Job Search Research Plans

October 3, 2007

We have been discussing junior faculty job searches here, and one of the topics that has come up is the applicant’s research plan, the document that search committees use to get a sense of what she might do in her new lab, and her ability to argue coherently for the importance and feasibility of her work.

BugDoc wrote:

For a recent faculty search, we had an applicant who had done some really excellent science and gave a wonderful seminar. However, in his/her research plan and chalk talk, the research plan was interesting but much too ambitious and not carefully thought through. Needless to say, this person didn’t get the job offer.

I responded (in part):

That is interesting. My own personal opinion is that I don’t worry too much about the specific content of the Research Plan, so long as it is well-written and coherent.

“Too ambitious” doesn’t worry me at all. If it is “not carefully thought through”, I guess that could be a problem, depending on what exactly you mean. If this is just another way of saying “too ambitious” or “not looking like an R01″, then I don’t care. If it means “scientifically incoherent”, then it would bother me.

My reasoning behind this is the following: Science is so unpredictable that once a new asst prof gets in her lab, gets some people in there, and starts doing experiments, there is just no predicting what will happen and what will get interesting. So long as the person is smart, creative, resilient, and a decent manager, good stuff is likely to happen, and likely to lead to fundable R01 applications.

An example would be my own history: I am currently nearing the end of my fourth year as an asst prof. I took a look at my job-search Research Plan the other day and starting laughing. I ended up never even attempting any of the stuff that I proposed to do.

So, when I read Research Plans, I am not terribly concerned about the actual experiments being proposed, except to the extent that they reveal something about the intelligence, creativity, and conceptual rigor of the applicant. I do care about how well the Research Plan is written and how well it is crafted.

I am really looking to identify people who seem very “scientifically nimble”, brilliant, and have a vast knowledge of the literature in their field and related fields. This is because, in my experience, creativity is really all about taking existing ideas and combining them in lots of new ways to see if anything cool happens.

In my opinion, the “too ambitious” ding and the idea that the Research Plan should look like a fundable R01 are red herrings. Those considerations focus on grantsmanship, which is a set of relatively straightforward skills and rules-of-thumb that can be learned by any reasonably intelligent and diligent person. I really don’t care whether an asst prof candidate has already developed those skills or not.

BugDoc disagreed with my characterization of grantsmanship:

However I disagree with you that “grantsmanship… is a set of relatively straightforward skills and rules-of-thumb that can be learned by any reasonably intelligent and diligent person.” On study section, I’ve reviewed any number of grants written by people that were clearly intelligent, but either not diligent or just were not accomplished writers. I would argue that grantsmanship (whether any of us like it or not) is a signficant contributor to success in the tenure process and as such should be an important consideration for the search committee. In my opinion, writing a research plan such that the search committee can appreciate both the vision and the focus of the proposed science is exactly the approach needed to write a successful R01 proposal.

I disagree with BugDoc’s conclusion that “vision” and “focus” are “exactly the approach needed” to write a successful R01. Vision and focus are, of course, necessary, but they are insufficient. I still maintain that–beyond scientific vision and focus–grantsmanship is a set of relatively straightforward skills and rules-of-thumb that can be learned by any reasonably intelligent and diligent person. When I read a research plan, I definitely look for scientific vision and focus, but I don’t care if it is written or structured like an R01. I provide plenty of assistance to my current junior faculty colleagues that has helped them to write funded R01s, and I am happy to do so with new faculty. Grantsmanship is a set of skills that can be learned, and it is not important to me whether an entry-level faculty candidate has already learned them.

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