Research interests statement

How to write your statement of research interests


Eleanor C Sayre

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A statement of research interests is a way for you to articulate what you are interested in, your relevant past experience, and your concise future plans for research. You can think of it like a teaching philosophy, but for research; a future-oriented bio statement; or a narrative account of your research activity and plans.

Why write a statement of research interests?

Broadly speaking, statements of research interest are used in three ways:

  • As part of your application package for graduate school or for a faculty job which includes research (1-2pp)
  • As generative writing to clarify to yourself and your immediate (prospective) collaborators what you want to do. (1p)
  • As part of an advertisement for you and your work, such as in a bio statement or on your website. (0.5p)

Let’s focus on the middle way right now, as it’s a good place to start. Your goal in this statement is to clarify to yourself about what kind of (research) work you want to be doing, and how it connects to the work you’ve already done.

Getting started

What are you curious about?

Research is fundamentally about creating new knowledge. It is a creative, inventive process. If you’re new to research, it can be a bit intimidating to start. Some options:

  • Spend some time working through the research design exercises to familiarize yourself with questions, access, methods, and theories. Instead of planning a specific research project, though, your goal is to design an ideal project.

  • When you read a paper, particularly a paper published in the last 18 months, ask yourself what is interesting or cool about this paper. It might not be their conclusions; it might be the clever way they connected hypotheses or the surprising population they worked with.

I am curious about how people develop professional identity as scientists. I’m not particularly interested in student learning of specific topics in physics, except inasmuch as they are indicative of student learning across multiple topics.

Don’t worry if someone else might have already done the research you want to do. If there’s already a large body of literature around your chosen topics, that means you have a lot of opportunity to look for nuance and compare other people’s ideas against each other.

Conversely, if nobody has ever done the research you want to do and you don’t know of anyone doing anything similar, then your interests are probably too esoteric and/or your keywords are too narrow. That’s ok eventually, but right now you need to describe your interests in more general terms.

Some people have a hard time imagining what they’re curious about. They want someone else to tell them what project to work on, how to move forward, and which topics to focus on. If that’s you, now is a good time for introspection: why do you want to do research?

How would you like to change the world?

This is a really big question about the intended impact of your research. Some people want the knowledge they generate to have practical, immediate applications. For example, you might be curious about how first generation college students fare in your program because you want increase their completion rate. Or you might be curious about how students understand topic X because you want to teach it better. The world is a really big place; you don’t have to change all of it. How would you like to change your teaching practice, your department, your town, etc?

I would like academic science to be a more equitable and just place, which means that some of my research is about how marginalized students navigate occasionally hostile pathways through undergraduate degrees. Separately, I want to help emerging researchers learn how to do research in education, so I do research on the best ways to teach graduate students and faculty about how to do education research. These two interests are not the same, but I can pursue both of them in the same project.

It’s ok if you want to change the world in multiple different ways at different scales. For example, you might want to do research on how physics students in general operate in lab classes because you want to develop a vision of undergraduate labs that better prepare students for research, while at the same time you want to improve the learning of students in the classes at your institution.

Who do you want to work with, and in what capacity?

For some researchers, this is a highly constrained topic; for others, it is quite open. Think about the following questions:

  • Do you want local or remote collaborators on the same project?
  • Do you want to be part of a research group of people on related projects?
  • Do you want to be the sole PI with many students? One of a few PIs? Not a PI?
  • How much time, realistically, can you devote to research endeavors?
  • How many projects do you want to keep going at the same time?
  • How much money do you have access to? Do you need to be externally funded? Who should be responsible for acquiring your funding?

I thrive when I have a large collaborative research group to talk to. Some of the people in it should be working on the same projects as me, but some of them can be working on different things in similar ways. I thoroughly enjoy being one PI of many, though I’m ok being a sole-PI or occasional consultant. I need to have several projects going at the same time, and it’s ok with me if that means engaging substantially in multiple research groups.

Some of my collaborators thrive when they can focus on one main project and keep some other things on the back burner. Other collaborators are primarily interested in advising projects that their students are interested in, while still others only want to work on projects that closely align with their own interests.

The best options are the ones that make you happy. There’s no right answer that works for everyone.

What experience do you have?

Even though these are called statements of research interests, they’re often used as to link your past experience with your future plans. Past experience is a pretty good indicator of future plans, so think about what you’ve already done. You can start with just talking about each project: the major goals, the work you personally performed, the products that have (or are planned to) come out of it.

You can use your past experience to teach you about what you like about the research process, and also to teach you what you don’t want your future work to look like. Did you learn that you strongly dislike sitting alone in front of a computer? love working closely with one person? Rather like the idea of observational astronomy but not that particular project? Love computational work but find computational biophysics not as appealing as you previously thought?

Be reflective here, and honest. You are learning about you. In the next stage you’ll work on refining your reflections into a statement for a particular audience.

Write your statement

Generative writing

Write about one page for each of these questions. It’s ok to leave out questions you’re not sure about the answers for, but strive to be thorough. If you have multiple interests or past projects, it’s ok to write a paragraph about each of them. Look for similarities across projects and experiences to help you synthesize across projects.

Using the ideas in the flow handout, reverse outline your generative writing. A common structure for research statements is:

  1. Big idea about interests and changing the world
  2. Your experience & past work on this topic
  3. Future plans for this topic
  4. Another topic? Link and repeat.
  5. Closing thoughts about who you want to work with and in what capacity.

Most statements of research interests are 1-2 pages long. Your generative writing is a lot longer than that! Use the refining process to make your statement more concise.

Trite openers are boring.

Many students’ statements of research interests start with a paragraph about how much they have always loved this topic. Something like “ever since I was a young child, I have loved science.” Don’t do this. Our narratives about what “has always been true” are constructed in the present, and they are generally only selectively accurate renditions of the past.

Another common opening is to quote some famous scientist, usually Einstein or Feynman, about the wonder of the natural world or the majesty of science. Don’t do this. It’s trite and boring.

A fawning view of individual famous scientists is not honest to the actual practice of science nor is it a good look given that most of them were assholes.

Think about audience

If you have a lot of ideas or interests, the audience for your research statement can help you decide what to focus on.

For example, if you’re writing an application essay to graduate school, your future plans probably aren’t very detailed. You can still have a big idea for changing the world, but it might be difficult to link your prior experience to your research interests. Many undergraduate research experiences teach participants that they enjoy research, just not that kind of research. In this statement, you need to name potential advisors in the department, and link their work to your interests. For help with that linking, I very strongly encourage you to email with and have an informational interview with each prospective advisor after your generative writing, but before you polish your statement. Receiving emails from prospective grad students is a totally normal part of being a research advisor, and I do it pretty much every week in application season. As an advisor and member of my department’s grad admissions committee, I look more favorably on applications which clearly fit the kinds of research we do in the department.

Alternately, if you are applying to faculty jobs, linking your past experience and future plans is very important. You will need to adjust your future plans so that they fit well into the kind of job you’re applying for, and specifically into the interests and resources of the department. Depending on the department, you might need to emphasize your goals around working with undergraduate students, attracting external funding, working with k12 teachers, or developing lab materials. In my department, to get tenure you need to demonstrate intellectual independence from your grad/postdoc work, so it is important that applicants’ research plans are not merely a continuation of their dissertations.

If you’re writing your statement of research interests for internal purposes only, to clarify what you’re looking for in your research life, then you should focus on whatever parts of the statement you need to work through to bring clarity to yourself. At different times in my life, I’ve focused on how to make my different projects sound like a coherent whole, how to finesse bad research experiences as learning opportunities, particular funding opportunities, and who I want to work with (both number and names).

Make it pretty

With your audience in mind, go through the last two exercises on the flow handout. You’re looking to make your statement feel like a cohesive whole that best shows off your goals, experience, and future plans, as moderated by the resources available in a particular context.

When it feels reasonably ok – not perfect! – send it to a trusted beta-reader to get feedback on your writing. This could be your advisor, a mentor in the field, or someone you know that knows a lot about the kind of position you’re looking for. You can also visit with your university writing center or career center (even after graduation!) for help with flow. They’re not usually specialized into statements of research interests, but they are good at general writing help.

Sometimes people ask me if I would be willing to read their statements ahead of time. For my current and former students (& collaborators), the answer is always yes. I will always help you do the thing you want to do next in your professional life. For prospective students, prospective collaborators, or other community members this is a little more complicated. Among these groups, I prioritize statements from BIPOC, women, and people whose research interests are aligned with my own. My availability for this kind of service to the community is limited, especially during application season. You should contact me to ask before you send your statement.

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This article was first written on June 1, 2018, and last modified on February 8, 2024.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Sayre, Eleanor C. 2018. “Research Interests Statement.” In Research: A Practical Handbook.