It’s job season again and I am revising my research statement. I was pretty happy with the last iteration of it, but as things change I might need to find a new story for my life. As I get farther along, it has become a bit harder to cram all of the things I’ve worked on into a single consistent story. There are even some grad students I know who have worked on several distinct things and they probably have the same problem. There’s a tension in the research statement between coming up with a coherent story and accurately representing your work. There are a few generic ways of handling this, it seems.
The omnibus. You can write many mini-stories, one about each of the major projects, and then have a section for “miscellaneous other papers.” This approach eschews the overarching framework idea and instead just goes for local internal consistency.
The proposal. Instead of talking about all of your work (or mentioning it), you propose one research direction and give short shrift to the rest. This has the advantage of letting you write more fully about one topic and provide sufficient context and exciting new research directions, but then again you’re mis-representing the actual balance of your research interests.
The tractatus. You develop some principles or philosophical underpinnings for your work and then try to connect everything you’ve done to these and explain your future work ideas as further developing these themes. This approach goes for consistency above all else. The advantage is coherence, and the disadvantage is that some projects may have to get strong-armed into it.
I am sure there are more varieties out there, but on the whole the research statement is a weird document — part description, part proposal. You can’t make it only about your existing work because that’s looking to the past, but you can’t make it a proposal because the reader is actually trying to learn what you are interested in.