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If you're applying for an academic job, you know you need to craft a curriculum vitae that flawlessly reflects your strengths and wows faculty at daylong interviews. But, say search committee chairs, too often, applicants give short-shrift to a critical part of the application process: the research statement, that brief sketch of a candidate's past, current and future research interests. Don't underestimate the power of this document, say hiring experts. The one-to-five-page statement is critical to helping search committees determine who will best fit in their departments.

"The goal of search committees is to select the candidates with the best potential to excel in research," explains Janet Kistner, PhD, chair of the Florida State University psychology department. They want candidates who will uncover new knowledge, add to their departments' prestige and bring in new funding. A well-crafted research statement offers those insights and more.

So, how do you make your research statement sing? Here's advice from the experts:

  • Choose an important, unique topic. "I'm not interested in research that just tightens another loose end in an already woven piece of cloth," says Emanuel Donchin, PhD, the University of South Florida's psychology department chair. "I'm looking for research that's never been done before."

Be sure your research topic can answer the "So what?" question. "It needs to be a program of research that addresses a big question in the literature," says Arizona State University's psychology chair Leona S. Aiken, PhD. And be specific, Donchin advises. "Don't pick vague topics, such as 'What is an emotion?' I want to see something more precise, such as 'When is fear different than anger?'"

  • Find out the department's priorities. What kind of research does the institution seek to add to its portfolio? Find out by asking the department chair as well as faculty members, says Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, of the Florida State University College of Medicine. "Your job is to understand the interests of the group you are trying to impress," Johnson says. So, if a university has a strong cognitive science research program, but wants to beef up its work in the area of emotion and health, consider focusing your research there.

  • Express your vision. "I want to see that the candidate can think programmatically in terms of research," says Aiken. So, state your goals, explain why they are important and discuss how you will achieve them. Then discuss the future of your work: What are your goals for the next five years and beyond? The most successful statements discuss how you will involve students in the research and discuss ways you'll bring in funding.

  • Play up your strengths. Your research statement should discuss your prior research experience. Discuss the projects you worked on, specifically detailing how you contributed. "Tell me about your research record, your skills, where you've published, whether you've gotten grants," says Donchin. Showcase your achievements. "Search committees are looking for real competence and excellence," says Aiken. "The candidates we want must be confident in themselves and confident in the lab."

  • Tailor your statement. You might be tempted to churn out the same statement for every academic job you're applying for. Don't, advises Johnson. Instead, sprinkle your statement with details that demonstrate your understanding of the department's unique goals and priorities. For example, if you're applying for a position at a medical school, elaborate on the time you taught or published with medical school students.

  • Make it flow. Showing that you are a clear, engaging writer is key to securing any academic position. "A research statement needs to catch the reader and keep them reading, just like a good research article," says Ken Rice, PhD, director of the University of Florida counseling psychology program. Don't flood your statement with too many statistical details; tell your story simply and thoroughly. Use a simple graphic that can convey a point succinctly. Rely on subheads to separate your key themes. Also, start with an abstract that summarizes your main points and finish with a strong paragraph that leaves the reader hungry for more. And before you submit the research statement, ask a trusted colleague to scrutinize it for misspellings, bad grammar and wordiness.

Most importantly, says Johnson, be passionate about your research. "Show that you have the enthusiasm and the professional direction to carry out the work."

-S. Martin

Research statement resources