Focus on the future
The research statement should briefly review your previous research (or experience), current work, and how these underpin a vision for your future aims. It also needs to set this all within the broader context of the research field. This generally requires having key references, both to your work but also to major works in your research area, and (ideally) some figures. How much space to dedicate to each part of the research statement (previous, current, future)? In my opinion, it’s good to place previous work into no more than 30% of the space, give maximum 20% of the space for current work, and then use the remaining half (or ideally more) of the space to outline future plans. The purpose of first two parts is to demonstrate how the previous and current work have/are building towards the future plans.
What not to put into a research statement
The research statement is not is a review of your publications or a biography of your life history. The panel will have your CV, so don’t repeat what is in there. Instead use the 30-50% of the research statement dedicated to your past and current work to place it into the context necessary. Think about the need to convince whoever is reviewing the application that you can actually achieve your proposed future plans. For example, rather than listing the topic and title of each of your previous projects (e.g. the MSc thesis), use the space instead to communicate how these projects provide evidence that you have the skills needed to complete the proposed future aims and how the ideas for future directions clearly emerge from previous (and current) work.
In short, avoid turning the research statement into a reflective piece on your philosophy or beliefs. For example, it is extremely common for research statements to start with a personal statement—like how you first decided to be a biologist on some childhood camping trip. Don’t do it! These sentences are critical as you will never have more of the reader’s attention. Use the space to tell the what you think is the most interesting (and relevant to the position) piece of information. For example, write out the most interesting research question right up-front, and keep those personal anecdotes for when you need to bring a bit of life into some text and when it adds some evidence to the narrative (e.g. how observing a particular species during field work led to asking the question you are putting forward).
Think about the reader
When writing the research proposal, it can be easy to forget that its ultimate purpose is to be read by a committee that will compare it to other proposals. Keep this at the forefront of your mind when writing! The reader will probably have to read through many similar proposals, all of which have had similar amounts of work put into them. Use every opportunity to help make the experience as easy for the reader as possible. This includes all the points listed above and below (e.g. being succinct, focused, etc.), but also think about the overall presentation. The visual appeal of a proposal is often the first impression the reader will have, so make it attractive. For this, it really helps to use figures to bring colour to the page, subheadings to introduce whitespaces, and even using bullet points to most effectively convey information to a tired reader. Finally, make sure you have someone proof-read the statement before submitting it.
Make use of figures
There’s little that is more daunting to a tired mind than a full page of plain text (especially in small font with no line spacing). Use every opportunity to summarise ideas into figures. Figures can illustrate conceptual ideas (e.g. how different inputs contribute to a process), the predictions from a hypothesis (e.g. toy graphs that draw out expected relationships), or preliminary data (or data from an unpublished thesis/paper that is relevant to the proposal). In the absence of any of these, a picture of you doing fieldwork, or even a picture that illustrates the type of biology that is being presented in the proposal, can help to make the proposal feel more approachable, more fun to read, and more genuine.
This is far from an exhaustive list, and there’s a lot more to writing a statement than just ticking these boxes, but here’s a few things to keep in mind when writing, reading, and editing the research statement.
Remain focused: stick to one main research thread and resist the temptation to add any side-projects. It is usually the rule that ‘less is more’ in these situations, no matter how tempting it is to list out many ideas, projects, etc.
Be specific: discuss ideas at a level that corresponds to clear and testable questions (e.g. ‘I will test hypothesis X about why animals live in groups’) rather than claim the research will solve entire fields (e.g. ‘I will resolve the long-standing question of how sociality evolves’). Being ambitious can be good, but remaining realistic about what can be achieved given the time, resources, and current knowledge is critical.
Explain how you will navigate challenges: Science is never simple, or straightforward. A good research statement convinces the evaluator that the previous work makes the applicant ready to tackle the proposed future work. This includes having the tools to overcome unexpected challenges. (Briefly) highlighting some Plan Bs is often a good move.
Be structured: Science is incredibly creative, but it is also a highly structured process. The research statement not only needs to show imagination, but also to demonstrate the clarity of thought and presentation that is necessary for scientific success. Using informative subheadings is particularly useful as a way of guiding the reader, breaking up chunks of text, and maintaining structure.
Cite key studies in the field: An immediately obvious weaknesses in a research proposal is a lack of acknowledgement of important work in the field. Make sure not to overlook key citations, and consider a balance of more foundational works and more recent studies (perspective pieces often really help). That said, don’t overdo it with too many citations, the research statement is not a literature review.
Highlight what sets you apart from other applicants: Use the research statement to set yourself apart from other applicants. Consider the needs of the proposed project and where you have a unique contribution to make. Remember that everyone is enthusiastic, so focus on areas where there is evidence, and make sure to point to this evidence.
There is often very little to differentiate among applicants. CVs can vary, but early in the career this variation largely reflects differences in opportunity and quite a degree of luck. Thus, the quality of the research statement is often the defining factor that determines who is invited for further consideration (e.g. an interview) and who isn’t (particularly for early-career positions). Quality here is judged not only on how well it convinces the reader that you have the skills needed to satisfy the position requirements, but especially on the clarity of thought, scientific focus, and sharpness of your ideas.