creating an academic research agenda

[Cross-posted from First Movers; comments off here and on over there.]

I just attended a small forum on the creation of a research agenda. I’ll skip naming the profs involved because I’m sure my notes will be atrociously misrepresentative of what they actually meant and said, but I thought it would be worth sharing my notes on their talk, and asking for contributions and tips from others who are starting or have started down the road towards academia.

So without further ado, their anonymized thoughts:

  • One prof distinguished between Research Agenda- the 2-4 page document you present during a job search- and the research agenda- your bigger vision. I’ll keep the capitalization distinction in these notes, for lack of a better term.
  • Noted that you must be passionate about your research agenda, so figuring it out can involve answering the question: what is your interest/vision? What is on your mind all the time? what questions can’t you find answers to? what confuses you (once you’re certain that no one else can clarify the confusion)?
  • keep a diary/location where you put ideas/files/cases/etc. that tie together- write in it when you have the idea, not later, even if you only write briefly. This will help you understand your vision to create the research agenda, and give you a resource when you want to write the Research Agenda. One prof noted that keeping it all on your computer means you can use Google Desktop to search through it; [Ed.: I think I’ll be experimenting with doing this in a wiki; I’ve been capturing it already. Zotero also looks interesting for this.]
  • look for themes in your interests and studies- both in law school and outside, either in your personal interests or in your past work, like your undergraduate degree or research you did in between. These themes are likely to prove interesting and fruitful.
  • the profs note that it is useful to read works in progress, to keep up-to-date, to see what works in progress look like, and occasionally to build connections by writing useful corrections.
  • hiring committees are going to project you forward ten years and ask ‘is this person going to have made a difference?’ Making a difference is hard to do if you’re scattered; even harder to convince the hiring committee of that. So your agenda has to have coherence, in methodology, in topics, and/or in broader area. Noted in questions that you can avoid one of these- like, have a consistent methodology that you apply over multiple domains- but you might still be disadvantaged by not having ties to a specific topic.
  • suggestion that you think about three as the right number of projected papers in your Research Agenda- more and you’re a braggart, and they likely won’t happen anyway.
  • Early on, don’t get too specific; don’t get too broad- you’re not going to revolutionize legal scholarship in your first article. Your ambition is to coin buzzwords that stand for actual original ideas that become branded to you. (Other professor said she ‘wasn’t that cynical yet’ and that if one wants to coin buzzwords, one should avoid going overboard.)
  • Seminar papers are a good starting point for your first paper- you’ve already written it; it is a good chunk of the length; it has been already vetted and argued over once.

I have no idea if I want to go into academia, but I do want to read and write in a directed way over the next two years. So I thought lots of this was useful, and I’d love to hear if others have tips and suggestions along these lines.
[Picture is a law library in the early spring; available under the CC-SA license.]