07 October 2010

The truth about research statements, I hope

After last week’s posts about teaching statements in tenure-track job applications, it occurred to me that it was only fair to talk about that other thing that job ads always ask for: a “research statement,” or “research plan,” or some other bit of verbiage.

There is probably going to be much variation from institution to institution, and from department to department, on what makes a research statement stand out from the pack. So take what I say with a grain of salt. And I’d love to hear from others in the comments.

My experience has been that the research statement is only part of the research picture. The other half is the CV. That combination of CV and research statement will give a search committee a sense of what kind of scientist you are. The search committee is likely going to be concerned with how your research will “fit” within the department, as I mentioned before. Unfortunately, it can be hard to glean from a job ad what people have in mind as being a good fit.

As for research statements, the most common problem with those I read is that applicants write as though a Nobel prize level expert in their research field is on the search committee. To be safe, they not only talk about their research question, but lay out the first five years of experiments, down to the last reagent catalog number.

This makes for a document that is several pages long, single spaced, with a long reference list.

I don’t want to read all that. In all likelihood, I can’t read all that due to time crunch. And even if I could, I won’t understand it in that level of detail.

I suppose at some larger universities, it is possible that there is a Nobel prize winner on the search committee. But if you do your homework, visit the department website, you can probably figure out whether there is anyone with a high level of expertise in your work. If there is not, you can probably afford to step back a little. Paint the picture with a wider brush and show the forest, rather than drawing every single leaf on every single tree.

In extreme cases, I have only the crudest understanding of what people are working on. My characterization of candidates’ research is along the lives of, “Er, something about bones, I think” or “Was that the cell cycle guy?” (You might suggest that I don’t understand it because I am a crappy scientist with a weak mind – and these are, indeed, deep flaws in my character.)

And I hate being confused.

Meanwhile, while I look ahead to our searches, it’s refreshing to be reminded of what people think of tenure-track jobs at institutions other than Tier I Research Universities.

Additional: Academics tend to have a high tolerance for lengthy writing. Others are not so patient.

Photo by jurvetson on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

No comments: