A research statement is a common component of the academic job application. The purpose of this document is to give the hiring committee a sense of what you will be doing if they hire you so they can see how that fits into the department and institution as a whole.
The research statement is like the article in the travel pages of the newspaper that gets you excited about going on a particular holiday. Your CV is the map of where you’ve been with a lot of detail but not much context. The interview is the guided tour.
The key difference with a research statement is that you are writing about somewhere you haven’t been yet. Even for experienced and successful researchers, this process can be difficult.
You can’t know for sure where your path will take you
You know where you’ve been. You know where you are. You have some pretty good ideas about where you want to go next. The uncertainty makes it hard to write a confident statement and to talk confidently about your future research in an interview.
You are also aware that there are forks in the road that you can’t see from here. There are directions you can’t go alone or that you’d need additional resources to pursue. You can plan to build the relationships and secure the resources you need but you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to pull it off.
Furthermore, whether you get this job or not is one of the elements that will influence your decisions about the particular direction you take next.
The one thing you know for sure about your path is that YOU are on it
It is important to start with what you really want to do. That’s scary, no matter what stage of career, but particular scary if you are applying for your first academic position.
You don’t need to be arrogant and inflexible about this but you do need to know what your vision is so you can figure out the really important elements.
Furthermore, no one wants to hire someone who is trying too hard to look like the person they think the hiring institution wants. It’s hard to trust that you will really BE that person once hired.
From vision to research statement
The most important element of a research statement is to articulate the kinds of big questions that drive you forward. This helps people that aren’t working in exactly the same area see how you fit into a bigger field.
Describing your past research and mapping out your research plans in relation to those broader themes gives your research statement some structure. Your purpose here is to situate your plans in relation to your previous research, the scholarly context relevant to the position you are applying for, and the context of the actual department and institution to which you are applying.
If you think of this as one of the few instances you will see a 5-paragraph essay in the wild, it will look something like this.
Para 1: Big picture vision, outlining the big questions that drive your research program and signalling the box(es) you fit in (discipline, field, etc).
Para 2: Previous research, outlining the main themes you’ve addressed, highlighting key publications, and mapping out how you are moving from there to new questions.
Para 3: Current work in progress, picking up that thread and showing how you are moving your program forward. Include specific publishing plans (not promises; plans) and a realistic timeline for reaching them if you are appointed.
Para 4: Next steps. Where do you see this going, especially if you are appointed. What steps will you take to secure the resources (people, money, etc) to carry this forward? What would securing this position enable you to do? (e.g. are there people, library resources, etc that open up exciting opportunities for your research program)
Para 5: summarize and conclude by returning to the big picture vision within the context of this position in this department in this institution.
Beyond the research statement
The research statement is an introduction. The goal is to get the hiring committee excited enough about the possibilities that they will invite you to interview.
As you are writing and revising this statement, open another document where you record all the details you want to put in but don’t have room for. Also write down all those “helpful” interview questions the gremlins are throwing at you. These will become the basis of your interview preparation.