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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Getting A Teaching Job: The Research Agenda

At some point in the process of  interviewing for an entry-level law teaching job, many applicants will be asked to submit a copy of their "research agenda."  I had no idea what this meant the first time I heard it.   Here's the scoop for others who may be similarly clueless.   As a always, the usual caveat applies: my own experience may be idiosyncratic, so I hope others will weigh in, too.

A research agenda is basically a list of the articles you hope to write in the next 3-5 years.  Or perhaps more accurately, it's a statement of the questions you plan to look into, as well as some tentative thoughts on the types of answers you might have.    I don't think there's a standard format for research agendas, but in my limited experience they sometimes have a paragaph overview followed by three or four tentative article ideas that might follow from that paragraph.

To understand how to write a research agenda, it helps to have an idea of why schools want to see them.  Here's some background.  Most law professors end up specializing in one or two fields, and in those fields they often find one or two aspects  that are of particular interest.   It's pretty common for a professor to write a series of articles that explore different angles of those aspects over a period of a few years.  For example, maybe you're an IP and cyberlaw specalist, and you write on how computer technologies are changing the need for copyright protection.   Or maybe you're a con law person, and you're interested in the use and misuse of historial sources in constitutional interpretation.  Or maybe you're a  criminal  law scholar, and you're interested in  how the criminal justice system deals with  mental illness. 

From the perspective of a law school faculty member, asking entry-level candidates for their research agendas is a way of figuring out whether they have thought long and deeply about what niche they are likely to explore as junior professors.  Faculties hope that their entry-level faculty will become productive scholars, and a well-thought out research agenda reveals a commitment and ambition to do lots of thoughtful work.   Someone who can list three or four specific article ideas for future pieces is more likely to write those articles than someone who expresses a general interest in exploring the law if they get a job.

Of course,   crafting a research agenda is tricky for most entry-level candidates because at some level it asks them to look into a crystal ball and imagine what they're going to be doing for the next five years.   Many entry-levels figure they'll know their research agenda after they join the academy; indeed, they may figure that they are leaving practice in part because they want to have the time to develop a research agenda.   Despite this, it's worth it for an entry-level candidate to spend some time early on in the process trying to figure out what kinds of things they would like to write about over the next few years.   There are lots of ways of doing this, but one approach is to think of a few articles you think you might want to write, or have written, or that that you started but never finished, and then look for the common themes among them.    That common theme becomes the research agenda, and the article ideas become the ways of exploring that theme.   Oh, and if in doubt, ask a former professor or friend in academia if they would be willing to take a look at your efforts.  They'll probably have a good eye for what you should include.

Posted by Orin Kerr on July 13, 2005 at 12:41 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Orin:

Thanks as always for your insightful posts on this topic. This one really breaks some new ground for me.

Three questions:

1. When is this question likely to be lobbed? At the first round of interviews? Should I bring the statement to the interview and be prepared to whip it out?

2. Are we talking more than a page or two total?

3. I have two very different areas of research interest, and I have in mind 2-3 articles/subtopics within each that I'd like to pursue. So I probably have 4-5 future articles in mind. Does it hurt me that there is no common theme linking my two main areas of interest?

I don't want to give too much away here, so I'll use an example. Say that one area is corporate tax law and its effects on shareholder rights (I don't even know if that makes sense, but I'm just using an example), and I have two related article topics in mind for that subject. Then say that I'm also interested in intellectual property under religious law, and I haev a couple of topics for that. I can't link my tax/corporate law interest with my intellectual property interest. But I want to research both, and they are both at the top of my "want to teach" list. Is that a problem?

Posted by: nottelling | Jul 13, 2005 12:56:55 PM


One interesting thing that came out of the New Teachers Conference: there was an anonymous poll asking new professors if their actual research agenda was as clear or as coherent as they made it sound during interview season. 75% of those attending (as I recall it) acknowledged fudging it a bit. So don't feel like you are alone if when writing your research agenda you think you are making it up as you go along.

In response to "nottelling," you should have it in August and be sending it with your packages to schools. You should also send it in advance of your AALS interviews to the places you will be seeing. It really is just a page or two and can be meshed with your cover letter. Finally, I think it is okay to have two very different fields--but don't spread yourself too thin and try to focus on one as your main agenda.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jul 13, 2005 1:14:56 PM

This is excellent advice, since the question "What's your research agenda" is the one that gets the most stunned looks from hapless interviewees. I suggest getting a one-paragraph version of your research agenda available for you to rattle off at the interviews at the meat market. You verly likely WILL be asked about it by at least some of your interviewers (our Committee nearly always asks the question), and in a handful people will actually want to probe you on the topic. In my experience, people don't usually send a "research agenda" document as part of their application packets, but I don't think it would hurt and some schools may expect it.

If you have two distinct areas you're interested in, there's a fine line to walk. Being interested in two different things is a plus, so long as people don't think you're too scattered. Try to articulate at least some kind of link between the disparate fields if at all possible. Also, put most emphasis on the one that most clearly matches the subject matter you're being considered for.

Posted by: Frank Snyder | Jul 13, 2005 3:31:54 PM

One thing to remember about these documents: nobody believes they have a long shelf life. Two years into the job, your new colleagues will NOT come around asking how much progress you've made in fulfilling your eloquent blueprint for scholarship. The function of the document is just to show your ability to think long-term and to link different scholarly interests into a coherent direction. If you change it along the way, no harm done, so long as you continue to have some coherent long-range plan.

Posted by: Ron Wright | Jul 13, 2005 3:54:20 PM

Nottelling:

My sense is that most written research agendas are a page, maybe two. I haven't been on an appointments committee yet, so I don't know if people usually send them in at the beginning. I doubt it, but then I didn't know that such a thing as a written "research agenda" existed until I was setting up a call back and the appointments chair asked me for one.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jul 13, 2005 4:01:20 PM

Thanks, gentlemen. Very helpful information. What kind of points are the committees looking to see in these presentations? Is high theory valued more than say, examinations of esoteric areas of law?

Also, I see the references to sending packages before the AALS mailings go out. Do people find this improves their chances of getting an AALS interview in November?

Posted by: Becket | Jul 13, 2005 4:32:58 PM

Having a research agenda -- a literal, written one -- is an excellent idea. I was not asked for a written version, particularly early in the process, perhaps in part because I addressed it in the cover letter of the materials I sent directly to schools (and perhaps whether or not to send materials to schools in addition to AALS submissions would be another interesting topic to cover), but later in the process I think the schools I visited were very happy when, in the course of my interviews and talks, I could distribute a very concrete written set of goals and ideas to all my interviewers.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 13, 2005 8:16:09 PM

My impression is/was (I just finished my first year of teaching, so I was on the market fairly recently) that schools expect you to have a firm topic for your next article or two, then a vaguer sense of future work after that. That's the common-sense view I took; the idea is more to have a direction than a table of contents for your next several years of work. I didn't have anything written, and maybe that would've been a good idea, but I had a paragraph or so in my cover letter about my research interests, and invariably I talked about my planned next piece (or two) in even the short initial interviews.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 13, 2005 8:54:16 PM

THanks

It was useful for me

Posted by: Abdi | Sep 25, 2008 11:59:44 AM

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