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I am a PhD student, and I am applying to be part of a cohort of graduate student researchers who will be using data from a national survey (that everyone in my field wants to get to) to answer policy questions. The dataset will most likely be a part of my dissertation.

The application requires a cover letter that needs me to explain certain parts of my research.

Here is what i wrote:

My current research interest is concerned with the interactions between families, students, teachers and staff in Head Start programs; specifically families who frequently encounter structural barriers due to their race, ethnicity and/or limited English proficiency. This work is important because of many reasons, but to name a few: the current climate of uncertainty experienced by families from diverse cultures/ethnicity/nationalities and how it pervades the education of their children, the forecasted minority/majority shift our population is going under and the overall right to equal access afforded to every child in the United States. I believe my work will contribute to a better understanding of the barriers these families confront on a daily basis and to a dialogue about practical solutions in the form of policy changes in order to ameliorate said barriers

I asked my adviser for feedback, and she said

You have said why the work is important and how you will contribute. But from what you have written, I do not know what it is that you are doing that will contribute to the field. What is your research, exactly? Why is your study, specifically, important?

I am really not getting it. I have been grappling a lot but i end up writing things like my methods. Any way you can illuminate will be appreciated.

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    I think she is saying your paragraph is too vague. What question are you trying to answer? You want something like: A large literature says X is important to Z. There is also an emerging body of evidence saying Y is crucial for Z. However, there is not any evidence on the joint effects of X and Y on Z. This research asks whether the Y enhances the effect of X on Z. Evidence that Y changes the effect of X would suggest that policy A should be revised by...
    – Dawn
    May 3 '17 at 1:04
  • Right now I read that and I see that you have named a research topic, but I can't identify a research question. Read some papers in your area to understand what a research question is.
    – Dawn
    May 3 '17 at 1:06
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Your advisor's critique is exactly right. You've made a convincing case that your subject is important, but not that your work is important. This:

My current research interest is concerned with the interactions between families, students, teachers and staff in Head Start programs

is the sort of vague writing that a lot of academics are prone to (I'm always trying to beat it out of my writing). Being "concerned with the interactions" is a very abstract, high level statement that doesn't actually say anything. Concerned with how? Which interactions?

Finding out whether teachers say "hello" or "hi" more often to family members is an investigation of the interactions among the people you describe, but it's an utterly uninteresting one.

Start concrete, with the specific research questions you plan to ask. Think about what you excited about your research. How would you describe your work to a non-academic? What's the story you that keeps you excited about how your research will actually matter - the line of causation from the work you're going to do to actually making people's lives better?

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  • Henry i think you have given me some genuine things to think about. One of my mistakes was probably that i did not think a cover letter needed much elaboration but i guess i am wrong. Thank you so much, especially for your kindness.
    – Ana
    May 3 '17 at 4:14
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When PhD students are narrowing down their dissertation topic, I often tell them this is a two-step process. First, you need to consult with enough literature to demonstrate that it is important to study. Then identify what about that topic has not been studied. From what I know about research on Head Start, there are findings that exist on many of the issues you identified. What exactly will you be asking about this topic that will produce new or more specific knowledge. If you cannot answer that, you may need to find additional literature or review what you've read more critically.

Another source of support may be from organizational reports or government reports/evaluations. What are specific issues they are seeing that haven't been studied? Hope this helps! Good luck!

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  • Nicole, thank you so much for your advice. I know my research will produce some specific and new knowledge so i gather for this one thing i am writing i have to be much more specific than i thought i should be. Thank you again for your kindness in your response.
    – Ana
    May 3 '17 at 4:18
  • Great! Glad that it was helpful. Fellowship and grant application writing is a specific skill that takes time to really develop. So, best of luck with this one! However, if you don't get it you shouldn't be discouraged, because you will get better at writing about your research over time. May 3 '17 at 16:30

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