Research Statements

Cheryl E. Ball explains the various ways job candidates in humanities fields are asked to describe what they study -- and why these descriptions are important.

October 6, 2014

When you're on the job market, you might have to prepare several kinds of research statements: the dissertation paragraph, dissertation abstract, research paragraph for your cover letter, a research agenda or statement, or any and all of the above. While all of these documents, or partial documents, need to address what you are researching, they are different genres that require you to situate your research within different contexts, portray your research in different scopes, and provide descriptions of your research in different lengths. This column will  address what each of these documents need to do and why. Each of these documents might have different names in your field — here, I am using the terms that I've heard them called in English studies and in academic literacy circles.

As a graduate student, your focus is probably on your dissertation, which is good. All of these documents assume that you've already proposed and defended your dissertation proposal, if your discipline requires those steps. If you're going on the market before you've defended your dissertation proposal, these documents are often difficult to prepare, and it's not unusual in job-market workshops for students who've attended regularly up until this point in the process to disappear once we start working on research statements, for fear that they'll be exposed as "not ready" or some other kind of rampant academic imposter syndrome. I would encourage students who feel this way to hold tight, however, because working through the process of describing one's current research in the shortest manner possible (as some of these paragraph-length or shorter genres require) will actually help them structure a dissertation proposal or outline in the weeks and months ahead.

Dissertation paragraph:

As I mentioned in my last column, you will likely be asked to talk about your dissertation in some fashion (e.g., "tell us about your research") during job interviews, and the basis for many search committees' understanding of your dissertation research will come from the dissertation paragraph you provide in your cover letter. This paragraph is a very brief abstract of your entire dissertation, and includes your:

  • Brief description of the thing you're studying (e.g., what are you studying?). This may be a data set, corpus, people, cultures, animals, plants, minerals, etc.
  • Theoretical framework (e.g., what disciplinary lenses are you using to study X idea/concept/texts).
  • Methodological framework (e.g., how are you studying that thing).
  • Main research questions (why you are studying that thing).
  • Discovered or potential results of your study (e.g., what's the outcome of studying that thing).
  • Significance of your study (e.g., why are those outcomes important to your discipline, to humanity, etc.).

Although the above list might signify one way to structure your diss paragraph — a structure that may follow the chapter outline for your actual dissertation — it is generally not acceptable to write this paragraph by starting with "In Chapter 1, I discuss..." followed by "In Chapter 2, I argue that...." etc. Plus, you don’t have the room for that level of detail: All of the above should be addressed in a single paragraph in your cover letter. Generally, that paragraph contains roughly 150-200 words. These paragraphs shouldn't be a page long, single-spaced, since your whole cover letter needs to have, on average, five paragraphs that fit in two single-spaced pages.

With the exception of the results, the content of your dissertation paragraph often mirrors the content — in micro — from your dissertation proposal. Consider the dissertation paragraph to be a topical outline of your prospectus in prose form. But, unlike your diss proposal, your diss paragraph may need to reach a more generalized audience of academics across several areas of study.

Avoid jargon or, when you must include jargon, assume there will be at least one person on each committee who has no idea what you're talking about — so you must define your terms, always. You might also include an "origination story" for your dissertation — that is, the moment that made you realize this topic was important and interesting to you. Obviously, your mileage will vary on this personal narrative component — I suspect it's rarely seen in the sciences, but it does lend a narrative structure to your research that may make it easier for nonspecialists to envision (as well as make it easier for you to tell your own story about your research).

Dissertation abstract:

You might begin to draft your diss paragraph for your cover letter based on your dissertation abstract, but often enough, your dissertation abstract doesn't exist yet and may be an item that you will only use on the job market during materials requests. The diss abstract itself can take one of two forms, and often these formats are field-specific, so check with your advisers.

The first kind of abstract is a longer one — two single-spaced pages, usually — that is a stand-alone document you send either with your initial job materials or when it is requested as supplemental materials. This abstract may also be used in your actual dissertation, as most diss formats require an abstract that is longer than most article-length abstracts for upload to ProQuest. The structure for this longer abstract often mirrors the actual structure of your dissertation, with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown in succeeding paragraphs. These details may be pulled from your dissertation proposal, which likely has a similar chapter outline. Ideally, you will spend much more time (a full paragraph, perhaps two) setting up the theoretical and methodological frameworks for your dissertation in this long abstract, and your analysis/results, outcomes, or other conclusions should be fully fleshed out in this version.

This two-page abstract is sometimes requested as part of job materials (although it's more and more rare, and usually is done as part of an additional materials request). Some advisers recommend sending it along with your writing sample, but search committees vary widely on whether they will read non-requested materials or not. I doubt it would hurt your case, but it's also not expected unless it is asked for. Instead of sending it when it's not requested, you may be better off sending the second kind of diss abstract:

The second kind of dissertation abstract is a one-paragraph version that is usually inserted into your C.V., under the educational entries that list your Ph.D. work. This version is most similar to the dissertation paragraph used in your cover letter, but contextualized so it can stand on its own (e.g., it needs no transitionary sentences into or out of the diss paragraph). This abstract should, like the cover letter version, avoid theoretical jargon, although key terms may be employed, if defined. Also, if your cover letter uses an origin narrative for its dissertation paragraphs, delete that in this version.  Whether your field uses diss abstracts on C.V.s or not varies wildly, but generally speaking, it can't hurt to include, unless your diss is not far enough along to show results or significance.

Research paragraph:

If you have a research paragraph in your cover letter, it will follow your diss paragraph (or it will be a few sentences used to conclude your diss paragraph). You would use this paragraph in your cover letter to expand on ideas that may be related to your dissertation but you weren't able to cover in the diss, particularly threads of your research that you have spun off or plan to spin off into further articles, books, grants, etc. If you already have publications or grants that are relevant to your current research (e.g., the diss), discuss them here. The key is not to just list them, however, as that's what your C.V. is for. You should contextualize them in relation to your overall research agenda (see next), pointing out how you've already begun to establish a research trajectory in your field.

Research agenda:

The research agenda seems the most distant for most graduate students, and yet it might be the easiest document to write because it is speculative in many ways. This document — sometimes called a research statement or plan — is basically a one- to two-page, single-spaced text that outlines how you plan to get tenure. In other words, this document should list all of the publications, grants, or other research artifacts you have planned over the next six-ish years. Search committees use this document to see how you are positioned to follow a particular research trajectory, which they will use to determine whether you are potentially tenurable or not. Typically this document is only requested by very research-intensive universities — those that require a significant number of grants (x million dollars) or publications (1.5 or 2 books by tenure).

You can begin this document with a few sentences or a paragraph at most articulating your overall research area: What discipline do you work in, what are your primary research questions, how have you answered this so far in your current or previous research, how will your future research projects help you continue to answer these questions, etc. This is a summation of your research statement (a genre you will likely revisit when you apply for tenure and promotion, but which we will leave aside for now). The rest of the document should articulate the specific projects you plan to undertake over the next four, six, 10 years (different departments have different time periods they might ask you to cover). You won't always know the exact projects you will complete to get tenure, so this is where the speculation comes into play.

If you plan on turning your dissertation into a book, talk about how you will revise for a book and include which press you plan to go with and why. If you plan on writing articles, list them and provide brief descriptions of what their major questions are, and which journals you plan to submit them to. If grants are your thing, do the same: what's the project, how will you complete it, and where will you submit it? This document can take the form of a bulleted list, a prose-based list, or whatever seems the easiest to read for colleagues in your field. You don't need to be uber-specific, but you should be able to show how all of these projects connect to each other over time — that's trajectory, and you'll hear that word a lot more if you get a tenure-track job and head toward tenure.

One final genre:

The above four documents will each serve you well on the job market, and although you may not need all of them, some are more difficult to write than others, so I would recommend starting on them early, if you're at all applying to tenure-track or research-based jobs anywhere besides two-year colleges (and even then, they might want to discuss your dissertation in a job talk). You will have plenty of times to talk about your research on the market, and I've given advice elsewhere on how that might play out in the preliminary interviews. But one final genre you might want to prepare for is the elevator pitch.

This genre comes from sales pitches in business, where you have five floors, literally, to pitch your idea to a senior muckitymuck. It's a great genre for the job market and you will use it often. Any time anyone asks you, "So, what do you do?" or "How's that dissertation coming along?" or "What's your research on?" Use the dissertation paragraph framework from above to start these conversations, but make sure to keep it conversational. In many ways, this might be the best place to start: If you can describe your work coherently, in 30 seconds, to your mother/non-academic friend/guy-who-works-at-Kroger, then you'll be just just fine when it comes to writing all these other research-based documents.



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