Research statements are a common requirement in academic job applications. A research statement presents an applicant’s research profile, past accomplishments and future research plans. Writing a convincing research statement is an art that can be learnt, and should be practised early on.
Purpose of academic research statements
Applying to jobs in academia differs from other sectors. Academic CVs, for example, are unique in terms of style and length. And as a conventional cover letter is often limited to a page or two, an additional research statement is often requested.
A research statement provides more in-depth information on your research profile. It showcases your ability to reflect on your unique contributions to science. It also needs to convey your research ambitions and motivations, coupled with a concrete plan of how to implement them in the future.
A research statement needs to be abstract enough to fit on 2-3 pages, but detailed enough to showcase your research accomplishments and fields of expertise. Length requirements might differ depending on the vacancy, so make sure to check that out.
Key components of a research statement
A typical research statement presents your research profile, past accomplishments and future research plans. So it helps to think in terms of three components:
- The past: What projects have you worked on in the past? How has your research developed over the past years? What were the common themes throughout your research career?
- The present: What are you working on right now? In what areas did you establish expertise? And what are your current contributions?
- The future: Where do you see your research in 2-5 years? What would you like to focus on? Which areas do you want to develop further? How does it tie in with your current research agenda? Which concrete steps would you like to follow?
Research statement structures
Research statements should not be your creative outlet. It is better to go the safe, traditional way. The two most common research statement structures are chronological and topic-centred.
When using a chronological structure, you divide your research statement into three main sections. You start with the past, then move into the present, and finally elaborate on your plans.
This is a case where ‘the simpler, the better applies. Your text will contain a lot of information, so it makes sense to keep the structure straightforward.
When using the topic-centric structure, you first define your key research areas/topics. Each topic gets its main section in the research statement, in which you then reflect on the past, the present and the future.
Note that this structure only works when you had a handful of concrete topics of interest since the beginning of your academic career.
The key when it comes to research statement structures is to develop a clear storyline. Regardless of the structure you choose, you need to narrate your research trajectory logically.
The writing style of research statements
A research statement is a formal document that tends to accompany academic job applications. Thus, it should follow the formal style of a cover/motivation letter. In addition:
- Use clear and concise language. Showcase your expertise, but be aware that many committees include members who don’t have expertise in your specific field. Avoid jargon.
- Don’t be afraid of bullet points. Big blocks of text deter the reader. Make sure to have clear sections, use summarizing subheadings and don’t shy away from bullet points.* So if someone simply skims the research statement, they can easily find what they are looking for.
- Be concrete and realistic. This is particularly important for future research plans. Sure, we all want to establish a new research paradigm and cure cancer. But how realistic is that? So while we should all aim for the stars, be as concrete and realistic as possible in your research statement.
* Not only bullet points of course. But you can describe your research ambition, for example, and then write: “Concretely, I aim to establish the following three lines of research. 1. … 2. … 3. …).
Bonus tips for research statements
1. Always have a research statement at hand.
Even if you are applying to a position that does not require one. Imagine you made it to the interview phase for an academic position. In the end, you thank the committee for their time, and the (hopefully) interesting conversation. Then you offer to send your research statement, summarizing your research profile and plans. Bonus points for you right there.
2. Update your research statement regularly.
Having an updated research statement readily available does not only mean you have it on paper. Most likely, you are also much more organised in your head. So the next time someone asks what your research is about and what your plans are, you don’t have to break out in a sweat and rattle on.
3. Link your research statement to your teaching statement.
If you need to submit a teaching statement as part of your application as well, make sure to link it with your research statement. Add a sentence here and there referring to the teaching statement in your research statement, and vice versa. Research-driven teaching tends to be appreciated. And it helps you to profile yourself comprehensively.