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My interpretation of your research statement (or anyway of the bits you quote) would be a bit different. In particular, "I challenge the dominant view" is exactly the kind of thing that I would have thought the advice "Don't go negative" was telling me to avoid. So I wouldn't put the point by saying "Don't go negative." I'd put the point (as you do later in the post) by saying "Don't waste space in your research statement talking about––or, therefore, arguing against––other people's views.

This is actually part of what I think makes writing research statements so difficult. Given our training, and the norms governing most of the writing we do, it's very difficult, even uncomfortable, simply to *say that* you reject (or endorse) some view without *explaining why* you reject (or endorse) it––without justifying your rejection (or endorsement). But it looks to me like the advice you're passing along here is to do just that: state your view––and leave the work of justifying it for your writing sample.

Note also that you (Marcus) do (in the questioner's words) say (something about) what others have said. It's just that you do it *very* quickly––in your first quote, in a single clause. I take it that it's the brevity that's important here, not the claim that what you've done isn't "going negative" (I, for one, would rather avoid a debate about what does and doesn't count as "going negative," especially since it isn't obviously relevant to the advice you're offering here).

Marcus Arvan

Hi NK: I think you make several good points.

First, I like your alternative way of framing the advice ("Don't waste space in your research statement talking about––or, therefore, arguing against––other people's views"). Indeed, that's an error I've seen committed a lot.

But I guess I think there's another error that people make (and that I have been guilty of on many occasions): one of tone. Notice that I whenever I contrast my views against others in the statement, I don't say that I demonstrate other views to be "wrong" or "incorrect." I simply note that I challenge the relevant views and defend new alternatives. This is one of the most useful things I think I learned from the Professor Is In: to frame things matter-of-factly (viz. "Here's what I do, and here's how it differs from what other people do").

Finally, I think you are right when you note that to the extent that one engages in contrasts like these in a research statement, *brevity* is vital. There is something like 3-5 sentences in my entire research statement that contrast my views against others. The rest of the statement just lays out my positive programs.

That's what I suspect The Professor Is In is really after with the "don't go negative" advice. A good research statement should focus on crisply summarizing what *you* do (your positive research program), not get in the weeds giving arguments for why your view is better than X, Y, Z, etc. That's what your writing sample is for!


These questions are for anyone with insight.

1) Do you think the advice about not wasting time arguing against others views is germane even to, e.g., a research postdoc proposal that asks you to spend a lot of time saying something about what you're going to be working on? Some (thankfully, not all) of the projects I discuss in a proposal I'm working on are papers that consist mostly of arguments against various philosophical positions.

Another question about negative language: is saying things like "I provide an account of an undertheorized phenomenon" negative, by your lights? Maybe I'm overthinking this, but I wonder if it could seem to somebody as if I am indirectly calling out others in my field for failing to theorize about something sufficiently.

Marcus Arvan

marketbound: I think saying "I provide an account of an undertheorized phenomenon" is totally fine!

In terms of your first query, I'm not sure about postdoc research proposals. Those sound very different to me in nature than a traditional 'research statement'. A proposal seems to me much more targeted, as in "here is exactly what I plan to do in X, Y, and Z." If what you are doing in X, Y, and Z is arguing against particular positions, then it seems to me entirely germane to say concisely explain that.

My sense is simply that 'research statements' (e.g. for permanent jobs) should be doing something very different: namely, presenting a positive, coherent long-term research program in an accessible way that focuses on the content your positive program(s) rather than particular articles where you argue against X, Y, and Z.

It is of course possible that other people may disagree, but this is my sense fwiw!

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