Beki Grinter

A Question about Research Statements

In academia, academic management, discipline, research on February 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm

One of the pieces of writing that is required in academia is the research statement. The research statement describes your research agenda and the impact and outcomes of that agenda. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. I admit to liking its reflective quality, it’s an opportunity to look back over the career and synthesize what one did and why. And it’s non-trivial.

But I have a genuine question based on a hypothesis.

(Note: To all my former colleagues please do not read this as a dissatisfaction with the collaborations, you collectively were the best part of the experience and you’ve taught me more about research excellence, passion, perspective.)

My hypothesis is that having worked for three employers, my research statement is more complicated. Two of the three employers played an active role in determining what I worked on. At Bell Labs, I was in a Software Engineering research department as an HCI person. I wanted to maintain my presence in HCI, so I tried to pick problems or work on ones that were available that would serve two masters, Software Engineering and HCI.Then I went to PARC, and I was given strong encouragement to work on particular projects. PARC was going through a particularly exciting time, it was spun out from Xerox into an independent company, PARC Inc. Everyone was doing their very best to pick the types of projects and outcomes that would support the transition to a revenue generating PARC.

At both Bell Labs, and PARC Inc, I think my research agenda was a negotiation between myself and my employer (a negotiation that turned on that corporation’s goals for sponsoring a research division, and both employers goals changed over the course of my time there, and neither were ever the same as each other — that’s a *whole other post*). By contrast, at Georgia Tech the management of my research program feels different. There are choices, funding for example, influences activities. But, I think I am in charge of my research agenda. Indeed, I think that is my employer’s requirement, I don’t negotiate a compromise between my goals and my employer’s goals, I am expected to have my own goals by my employer.

So, I’ve shifted from two, and DIFFERENT, employer negotiated research agendas to the expectation and responsibility of having my own agenda. And I think the research statement as a genre of writing looks far closer to the latter than the former.

So my question? Does my hypothesis hold any water?

Does it change over time (in the span of my career, the time spent in each place is 4, 4, and 7 years, so a quarter of my research was driven by Lucent, a quarter by PARC Inc, and now a half by Georgia Tech).

Is it compounded by having had two previous employers?

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  1. It’s important to realize that they aren’t interchangeable chunks of time, too. I mean, you couldn’t necessarily have gotten to Tech without the experiences at the first two places. All research is cumulative and builds on the knowledge already gathered, so the years that you had in non-academia left you uniquely positioned as a junior professor, very different than one who came straight from school.
    As a government scientist, I haven’t always had a chance to generate my own research ideas either. But every research experience, even the ones that bore me to bits, are steps toward understanding what it is I really want to study. All experience, in that sense, is to the good.

  2. As someone who had a hand (a pinky?) in your career, my perspective is a bit different. A company, if it’s smart, hires people whose research interests are consistent and compatible with the company’s interests. In a few cases, such as early Bell Labs, there may be a desire just to increase knowledge expecting that it in some way benefits the company. (We were late Bell Labs.) Furthermore, for a passionate, dedicated researcher, the researcher’s agenda is driven by a problem that has grabbed hold of the researcher and may never let go. In fact, at Bell Labs, it was once described to me that the way to direct a researcher is to introduce her to different problems, hoping that one will reach out and grab hold of her. One could not force the agenda on her. Everything then stems from that one problem, although one may be led far afield in search of solutions.

    DLP once told me that everything you do should be different aspects of the same thing. Having everything driven from one strong interest has certainly been true in my career, which has now spanned about 45 years. My research agenda has been very similar, and still is, at all the places where I’ve worked, once I discovered what really interested me. That discovery came fairly early for me and has held up over the years. Now that I’ve made the switch to academia, my agenda has not changed. I still have the same basic interest, and am still discovering new twists on it. What may be different in academia is the constraints on what you can explore in trying to find solutions to your problem. You may be free to wander farther afield, although I think that eventually you’re called to account in some way.

    Maybe you’re familiar with Gilbert Highet’s Art of Teaching. See page 21 on planning an academic career. Of course, if the research agenda you mean is what to write in an NSF proposal to get a grant for the next 2-3 years, that may be a somewhat different story, but you still have to write what you think NSF is willing to fund.

  3. DLP is certainly right, but part of my struggle is articulating what that thing is. Some of it I still think is where I worked. But I suspect some of it is just me.

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