and of a tension that exists between the perceived legitimacy and credibility of my knowledge/experience versus the opinion of somebody with formal credentials.
I expected that once I was finished with my patient advocacy work, I would feel happy and content. Instead, I was surprised to feel intellectually bored and restless. I find myself wanting to deeply explore patient/caregiver issues in a more formal way, to obtain the training and education necessary to take things to the next level. Last year, I read an article entitled “Six ‘biases’ against patients and carers in evidence-based medicine” and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. One of the authors, Dr. Rosamund Snow, has become and inspiration to me and I would like to follow in her footsteps. She started out as a regular non-academic patient, but then obtained her doctorate in medical sociology and now uses her training to conduct research and to develop other initiatives to better include patient viewpoints and agendas in medical research and care. Another author of that paper, Dr. Trisha Greenhalgh, has become one of the primary physician-writers I follow on Twitter. I admire greatly her commitment to collaborative and interdisciplinary research between the social sciences and medicine. This is the type of scholarly work in sociology that most interests me. I want to become an expert researcher and I hope to use my PhD degree to have a positive impact on the lives of patients and caregivers.
I want to join the sociology graduate program at xxx for many reasons. First, it is a well-established program with an excellent reputation. Additionally, I believe that I have the necessary education, training, skills, and passion to succeed in this program. Although medical sociology is the area in which I am most interested, all xxx of your core areas of specialization are intriguing to me and would be areas that I would consider incorporating into my future research. My husband, who is a professor at xxx, recently told me that a colleague of his might be interested in sponsoring me for a PhD in informatics. Although that field is fascinating, I did not apply because I did not feel that I was a good fit for that particular program. This xxx Sociology Graduate Program is the only graduate program to which I have ever applied. I am ready for a new stage in my life and diving deep into this field is something that I consider to be a worthy goal and something to which I am willing to devote myself wholeheartedly. Thank you for considering my application.
So, as I have already mentioned on this blog, I did not get into that masters/PhD program. If I ever did apply to grad school again, there are steps that I would have to take first, such as improving my math GRE score.
As part of this application, I wrote a paper on patient involvement in medical research. I plan on posting it here on this blog at some point, perhaps under a Creative Commons license.
Also, I’d eventually like to write a post about Dr. Snow, who has since passed away. I did not know her personally, but she was kind enough to respond to a few of my emails when I was trying to decide what type of graduate program I might be interested in. She is the person who got me interested in medical sociology; it was not something that I had even thought of. I may post the titles of a few article suggestions that she shared with me in case they might help others continue with the type of work she was doing. I never told her how much of an inspiration she was to me because I did not want to appear creepy. Sometimes we never know what impact we have on other people’s lives.
I may also post a bit on what I did not say in that personal statement about why sociology interests me … ironically, I guess, it was too personal.