The Graduate Student Brand, Part 2: How to Write a Research Statement

Last week, I wrote about the differences between a CV and a resume, and the benefits for graduate students using them to promote their personal brand.  This week I discuss the research statement, which is required when applying for jobs in academic, scientific and research settings. 

What is a research statement?

A research statement is a short document that accompanies your CV and letters of recommendation when you apply for tenure-track faculty positions at colleges and universities or research positions in the natural and social sciences. You may be asked to submit a research statement, summary, plan or proposal. A summary is a synopsis of current work, while a statement shows current work and plans for future research in the next 3-5 years.  If there is any confusion about what is required, contact the hiring committee. 

sb790In the case that a research statement is not mentioned, including one can enhance your application.  A research statement usually includes the following:

  • current and previous research
  • future research goals, including the topic or problem and it’s relationship to your field
  • ideas for funding and grants
  • your field/discipline and knowledge, and acknowledgement of experts in this field 
  • fit with the prospective university and faculty 
  • potential to work independently and innovatively in your field

In the Beginning

Unlike the title of your thesis, the title of your research statement should be brief.  “Branding is important – a good title will help the reviewer establish a connection with your proposal.” (Transportation Research Board’s Conduct of Research Committee Publication: Funding Sources for Transportation Research: Competitive Programs; Appendix A: How to Write an Effective Research Statement)

I remember when a doctoral student first asked me to review her research statement.  I was surprised that she was asking for my assistance, given that a research statement is best critiqued by a doctoral student’s faculty or dissertation advisor.  She explained that she had already received feedback from faculty but wanted an opinion from outside her close circle of colleagues – she wanted to make sure it made sense to a layperson!

I admit that I am not an expert when it comes to writing research statements. However, I do know what is necessary to secure an interview for a job.  A well-written research statement can do exactly that – lure a hiring committee into interviewing you.  

Excellent resources for writing a research statement

Whether you are just getting started and need a review of the basics, or if you’re deep into the writing process and have hit a wall, I’ve come across several great websites worth checking out:

Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, expertly wrote How to Write a Research Plan. In the university setting, many career centers are linking to UPENN Career Services’ comprehensive powerpoint presentation, Writing an Effective Research Statement, as well as Duke Career Center’s website, Apply on Paper: Research Statements.  Both the Duke and the UPENN sites show sample research statements.

I’ve already referenced a superbly written doc from the Transportation Research Board’s Conduct of Research Committee Publication, written to provide “some guidance for transportation practitioners on developing research statements for funding consideration.” Last, but not least, the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Career Services Academic Careers webpage is an easy-to-follow section on Research and Teaching Statements.

Guiding points

  1. sb160It’s not about you.  A research statement is not about you.  It’s about research.  Don’t tell the reader how you conduct research – show the reader how your research can change the field.  Demonstrate an appreciation for others’ work.  The only self-promotion in this short document is your enthusiasm and passion for the project.  Your brand is your knowledge.
  2. Your writing skills are on display in a research statement.  You should ask several people to review your statement and offer critical feedback, including your faculty advisor and other faculty members who have been on hiring committees.  Be prepared for honest feedback!  If you are not a strong writer, see a writing consultant or hire an editor.  Ask someone outside of your academic circle to read it to see if it makes sense.
  3. Make sure that you and your faculty advisor are in sync with your research statement.  Demonstrating independence in the statement is crucial to conveying your ability to do this job without your faculty advisor. 
  4. Be detailed and cater your statement to the job. Conduct the necessary background research and avoid using the same statement for all jobs. 
  5. Make your statement brief, succinct and grounded in solid, prelimary data. Jim Austin, editor of Science Careers, writes, ”Identify your goals, state why those goals are important, define your approach to achieving those goals, and indicate the kinds of evidence that will validate your approach.”  
  6. The research statement could be the tie-breaker.  Austin reports that one of his many sources from the field wrote, ” Once we have a short list of candidates, . . . the research proposals are looked at more carefully for imaginative ideas that differ from the candidates’ Ph.D. or postdoctoral research.”
  7. The length will differ with your discipline and the expectations of the hiring committee.  Many sources suggest a 3-5 page document, 12-point commonly used font, and 1.5 spaced.  Stick with a clean format; the use of bullets is recommended as well as headings and subheadings to introduce sections.
  8. If you can discuss possible avenues for funding your research, go for it. 

If you are not selected for the position, ask for specific feedback.  This will help determine which portion of your application didn’t make the cut.  You can work on that portion instead of trying to rewrite the whole application, and you can ask for help from a experienced supporter.


Nicole Anderson is an Assistant Director/Career Counselor for Tufts University Career Services. With fourteen years of experience in college career services, Nicole’s expertise includes career counseling undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni from liberal arts, science, engineering, business, and education. 

Related posts:

  1. The Graduate Student Brand, Part 1: CV or Resume?
  2. The Grad School Personal Statement is a Brand Statement
  3. Rolling Out Your Brand: Begin With Research

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