Five Tips for Producing a Sound Research Statement

Hiring committees often request that prospective candidates submit a research statement with their application materials. The ultimate purpose of this document is to reveal how your academic and professional mind will complement the department to which you are applying. Dr. Stefan Tanaka (professor, Communication) and Dr. Yingjin Zhang discussed what comprises a powerful research statement. During their presentation, the scholars critiqued the organization and content of four graduate students’ statements, offering suggestions to consider when writing. Below are the top five take-away messages that emerged as they exchanged thoughts about how to ensure you convey a clear message:

  1. Format accordingly. In general, embed 150 words in your cover letter that reference your research. If you are asked to provide a research statement, the standard limit is two pages in 12-point font. One-inch margins are necessary. Although your statement does highlight who you are, you do not have to include everything from your curriculum vitae, which committees will carefully read as well. Spell all scholars’ names correctly.
  2. Consider your audience, and show your passion. The school to which you are writing, the program, and the nature of the job will dictate what you include in the statement. Some committee members may be unfamiliar with your field of research or subject altogether. You are not writing for your dissertation committee. There is a balance between descriptive and argumentative writing, says Zhang. “You’re aiming at not too abstract, not too detailed.” The key is to attract people to your ideas. Present the best of your scholarship early on in the statement to catch their attention. Then follow up with some “easy-to-understand” point. People will not follow you if your declarations are too argumentative. “If you’re too defensive, committees will see it as a sign of your incompetence,” the scholars add.
  3. Succinctly define your argument and research project. A useful exercise to do is describe your research project in one paragraph of five clear-cut sentences. In these five sentences, include at least one sentence that contains your argument. You have to implement an argument in order to establish the significance of your research, Tanaka says. “The trick here is to be very assertive.” Specify the significance of your research or dissertation in an additional five sentences. “Five is obviously an arbitrary number,” he adds, “but the point is to be succinct.” Statements are expected to entice the committee, so write short paragraphs that a committee member can read in 30 seconds. Thirty second forces you to think about the organization of the topic sentence. Do not overstate what you do, or write about your work in a way that could make potential colleagues feel misled. Represent your work honestly and accurately.
  4. Outline your scholarly identity. Committees want to know who you are as a researcher. Yet the amount of space to present these details is limited. Be willing to explain what you do as a scholar and why your research is important. Identify your key intellectual contributions to the field of choice, as well as your strengths. Explain how you can contribute to the prospective university’s program to which you are applying. Committees utilize this information to determine if you possess the appropriate qualities central to department’s canon and/or research goals. “People try to imagine, ‘How does this person fit in? What can this person contribute to our department?’” say Tanaka and Zhang. Present yourself as a potential asset to their program. Avoid self-defeating words such as “struggling.” Be proactive rather than defensive.
  5. Briefly highlight your forthcoming project. In the course of your research, most likely you discovered other issues that you would like to investigate further. Your next project, regardless of its stage of development, should demonstrate your intellectual willingness to explore. Specify the issues that drive your research. Create a clear link between disparate projects; make sure they coalesce rather than come across as segmented. Instead of providing a chapter outline that mimics a book proposal or dissertation summary, be sure to highlight how each part of your work coheres into a whole. “Frame it as part of the larger intellectual project,” Tanaka and Zhang insist. Committees will be more interested in this than the details of each chapter’s argument. They want to see your curiosity of mind, as well as your breadth of different connections and interactions that support how much fun it would be to participate in a particular community.

Humanities for Hire is a yearlong speaker series sponsored by UC San Diego’s Center for the Humanities. Each month the Center offers a presentation-workshop in which graduate students can learn more about the professionalizing aspects of academia.

Other Tips for Crafting Research Statements
Cornell University Graduate School: Research Statements
The Golden Rule of the Research Statement
How to Write a Research Statement

University of Washington Career Center: Research Statements



WRITTEN BY: Brie Iatarola