Writing Your Research Statement
Set yourself apart
Most reviewers volunteer their time. Faced with a huge pile of applications, they’ll move quickly and won’t take time to search out hidden answers.
In reviewing your application, the reader will scan for clear answers to three questions:
- What new knowledge will be generated for the discipline?
- Why is it valuable?
- How can they be assured the conclusions will be valid?
You want to make sure that the reviewer will be left with something to remember: a message that will remain after reading many other proposals. Make sure your proposal is clear and has a strong opening paragraph that will grab the reader’s attention. Your statement should tell a compelling story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Always keep in mind that reviewers may not be experts in your particular research area. It is essential that you couch your proposal in language and a narrative that will be accessible to an intelligent but non-specialized reviewer. In particular, don’t use jargon. Eliminate any theoretical discourse that is only accessible to those trained in your area.
Keep the spotlight on ideas
Start with a subject that interests you – a research proposal or a question – and develop a good proposal around it. Don’t worry if your proposed research project isn’t the “hot” topic in the field right now. In fact, an off-the-beaten-path project may stand out among all the other applications.
Show the reviewer that you are ready to take on the challenge of independent research; that you have not only a strong foundation for research as evidenced by a knowledge of the core scholarly publications in your discipline, but also that you possess the creativity, passion, and drive that will take you from more passive learning to active invention and hypothesis. Be clear about how you will undertake the research and how you will analyze the results. Argue why you think this is the best approach to the problem.
Explain which approaches are standard and which are innovative. The way you formulate your questions and describe how you will address them will reveal a lot to the review committee about your thought processes.
Your proposal is not the same as a final plan
If you’re a first-year student, remember that you’re writing a proposal: you are not committed to following the exact path you establish in your proposal. Most funding agencies expect that your project will change as you get underway. The important thing is to show that you’ll be capable of carrying out research in the discipline area proposed given the resources available to you.
Applying for dissertation-year fellowships
If you’re applying for a dissertation-year fellowship, the bar has been raised. Given your breadth of experience, the reviewers will expect to see more from you than they will from a first-year student. Reviewers will want to see that you’ve taken an interest in your professional development by presenting at national conferences and by having publications accepted to peer-review journals or in process, so be sure to address those issues.
Discuss your research proposal with your special committee chair, your director of graduate studies, faculty in your field, and other students. If you can identify students who have had successful proposals or faculty who have served as adjudicators, ask them. It’s okay to tailor your research statement to present the version most likely to win the fellowship. Focus on the aspects of your project that are the best fit with the sponsoring agency’s stated goals for the fellowship program. If you need inspiration, check out the reference notebooks of successful applications available in 350 Caldwell Hall.
Details matter, so sweat them
Your bibliography is important. This is where you will show experts in your field that you know the discipline and that you’ve done your homework. Make sure you cover the key papers in your discipline, but don’t make the bibliography too long. Reviewers want to see that you can distinguish between the most important contributions and secondary papers. A good bibliography shows you know enough about the discipline to avoid duplicating other work.
Proof your work
Make sure that there are no typographical or grammatical errors and follow the guidelines carefully. Your statements reflect on the level of professionalism you will bring to your research. When the competition is extreme, reviewers look for clues that differentiate one application from another. Typographical errors, grammatical errors, and inattention to guidelines will create suspicion over your attention to detail and will probably result in your application being passed over.
Allow enough time
You need to be exceptional in an excellent group of applicants. A good proposal may take up to three months to develop. Write a draft, seek input from others, revise, set it aside, come back to it, revise again, seek input again. Keep working until you have a polished product. If you put in the time to make your proposal as good as it can be, it will show in the end result and your application will be more competitive.