Previous research statements are a common element of applications for a wide range of awards, from early graduate study fellowships to dissertation research grants. Sometimes funders request a previous research statement as a separate document, while others ask for a previous research or preliminary results section within the structure of a larger research proposal. Whatever the format, the following guidelines will help you describe your previous research in the most compelling light!
1. Think broadly: Especially at the early graduate stage, applicants may not have much formal research experience in the disciplinary field conducting the specific type of research they propose to do during their graduate programs. However, previous research statements might include research experience in other fields or on other topics, significant class projects or papers, or even projects done as part of your job duties during employment. To determine what to talk about in your previous research statement, think broadly about the skills you will need to be successful with your project, and identify examples of ways you have acquired them. Finally, although they are called “previous” research statements, spending a paragraph or so explaining how you plan to acquire additional necessary skills demonstrates that you have mastered the ability to plan!
2. Be specific: Previous research statements should provide sufficient detail for the reviewers to understand what skills and experiences you gleaned from a given endeavor. Clarify your role in the project, as well as the role of your supervisor or advisor, and that of any other collaborators. Mention the timescale of the project, how long you spent working on it, and in what context (e.g. independent study, master’s thesis, job duties). Explain any training you received, and spend the bulk of space for each experience giving the details of the tasks you performed: Did you review the scholarly literature? Identify an important research question? Select an appropriate method of inquiry? Collect and analyze data or evidence? Synthesize results into written or presentation form?
3. Demonstrate success: Wherever possible, try to highlight the successful outcomes of a past project. Scientific presentations at departmental, university, corporate, or professional society meetings, undergraduate or master’s level theses, and especially publications in peer-reviewed journals all demonstrate your level of successful project completion.
4. Make connections: Even if the previous research statement is a separate essay, the ultimate purpose of this type of statement is to demonstrate your ability to succeed in your current project. Don’t rely on busy, time-crunched reviewers to make connections between your past experiences and your future work! First, open with an introductory paragraph that summarizes the proposed research and connects it to the experiences you talk about in the rest of the essay. Then, explicitly spell out the ways that each individual experience has enabled you to do specific tasks associated with the proposed research that will make the project as a whole a success.
5. Remember the review criteria: Although the primary goal of the previous research statement is to demonstrate your ability to succeed in graduate research, keep in mind any other criteria on which your application as a whole is being evaluated. For example, if teaching, mentoring, and outreach are important to your funder, you may want to highlight research-related outreach presentations for local public schools or mentoring experience with younger lab mates or new hires in the course of your past projects.
6. Get feedback: Striking the right tone and providing the appropriate level of detail in a previous research often takes more than one try. In addition to getting comments from your advisor and other committee members, Rutgers graduate students are encouraged to schedule frequent Application Review Meetings for feedback on their drafts!