What is a Program of Research and How do I Get One?

A program of research is what you’ll be asked to articulate if you apply for faculty positions or grants. In fact, you may well stumble across this page because you’ve been given feedback that you “need to be more clear about your program of research” or “need a program of research” or should stop being so “project based.”

You may even start building towards a program of research as soon as you enter grad school, or before. I suspect that the ability to clearly articulate a program of research is going to be one of the defining factors for employment in the next generation of PhDs.

So what is a program of research? A program of research shows that your work and experience all builds towards one goal, furthering knowledge in the particular area that you are working in.

What if your research doesn’t build on itself? I’ll tell you what most people won’t… There’s a planning/writing exercise you can do SO IT LOOKS LIKE IT DOES. And the second thing I’ll tell you… You look flakey if your work looks like a series of projects with no shared themes or methodology. You also look like someone who can be convinced to work on anything. That could initially work in your favour in a hiring committee situation, but also could lead to a career of misery as your department turns you into their resident generalist and shunts you from project to project no one else seems able to make time for.

So here is the method I created to use with faculty for planning their research programs:

  1. We list all their research projects, past and present (papers, thesis chapters, articles, grants, etc.)
  2. We come up with 3 themes or commonalities from that list that included over half the topics on the list.
  3. We create 3 circles from the themes, with overlapping areas, and wrote the names on the circles. You may know this as a Venn diagram.
  4. We then write all their research projects titles, past and present in the circles; some fit in 2 places.
  5. We trace their academic lineage. (Who taught and influenced or mentored them.)
  6. We make a list of the theories and methodologies they employ most frequently.
  7. Create a saying or slogan about your plan to keep you from being distracted by shiny new collaborations, research projects, or grants. For instance, mine is “Women and children first.” When someone talks to me about a project, I think about my phrase and say no if it doesn’t fit.

Some things are NOT going to fit in these circles, or fit thematically with your other work. And you should consider not doing those things anymore. Not only do they divide your energy, they mean you need to keep yourself updated in a lot of different literature. You may want to consider if you can bring the work into your research core, but if not, I’d let it go.

Congratulations. When you’ve completed this and you are done crying, you now have the bare bones to write research statements, apply for grants, and keep your sanity!

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