Research statements: an existential crisis

Last year, I applied to about 40 schools. I had 3 fly outs. I had 5 more Skype/phone interviews, and 2 APSA interviews. By the end of it all, I had 0 offers.

I need to start applying for this year’s positions. Already, my spreadsheet has 17 schools listed. That’s 17 cover letters, tweaked slightly to show that I really do care about X College/University. That’s 17 times I need to upload some combination of my research and teaching statements, my transcripts, my teaching evaluations and syllabi, and my writing samples. That’s 17 times my letter writer needs to pay enough attention to his/her email to provide a recommendation. And it’s only going to get worse.

I think about the list, and I am already exhausted. Last year I had to create all the materials for the first time. I had to summarize why I should be given a job in two pages. I had to put into words what I thought about teaching (it’s awesome, except when it’s not). I had to explain where I was headed with my research (to a finished dissertation and enough publications to get me tenure?). This time, I have the materials written, but going back to revise them feels even harder.

Those materials weren’t enough to get me a job last time, so I need something better.

But what if I don’t have anything better? What if I’m not any better than I was last year? What if the progress in my publication record isn’t enough? What if I’m just not good enough?

I worry that I don’t have what it takes. I’m not willing to run myself into the ground for a tenure-track job. Especially when I don’t think the research does anything. All these fun intellectual exercises – predicting X based on Y, using the newest statistical method to reaffirm what we already knew – mean nothing. The vast majority of political science research doesn’t actually do anything. It doesn’t help anyone.

So if the option is to publish or perish, I guess I’ll perish. Because what does it mean to publish? What have I really accomplished in that, aside from appeasing some reviewers and an editor? Have I solved anything? Have I made anyone’s life better? Nope.


How do I write a research statement when research means nothing to me?



2 thoughts on “Research statements: an existential crisis

  1. Is there policy-relevant research related to what you’re doing? I have political science colleagues who do useful, interesting stuff that reporters and governments care about. There are unanswered questions out there and things that we need to know the numbers for. Programs to evaluate. Theories that will help policy makers make better policy (maybe not the Trump administration, but other administrations in the future). You don’t have to stick to the abstruse. (If you’re on the theory side of a “theory vs. empirics” schism, jump over to quant.. the stata’s fine.)

    My PhD program said we always have to have a “Why do we care” slide. Because if we don’t care, then why are we doing it and why is anybody there listening?

    And, of course, there’s a whole world out there outside of academia. Even if you don’t use the specific knowledge and skills gained on the PhD, the skills you’ve gained completing your own research projects will help you be a better worker and, depending on what you end up doing, making the world a better place.


    1. I actually do research on public policy (and related stuff). And I get really good feedback from people outside my department on my research (including this past year on the job market) – they’re very interested in the practical applications, they think it’s important, etc. – but I don’t feel like my own department values my research. I forget that my department’s bubble is not the entirety of political science though and then I feel really bad about myself, so thank you for that reminder. 🙂


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