Writing a Research Statement for Graduate School and Fellowships

Writing a research statement happens many times throughout a research career. Often for the first time it happens when applying to Ph.D. programs or applying to fellowships. Later, you will be writing postdoc and faculty applications. These documents are challenging to write because they seek to capture your entire research career in one document that may be read in 90 seconds or less.

Think of the research statement as a proposal. Whether you are applying for a Ph.D. program or for a faculty position, you are trying to convince the reader to invest in you. To decide whether to make this investment they need to know three things: 1) what will you do with the investment, 2) why is that an important problem? and 3) what evidence is there that you will be successful in achieving the goals that you have set out.

The first paragraph, therefore, should describe what problem you are aiming to solve, and why it is an important problem. One common failure mode is to be too general and vague in this paragraph. Yes we all want to solve AI! But you want to write about your specific take, angle, or approach. This will set up the rest of the statement, about why you are the one person uniquely qualified to solve the problem you set up here. Sometimes people shy away from being too specific, because they worry that it will put them in a box. Don’t worry! Research interests always evolve, and you will not be signing in blood to do this exact research plan. It is better to ere on the side of being too specific because it shows you can scope out an exciting project and that you have good ideas, even if you are not sure that this specific idea is the one you will eventually pursue.

The next paragraphs should describe your past work as it fits into the research vision you have outlined in the first paragraph. You can start with a paragraph for each project or paper you have worked on. The paragraphs can be more or less the abstract for the paper . However you should be clear exactly what your role in the project was, give credit to collaborators, and spend more time on the parts of the project you contributed to directly. You also need to tie it to the research vision in paragraph 1. The strongest statement presents your life, as an arrow that points unambiguously towards solving the research question you have outlined in paragraph 1. Of course, no one’s life is actually an unambiguous arrow! However I think it helps to think that way because you are trying to tie the projects together to show how they have prepared you and furthered you along the research trajectory. Even if this project wasn’t directly connected in terms of its research questions, you can write about how it taught you technical tools that you can apply to your research objective, or how it taught you something that led to your current research objective.

The last paragraphs should describe concretely what you plan to do next. If you are applying to a Ph.D. program, you should name the groups you wish to work with and explain why they are a good fit for you. For a fellowship, you should describe why this work is a good fit for the work done by the organization you are applying to.

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