Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is in: Research Plans, Proposals, and Statements

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In re-entering the job market this fall, I've discovered that the new buzzword in job postings is "research plan" — instead of the typical "research statement." How does a "research plan" differ from a “statement”? And are either of those different from the "research proposal" required on postdoc applications?

If a job ad asks for a research plan, that is more or less the same as a research statement — with perhaps a slight adjustment in emphasis.

But before I get into the specifics of that, let me revisit the difference between a research statement for a faculty job opening, and a research proposal for a postdoctoral application, as that is a point of perennial confusion.

In a research statement for a faculty job, you have to explain your research trajectory — past, present, and future — in a balanced way. Begin the statement with a short paragraph of overview of your research themes and topics. Then (assuming you are a relatively recent Ph.D. or A.B.D.), explain your dissertation in greater detail than you could in the cover letter. In one substantial paragraph on the dissertation, describe its title, topic, approach, theory, method, and findings. Devote a sentence or two to each chapter, and mention any funding you received for it. In the next paragraph, explain your dissertation’s contribution to the field in about three sentences. Then write a concise paragraph about the publications resulting from your project: Start with the oldest ones, then describe those you have in the submission phase or under review, and end by describing any further publications that you anticipate. If you are in a book field, mention your plan for the book. Then the research statement should move on to describe your next project. That should be a second, major, stand-alone research project (i.e., if you are in a book field, a second monograph): Sketch the topic, approach, methods, and any potential funding or preliminary publishing/conference papers done on the project.

And then the research statement will conclude. If you are a more advanced scholar, or have other significant research streams, you will of course describe those as well, in the same way. I recommend that more advanced scholars start at their current research and work backward to the dissertation. And toward the end mention a next project.

Now, a postdoctoral research proposal has to cover much of that same ground. But the most important element of the proposal is the plan of work for the term of the postdoc. You need to explain a specific plan — a month-by-month or term-by-term schedule of the research, writing, and publishing that will be accomplished during the postdoctoral fellowship. Postdoc committees want to know that you will put their time and money to good use, and the best assurance of that is a viable, realistic, and highly specific plan. Using the model I outlined above more a research statement, you can add this detailed plan in a paragraph that follows directly after the one on your dissertation-related publications. In the work-plan paragraph, mention any future publications from your dissertation that you anticipate writing and submitting during the postdoc.

The second most important element of a postdoc proposal is the tailoring. You must show that your work relates — in specific and concrete ways — to the program you’re applying to, the people in it, and the particular thematic (if any) for the year. Many applicants forget this part, but you are there to serve the program, it’s not there to serve your needs.

The third most important element of a postdoc proposal is the description of the course you will develop and teach for the institution (assuming it’s a postdoc that requires you to teach such a course). The course must relate to the thematic specified by the program, and your description must show that your course will be innovative and memorable.

Now let me return to the question of a “research plan” versus a “research statement.” In the context of a faculty job application, they are basically one and the same. The research statement, as I’ve described it, includes your future planned dissertation publications as well as a next project.

However, I don’t think it would be remiss to think of the research plan as asking for a bit more weight to be given to the future direction of your research. So you might want to be more specific about a timeline for the completion of upcoming articles and conference papers, and for the execution of your next project. But those are relatively minor adjustments. Any research document for the purposes of a job application has to thoroughly explain what you have done to date, as the foundation for any planned work in the future.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to The Professor Is In! Karen welcomes any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to gettenure@gmail.com.

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