The Incredible Evolving Research Statement

I wanted to follow up my “recent” post about research statements with a trace of how mine’s evolved over the last several years. I’m hoping this will help people at multiple career stages tell their own stories as well as give a concrete example of how one’s own story can change over time.

For my statement in fall of 2007, I was a year into my postdoc and writing my statement for my third time around on the job market. I wound up organizing it around five small themes that had emerged out of my work: “creating a better user experience in recommender systems”, “making recommendations for research papers”, “understanding how interfaces affect people’s contributions to communities”, “encouraging people to provide public goods in online communities”, and “exploring how technologies can support social interactions”.

This was a pretty reasonable chronological story of what I had done and how I had moved from algorithms toward interfaces, using the “understanding” part to help marry the algorithmic/interface work I had done with the move toward recommender and social science theory applied to growing online communities. It was fairly easy to tell, chronologically and intellectually accurate, and gave me a chance to talk about most of my work to that point–which at that point was a good thing.

My high level story of “help groups make sense of information” was probably too broad given my career stage and the work I’d done at the time, so that part kind of sucked; the coherence between the parts was also at a kind of surface level. I also had a future directions nod to “computational social science” at the end, because I was hanging out with the “Getting Connected: Social Science in the Age of Networks” group at Cornell’s Institute for Social Sciences. There were natural connections between my prior Wikipedia work and stuff in the air there, and it felt like a research direction that had legs.

Fast forward to late fall of 2010, where I’m writing my statement for my third year review. At this point I’ve advised students for a few years who are starting to take things in their own directions, writing grants with new research themes around reflection on social media data, and having lots of success collaborating with folks in the Networks group.

Thus, I’ve got a bigger story to tell and I zoomed out quite a bit to an overarching theme of how we might think of work around big data organized into three broad categories: “big data as a door” (that systems can unlock through modeling of users’ interests for recommendation and e-commerce), “big data as a window” (that researchers can observe and study human behavior through primarily for theory-building), and “big data as a mirror” (that systems present back to the people who create the data to support understanding and reflection). I then talk about how I think cool work brings these views together and give a few brief examples of ongoing projects with stories about how they marry the perspective.

I liked this telling for a number of reasons. In particular, I believe this: the big data story usually gets told from just one perspective and I do prefer work that marries them. It still aligns pretty well with the chronological and intellectual evolution of what I do. It also groups disparate work together, which is important because (as we will see in a future advising statement) I try hard to give students flexibility in research topics and make it my job to help it fit together.

For consumers, it lets people me in ways that ┬ámap well to their own background: Dan the recommender systems guy, Dan the computational social science guy, Dan the reflection on and reuse of social media guy. On the other hand, it tries to get away from particular systems: I don’t want to be “the MovieLens guy”, “the Pensieve guy”, or “the Wikipedia guy”; being known for studying one system feels a little narrow, even though Wikipedia research is super-broad and I know that some of my reputation is based on the Wikipedia work.

It doesn’t do a great job of talking about specific impacts, and as Jeff Hancock pointed out, among other problems it has way too much typography. It’s also still a little scattershot; the “next directions” in particular are kind of a mish-mash of the things that were going on at the time.

But it felt like a good story, good enough that the high level framing is still the backbone in my current draft of the statement for tenure. The themes are the same, although I reduced the emphasis on the metaphor of doors, windows, and people, instead foregrounding the main point about who was doing the meaning-making. The “next directions” are also more coherent with prior work and are described in more detail, which felt strong. I also still try to give credit to collaborators and to contextualize things relative to other work, both of which I see as important.

There’s also value in deleting here. I took out much of the typography, leaving only a main idea per paragraph highlighted that tries to call out the primary impact or novelty in that chunk. I also left out pieces of the work that were hard to connect to the story or that have had lower impact so far. You don’t need to talk about everything and it can get confusing (and too long) for readers’ comfort.

I’m pretty happy with it now, for now. I’m still not sure about the explicit attempt to demonstrate that the work has had impact at the end. It feels a little braggy and Geri Gay says (correctly I think) that this should be more detailed and that citation counts only go so far.

But it’s probably what I’m going to run with. Wish me luck and good luck in your own research statement writing endeavors.