preparing for the academic job search: developing a research statement

At a major research institution, this will probably be one of the most scrutinized documents you send. The search committee will be evaluating your potential to develop an independent and successful research program, and in long term, become a tenured member at their institution. The stakes are high: search committees hire for the next 40 years, it is up to you to convince them you are worthy. The worst mistake you can make is to write your research statement as a laundry list of small accomplishments without vision and plan for future research.

Style vs. substance. The key item is substance of course, but do not forget the style; the easier it is for your search committee to understand what you are trying to do, the better for you. Thus, pay attention to how your document is organized for ease of reading. This includes headings, bolded/italicized portions, bulleted lists and appropriate amount of white space. Busy and hard-to-read statement will make it hard on the reader.

Organization. Your research statement is typically two pages long and should roughly be composed of two to three parts that describe the what (what is the problem you are addressing?), the why (why is that problem important?) and the how (how will you go about solving that problem?). The elements are a visionary opening paragraph of long-term aspirations (the what and why of your research), a more detailed statement of medium-term goals (the how of your research) and a statement of past accomplishments. The last two could be joined together into current/medium-term research building up on your past accomplishments. These parts should ideally have headings that are self-explanatory. Some institutions will ask for longer research statements; that will allow you to go into more detail especially in your plans for future research. This might also mean that you will need two versions of the research statement, one shorter and one longer.

Vision for your research

Your opening paragraph should grab your committee’s attention immediately. It should be short, inspirational and show that you can put your work in a global context and think big. This paragraph should have a heading or an inline heading (bolded) that states it is your long-term vision. For example, you could call it “Vision”, or something that is more specific to what you want to do such as “A globally connected world”. It is fine for this goal to be grand and aspirational but still believable. You should aim for this paragraph to take about ¼ of a page.

It could start with a one-sentence statement of what your vision is; for example, “The goal of my research is to …”. This sentence should “live” by itself and be bolded. You would then follow with a bit more information about that vision.

You could also be a bit more poetic by asking the reader to imagine the world in which your stated goal is achieved “Imagine a world in which …”. Another way of doing this is to start with a question: for example, “What would it take to … in the next twenty years”? The same effect could be achieved by posing three-four questions that would all be answered by the stated goal(s) of your research.

This is also where a well-crafted figure might easily convey your vision.

What you plan on doing

Now that you have stated what your aspirations are, you can be more concrete by stating your medium-term goals (say five to ten years). This portion should show the search committee that you have thought about a way of making progress towards your visionary goal. This paragraph should also have a heading or an inline heading that describes your content. For example, you could call it “Five-year research plan”, or something that is more specific to what you want to do such as “Framework, tools and applications”. You could aim for this portion to take about ¾-1 pages.

You could organize this portion chronologically (the sequence of steps you will take in order) or topically (challenges you will need to solve to get closer to your goal). In either case, you should have about a paragraph for each, with an inline heading or bolded/italicized words at the beginning of the paragraph describing its content.

This is also the portion where, if you wish, you can describe potential funding and collaboration opportunities. This is not an absolute must because it will be a topic at your interview.

If you decide to join this portion with the past accomplishments, you can add to the end of any paragraph where this is relevant how what you are planning is supported by what you have done already.

What you have done

This portion serves to show the committee that you are able to do the research in support of your grand vision. While it may not be how your research chronologically evolved, the items you talk about should clearly connect with your long-term vision in terms of skills you have gained. Concentrate on concepts and ideas and elaborate on great work and science.

This is also where you can state that your long-term goals are somewhat different from what you have done in your thesis, but that the skills and experience you have gained while doing your thesis work are what qualifies you for your next steps.

Miscellaneous

  • Make sure you state somewhere (perhaps in the medium-term goals is best) what it is that you bring that will allow you to achieve your grand vision. Why are you the right person for it?
  • You should have the institution in mind when writing your research statement; do some research ahead of time and investigate what the strategic thrusts are at that institution. If there are connections between your work and the institution in terms of such thrusts or centers, collaboration, facility, etc, mention it and tie it to your work. Be very careful, however, that you do not mention a crucial need for your research that the institution does not have or cannot afford (if you do, make sure you do think in advance on how you will address that obstacle); for example, if your research depends on the availability of a cleanroom, make sure that the institutions has it or it is available at some other institution close by. Furthermore, be very careful that you do not leave a reference to an institution in a research statement meant for another (it does happen, looks careless and will not endear you to the search committee).
  • Make sure you write in a way that people outside your area can clearly grasp the importance of your work; beware of technical jargon specific to your area.
  • Make sure your colleagues and your advisor proofread the statement. Spend time iterating on it. Be clear; less is more. Beware of spelling errors; such sloppiness will reflect poorly on you.

FAQs

  • Q: When talking about vision, should I back it up by statistics?
    A: That depends of what you want to argue. For example, you may say “Each year, X million Americans succumb to the Y disease at the cost of $Z. The goal of my research is to ….”. Paint with a broad brush; do not use statistics that are more specific.
  • Q: How should the vision relate to previous research?
    A: Vision should be broad and potentially unachievable, though aspirational. Your previous research should serve as a testament that you have the skills and perseverance to attack a problem (at a smaller scale) and solve it.
  • Q: Where should I put the figure in the vision statement?
    A: If it is a figure that illustrates your vision, put it as close to the top as possible. It generally looks nice if it is in line with the text (as opposed to freestanding).
  • Q: Where should I put the figure in the vision statement?
    A: If it is a figure that illustrates your vision, put it as close to the top as possible. It generally looks nice if it is in line with the text (as opposed to freestanding).
  • Q: Should I include references in the research statement?
    A: Not as a separate section unless the statement is allowed to be four-five pages long. You may, however, cite work by name and year in your narrative, for example, “My research builds upon the work of Author et al, 2010.”
  • Q: How much technical depth should I go in?
    A: You should demonstrate technical depth both in your plans for the next few years as well as the work you have done already. In two-page research statements, you can typically afford to write something at the level of an abstract for each portion of your research.

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