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MEXT Graduate Scholarship: Research Project (3/3)

Finally, here’s the post about the most important part of the application: the research project. There is multiple difficulties to writing it, one pertaining to the format, the other one to the content.

Format of the proposal

The first issue is to understand how the proposal is physically structured. Two documents are required: one named « Field of Study and Research Program Plan » (FSRPP) and another you have to write yourself on a blank sheet (let’s call it BSRP). The FSRPP contains three questions and it doesn’t help that the last two of them are quite similar. Compare Your research topic in Japan: Describe articulately the research you wish to carry out in Japan vs Study program in Japan: (Describe in detail and with specifics — particularly concerning the ultimate goal(s) of your research in Japan). Because they are so similar I treated them a one question, but put emphasis on details in the second one.

However, I would recommend you not to start with this sheet, actually. The fact is, you can fill it quite easily after you write a sound research project. And this is exactly what is asked for the BSRP.

What is a research proposal?

Research proposal is a short description of the subject you intent to tackle, the methodology to carry it and the expected results. It should include context and explain why it matters. After all, you’re asking for money and people/organizations want to spend their money wisely. Moreover, it should be understandable by non technical people (most reviewers of your proposal won’t be scientists) but still shows you know your shit.

Let’s look at some example. It found this proposal on the web and anonymized it. Its author asked for feedback, so here is my feedback.

Study Field Example

Do you understand what its author want to do?

I don’t. And it is the third or fourth time I read it. What is clear is that the author doesn’t really know more than us. There isn’t even the embryo of a research project in there. It is an example of what would lead to direct rejection. Indeed, he was rejected after tests and interview.

What not to do

Biggest errors here (no particular order):
A) He doesn’t seem to master anything in his field. Even if he applied for a master level scholarship and thus couldn’t really know how to do research, it’s clear his proposal was not readed by any academics for correction.

B) He doesn’t say which problem he wants to solve. « The continued research into metallurgy is of grave importance for any country that wants to be one of the leading countries in the field as it is a field that grows with an exponential speed right now with all from making alloys that we didn’t thought was possible before to ways of production we couldn’t imagine before, I want to be part of this journey and do all I can to help it along. »
It doesn’t inform the reader about anything nor what he wants to do. Every field is progressing fast these days. Also the sentence is too long.

C) Next sentence « The reason why I want to do this in Japan is to accumulate the knowledge of two of the leading countries, Sweden and Japan, when it comes to metallurgy to be able to drive the development forward and bring both countries research communities closer together be the dominant forces in the industry. »
Yeah, ok, you’re supposed to say that you will bridge a gap between two countries, but you aren’t supposed to say it that directly. Moreover with no concrete way to achieve it in the slightest fashion, it just seems like empty talk.

D) Me, me, me. Look at how many « I » and « I want » there is. This is a one stone two birds mistake: first the scholarship is not only about you. It is in the end how Japan earn something by supporting you through funding. Secondly, Japanese culture tend to lower the individual vs the group. So try not to be too self-centered in your proposal; put the accent on your project instead.

E) Citing professors in Sweden. Hey, Japanese not only doesn’t know them but they don’t care either. If you want to interest them, speak about Japanese professors. They will know them and/or research about them. In addition, it demonstrates (1) you did your homework of finding professors in Japan and (2) your project is related to Japan. If Dr Foreigner, PhD is the worldwide expert on something, why not studying under him instead of Japan?

I cannot emphasise this point more. Japanese professors are the key to your application. I didn’t speak of them directly in my written application but mentioned them during the interview. One jury member told me something around this line: it is good you speak about the prof in your presentation, because it was missing in your application. So it is a very important point.

F) Timetable. This is internet bullshit advise. In addition the jury don’t want to know the class you will take (you’ll go for research, earning a degree is more like a side effect). In that document, putting everything related to the field in a big list showed more that he doesn’t master anything about his domain. Of course, you can show that you’re willing to learn things that you don’t know yet, but it should not sounds like you don’t know anything either.

Not writing a timetable was advised to me by a Japanese professor. If you can find one, whatever his field is, ask him to have a look to your proposal. He will read it with his Japanese-eyes, process it with his Japanese-brain and give you a Japanese-advice. It can’t hurt you because you’re applying to do Japanese-research in the Japanese-country.

E) References not found! Hey dude, you’re applying for a research scholarship. What make something immediately researchy? References, you named it. Your proposal must include some bibliographic items, not only to make it looks serious but also to ground it in the current research landscape.

Don’t do it alone; ask for feedback

Let’s speak frankly, your project need to be reviewed otherwise you’ll likely make big mistakes. The more the better. Find an English native speaker or a friend better than you in English and make him check the language of your final proposal. Ask your current professors about the soundness of your project. Make them read your proposal. Make your friend majoring in History of Art read it. If he don’t understand it, rewrite it so he could get the gist of it. A random people should be able to understand basically what you want to do and be enthusiastic about it.

You don’t need the proposal to be written yet. Speak about your ideas. If you can’t express your project in two/three sentences, it’s a red fag. Then put more thought on it. It is an iterative process.

Thanks to feedback I ditched an entire project. It was not easy. I spend months on that idea, it was the following of one of my master thesis, but it wasn’t good enough. So I thought about why I wanted to do that project, extracted the motivation behind it and wrote a brand new proposal from scratch. I read a lot of papers to valid my intuition and find something that haven’t been done before. This was a lot of stress in particular because I started running out of time. But I did it and I’m glad I changed project because the other one would have failed. So, it leads us to the next point.

Start early and take your time

This scholarship is hugely time consuming and to some extend sanity crushing. So, start really early, like a year before the year you want to apply. It mean if your project is to got in Japan in 2020, start working on it in 2018 so you can apply on the 2019 recruiting session. You’ll need a lot of time to fill the paperwork and 10 times more to write a good project. Especially the paperwork is really annoying so get them as soon as possible to avoid last minute problems with printers or the administration.

Actually, I made it this as far as to take a year off and live on social welfare (btw, I don’t advice you to do that, high level autism skill is required to live without speaking with people for weeks and without a structured schedule). That wasn’t totally easy especially because some people didn’t understood that choice and were against it. But I known that I needed my full attention and the liberty to travel at anytime, which was not compatible with having a job. And indeed this liberty was used more than once because I traveled two times within France to meet professors (the second meetings led to my project rewrite), once to Japan again were I spoke with multiple professors and attended an international conference and multiples times to Paris for documents, languages tests (the embassy one and the JLPT) and the final interview. It also cost some money, so I advice you to take that in account and save accordingly if this is a problem for you.

Of course, you probably don’t need to take a year off especially if you have academic support in your current institution. But be prepared to work a lot on your application if you want to but successful.

A good proposal example

Let’s now have a look to a good proposal. It’s mine and I got embassy recommendation with it.

My Research Proposal

First, notice the formatting of the document. Each subsection has its own header. Every section is at most two paragraphs long. The document starts with the research problem to solve and ends by a list of references.

Now, look at the Context section. It serves multiples purposes: (1) demonstrating my knowledge of the field, (2) exposing technical words and concepts that will be used later on, (3) explaining what the field is about.

The intended approach section explains how I plan to achieve to solve the stated problems. It is an important part because you should demonstrate that your research is achievable and that you can pursue it.

The details section could have been named buzzword instead. Contrary to the other parts of the document, this one is more targeted at specialists. It is here to show some technical expertise by using key words from the field (client-server, algorithm, shell) with some trendy words added (clustering, which is a machine learning technic) for good mesure. Of course, they are used in a way that it make sense, I wasn’t writing some parody of a GAFA newest press release.

Finally the impact section details in layman terms what is the expected, concrete and long-term effect of the research. This is the only part were I allowed myself to write trivia (e.g. In a world globalizing more quickly than ever) and some far-fetched implication (smoother international business and relationships). This is the sell dream section. Everybody should be able to understand it, and moreover to find something attractive to it. Here people, governments and businesses have one of their concern addressed.

Of course, don’t copy my proposal. This is not a 100% pass method so don’t copy every section, the whole structure or anything literally. You should take some inspiration but write your proposal in your own way. The main point is to write something appealing and understandable by a wide audience that is properly structured.

Back to the Field of Study and Research Program Plan

One you wrote a proposal that way reviewed by multiple people, you can wrote the document 5 of the application. Here is mine.

The present field of study question is the easiest to answer. Just put down the best keyword(s) to describe your field. I choose to a do it in a hierarchical fashion so people could understand the relation to my degrees. I advice to do so if your speciality is not well known. For instance: Mathematics, Algebra, Group Theory instead of just Group Theory. If you wrote your bachelor/master thesis or papers related to this field, write them below to show some expertise.

Question 2: Your research topic in Japan

Once you wrote your full proposal, answering this question should be easy. Just take your main ideas and rewrite them as paragraphs of two/three sentences. Notice how I make use of headers again and how the first sections (Context, Issue, Research Questions) are actually the same as in the proposal (Research Questions, Context, Problems) in a different order. Of course, you don’t have to proceed in the same exact way, but at this point your application must show congruence: don’t raise questions that won’t be in the full proposal.

Question 3: Study program in Japan

It looks like the same, but the parenthesis in English and the Japanese instruction speak about details. The Japanese mention another important word: 具体 (gutai) which mean concrete. So this is the section where so should give details on how your project will be done, were and with who. In this part I gave information that are not in the research proposal per se.

Conclusion

Writing the proposal is hard because it must be short. Everyone can write a ten pages proposal, but writing a compelling one in two pages is way harder. It is an iterative process, you can’t write something meeting the passing bar on your first try without any review. Produce intermediate documents if it helps (personally, I wrote a one page draft in French to send it to some prof to gauge the water). And start early.

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