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It is my understanding that the main sections in a research statement should address the following three main points: 1) research interests and skills; 2) past (and present, if any) research; 3) agenda for the future research. However, when I sat to write my research statement today, I started with a background section, where I briefly (half of a page) described how I have developed an interest for research and science from my high school years till Ph.D. program period. I think that it is a natural way to set the stage for the further discussion, which also allows for a smooth transition to my "Past Research" section, where I describe my dissertation research.

Question: does the background section make sense and is it beneficial to use such structure?

Note. In addition to "Background" and "Past Research", my research statement also contains "Present Research" and "Future Research" sections. Since currently (after recent graduation) I am busy performing a job search for postdoctoral and junior faculty positions, I just noted that in the "Present Research" section, adding that I am also doing preliminary planning of converting my dissertation into several research papers or book chapter as well as converting corresponding software into R packages. The total length of my research statement as of now is 2.5 pages (without references).

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No, I don't think this is a good idea.

A similar issue arises with the "statement of purpose" essay for grad school applications: students often want to include stories about early experiences that were influential in their education. But there seems to be a consensus among academics who actually read those applications that this is not helpful. See for example this answer by aeismail.

So if this sort of thing would be unhelpful for a statement of purpose (which is intended to contain at least some amount of introspection) that goes double for a research statement (which really is not).

The people reading your research statement are trying to evaluate your potential to be a successful researcher. They want to know:

  1. what you work on

  2. evidence that it is a worthwhile field (publishable, interesting to other researchers, likely to attract funding support, etc)

  3. your research accomplishments to date

  4. what you plan to do in the present and future

  5. why they should believe your plan is likely to be successful.

Stories about how you got to where you are don't really add to any of these points, and I don't see how they are likely to convince someone of your potential to be a successful researcher now. Maybe if you were conducting high-quality, publishable research as a high school student, and it has some connection to your current research program, you could mention it. But even that is weak evidence at best: everyone in academia knows of young prodigies who went on to do nothing of note. Who you were and what you did 10 years ago is irrelevant; concentrate on who you are and what you are doing now.

It is reasonable to have a "Background" section in a research statement. But it should give background on your research, not on you.

  • Good advice - much appreciated (+1). Actually, just moments ago I thought about writing a comment that I realized that it is not a good idea. I realized that just by reading the statement again and looking at it from a reader's perspective. However, your answer contains many substantial points on why it is not a good idea. I guess, that initial revision was influenced remembering myself writing graduate school admission essays, where such background is indeed appropriate. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 17 '15 at 5:44
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    +1 I should add that adding the fluffy "How I became interested in research" section is arguably much, much more destructive in a faculty or postdoc application than in a grad student application, as one expects senior researchers to really know better. – xLeitix Jun 17 '15 at 13:16

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