Applying for a faculty position at a teaching institution: the research statement


Pretty much every faculty job application requires a Research Statement. It could be called something slightly different (research plan, statement of research interests), but they’re all pretty much the same.

The research statement that you send to a research university has to be fundamentally different from the one you send to a teaching institution.

When you’re applying for a job at a research university, your research statement should explain that your research is academically exciting, you are a current or future rockstar, you’ll bring in a more grant money than a minor deity, produce a ton of prestigious publications, train amazing doctoral students and your research fits well into strategic emphases within the department. I guess. I’ve never been on a search committee at a research university.

If you sent that that message to a teaching institution, you wouldn’t make the shortlist, because you wouldn’t fit in.

What messages do you need to send to a search committee at a teaching institution in your teaching statement?

  • Your research is academically exciting
  • Your research will provide extraordinary opportunities for undergraduates
  • You have a realistic notion about the amount of research you’ll get done
  • Your work will be successful outside the context of big labs you have worked in before
  • You can get external funds, but your program won’t fall apart without it
  • Your research is complementary with the department (you fill an open niche)

You don’t need to overtly state the above points, but they all should be things that an informed reader can easily infer.

Teaching institutions want to hire the best researchers that they can. However, departments don’t want to hire someone who they aren’t sure can’t run a successful research program while teaching the standard teaching load. They don’t even want to waste an interview slot on that kind of person.

You want to make sure that your application doesn’t communicate, by inclusion or omission, that you might be someone who can’t teach a lot while doing research with students at the same time. But most applicants lack that kind of experience. This is not a handicap. Search committees can’t use past performance to evaluate how someone will do research in a teaching faculty position. Instead, they can size up the attitude of the applicant. When you write about how you mentor and do research, does your approach look like something they think would be successful? Those things matter, a lot.

Your research statement is not the centerpiece of your application, but it is important for narrowing down the applicant pool. The two major elements that the search committee will be looking for in your research statement are:

  1. Your research fits the specialty that the department is looking for
  2. Your attitude towards research fits well within departmental norms

Unfortunately, you don’t really have any control over either of those two elements. But what you can do, for the second element, is to make sure that the attitude in your application fits what you know of the institution and what might be more generally applicable to many teaching campuses.

One approach that can work well is to build your research statement around a five-year plan. You don’t have to call it that, but it should communicate the scope of how much work you’ll do before you submit your tenure file at the start of your sixth year. If you project much further into the future about what your research goals and interests are, you’ll sound unrealistic. If you don’t look ahead for multiple years of research, then you’ll appear unfocused. You shouldn’t describe specific experiments, but you should describe lines of research, where they’ll be going, and what you expect to discover.

One focal point of your research statement needs to explain the role of undergraduates. What is your mentoring style? How you do identify and recruit students for your lab? What are your priorities for student development? How do you design projects so that there are meaningful roles for undergraduates? These things are important. The fact that you place undergraduate mentorship inside your research statement is, itself, an expression of your priorities.

Like all other parts of the application, you’ll be more successful if you honestly communicate your priorities and goals. This will not only result in the right institutions picking you for an interview, but it also will have the added benefit of making sure that you will be able to fulfill the expectations that you create.

You don’t have to think too big or claim to be running a research program that will transform your discipline. You just need to get pubs out once in a while with student coauthors, mentor undergraduates in research, and hopefully get a grant. Put yourself in that mindset while crafting your research statement and you are more likely to have an ethos that will fit with the departmental mindset.

3 thoughts on “Applying for a faculty position at a teaching institution: the research statement

  1. And keep it simple!

    “As for research statements, the most common problem with those I read is that applicants write as though a Nobel prize level expert in their research field is on the search committee. To be safe, they not only talk about their research question, but lay out the first five years of experiments, down to the last reagent catalog number.

    “This makes for a document that is several pages long, single spaced, with a long reference list.

    “I don’t want to read all that. In all likelihood, I can’t read all that due to time crunch. And even if I could, I won’t understand it in that level of detail.”

    Related post:

    • Right-o! You probably can learn more about how someone teaches from their research statement than their teaching statement.

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