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Writing a Research Plan
- 26 Jul 2002
- By Jim Austin
N early every applicant for a tenure-track faculty job is expected to include a research plan. Exceptions are rare. Just as rare are programs designed to help doctoral students and postdocs learn how to create a research plan. Which is too bad: Writing an effective research plan is tricky. And until now, there was little advice to be found.
Okay, so that isn't exactly true: It isn't hard to find advice. Opinions, after all, are not in short supply in the academy. What is hard is finding advice you can rely on. We can help.
Why? Because we talked to a lot of people. We interviewed and corresponded with faculty and research scientists who have served on hiring committees. All of our sources have experience; some of our sources have a lot of experience. We considered everything, filtered out the muck, and distilled it all down to a general strategy and a few simple principles, with a few variations on the theme thrown in for good measure. Our aim is to do some of your homework for you, to make sure that you'll never have to read more than you have time for.
Furthermore, we'll keep talking to people about this topic, and we'll incorporate new responses into this document as we receive them. As a consequence this piece, like the other tools in the tool kit, will remain fresh and useful when other resources have become dated and useless.
So, onward and upward ...
What's the purpose of a research plan?
It depends on who's asking the question, and who's answering it. From your immediate point of view, the purpose of a research plan is to help get you hired.
The research plan, however, serves another, very important function: It contributes to your development as a scientist. Your research plan is a map for your career as a research science professional. As will become apparent later in this document, one of the functions of a research plan is to demonstrate your intellectual vision and aspirations. It's also an opportunity to begin to demonstrate the creative and independent thinking required of a successful scientist.
Not yet on the job market? Just starting out as a postdoc? A research plan isn't just for demonstrating; it's also for honing and refining. It's possible to function quite well as a postdoc or grad student while giving little thought to your future. Writing a research plan casts your gaze forward and prompts you to begin planning for when you have your own laboratory. And if you've already started to think about your own lab, it will help you to refine your plans. So take a stab at writing a research plan, even if you don't expect to be on the job market for a while. Think of it as a rough draft, a fantasy trip for your career.
But never mind about that. Most of you are trying to get hired. In that case what matters is, what is the committee looking for?
The answer: relief from anxiety.
Hiring committees desperately want to avoid making a serious mistake by investing institutional and intellectual capital in the wrong person. The aim of your research plan, then, as of the rest of your application, is to assure the hiring committee that life with you will be pain-free.
How do you do this? Provide the committee a compelling, reassuring, believable image of what their life will be like when you are working down the hall.
Tell them a story--a believable, credible story--about what your lab will be like 5 years from now: well-funded, vibrant, productive, pursuing a valuable, ambitious but realistic research agenda that meshes well with the department's mission and with the other research going on in the department.
Please don't misunderstand: You shouldn't tell them this ("in 5 years my lab will be vibrant, productive, and well-funded ..."); rather, you need to lead them to believe it by describing a research agenda that persuades them that you will succeed. There are two parts to this: You have to tell a good story, and you have to make them believe it. If the story isn't compelling you won't get hired, and if they can't quite imagine it becoming reality, you won't get hired.
How do I tell a good story?
First, choose an important subject. If the research you plan is not compelling, no rhetorical skill will make it compelling to a committee of smart scientists. If the research you propose is not manifestly, obviously important, if you don't know why it's important, or if you can't convey its importance effectively, convincing the committee to hire you won't be easy. Note that there are two issues here: believing in the importance of your own work, and persuading others that your work is important.
If you don't think the work you'll be doing is important, your best bet is to change fields. The goal of science may be to uncover truth, but uncovering objective truth is a very difficult thing to do, and doing it requires passion. If you aren't passionate about your work, your best bet is to find work about which you can be passionate. It isn't easy to change gears midcourse, but getting yourself into an important area of research will be well worth the effort in the long term--to your hirability, to your fundability, to your tenurability, and also to your career satisfaction. Do another postdoc if you must.
Passion for your work is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for capturing the attention of hiring committees. After all, some people are passionate about, um, peculiar things. To convince the committee to hire you, you must convince them that your passion is justified and that they will benefit from investing in your passion--that is, that your work is important.
Be specific. Curing cancer is not a suitable goal for one individual's research plan--exciting, yes, but much too big to be believable. Inhibiting tumor growth? That's better, says one of our respondents--especially when that general goal is supported by more specific strategies. "[That kind of research] can travel down several different mechanistic routes," this respondent says, "i.e., angiogenesis, breakdown of extracellular matrix, gene activation, induction of molecules involved--it can use different models--implanting tumors, using different tumor models, in vivo, in vitro, etc." The combination of a manifestly important goal with manifestly interesting, feasible approaches is the foundation of the research plan.
Being specific is not the same thing as including loads of detail. Being specific means including only as much detail as the job requires--not more. "Vague generalities are the sign of a vague mind," says one source. "This means that the proposal must walk the fine line of enough detail to show the reader that the candidate knows what they are talking about, but not too much detail that it confuses or bores the search committee."
Keep it short and focus on the major themes. "Brevity and clarity are the most important elements," wrote another respondent, expressing a sentiment shared by everyone. "Clear, concise writing ... is a plus," said another. "Superfluous details are not just unnecessary, they are often the hallmark of a poor plan. The specific aims must be clear and succinct." Identify your goals, state why those goals are important, define your approach to achieving those goals, and indicate the kinds of evidence that will validate your approach. Oh, and do it clearly and succinctly.
"If you were sitting for 4 hours reading such proposals, what would you look for? Clear and to the point wins every time in this arena."
Effective communication requires anticipating readers' needs, giving them exactly the information they need just when they need it. Constructing a research plan along these lines strengthens your application in three ways: You avoid alienating the committee by boring them; you tell the committee precisely what you intend to do; and you show that you have a subtle mind and a deep knowledge of your field.
Can't do this yet? No hurry--consider spending another year as a postdoc, and study hard.
Be serious about writing. Writes one respondent: "If the proposal confuses the reader in almost any way, it is simply tossed out. I strongly recommend that the candidate have colleagues pre-review the proposal and make sure the English is clear and ideas explained so that a variety of people in the general area can understand what is being proposed and the importance of the work."
If your writing skills are weak, it might be time to strengthen them. Or hire an editor. And by all means have several people--preferably senior colleagues who have served on hiring committees--critique your research plan.
But there were two parts to this, remember? You not only have to tell a good story--you also have to make it seem real, to make them expect it to come true.
How do I make my research plan seem real?
Have a solid, well-considered, realistic plan. If you want to get a job at an institution that takes its research seriously, you'll have to convince your future colleagues that you've gotten past the young, impressionable phase, where every idea glitters with promise despite the fact that it isn't feasible and isn't likely to work. Show the committee that, although your high ideals remain intact, your years of graduate and postdoctoral study have helped you to know the difference between good ideas and good intentions. In the words of one scholar, "You can tell a 'building castles in the sky' research plan. They are not built on solid data and go to the very bottom of the pool." Indeed.
Include preliminary data. Preliminary data offer the most convincing argument for the viability of your research plan. If you have them, use them--positive results will be of interest and persuasive to hiring committee members. The nature of your preliminary data and findings will vary--some will have much to share, others might be forced to share very preliminary data.
Nothing grounds your hopes and dreams in the real world like good, solid data. Your plan might sound exciting, but will it work? It's one thing to make it sound good; if you can show that you've already taken the first, tentative but successful steps of that long journey, reaching your destination will seem a lot less like a pipe dream. One of my sources was unequivocal on this point: "Does the research question build on the preliminary data the person has generated? No preliminary data equals no research question." Which also equals no job offer at that institution.
It is important to remember that just as institutions vary widely in their practices, so too do the expectations of hiring committees. Do your homework: Learn about the culture of the department and the experiences of previous faculty hires.
Include redundant approaches. If you want to succeed as a scientist you have to be resourceful. You can't be a one-trick pony. And the focus must be on the science--on the problem you aim to solve--not on the scientist or a particular approach. No matter how knowledgeable you are, no matter how well considered your research plan, you can't predict the future. And if you haven't done the work yet, you don't know how it will turn out. That means that any one approach you specify might not work, even if it seems compelling. So if you want to convince the committee that you will succeed, give them not one, but two, or even three, compelling approaches, all of which have a good chance of success.
How do I demonstrate my independence?
Different institutions expect you to be at different stages of your career. Think of it as a continuum: At one end sit well-established researchers with strong research records, many first-author (or last-author) publications, and their own research funding. At the other end sit rosy-cheeked, freshly minted Ph.D.s full of enthusiasm, promise, and ideas, but with little yet to show for it. Most candidates for entry-level tenure-track faculty jobs at institutions that require research (that is, most of the people who write research plans for job applications) are somewhere in the middle. You probably won't get hired anywhere if you aren't well prepared to start a productive research program at a scale appropriate for the institution.
But these days some institutions and departments are looking for more than that. Increasingly, especially in the biomedical field, universities are hiring established researchers, even at the "entry" (assistant professor) level. How is this possible? These days some pretenure-track scientists are setting up their own research programs. Increasingly, senior postdocs are being promoted to research associate or research faculty positions during what the GrantDoctor calls the "postpostdoc" phase of their research career. In that position, they write research grants in their own names and their host institutions sponsor them. Very often these folks have an R01 before they begin applying for a tenure-track job.
The key objective if you're applying to one of these institutions is securing research grants: If you have a grant in your own name, you'll be a strong candidate; if you don't have your own grant, you are less competitive. It's a cynical cop out on the institution's part, really, taking a pass on the difficult job of evaluating talent and capitulating to the reality of big-time biomedical research: It's all about the cash. Still, increasingly it's a fact of life. But how do you know if the institution to which you hope to apply is one of these? Ask.
Those scientists and institutions--the ones sitting at the experienced far end of the continuum--are exceptional. Indeed, second-tier research institutions tend to expect the most experience; Harvard and Johns Hopkins do not expect you to have your own research grant. Most hiring committees aren't looking for completely independent work; they're looking for original, creative ideas, together with a record of accomplishment. Few people applying for tenure-track jobs have had the opportunity to start their own research programs. After all, traditionally that's what assistant professorships are all about, and most institutions still think that way. It helps to be somewhere in the middle of that continuum, but most committees are still looking more for promise than for guarantees.
Demonstrate your promise by displaying your potential and actual independence. Show the committee that you have the deep thinking and talent to operate independent of your adviser.
How do you demonstrate your independence when you have never been given the chance to work independently?
Likely as not, all your data were collected in someone else's lab, as a part of someone else's research agenda. How, then, do you distinguish your research from your adviser's research?
On paper. It's an apparent Catch-22: You need to show that your ideas are fresh, new, and yours, and you have to show they're grounded in work you've already done, usually in someone else's lab. It's a tough sell, but most of your competitors are in the same boat.
So how do you do it? One respondent said it beautifully: "The best plans usually build on the prior experience of the applicant but are not direct extensions of their postdoctoral work."
I'm going to type that phrase again, it's so important: The best plans usually build on the prior experience of the applicant but are not direct extensions of their postdoctoral work.
Unless you're one of the select few applicants with lots of experience leading your own lab, that's the key to your rhetorical strategy. That's the outline of the story you must tell: "I did this work as a grad student/postdoc and it was important and it was great. Now, as a faculty member, I want to do something a little bit different, but the work I'm proposing takes full advantage of the knowledge and skills I gained during the training phase of my career." It's different enough to be original, but similar enough that your years of training aren't wasted.
Another respondent wrote, "Most candidates (95%) stick to extensions of what they are most familiar with, but the key is, have they figured out some rather creative new directions for the research and have they done a good job convincing us that they can do it based on what is already known?" "Once we have a short list of candidates," writes yet another source, "the research proposals are looked at more carefully for imaginative ideas that differ from the candidates' Ph.D. or postdoctoral research." Get the message?
With your adviser's cooperation. One key to doing this successfully is to make sure your boss tells the same story. It is hoped that you have a good, open relationship with your adviser; if you do, go in and chat and coordinate your strategies. Decide what turf is his or hers, what turf is yours, and what story you intend to tell in your research plan and his or her letter of recommendation. But make sure they don't match too precisely.
Is this sort of coordination unethical? Hardly. There's no deception here, no attempt to pull the wool over the committee's eyes. On the contrary, it's clarity you're seeking: in your relationship with your adviser and with the hiring committee.
Be careful, however: This is tricky ethical territory. The ideas you're claiming must be yours. Don't just take your adviser's ideas and package them as your own, even if your adviser signs off on the plan.
If your relationship with your adviser isn't so chummy, you still want to do these same things; you just want to do it more carefully.
If you still have time, set up your own lab in the corner of your adviser's. If you aren't applying for jobs right now, there's still time. Talk to your adviser about carving out your own research niche within the larger research effort, where you do work motivated by your own original ideas, something related but oblique to what your adviser is doing in the rest of the lab.
Is the research plan more important in the screening phase or late in the game?
In general, research plans are weighed more heavily later in the game, with more readily comprehensible evidence (especially pedigree, letters of recommendation, impact factor of journals, etc.) being weighed more heavily in the early rounds.
However, your research plan must be designed to serve more than one purpose. It must withstand intense scrutiny in the later rounds of the job search, and it must make a good first impression.
How long should it be?
Opinions vary. One person I spoke to said that a research plan should be "about three pages of 1.5-spaced text, and NEVER more than five." Another source prefers "three semi-independent (but related) sub-proposals not more than about three to four pages (single-spaced) each with a half page of important and relevant references." That's nine to 12 pages. There is some variation from one discipline to the next (the first of these recommendations came from a medical school, the second from a department of chemistry), but there are few if any standards even within a field. This shows how much of a crapshoot getting hired can be: Because you usually don't know in advance how long a document the hiring committee is looking for, there's little chance of the same candidate, no matter how qualified, getting offers from both of these institutions.
My recommendation? Call the chair of the hiring committee (or send e-mail) and ask for advice. If no advice is forthcoming, aim for five pages, 12-point Times New Roman, 1.5 spaced. Some will think it's a bit too long, others a bit too short, but no one will throw it out because of its length.
Remember that we said that a research plan needs to help you through initial screening and withstand careful scrutiny in the later stages.
How do you make a good first impression?
Keep it short. No more than five 1.5-spaced pages, unless you've gotten different advice from the hiring committee chair.
Write it carefully. Make sure that it swings. If you're a lousy writer, get help.
Include an executive summary. Call it an abstract if you wish. The idea is to present, up front, in half a page or so, the information that the committee is most likely to be looking for in the early, screening phase of the search: clearly stated research goals, the most compelling motivation, and the general approach you intend to take.
Pay attention to the layout. Keep the number of fonts to a minimum, but make sure the various sections and ideas are set off by plenty of white space, well-chosen section headings, etc. Bulleted lists are good; page-long paragraphs, bad. And for gosh's sake, use your spell checker.
Use good graphics. A good figure, displayed prominently and captioned carefully, is worth, say, a couple hundred words. "Clear figures and illustrations," writes a respondent, "that can give the reader (skimmer!) a quick (and clear) idea of the proposed research is a must." If committee members can get the gist of what you're saying from a figure without wading through your impenetrable prose, your odds of getting interviewed shoot up.
Focus on the work, not yourself. A research plan should tell how great the science is, not how great you are. Selling yourself is the job of your curriculum vitae and letters of recommendation. "Focus on contributions to scientific knowledge, not research experience and expertise," writes one respondent.
Avoid obvious mistakes. Surprisingly, a lot of people mess this up. In her list of fatal errors, one respondent wrote: "Poorly covering or misstating the literature, grammatical or spelling errors, and, near the top of the list, writing research plans that ask for too much effort on the part of the reader--they should be clear and concise."
Avoid obvious hype. You want the value of your research to speak for itself--avoid exaggerated claims of its importance. "Over hyping," writes a source, "is very dangerous."
How do I make my plan withstand careful scrutiny?
Most of this has already been said:
Avoid misrepresentations. "A perceived misrepresentation of any kind can doom an application."
Motivate your work (why must this work be done?).
Think it through and present a workable strategy.
Use appropriate detail.
Include preliminary data.
Demonstrate your awareness of other work being done in the field. One respondent said, "I have seen applications rejected because they appear to have been produced in a vacuum without reference to other scientists."
Should I include a research hypothesis?
There is some disagreement here among respondents. One respondent listed a hypothesis among the essential features of a research plan. Others preferred a broad-brushed approach: "Is the research question a good question? Is it big enough, but with answerable individual questions so that the question generates a research path that could be followed for some time?" Including a hypothesis is unlikely to hurt you (assuming it's done effectively), and it'll keep you in the running at institutions where a hypothesis is required.
Present more than one good idea. Even the best idea might fail to pan out, so you need to have a backup. Furthermore, presenting more than one idea will help convince the committee that you aren't a one-trick pony. Your research plan should be coherent, with a theme common to all your work, but not so close that they seem to be shades of the same idea.
Customize your research plan to the institution you're applying for. It's pretty obvious, but you wouldn't send the same research plan to Johns Hopkins University and to Swarthmore College. And speaking of Swarthmore: Research plans sent to predominantly undergraduate institutions should be carefully designed to coexist with substantial teaching loads and to benefit from the participation of undergraduate students.
Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .
About the author
Jim Austin is the former editor of Science Careers.
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How to Prepare Actionable PhD Research Plan Template
“Where PhD is highly uncertain, an actionable PhD research plan would give you calculative and tentative outcomes. And even more, the ready-to-use template makes things even better. Let’s take a close look at the research plan + template.”
Before moving forward, it’s important to understand the process and steps in research . Then only you can make an actionable plan for your PhD research. It’s literally like driving without breaks— that you don’t want.
In a broader sense, when you plan something, it shows two things: first, you are actually serious about the work you are planning and second, you are expecting some outcomes. And by a plan, you are heading towards it.
I know, plans may not work 100% all the time, but they may create a definite path to achieve at least 80% success in the work you are doing. This is also true for a PhD— in which you would constantly try to justify a single sentence– your research title.
So– Yes, the research process is undetermined and so the results too! but here is the catch and perhaps answer why you have to have a research plan. In this article, I will explain the importance of a research plan, an actionable research plan and a ready-to-use template for you.
How to prepare an actionable research plan?
Importance of phd research plan , wrapping up.
An actionable research plan is what you have to rely upon. So it should be perfect and approved. how can you prepare your own? Let’s see.
Understand the steps in the research and closely follow them.
Define the objectives and scope of your study.
Define each goal of your study– For example, sample collection, wet lab work, standardization, experimentation, data collection and interpretation, etc.
Enlist what types of problems you may face for each goal– For example, transportation for sample collection, Lack of facilities in wet lab work, etc.
Find a solution for each problem you have enlisted– For example, appoint an expert for sample collection and transport samples in a cold chain. If your lab doesn’t have some instruments or chemicals, priorly contact other labs and ask them for help.
Draw a rough road map for your work— the route using which you will achieve your research goals. Also, make a backup. What if the route or process you selected would not work? Check out this drawing to understand my point.
Now prepare a timeline— in how much time a particular goal should be achieved. For example, 6 Months for sampling (Including, ethical approval, approval from sampling authority, consent, preparation and arrangement for utilities).
Another is sample collection— 3 Months which isn’t covered in the 6 months of sampling objective, like this. Take a look at the drawing here.
Note: This timeline must match with your GANTT chart for PhD timeline because you are making an actionable plan.
Now your plan is reading. You are now aware of each objective, goal and problem. Some you probably solved, and some you can manage later. This you can print and stitch in your logbook or can save on your desktop.
Take a look at the advantages, and why it’s important to prepare an action plan.
Related article: How to Prepare a PhD Research Plan/Schedule?
Let’s start with two real-world examples first.
One of my friends, after sample collection and initiating the testing, found out that she also has to perform hormone assays for samples. The samples she collected are 3 months old— not possible to assess quantitative analysis.
Another colleague after sample collection– when he started working in the wet lab, came to know that one important instrument is not there in their lab. His guide is very serious about the goal that they have to do it anyhow.
He sent applications to various universities and research centers to work on that particular instrument. From approval to real testing, it tools all almost 8 months including, approval, training, transportation, etc.
Wasted much time!
- An actionable research plan saves your time— which is a crucial factor in PhD.
- It makes you aware of the pros and cons of your study.
- It makes you aware of the problems and limitations of the research you conduct.
- It gives you a broad roadmap to achieve your PhD in “some” tentative time.
- It gives you the flexibility to achieve goals and enjoy your time at the same time.
- You can make real-time monitoring of how your research is going and how much work is left.
- It makes you aware of what should be your next move and the preparations you required.
However, keep in mind that once you prepare a plan, review it from your guide, take their advice, enlist major objectives and techniques you would use for the study and stick to it.
Before preparing that, read the literature regarding your topic and understand the way in which your research should be headed.
Check out our fully customizable, ready-to-use and actionable research plan template.
Download a research plan template
These things look a bit old school but it works, really works well. Most students don’t do it and end up messing things and at last, came to know that they wasted their time. At least, the research plan will tell you where you are stuck (probably) and you can find a solution.
We know how hard it is to predict the future of PhD or how it would go. But let me tell you, with an actionable plan, many do well. And you can too. Take your doctorate seriously from day one. And do accordingly.
Remember your goal should be to complete your degree in time.
Dr. Tushar Chauhan is a Scientist, Blogger and Scientific-writer. He has completed PhD in Genetics. Dr. Chauhan is a PhD coach and tutor.
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A Definite Research Process for PhD- What Students Should Know?
What are Research- Aim, Objectives, Tasks/Goals? [Our System]
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Writing the Research Plan for Your Academic Job Application
By Jason G. Gillmore, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, Hope College, Holland, MI
A research plan is more than a to-do list for this week in lab, or a manila folder full of ideas for maybe someday—at least if you are thinking of a tenure-track academic career in chemistry at virtually any bachelor’s or higher degree–granting institution in the country. A perusal of the academic job ads in C&EN every August–October will quickly reveal that most schools expect a cover letter (whether they say so or not), a CV, a teaching statement, and a research plan, along with reference letters and transcripts. So what is this document supposed to be, and why worry about it now when those job ads are still months away?
What Is a Research Plan?
A research plan is a thoughtful, compelling, well-written document that outlines your exciting, unique research ideas that you and your students will pursue over the next half decade or so to advance knowledge in your discipline and earn you grants, papers, speaking invitations, tenure, promotion, and a national reputation. It must be a document that people at the department you hope to join will (a) read, and (b) be suitably excited about to invite you for an interview.
That much I knew when I was asked to write this article. More specifics I only really knew for my own institution, Hope College (a research intensive undergraduate liberal arts college with no graduate program), and even there you might get a dozen nuanced opinions among my dozen colleagues. So I polled a broad cross-section of my network, spanning chemical subdisciplines at institutions ranging from small, teaching-centered liberal arts colleges to our nation’s elite research programs, such as Scripps and MIT. The responses certainly varied, but they did center on a few main themes, or illustrate a trend across institution types. In this article I’ll share those commonalities, while also encouraging you to be unafraid to contact a search committee chair with a few specific questions, especially for the institutions you are particularly excited about and feel might be the best fit for you.
How Many Projects Should You Have?
While more senior advisors and members of search committees may have gotten their jobs with a single research project, conventional wisdom these days is that you need two to three distinct but related projects. How closely related to one another they should be is a matter of debate, but almost everyone I asked felt that there should be some unifying technique, problem or theme to them. However, the projects should be sufficiently disparate that a failure of one key idea, strategy, or technique will not hamstring your other projects.
For this reason, many applicants wisely choose to identify:
- One project that is a safe bet—doable, fundable, publishable, good but not earthshaking science.
- A second project that is pie-in-the-sky with high risks and rewards.
- A third project that fits somewhere in the middle.
Having more than three projects is probably unrealistic. But even the safest project must be worth doing, and even the riskiest must appear to have a reasonable chance of working.
How Closely Connected Should Your Research Be with Your Past?
Your proposed research must do more than extend what you have already done. In most subdisciplines, you must be sufficiently removed from your postdoctoral or graduate work that you will not be lambasted for clinging to an advisor’s apron strings. After all, if it is such a good idea in their immediate area of interest, why aren’t they pursuing it?!?
But you also must be able to make the case for why your training makes this a good problem for you to study—how you bring a unique skill set as well as unique ideas to this research. The five years you will have to do, fund, and publish the research before crafting your tenure package will go by too fast for you to break into something entirely outside your realm of expertise.
Biochemistry is a partial exception to this advice—in this subdiscipline it is quite common to bring a project with you from a postdoc (or more rarely your Ph.D.) to start your independent career. However, you should still articulate your original contribution to, and unique angle on the work. It is also wise to be sure your advisor tells that same story in his or her letter and articulates support of your pursuing this research in your career as a genuinely independent scientist (and not merely someone who could be perceived as his or her latest "flunky" of a collaborator.)
Should You Discuss Potential Collaborators?
Regarding collaboration, tread lightly as a young scientist seeking or starting an independent career. Being someone with whom others can collaborate in the future is great. Relying on collaborators for the success of your projects is unwise. Be cautious about proposing to continue collaborations you already have (especially with past advisors) and about starting new ones where you might not be perceived as the lead PI. Also beware of presuming you can help advance the research of someone already in a department. Are they still there? Are they still doing that research? Do they actually want that help—or will they feel like you are criticizing or condescending to them, trying to scoop them, or seeking to ride their coattails? Some places will view collaboration very favorably, but the safest route is to cautiously float such ideas during interviews while presenting research plans that are exciting and achievable on your own.
How Do You Show Your Fit?
Some faculty advise tailoring every application packet document to every institution to which you apply, while others suggest tweaking only the cover letter. Certainly the cover letter is the document most suited to introducing yourself and making the case for how you are the perfect fit for the advertised position at that institution. So save your greatest degree of tailoring for your cover letter. It is nice if you can tweak a few sentences of other documents to highlight your fit to a specific school, so long as it is not contrived.
Now, if you are applying to widely different types of institutions, a few different sets of documents will certainly be necessary. The research plan that you target in the middle to get you a job at both Harvard University and Hope College will not get you an interview at either! There are different realities of resources, scope, scale, and timeline. Not that my colleagues and I at Hope cannot tackle research that is just as exciting as Harvard’s. However, we need to have enough of a niche or a unique angle both to endure the longer timeframe necessitated by smaller groups of undergraduate researchers and to ensure that we still stand out. Furthermore, we generally need to be able to do it with more limited resources. If you do not demonstrate that understanding, you will be dismissed out of hand. But at many large Ph.D. programs, any consideration of "niche" can be inferred as a lack of confidence or ambition.
Also, be aware that department Web pages (especially those several pages deep in the site, or maintained by individual faculty) can be woefully out-of-date. If something you are planning to say is contingent on something you read on their Web site, find a way to confirm it!
While the research plan is not the place to articulate start-up needs, you should consider instrumentation and other resources that will be necessary to get started, and where you will go for funding or resources down the road. This will come up in interviews, and hopefully you will eventually need these details to negotiate a start-up package.
Who Is Your Audience?
Your research plan should show the big picture clearly and excite a broad audience of chemists across your sub-discipline. At many educational institutions, everyone in the department will read the proposal critically, at least if you make the short list to interview. Even at departments that leave it all to a committee of the subdiscipline, subdisciplines can be broad and might even still have an outside member on the committee. And the committee needs to justify their actions to the department at large, as well as to deans, provosts, and others. So having at least the introduction and executive summaries of your projects comprehensible and compelling to those outside your discipline is highly advantageous.
Good science, written well, makes a good research plan. As you craft and refine your research plan, keep the following strategies, as well as your audience in mind:
- Begin the document with an abstract or executive summary that engages a broad audience and shows synergies among your projects. This should be one page or less, and you should probably write it last. This page is something you could manageably consider tailoring to each institution.
- Provide sufficient details and references to convince the experts you know your stuff and actually have a plan for what your group will be doing in the lab. Give details of first and key experiments, and backup plans or fallback positions for their riskiest aspects.
- Hook your readers with your own ideas fairly early in the document, then strike a balance between your own new ideas and the necessary well referenced background, precedents, and justification throughout. Propose a reasonable tentative timeline, if you can do so in no more than a paragraph or two, which shows how you envision spacing out the experiments within and among your projects. This may fit well into your executive summary
- Show how you will involve students (whether undergraduates, graduate students, an eventual postdoc or two, possibly even high schoolers if the school has that sort of outreach, depending on the institutions to which you are applying) and divide the projects among students.
- Highlight how your work will contribute to the education of these students. While this is especially important at schools with greater teaching missions, it can help set you apart even at research intensive institutions. After all, we all have to demonstrate “broader impacts” to our funding agencies!
- Include where you will pursue funding, as well as publication, if you can smoothly work it in. This is especially true if there is doubt about how you plan to target or "market" your research. Otherwise, it is appropriate to hold off until the interview to discuss this strategy.
So, How Long Should Your Research Plan Be?
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Here is where the answers diverged the most and without a unifying trend across institutions. Bottom line, you need space to make your case, but even more, you need people to read what you write.
A single page abstract or executive summary of all your projects together provides you an opportunity to make the case for unifying themes yet distinct projects. It may also provide space to articulate a timeline. Indeed, many readers will only read this single page in each application, at least until winnowing down to a more manageable list of potential candidates. At the most elite institutions, there may be literally hundreds of applicants, scores of them entirely well-suited to the job.
While three to five pages per proposal was a common response (single spaced, in 11-point Arial or 12-point Times with one inch margins), including references (which should be accurate, appropriate, and current!), some of my busiest colleagues have said they will not read more than about three pages total. Only a few actually indicated they would read up to 12-15 pages for three projects. In my opinion, ten pages total for your research plans should be a fairly firm upper limit unless you are specifically told otherwise by a search committee, and then only if you have two to three distinct proposals.
Why Start Now?
Hopefully, this question has answered itself already! Your research plan needs to be a well thought out document that is an integrated part of applications tailored to each institution to which you apply. It must represent mature ideas that you have had time to refine through multiple revisions and a great deal of critical review from everyone you can get to read them. Moreover, you may need a few different sets of these, especially if you will be applying to a broad range of institutions. So add “write research plans” to this week’s to do list (and every week’s for the next few months) and start writing up the ideas in that manila folder into some genuine research plans. See which ones survive the process and rise to the top and you should be well prepared when the job ads begin to appear in C&EN in August!
Jason G. Gillmore , Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Hope College in Holland, MI. A native of New Jersey, he earned his B.S. (’96) and M.S. (’98) degrees in chemistry from Virginia Tech, and his Ph.D. (’03) in organic chemistry from the University of Rochester. After a short postdoctoral traineeship at Vanderbilt University, he joined the faculty at Hope in 2004. He has received the Dreyfus Start-up Award, Research Corporation Cottrell College Science Award, and NSF CAREER Award, and is currently on sabbatical as a Visiting Research Professor at Arizona State University. Professor Gillmore is the organizer of the Biennial Midwest Postdoc to PUI Professor (P3) Workshop co-sponsored by ACS, and a frequent panelist at the annual ACS Postdoc to Faculty (P2F) Workshops.
Other tips to help engage (or at least not turn off) your readers include:
- Avoid two-column formats.
- Avoid too-small fonts that hinder readability, especially as many will view the documents online rather than in print!
- Use good figures that are readable and broadly understandable!
- Use color as necessary but not gratuitously.
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A typical timeline for the PhD project
Below you can find an example of the timeline for PhD project which gives you an overall idea about completing PhD degree in 4 years. Therefore, please do not copy-paste the example below to your application. For the application, you should personalize the plan to meet your own goals, list studies in a study plan (i.e. code, the name of the course, schedule), and give the schedule of research in a research plan. See more the guidelines of the study plan and the research plan .
Start planning by counting back from the desired graduation date and break every year into small milestones. Be realistic. The time it takes to write a manuscript, especially the first one, and thesis is usually much longer than anticipated. Therefore start writing as early as possible. Take into account holidays which can affect, for example, thesis examinations process. It is recommended that you invest the last year of your doctoral training solely for writing the manuscripts and thesis. Note also that the plan may change during the course of your PhD and therefore your plan should allow some flexibility.
MORE TIPS FOR PLANNING
Marino J., Stefan M.I. & Blackford S. 2014. Ten simple rules for finishing your PhD. PLoS Comput. Biol. 10(12): e1003954
- The formation of the follow-up group & the first follow-up group meeting
- Graduate Exams
- Postgraduate studies (xx ECTS)
- The first research started and completed
- Postgraduate Seminar: listening to talks by fellow doctoral students
- Research Seminar
- Conducting research and writing
- The first manuscript submitted
- The first poster/oral presentation at a scientific conference
- Post Graduate Seminar: listening to talks by fellow doctoral students
- Annual follow-up group meeting
- Data collection completed by the end of 3rd year
- At least one manuscript accepted for publication
- The majority of manuscripts to be included in the thesis is ready
- Postgraduate studies (min 30 ECTS) completed by the end of 3rd year except Research Seminar and Post Graduate Seminar
- Annual follow-up group meeting if the date and the name of the opponent have not been decided before the deadline for the report submission
- Finalizing manuscripts
- A plan for the dissertation date at least 6 months before the dissertation ( More information )
- Writing the thesis. The thesis manuscript needs to be ready at least 3.5 months before the desired date of the public defence.
- A talk at Post Graduate Seminar
- Preliminary examination of the dissertation
- Public examination of the dissertation
- Ask nature questions - Consult an expert!
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Constructing a research plan along these lines strengthens your application in three ways: You avoid alienating the committee by boring them; you tell the committee precisely what you intend to do; and you show that you have a subtle mind and a deep knowledge of your field. Can't do this yet?
PhD research plan is a structured schedule for completing different objectives and milestones during a given timeframe. Scholars are usually unaware of it. Let us find out how to prepare it. Between March 2021 to 2022, I read almost 15 different research proposals from students (for their projects) and only a single one, I found, with a ...
Writing a PhD research proposal: A 6‐step general guide for prospective PhD researchers Introduction This short guide is aimed at helping you to write a good research proposal. It is intended to help you to think about your proposed PhD research in a clear, structured and meaningful way.
Actionable PhD research plan template. Now prepare a timeline— in how much time a particular goal should be achieved. For example, 6 Months for sampling (Including, ethical approval, approval from sampling authority, consent, preparation and arrangement for utilities).
A research plan is a thoughtful, compelling, well-written document that outlines your exciting, unique research ideas that you and your students will pursue over the next half decade or so to advance knowledge in your discipline and earn you grants, papers, speaking invitations, tenure, promotion, and a national reputation.
A plan for the dissertation date at least 6 months before the dissertation (More information) Writing the thesis. The thesis manuscript needs to be ready at least 3.5 months before the desired date of the public defence. Research Seminar; Post Graduate Seminar: listening to talks by fellow doctoral students; A talk at Post Graduate Seminar
(PDF) WRITING A RESEARCH PLAN Home Methodology Research Proposal Writing Research Methodology Research Planning WRITING A RESEARCH PLAN Authors: Edgar Iyasele The University of Sheffield...
A research study plan is a short and comprehensive written document which is commonly used for the successful development of a particular clinical trial, research project, thesis, PhD plan, doctoral degree plan or other outputs of in-depth analysis and exploration.