Writing a Research Mission Statement

A few months ago, I read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, thinking it could improve my time management skills. But Covey proposes that many problems with time management are actually problems with goal-setting and prioritizing. To help with this, he suggests writing a personal mission statement.

Nearly every business has a mission statement, which helps them focus on the values they deem most important. But individuals can write mission statements, too. They can be as long or as short as you like, and you can write it for yourself or for any of the roles in your life (researcher, teacher, spouse, parent, friend, etc.). Here’s the short version of my life mission statement:

My mission is to understand as much as I can and use my insight to help others.

Why you should write a research mission statement

If you’re a Ph.D. student (or postdoc or professor), you have a lot you want to get done and a long time that you’ll be working on it. But you probably have fairly little external guidance and a lot of unstructured time on your hands, so you need to figure out on your own how to apply yourself to achieve your goals.

I, like many graduate students, have sometimes gotten sucked into the “efficiency improvement vortex”: fretting over working longer hours and finding better tools, without giving enough thought to my longer-term goals. Ironically, you can waste a lot of time and energy by focusing exclusively on efficiency. You might assume you’re being productive because you’re frantically busy when in fact you’re exhausting yourself with tasks that don’t matter. You might end up letting other people determine your priorities –say, by working on a project that doesn’t interest you because your supervisor wants it done. Worse, you might spend years in a Ph.D. program before you realize it was never a good fit for you.

A mission statement will define what you want to accomplish in the long term. And once you have it, you can refer to it to make sure that your decisions are aligned with your core values.

Once you have that sense of mission… [y]ou have the basic direction from which you set your long- and short-term goals. You have the power of a written constitution based on correct principles, against which every decision concerning the most effective use of your time, your talents, and your energies can be effectively measured.

– Stephen R. Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

How to get started

One way to do this is to jump right in and write down your goals as a researcher (you can use the three steps below to help you). But I recommend a more holistic approach. Research will be a big part of your life – if not for your whole career, then at least for the duration of your degree – and in addition to figuring out what you want to accomplish at work, you also want to think about how your academic goals relate to other goals in your life. How will you balance research with your other priorities? Do you really want to be a researcher, or would another career path be more in line with your values?

So what I suggest you do (and what I did) is write a mission statement for your entire life first. Think about what you value, who you want to be, and what you want to accomplish in your life. Then you can use your life statement as a template for your research statement and any other role-specific statements you might want to write.

Step 1: Think about your values in general terms

Think about values that are important to you. These are things you want to possess or to embody. Some things I came up with:

Learning, originality, integrity, open-mindedness, compassion, dignity, growth.

Step 2: Think about your goals

What do you want to achieve? Some of mine were:

Creative contributions to the world
Deep insight, wisdom, and understanding
A healthy, balanced lifestyle
Strong relationships with others

Step 3: Write your final statement

Mission statements vary in length and style. CEOs – fast-paced, to-the-point types that they are – are big on brevity. Others are longer, and sometimes get creative with formatting. There’s no “correct” way to write your statement: you should go with whatever resonates with you.

When I started writing, I noticed that the content in my life statement – and later my research statement – naturally clustered into nine main points along three overarching themes. Being a computer scientist, I wrote the statements in table form (and was very excited at coming up with such an logical organizational scheme). And, for good measure, I also came up with a CEO-style, single-sentence summary for each statement.

My research mission statement

My research statement is quite general, and you might want yours to be more specific to your area of study. I’ve called my nine main points “principles,” and the three overarching themes the “virtues.” My life statement is similar in both form and content, so I haven’t included it (aside from the one-sentence version in this post’s introduction).

My mission is to produce valuable, original work.
Virtue Principle Practices

My mind is open I seek out and try to understand alternative viewpoints and methodologies. I am receptive to novel approaches and constructive criticism.
I am a scholar I learn new things every day. I recognize that I can only contribute to my field if I understand it fully. I maintain a wide range of intellectual interests and take time to read and understand things outside my immediate area of study.
I am creative I look for connections and patterns and seek out new ways of doing things. I use my talents to produce valuable work.

I support my colleagues I care about the people I work with. I make time to build relationships. I am generous with my time and energy. I express sincere gratitude when I receive help.
I am humble I do not aim to be smarter or better than others. I accept that I will never be a perfect researcher. I seek help when I need it. I listen and am open to the possibility that I am wrong.
I am honest I keep my promises and commitments. I am transparent about shortcomings in my work. I do not mislead or manipulate others to achieve my goals.

I focus I follow a strategy and set ambitious goals. I am organized and diligent. I make efficient use of my work time. I maintain clear boundaries between work and leisure time.
I communicate I regularly set aside time to write. I seek early and frequent feedback on my ideas and goals. I explain ideas in a way that others will understand.
I persevere I do not let fear of failure prevent me from trying. I do not become paralyzed by self-doubt. I am not ashamed of mistakes, but only of failing to learn from them.

I chose to write mine in the present tense (e.g., “I am not ashamed of mistakes”) because I find it motivating. But my statement is aspirational, rather than a declaration of fact. (I would not claim that I manage to accomplish these things perfectly all the time…)

You wrote your statement. Now what?

Great job! Be sure to consult your mission statement regularly, particularly when you face a major decision. I have a printout of my research statement posted by my workstation so I see it every day.

You should review your statement once or twice a year and see if you have anything to add or change. As you gain maturity and experience, you may want to update your mission statement to reflect new lessons learned.

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