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Specificity in the research statement on faculty application

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Specificity in the research statement on faculty application

Postby D. L. » Mon Dec 24, 2012 9:30 pm

I will be applying for a tenure-track faculty position at a research-intensive university. I have consulted this site's very useful article on the subject (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... earch_plan); however, I would like to seek feedback on the appropriate level of detail to include in the research statement.

Certainly, it must be sufficiently detailed to convince the search committee that it has a realistic chance of receiving external funding. On the other hand, I don't want to provide detail enough that someone else could take it and run. (never trust in the ethics of strangers when it comes to your livelihood ...)

So, how can I present my good ideas without "giving away the farm"?
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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby Dave Jensen » Wed Dec 26, 2012 12:08 pm

D. L. wrote:I will be applying for a tenure-track faculty position at a research-intensive university. I have consulted this site's very useful article on the subject (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/ca ... earch_plan); however, I would like to seek feedback on the appropriate level of detail to include in the research statement.

Certainly, it must be sufficiently detailed to convince the search committee that it has a realistic chance of receiving external funding. On the other hand, I don't want to provide detail enough that someone else could take it and run. (never trust in the ethics of strangers when it comes to your livelihood ...)

So, how can I present my good ideas without "giving away the farm"?


Of course, I hope that my more academic colleagues on this Forum will jump in here with some commentary. For me, however, I'll take a stab at this and perhaps it will start a discussion. This is very similar to discussions we've had here about how much or how little to show when you are an entrepreneur and you want to go out and raise capital.

I think that being too cautious (holding back, offering general statements only without specifics) can be dangerous for you. In your situation, to be considered by the hiring committee, you must look like a person who has a plan. If you leave major portions of your plan out because you've been too cautious about competition, you'll never get a pass to the next stage of the discussion.

They key will be to show enough in your statement that it is absolutely certain that you have a plan, that you know your subject, and that it is a fundable and appropriate direction for the department you are applying for. Of course, you can hold back on the details past that point, but if you only give your interests in gleaming generalities, you'll be stuck without interest.

Take a risk. I think if you make a convincing case, there will be much less chance of someone stealing your ideas than you'd think.

Do others agree?

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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby Rich Lemert » Wed Dec 26, 2012 12:55 pm

Some random thoughts on the topic:

Often the reason you're being brought in for an interview is because you complement the current work in the department - i.e. you "fill a hole" in their expertise. The other faculty members will be familiar with your general area of research, but they won't be working in that area themselves.

While there are people out there who will take someone's ideas and go with them, these people tend to develop reputations pretty quickly. The more likely situation is that someone has started working on the same idea independently. This doesn't help you when it happens, but chances are if you've recognized a fruitful idea someone else will have that same idea.

It is considered ethical to stop a research project based on someone else's unpublished information. After all, why should you be forced to continue something that has just been shown to be doomed to failure.
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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby R.J.G. » Wed Dec 26, 2012 6:08 pm

The easy answer is to apply for and receive a K-award based on the idea... then the idea is already funded before you send your applications out and this isn't a huge concern.
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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby Dave Jensen » Thu Dec 27, 2012 10:32 am

R.J.G. wrote:The easy answer is to apply for and receive a K-award based on the idea... then the idea is already funded before you send your applications out and this isn't a huge concern.


Great suggestion! Nothing like going in with a "bullet" . . .

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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby D. L. » Thu Dec 27, 2012 12:32 pm

Dave Jensen wrote:
R.J.G. wrote:The easy answer is to apply for and receive a K-award based on the idea... then the idea is already funded before you send your applications out and this isn't a huge concern.


Great suggestion! Nothing like going in with a "bullet" . . .

Dave

If only researchers in the physical sciences had an equivalent funding structure ... I'm not aware that NSF/DOD/DOE have any similar programs for transferable, non-institutionally-awarded grants.
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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby Chris » Thu Dec 27, 2012 3:10 pm

Hah! If only getting a K99 was the "easy" answer!

When a search committee reads your proposal, what they want to see is: 1) is it do-able (by you - do you have the skills necessary to lead a group doing this work), 2) is it fundable (do you have a good idea of which programs are funding this type of research), 3) is it creative/cutting-edge/important and 4) can you create a sustainable research program based on these ideas (i.e. can you do it in X years with students from their institution, does it establish independence from your previous mentors, does it have components that will both get results and publications quickly and provide high impact, longer term results, etc.) So when you prepare your proposals, you need to be sure a reader can assess those items.

I wouldn't worry about "giving away the farm" so to speak. If you put out a hot idea, a good research group will be able to figure out how to scoop you without you giving them the details anyway. (Although a good research group will be able to come up with their own great ideas without stealing yours.) And if you're going to be a good PI, you're going to need a lot more than just one or two great ideas. Many of my academic friends ended up not doing the projects they proposed in applications (a year later it didn't seem so exciting, or someone else had done it or shown it couldn't be done). And most of the others have seen their projects morph in ways they never would have predicted. Such is science. Your goal at this point is to demonstrate that you can come up with important, timely ideas and convince people that you can execute those ideas successfully. Let's be honest, most of us became academics because we are only interested in our own ideas, anyway! I have many colleagues whose work I admire, but only a very few whose ideas I wish I had come up with first.
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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby Jim Austin » Fri Dec 28, 2012 9:24 pm

As an aside, I was surprised to find that that article, which I wrote a long time ago, was the fourth most-read article on Science Careers in 2012. Damn.

I was at a career event at about the same time--I believe it was the first HHMI/BWF Lab Management course--when someone asked a similar question, about revealing too much and having your ideas scooped. The response from a very senior, very well-known scientist (if I could remember who it was I'd tell you, but all I can remember now was that it was someone impressive) was something like, "most faculty have more ideas than they have time to pursue. Don't worry about having your ideas stolen."

Knowing what I know now, 10 years later, I realize that her perspective (yeah, I also remember that it was a 'her') was a little naive. Just because she had more ideas than she had time to pursue--just because SHE would never be interested in stealing your idea--doesn't mean there aren't a few folks out there with impoverished scientific imaginations.

Still, I think you're best off not to worry about the risk. Jut go in there and present your ideas.

OK, so what about the level of detail? If you're writing this for a research university hiring committee, provide enough information to be convincing. Don't hold back on detail. On the other hand, make sure it's clear that you get the big picture, too--that you understand why it matters and how it connects to other work being done in the field.

Good luck. Let us know how it turns out.

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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby S.J.D. » Fri Jan 04, 2013 10:35 pm

By the time you arrive on campus and start writing proposals it will be a year later. Most faculty that I know who have discussed their research plan with me have said that they never ended up actually doing anything in their research plan or at least not as part of a long term funded project. I would say the same thing for myself. I wrote about 3 or 4 projects in my application. I did part of one as a short initial project, but never really followed up or pursued this line of research in detail. In the few years since I have worked on a number of projects (maybe 7 or 8) that are not at all related to my statement. If you have good ideas, then you will have more. Chances are that if you are in a competitive field than other people are already thinking about your ideas right now. By the time you get off the ground and have productive students it will be too late for those ideas.
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Re: Specificity in the research statement on faculty applica

Postby Ana » Sun Jan 06, 2013 9:11 am

Hi DL,

I think the feedback that you got here is great, so in addition to that advice I'll tell you something different.

When I was finishing my postdoc I applied to both industry and faculty positions. My advisor was the head of the hiring committee for our department and we had just gone through the hiring of a few new Assistant Professors. To help me write my application materials my advisor gave me the application materials of the top 5-6 candidates that they had interviewed for those positions in our department. That way I would better know what successful applications look like. I learnt a key thing: they were all completely different (length, style, level of detail...).

And you can turn that around: your success is not likely to depend so much on the way you write that research statement. They will look for the usual things: your publication record, if you got any funding already, the reputation of your former labs, the fact that your research niche is something that they are looking for, etc. ... and then during the interview and seminar is when it becomes clear which one would be the best fit for that department.

Good luck
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